At the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Gallery held last September in Philadelphia, one of the oldest outdoor art galleries in the United States, there was a particular piece of art that caught the attention of many visitors. A huge black and white canvas called Dawn depicted an idyllic scene of the river with a tree hanging on its bank, flying birds, fish, water lilies and idle cranes. The work there stood out mainly because it was in the Warli style, an art form practiced by tribes of the North Sahyadri group in Maharashtra.
Artist Rinal Parikh, the only Indian-origin participant in the show, says folk art has always attracted her audience to look closely and appreciate the stories in it. “I often wonder if the work is done with pen and ink or embroidery on fabric,” she says. Stories on her canvas revolve around her life in New Jersey, with picnics and camping scenes with her family, and birds from her backyard fill the paintings.
Not only did Warli, but Parikh also incorporated Madhubani and Kalamkari traditions into her works. “After years of practice, I have now developed my signature style which is mainly a mixture of Warli, Madhubani and Kalamkari in a contemporary approach. I enjoy illustrating bird and animal themes, childhood stories or anything that sparks joy in me.” Parikh, who hails from Ahmedabad, is part of a growing legion of new Indian artists who are using Indian traditions to tell the stories of their lives in the United States.
Take, for example, Michigan-based Madhurima Ganguly which brings the tradition of henna and alta (red dye applied to women’s hands and feet) to its fabric. She has female characters who are central to her art. Women have hairy limbs and a crimson red coating on their hands and feet. “I am a Bengali. We use the alta on the hands and feet as an auspicious symbol. Therefore, I put the alta and the red bindi on my numbers and have a lot of questions about why I would do this.” Although she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree from Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, it is ironic that Ganguly did not “love or associate” with Indian art at the time. Its influence was Dada (the European artistic movement that began as a result of the World War) and Surrealism. Having moved to the United States, a decade ago, she and her husband tried to find their roots through her art. “In a foreign country, my art was the only known thing I had, so I began to invent myself through it.” Mughal miniatures, Bundi, Kangra, and Bhasoli paintings are considered to be their inspiration for the way they use composition, color, and depiction of myths. “I can relate to them – they are my roots.”
The connection with their roots becomes stronger for the artist in a foreign environment. Aditi Hazra, based in Washington, DC, is the daughter of famous Indian artist Paresh Hazra. She pursued art through Kala Bhavana and Santiniketan and later at the College of the Maryland Institute of Art. “Having a part of me steeped in traditional Indian art has been a blessing. But I keep myself open-minded and adaptable to the flow of knowledge and ideas, and it helps me experience.”
What happens in the end, as is the case with all the “diseases” living outside India, is the blending of the two worlds. Nirali Thakkar, who received a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Southern California and teaches at Santa Ana College, initially found it difficult to transform, mainly because she loved to draw people. “My life here was so secluded that I understood why Edward Hopper’s paintings show so much loneliness. Mumbai is full of life, if you look out the window, you will witness many interesting characters.”
Ganguly believes that the uncertainty of life during the pandemic has entered her business. Hazra thanks a large group of assets in the United States for exploring the animation and concept art that has helped her connect with the public, especially during the pandemic. It incorporates traditional motifs such as the lotus which are executed in a contemporary style often as paper cutting or painting.
But what makes the works of these artists so attractive? Fifty-year-old Dorothy Holden, an art collector from Philadelphia and a regular at Rittenhouse Square Fine Art, who visits art galleries across the United States, says, “I love art through which I learn other cultures, techniques, and practices. I talk about the stories out there.” And this is exactly the path that these artists seem to traverse.