Rekha Rodwittiya, the curator of ‘Ayalkaar’, a Malayalam word meaning ‘neighbours’, explains at the outset that this grouping has nothing to do with a thematic or conceptual paradigm. Three of the artists, namely N. Divya, Sonatina Mendes and Ankush Safaya are part of the Collective Studio Baroda, the other two relative seniors, Sachin Karne and Kim Kyoungae are loosely attached with it. Each one of the artists is engaged with their painterly pursuits quite different from each other. Is it then just a motley group of artists bunched together simply because they happen to know one another and often meet and discuss ideas and concerns over cups of chai?

On closer inspection quite a few threads do appear. Four of the five were former students of the Faculty of Fine Arts of M.S. University of Baroda although Kyoungae studied Museology. Moreover, all of them have migrated from elsewhere to the city that they now call their home. A fact cleverly alluded to in the exhibition design. At the entrance each had their life size photos with a copy of their passport and certificate of academic qualification above their heads. Once one starts going through the show one more thread emerges.

Kim Kyoungae is from South Korea but living and working in Baroda since 1994. Her two large works combining many small individual pieces of what appears as very delicate abstract watercolours on paper turns out to be stains of menstrual blood. But these are far from the ‘abject’ bodily excretion in art that has become quite a rage in certain quarters. On the contrary these stains retain an aesthetic delicacy and subtleness that is the hallmark of Kyoungae’s oeuvre. The artist mentions in the wall text how in a woman’s life two occasions of physical and emotional upheaval, the adolescence and the menopause, are connected with bleeding. She goes on to reveal how an accident of being caught unprepared by the sudden occurrence of menstrual blood lead to this body of work. The rusty blood stains on tissue paper combined with watercolour and thread in the hands of a mature artist acquires a rare balance between attraction and repulsion.

Sachin Karne, the other artist in his early 50s, has a full wall with multiple pieces of watercolours that pivot around the image of an open book. The blank pages of the book in the top left corner leads to others where one encounters men wearing masks, a pole with blaring mikes, an elephant revealing brick structure within and the spine of the book literally turning into the vertebral column sprouting vines. It is a virtual assortment of imagery replete with allusions and metaphors. Books, the repository of human knowledge and wisdom, become an allegory of life ending at the bottom right corner with its open double page turning into constellations. Hidden in this melange is an image of a machine devouring books that was triggered by the ban and the subsequent pulping of the seminal book by Wendy Doniger. A sly reference to how books have always provoked the ire of the dark forces of obscurantism. The work is not only ambitious in its scale but also in its scope, it encompasses the whole human life within its twenty frames where the trope of the open book provides a formal rhythm as well as a metaphorical gravitas.

The grid is pervasive in the modest sized monochromatic works by Sonatina Mendes. Perhaps the fact that Sonatina hails from a Goan Catholic family might have something to do with her adherence to strict austerity of her latest offerings. She chose to stay in Baroda after completing her Masters from the Faculty of Fine Arts and joined the Collective, which was joined by N. Divya and Ankush Safaya much later. Sonatina brings meticulous precision to the objects of daily use, from the hand fan to the chocolate box, and in turn transforms them into grid structures poised between hard-edged geometric abstraction and reductive minimalism. There is evidently a wish to travel back to the fundamentals where art and design converge. The precision is near obsessive and requires hours of immersive work but admittedly I missed the poetics of her earlier works.

Ankush Safaya is the only one in the grouping who does not have a formal degree in art. He studied B-Tech and worked as an electronic engineer in the corporate sector and then gave it all up to become an artist. He has always been interested in the essential disassociation of the abstract values from its original moorings. The anecdote of watching a spider building its web allows an insight into his method of arriving at an image. The five large black on black canvases in the show palpitates with an energy and control that surpass anything I have seen by him so far. These are meticulously planned large canvases (6’x4’) painstakingly built with taut graphite lines on a matt black surface that shimmer and dance with every little movement of the viewer. There is something mesmerizingly optical in these works made with the simplest of tools. The slightest movement of the eye causes reverberations on the surface resonating like a musical note. These are of a kind that resists photographic transmission and has to be experienced first hand.

The youngest of the group N. Divya has been a meticulous if somewhat literal observer of life around her and the small works near the entrance despite being done with consummate skill by and large remain like careful studies. One notices that the human figure has moved out of the frame and she is trying to create poetry of presence in absence. There are a few works like the washing bundle and a near empty cupboard that succeeds in evoking a sense of memory and loss. But even the minutely executed two large watercolours of piles of clothes in a cupboard, impressive in their scale and detailing, do not prepare you for the impact of the four large dresses in the inner room of the gallery. Even before one gets to see them up close and admire the meticulous rendering, their presence hits you. There is something stately in their iconic grandeur that is hard to miss. These also do not translate very well in photographs.

The careful planning that has gone into the design of the show is self evident and is a noteworthy feature of this exhibition that uses the space of Gallery White, one of the relatively newer additions to the city’s art spaces, very effectively. I came out of the gallery feeling quite elated. The curator has purposefully brought together a bouquet of artists who are so unabashedly celebrating the craft of painting at a time when finesse and craft both are a bit beleaguered and under-valued. When Painting as a medium has become synonymous with its ontological burden and is often made to feel somewhat redundant and inadequate here is a celebration that each one of the artists partake in and that is the other important thread that joins the artists of this exhibition.

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