A promising artist I just discovered who is ready to be catapulted onto the international scene is Bhairavi Modi. Hailing from Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat in western India, Bhairavi frequently explores subjects from within the urban sprawl of her own hometown—the bits and pieces of daily life, snippets of the nation on the move captured and juxtaposed with heritage.
She is also drawn to the nearby villages—at once simple and exuberant. In an exhibition titled “When the Pawari Calls” held last year at Archer Art Gallery in Ahmedabad, she decided to focus on the culture of the Dang district in southern Gujarat, which she was first exposed to during a family outing in 2014. The “pawari” is a traditional instrument of the Dangis, regularly used on special occasions, particular at the “Dang Darbar” (“darbar” is Urdu for “court” or “royal meeting”), a spectacular annual festival held in the district for three days around Holi, usually in March.
Dang Darbar, at the onset of spring, sees the coming together of the chiefs of several tribal (known as “adivasi”) communities that live in this region, and is marked by festive celebrations amidst meetings to resolve cantankerous issues. It is an ancient practice that was given due respect by the British. It continues today. Bhairavi features Dang Darbar in semi-realistic narrative paintings through an attractive play of colours and strokes and careful positioning of things animate and inanimate. Artworks contain names of specific villages, example, “Dhodhalpada”, “Chikadi”, “Datta”, “Ghodambe”.
Of all the Hindu festivals, Holi is celebrated with the most enthusiasm in tribal communities that are fundamentally agrarian. It signifies a period of rest. The harvest is taken in, harsh summers are yet to arrive, the farms could be readied for the monsoon. Additionally, Holi fairs are a time for the single young to mingle and select their mates and marry before the rains come in.
Dang is the smallest district in Gujarat and almost all of it is covered by hills. For the communities here, these hills must be kept “pleased and satiated” so that they protect the community. The tribals of Dang follow their own religious practices—their gods are mostly related to the natural surroundings in which they live and work, and since they are well aware of the havoc that nature can wreak on humankind, their ceremonies work around keeping their nature gods happy and the community blessed. However, the influence of the Hindu epics—with their myths and beliefs—is also significant, though often their interpretation may be quite different from the one offered by mainstream Hinduism.
Bhairavi uses stories from the myths, like that of Shravan in the Ramayana, known for devotion towards his parents. Deities, cows, farmers, drum beaters come together in rituals of dance, music and chants. A young girl gets her arm tattooed, children and youngsters create simple road blocks to collect “phaag” (a kind of donation) from travellers. The dance of “Bhawada”—which includes characters like Ravana, Bhima, Hanuman, Krishna’s Virat Swaroop, Bhavani Mata, demons like Bakasur—is performed by masked figures. There are also lesser known characters like Dattatreya and Pundalik which can be traced to the influence of popular folk beliefs from the neighbouring state of Maharashtra. Their larger than life personalities are translated in the tribal imagination through the creation of huge masks symbolising (and reinforcing) their vast influence on the people.
Another important event is “Belpoda”, a festival of the Dang communities dedicated to bullocks—castrated bulls that help plough the fields and drive the carts taking produce to markets, as well as transport families around nearby villages. The body of the bullock becomes a canvas for the farmer who paint these with ochre and pink colours, often handprints or dots or simple geometric decorative patterns. Bhairavi sensitively articulates the affectionate link between human and animal. Men and women adorn the bullocks with bell-belts and offer them “puranpoli”.
Bhairavi’s intention is not to elevate village life as something innocent and peaceful in overt contrast to the chaos and greed of the city. She mainly wishes to celebrate rural culture in and of itself. Still, the engaged viewer experiences a pull towards another way of living in the world and looking at the cosmos, which although might seem somewhat naive, has a richness that metropolises cannot match.
There are sub-texts to the paintings that critique the speed at which a way of life lived in tandem with nature is falling apart, how valued relationships between people, and between people and animals are getting strained, and how centuries-old traditions and rituals that strengthened the bond between all living things on earth are being questioned, laughed at and negated.
Bhairavi’s work is precious also as it resists the homogeneity that the processes of urbanisation and industrialisation might impose upon populations. By choosing small, not widely known, communities as her topics and revealing them in their depth and variety, she disturbs—and beautifully so—the artificial cover of uniformity within which the mass media often tries to gather and contain diverse groups, dissolving their unique identities and drowning out their voices.
Born in 1980 in Ahmedabad, Bhairavi Modi studied Painting at Sheth C N College of Fine Arts, Ahmedabad (2002), and at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M S University, Vadodara (2004). Her works have been part of several solo and group shows, across Ahmedabad, Surat, Mumbai, Vadodara, Hyderabad, New Delhi, and abroad, in the UK and Canada. She has created a mural for the Gujarat Vishwakosh Trust, Ahmedabad, and participated in a silent auction organised by the Richmond Art Gallery in British Columbia. In London, her paintings have been displayed at the Taj Hotel and the Gallery in Cork Street, Mayfair.