A major exhibition in the capitol showcases India’s remarkable trove of creative talent 

By Rajiv Malik, New Delhi

 While there are 35,000 cities and towns in America, India is home to over 640,000. This unusual demographic dispersal, and the consequent resilience of local cultures, gives rise to an astonishing array of artists and craftsmen on the Indian subcontinent. This cultural remoteness has protected traditional craftsmen and artisans from the modern erosions to which most nations are susceptible, resulting in an array of art not seen elsewhere in the world. This is especially important if you believe, as the American journalist Hendrik Willem Van Loon did, that “The arts are an even better barometer of what is happening in our world than the stock market or the debates in Congress.” 

Indian art was celebrated in a big way at the National Stadium in New Delhi from January 14 to 17 this year, under the banner of India Art Festival (IAF). Included were nearly 40 galleries and over 300 individual artists, from fifty different cities from India and overseas. I was sent to report on the event, and my daughter, Palak, joined me as one of the photographers. 

Part of our mission was to assess whether the nation’s traditional arts are surviving. It is well known that contemporary trends are the driving force of art, in India as elsewhere, so we were there to discover evidence that the spiritual centrality of Indian art was still alive and well. While we found some strong survivors, it was clear after hours of walking the halls that modern art is the rage, at least in the commercial world of art represented here. No surprise, then, that the event was billed as “a contemporary art fair.” Indeed, that very billing may have discouraged some of the more traditional artists from participating.

For the past five years IAF has assembled the movers and shakers of Indian art from Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmadabad, Jaipur and a few overseas countries like Canada, UK and Singapore. This year 150 booths housed art galleries and individual artists who participated with a wide range of artworks, including paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs, digital prints and video art—all forms of visual art in all mediums. Conversations, seminars and tutorials rounded out the events. 

The festival was inaugurated by Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, the National Vice President of the BJP, Indian art scholar Saryu Doshi and Sharon. Special guests seen at the VIP opening included Arpana Caur, Ramesh Bidhuri (Member of Parliament), Sandeep Marwha and Anurudh Lal, General Secretary, Delhi Pradesh Congress. 

Speaking during the inauguration, Mr. Rajendra, India Art Festival Director, proudly offered, “I am delighted to bring this festival to Delhi, having organized it successfully for the past five years in Mumbai and arranged one international event in Korea. We bring democracy to art, offering emerging, independent artists the opportunity to get discovered and enjoy the attention alongside the established, master artists.”

Harish Kumar: We strolled through the exhibit, stopping to interview those artists who had a spiritual dimension to their work. The first we met was Harish Kumar, age 43, whose Studio Endless Thoughts is based in Faridabad, Haryana. Harish spoke of his lifetime of work at the easel. “I have been painting for the past 25 years. Most of my paintings are inspired by Radha and Krishna. I have also been inspired by Buddha. 

“I enjoy my craft the most when working on paintings of Radha, Krishna and Lord Ganesha. I have made thousands of paintings on the subject of Radha-Krishna. While painting Radha-Krishna, I can visualize so much about their dancing movements and also how they see and relate to the gopis. The love of Radha-Krishna is selfless and, therefore, very inspiring. Whenever I go to Vrindavan and visit the ashrams, interact with the saints, I find as if I am in a different world altogether. There I meet some women who are like gopis and they are ever blissful. Even some foreigners I see there are blissful. I like their state of mind. I like the way people in Vrindavan forget the world and live in a divine world of their own. 

“One story about Lord Siva narrates how during the Holi festival, while all other devatas and Gods played Holi with colors, Lord Siva played it with the vibhuti or ashes. This inspired me to also paint Lord Siva. I try to use colors to express my feelings and ideas.”

“Once I had determined to become an artist, I did not bother whether I would get any payment or recognition. I only wanted to become an artist and create paintings. It seems it is due to some samskaras from previous births, because in this birth I have no one in my family who had interest in art or was an artist. I see all the Gods in my dreams.” Visit: www.pbcnet.com/artgallery/artists/HarishKumar

Akshita Aggarwal: Next we visited the gallery of an energetic 26-year-old Delhi artist, Akshita Aggarwal, who also responded enthusiastically to our queries: “I have made Tanjore paintings for the past seven years. My mother wanted to be an artist but could not. She inspired me, and I became an artist to fulfill her dreams. She is very possessive about certain of my paintings and would not allow me to sell them at any cost. 

“I did a lot of research into the famed Tanjore style. My work improved under the guidance of my guruji, Ritu Singhal, who is an art teacher. She taught me how to paint in the never bel Tanjore way. In Tanjore today you find the original southern style. Then there are northern and fake styles also. I do my work in the original, classical, pure South Indian style. You will see the embossed portions in my paintings, which are not present in the North Indian style.

“Today we have forgotten or are ignoring our ancient art forms, including Tanjore paintings. Fake Tanjore are being made, and instead of real gold people have started using synthetic materials. Instead of the kundan stones they have started using glass stones. But I am trying to preserve the old forms. 

“I have done a lot of work on Lord Ganesha. I have painted Goddess Lakshmi, but somehow cannot sell it. I have painted many other Gods but mainly focused on Lord Ganesha.

“I have never painted with commercial success in mind. My paintings come from my heart. To earn money, I teach painting to others. But I believe true art comes from one’s heart. If someone asks me to do something for money, that is not possible for me. I survive mainly from my income from teaching. When a painting is sold, a part of the money is offered to God.” Visit: behance.net/akshitaggarwal

Sunando Basu: This Kolkata-based artist, 38, is also a pranic healer. “Right now my focus is on spirituality. I am trying to blend my spiritual practices with my art. Ten years back a miraculous incident happened in my life and I connected to higher beings. It is the guidance of the higher beings that helped me in pursuing what I did thereafter. In fact, it is not just one miracle that happened. All this started in the year 2005. 

“There is a popular term in the Western world, drawn originally from the East, known as akashic records or akashic knowledge, which is accessible to everyone who is open to it. I am trying to deeply explore it and understand it. I used to experience something like this from my childhood but got disconnected with it for some time and then again was reconnected. At one stage I started seeing light in my vision; I used to get up at night and have visions of light, but at that time I could not understand what was happening to me. In low lights I could not see people but could see their auras. Then I started doing research on these subjects. I studied pranic healing, which explained many things. It was related to akashic records. It is said that a lot of inventions happen in people’s dreams. I want to connect with the blue power. I have felt it around me many times, but to see it with my eyes, that will be the real privilege. 

“I have tried to connect Lord Siva with quantum physics. Siva is an icon. Similarly Krishna is an icon. Rituals are something that matter to me. I want go to the core and to the base of all these. There is a relation between quantum physics, kundalini yoga and Lord Siva. In my Siva painting I have tried to highlight the snake and also connected it with kundalini, vortex and quantum physics. I am a devotee of Ma Kali and have painted Her as well.

“Perhaps the whole point of having idols and worshiping them is this exchange of energy. In all religions, whether they worship an idol or not, they have mass congregations in which prayers are done together, in a sacred place. It is considered to remove obstacles and provide more peace to the individual. For instance, during Durga Puja, a popular religious event in which the idol of Ma Durga is worshiped by hundreds of people at a time, a similar exchange of energy takes place in which positivity is restored within the energy field of those who are involved in the rituals. Perhaps this was the ancient way of healing the masses.” Visit: sunando.com

Narahari Bhawandia: This traditional artist from Hyderabad, 60 years young, has spent his life capturing the culture of the Telangana region in Andhra. “My paintings depict the rustic lifestyle of the people, especially the women of Telangana region. I minutely cover the kind of dresses they wear in the villages. I have been doing this for the past fifteen years. I have gone deep into the tribal areas and villages of this region where the women sometimes just wear saris and do not wear anything on the upper portions of the body. They wear the saris in a particular style of their own. One can never see that kind of life and dresses in the cities. 

“They wear very big nose pins, which are also a special characteristic of the women of those areas. They even tie and arrange their hair in a very typical way. They wear crown types of things on their head which have a golden look and are rich ornamentally. Their hair pins and other diamond-studded jewelry add to their unique character. I use my creativity in portraying these women in graceful and beautiful ways.” Visit:

Nisha Jaiswal: This amazing illustrator generously shared her story. “I believe artists are born and art is innate, and it is due to the good karmas of my past life that the Almighty has graced me with His eternal inspiration. In my village as a small girl I would see some Marwari girls decorate their hands with henna in a beautiful manner. 

“One day I did the same kind of art work on my own palm, emulating them. Everyone appreciated my work and made me realize that I could do much better than those girls. That was the moment I realized that I should be painting intricate figures on canvas. That is how my journey began in the world of art, at the age of sixteen. 

“In the past three decades I have created around 20 paintings. All of them are at display here. For my livelihood I depend on my job as a university professor. I have never compromised quality for the sake of quantity, and perhaps that is why I am not a professional painter. I have always had a passion for precision and perfection in my work.

“Through my paintings I offer myself to the Almighty. For me working on them is like a tranquilizer. Working on making the Deities is a means to connect with God. Deities are my favorite subject, and through them I express my dauntless faith in God. While I do my art work, I feel like a yogi, and after completion I feel like bowing before the painting as if the Deity were actually there. I think Deities will never be out of date. People are always interested in them. Moreover, the scope in working on Deities is endless. It may take me more than a hundred births to paint 330 million Hindu Deities!” Visit: nishaminiatures.com

Vivek Kumavat: This 38-year-old is in love with Siva and with zebu bulls. “For the past twelve years I have been painting bulls and have done a lot of research on this subject, creating a style of my own. All these paintings that you see are of Nandi bulls. Nandi plays a big role in the epic and in the context of Lord Siva. We all know that Nandi is the vehicle of Siva. In Hindu mythology the bull is considered to be a very powerful animal.

 “In the background I have used different faces and figures of Siva; Sanskrit verses can also be seen. Inside the figures of the Nandis I have portrayed many of our Gods and Goddesses and even the characters that were seen around them. Most of my sketches are related to the Siva family.

“My bulls are stout and strong-bodied, but you will see their faces are gentle, peaceful and even blissful. They are always in a good mood. None of my bulls is in any way aggressive or violent. They are at peace with themselves. 

“Once, after drawing a Nandi, I suddenly had a vision of a golden bull coming out of my painting. There are times when I see the bulls making gestures by moving their necks and trying to communicate with me. My wife and I are both very spiritual, and sometimes both of us feel that the bulls are communicating something to us through the movement of their necks and eyes.” Visit: artzolo.com/users/vivek-kumavat

Umakant Tawde: Umakant, 35, is both artist and photographer. “This series of my paintings is based on Buddhist monks. I have focused on the Buddhist monasteries at Dharamshala and nearby McLeod Ganj. There the lamas are called Baudha bhikshus (beggars). Every year I go to these places and cover their puja, path and other activities. My photographs become the basis of my paintings. With the help of computers I try to give them a digital effect also. So my paintings have a digital touch. Finally the paintings are made with the help of oil and acrylic.” Visit: umakanttawde.blogspot.com

Naresh Kumar:“Our company, Matu Ram Arts Centres, is one of India’s oldest and most reputed firms specializing in sculptures and towering statues. We have designed and developed a large number of iconic sculptures of Hindu Deities. These are prominently located not only in India but all over the world. One project now nearing completion is to be India’s largest Lord Siva statue, fully 351 feet tall. 

“To give a sense of the size, His feet are around 90 feet in measure. We are making it with concrete, then covering it with metal; it will be bronze in appearance. This is being created in Rajasthan and will be located in Nath­dwara town. Elevators inside the body will take visitors to Lord Siva’s shoulder level, from where they can see not only the entire town but Lord Siva’s face as well. We are trying to use glass work in a way that one can have full darshan of Lord Siva. 

“You may have seen our first mega project, a 65-foot-tall Siva statue on national highway eight, Mahipalpur, at the entrance to Delhi from Haryana. We have also built a huge Siva statue in Mauritius and two Hanuman statues, one in Durban and one in Toronto. 

“Three generations of my family have been doing this work, all begun by my grandfather. My father took it forward, and now I am trying to take it even further. The well-known industrialist family of Birlas once asked my father to make a 20-foot statue. My father daringly offered to create 40- and 80-foot statues as well. As a result, the family awarded us the prestigious Siva Murti project on the national highway. Since then there has been no looking back. 

“I initially wanted to become a doctor, but when I could not clear the entrance exams, I decided to join my father’s team. Partly due to hereditary influence and also due to hard work, today we have achieved a lot of success. We have made 127 super structures all over the world. Eleven are outside India. 

“Each of these statues costs around sixty to seventy lakh Indian rupees ($90,000 to $105,000). We also have to consider treatment of the surface, as the whole weight will have to be born by that surface. Mostly it is the temples, institutions and trusts who commission these statues. We have never faced a dearth of business, because my father, Matu Ram Verma, has a name in the field of construction of towering structures. 

“It used to take us around two years to create the super structures, but with the help of advanced technology we can now complete some of our projects in six to seven months. We have imported a lot of machinery from abroad to enable us to finish our projects expeditiously. We also make small sculptures, and at this exhibition I am introducing our work to a wider audience, including the art galleries. 

“In 2007 my father advised me to undertake the recitation of Sundar Kand for 21 days, saying things will be better for us. That’s the fifth chapter of the Ramayana, which speaks of the adventures of Lord Hanuman. I decided that if it is such a good thing to do, why just do it for twenty-one days? Why not every day for the rest of my life? I have been doing this daily from that moment. 

“My father taught me that when we are doing this kind of spiritual work, we have to be strictly pious. Therefore, I keep myself away from all kind of bad habits and addictions. I think it is because of these samskaras and the moral values my father taught us that we have been able to achieve new heights in our business. You can’t separate spiritual and secular life.” Visit: templesmac.com

Organizers have planned the next India Art Festival for October 6-9, 2016, at the Nehru Center in Mumbai. For full information visit: indiaartfestival.com