When artists respond to the pandemic

This is a welcome development. Departing from the norm of showcasing traditional paintings, it is a delightful sight to see when artists respond to the pandemic.  Artists from different folk and tribal art traditions have been responding to the pandemic in their own unique ways .They have based their work on changes big and small which they see around them. No occasion is left untouched. Weddings, childbirth, medical care, engagement with nature, and more, have all been affected in the past 15 months, These artists have expressed their feelings about these transformations in their paintings.

How do artists respond to the pandemic

Last year, Madhubani artist Pushpa Kumari created a series of new works, drawn from events related to the pandemic. One of the most striking of these is the Covid Bride—an intricate work layered with myriad observations. At the centre is a traditional Mithila bride, in the one-eyed profile typical of the Madhubani style. She is shown wearing a mask and holding the Earth in her hands in a bid to save it from Covid-19. Another artist Odia Pattachitra artist Apindra Swain, based in Raghurajpur, has created a series of whimsical works based on Covid-19 safety protocols. One of the paintings, made on fabric and layered with natural gum, lime and polished with glass bottles, features the typical ornate borders and vibrant colours. The painting depicts a woman in her finery, wearing a mask and washing her hands in a basin.

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When the pandemic started, it was hard for Sonia Chitrakar, 22, living in a village in the West Midnapore district of West Bengal, to make sense of it. “The virus, and the subsequent lockdown, brought with it so many problems and so many unfamiliar things. I saw for the first time people struggling to earn, travel and access food and healthcare,” she says. “These are the observations that I brought into my work.” She and her father, Mantu, created a scroll song on safety norms that prompted the state government to ask them to travel from village to village, showcasing their Pattachitra and song to create awareness. By looking at these examples, it is delightful to see that as they depart from the norm, artists respond to the pandemic to create awareness.

Pandemic theme makes the work contemporary

Minhazz Majumdar, a Delhi-based writer, designer and curator specialising in Indian traditional arts, has been working with these artists for years. Last year, she was in touch, ready to offer whatever help she could. “I realised that for each artist, creating a pandemic-related work meant different things. For some, it was therapeutic, as it offered a way to make sense of things. For others, it was a way of recording and documenting these times,” she says. She believes that while Pattachitra artists have been documenting social realities all along, this hasn’t always been true of the others, like the Phad, Gond and Madhubani artists.

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“But for the first time in history, folk and tribal artists across India were working on a common theme: the pandemic. Another first was that we were all working with technology. There was no other option but to send works-in-progress via WhatsApp. All of these works are so contemporary,” says Majumdar.

Today she is helping museums, such as the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia and National Museums Glasgow, Scotland, build their collections of Covid-19 art with works by Indian folk artists.

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