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Cultures merge across the backwaters

An artistic trio from different corners of the globe meet at art enclaves in Mattancherry. SUNANDA KHANNA is riveted to their works.


IN LESS than 24 ,hours this busy street in Mattancherry, where on a humdrum day wholesalers do mundane business of spices and grains before they close shop, has morphed into a nerve centre of art activity. With three artists from different parts of the world coming together to display their very divergent styles of painting, Lila Gallery at Mayalokam Art Collective is verily a melting pot of cultures.

Meanwhile, 50 meters down the lane a lackluster godown has transformed into an art space under the banner of Kashi Art Gallery. Explain proprietors Dorrie and Anoop, "With all the warehousing activity going on in the vicinity, there's energy about this space which is stimulating". A sentiment ratified by Olga Okuneva, a Russian graphic artist: "I love the architecture, the narrow lanes and the coconut palms in the neighborhood." In fact it was the talk of trees and environment that endeared Olga and Frits Kraay, a Dutch painter, to Ananda and Gayatri who run the Mayalokam. The foursome is enthusiastic about conservation and ecological issues; moreover Frits is drawn to Kochi's historical Dutch links. The exhibit is completed by a suite of gouache works, titled Para, by celebrated artist from Bhopal, Akhilesh.

Fritz and Olga have made repeated trips to India after their debut visit in the early 90's. For Olga the honeymoon started when she was commissioned by her government to paint a series on an Indian epic. She chose the Mahabharata; made a critical study of it, successfully comprehending its metaphors and nuances and then proceeded to paint it. The result is outstanding. Within a limited format she recreates the narrative, imbuing it with her own Russian experience of image making. With a sharp simplification of features Yudhistra is defined almost as an icon of absolute authority; Draupadi is an archetypal sophisticate. Even as the space is replete with people and vegetation, her compositions are sturdy like her Russian origins; each facet rooted on a sensitive and strong line creating a structural compactness.


Olga also scores on an old, albeit complicated engraving technique which lends subtleties of tone to her prints. Her works titled `A road to Indian Ocean' is a metaphor of her own travel into a different culture. "The Mahabharata may have originated here but is now a universal epic", she says. Also on display is a continuum of lithographs which document the different literatures of India. Stanzas from the Rig Veda and Tamil literature are translated into Russian and written over. Remembrance of Varanasi is a mixed media on paper; where temple bells toll for the devout. In 1998, Olga Okuneva was awarded the title, "Honoured Artist of the Russian Federation"; at the age of 39, a sure-fire feat!

Too much of beauty can be limiting, says Frits when asked why he left Goa where he tutored art to local students. The artist has to travel to different centres of culture, says the man who teaches painting in Europe, contributes articles on art to dailies and is a representative of an artists' federation in Holland. Here he is represented by a series of collages where he uses light material, such as pieces of fishing net and a bird nest to create a richly, miscellaneous surface.

Ordinary objects are manipulated by the artist to create something unique and aesthetic. A triptych, done in abstracts bears a poem by him. Frits has also brought a collection of miniatures which he refers to as linear figurative abstracts. The graceful, quiet lyricism that characterises these delicately developed works is not misplaced because both Frits and Olga are immersed in poetry and literature when they are not painting.


In fact, the underlying thread that binds the three artists is their yen for poetry. Akhilesh is enticed by the structure of a language; through a string of non-figurative paintings he makes constructions of forms (read lettering) in motion, powered by the expressive values of colour. Even as they are placed in a formal grid, they appear to move freely in the currents that he is able to evoke. The paintings are marked by an undisputed orchestration, a fine pictorial design where each form leads to the other in a slow, subtle way. They demand that "the viewer observe them carefully over a considerable period of time", advises the artist.

From Kochi where it started, the exhibition will travel to Apparao Gallery in Chennai, move to Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal and then to the Russian Cultural Centre in New Delhi.

Thereafter it will fly overseas to galleries in Amsterdam and Moscow. Aptly titled Samyatra, the exhibition is on till December 27.

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