Ratna Gupta’s exhibition of mixed media drawings is the culmination of an eighteen month exploration of what was a relatively new medium for the artist. Apprehensive about academic forms like figure studies, Gupta came to fine art through a circuitous route encompassing a bachelor’s in economics and sociology, a stint in graphic design, and an honours degree in book arts from London.
The first works that brought her to notice after her return to India were casts of her own body, and sprawling sculptures made from tree stumps, branches and other perishable found objects. Her 2018 solo show titled ‘Everything Is Precious’ continued the use of botanical materials, but in more compact, well-made pieces. The phrase ‘well-made’ does no justice to the delicacy and elegance of her creations, but underlines a change in emphasis that continues with the present display: a desire to reach out to a wider viewership by expressing persistent concerns in an approachable vein. The very act of acquiring a book comprising 25 sheets of archival paper from Bombay’s famed Himalaya Fine Art Supplies signalled her aspiration to craft durable art pieces, where in earlier days she had given little thought to permanence. It proved a prescient act for, not long after she made that purchase, the covid pandemic restricted the scope of what she and thousands of other artists could create. The finished drawings, most of which were crafted during and between lockdowns, are among other things a profound
reflection of the pandemic’s personal and political ramifications.
Gupta began her expedition by sprinkling twigs onto a sheet of paper, an action that appears ritualistic in description and might have been partly so in execution. Tracing the shadows of the twigs felt like an extension of her previous practice, bringing familiarity to a remote form. An equally comforting operation involved the drawing of tiny squares, something she has done obsessively from an early age. Her arrangements of squares have little in common with the anti-historical fortress-like grids of exclusive visuality that Rosalind Krauss famously excoriated. Rather, they evoke fabrics, veils and latticework screens, forms that block the harsh sun but allow cooling air to flow and can be located both geographically and historically. Soon, she incorporated stitching — an integral part of the book making she had studied — and resin, which she uses frequently both to strengthen fragile articles and as a sculptural material in its own right.
All manner of found objects inserted themselves into the compositions: bougainvillea petals, bits of rope and metal, filament from plastic tags, a section of electric cable, and play material her daughter used that was ironed onto the paper. She employed graphite, ink, pastels, gouache and beetroot extract to mark and colour the compositions. That the finished works never seem overdone or excessive despite the proliferation of materials and techniques testifies to the fine sense of balance she brings to her practice. A primary compositional device she hit upon early in her journey was the frame-within-frame. This design sparks a dialectic of restraint and spillage, circumscription and transgression, trauma and hope that runs through the series, although the antithetical qualities are not embodied in equal proportion. Joy manifests itself in a number of places, notably in a whimsical drawing made on her daughter’s birthday; optimistically titled You Will, but pain undoubtedly makes a stronger mark. At many points, the artist has torn the paper and sewn it back together with embroidery thread. The surface is a body dismembered, diseased, broken, and the stitching or suturing a desperate plea for revival, renewal, and healing. Among the most poignant drawings is For She, dated October 10, 2020, the chronological successor to You Will.
A memorial to a Dalit woman gang-raped and murdered by four upper-caste men in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh state in North India, it contains a bit of rope reminiscent of a noose, and depicts a bloodstained land that throws up bloodied flowers.
Early in her career, Gupta demurred from relating her art to politics at large even though the environmentalist concerns of her sculpture were conspicuous. Her position has altered with these drawings, made in a period when news headlines were more impactful than ever before because of restrictions on movement and personal interaction. There are many layers to the sociopolitical trauma that forms an emotional and intellectual background to the exhibition, occasionally pushing to the front through direct citation. Two of them have already been introduced, namely the global suffering caused by the pandemic and India’s long and tragic history of caste and gender-based violence. A third stratum concerns a political process with deep antecedents that now imperils the secularity of India’s state and the hard won multicultural amity of its society.
This is the rise of Hindu majoritarianism which threatens to disenfranchise the country’s huge Muslim minority and has raised the spectre, distant but frightening nonetheless, of genocidal civil strife. The final factor is a seam of economic conflict that has been exposed in the course of the past year by a massive farmers’ agitation against the Indian government’s favouring of big business over food producers in the
name of market efficiency.
A drawing dated 26 January, 2021, marking the anniversary of India emergence as an independent republic, is a bitter elegy for the idealistic, pluralistic, egalitarian vision of the nation. The page has been ripped in three places before being glued and stitched together. Forms resembling wooden beams or bamboo sticks are strewn across the middle ground. Whether they are barricades thrown up by protestors, the implacable ‘go no further’ command of the powerful, or material for funeral pyres, it is clear they represent violence, conflict and death. The confrontational posture of this drawing, titled Ideals, is something of an outlier within Gupta’s oeuvre.
For the most part, her artistic voice is one of subtlety and interiority. Each mark is like a question posed both to herself and the viewer, one that is open-ended and whose purpose is not to receive a definitive answer or bring an issue to resolution but rather to take the conversation further, or deeper, or in a slightly different and potentially more intriguing direction.