An exquisitely detailed miniature painting of a cherry blossom-coloured bonsai tree standing in a blue and white china bowl draws viewers into its serene world. Contemplating hanging this little universe in our living rooms, we step closer, and encounter a jarring experience: an even tinier little girl with a noose around her neck hangs from one of the tree’s branches. Jhoolan — or swing — is one of twenty works comprising Flavour Chart, Kolkata-based artist Meenakshi Sengupta’s debut solo show. On display at Gallery Maskara in south Mumbai, Flavour Chart weaves together the traditional Indian medium of miniature painting with contemporary concerns, resulting in a spectacular collection of mixed media and ideas, layered as subtly as the form of the painting itself.
It is partially this idea of layering that first drew Sengupta to miniatures. The soft-spoken young artist tells me, “We use 30 to 40 layers [of paint] in a miniature painting. Physically it has these layers, yes, but conceptually it also has different layers.” In a show that uses the style of miniature paintings as a point of departure, but also comprises video documentation of Sengupta’s street art and two towering-above-the-rest displays crafted from LED lights — one of a woman’s ovaries with a flashing ‘To Let’ sign at the centre — Flavour Chart consistently skirts and lands upon the recurring theme of female sexuality.
From a reclining outline of a naked woman with a miniature painted forest covering her vagina (a very literal bush) in Kam-ati-bagh, to Kancome, a painting of a CD ornamented with surreal women climaxing (digital product Lacome becomes Kancome becomes cancome — perhaps), viewers experience a powerful narrative through these carefully arranged works. Merging mythological characters from traditional miniature art with modern pop culture and its corresponding debates, Sengupta’s show gently crafts itself around the figure of the woman. The artist herself simply reflects, “It’s a subtle way to make my own statement by making my own language.” As viewers, we are left to read and interpret this language as we will.
One of the most striking features of the show is its arrangement, which invites viewers with a short, simple text to walk the numbered exhibition and experience the juxtaposing of the works against each other. Says gallery founder and curator Abhay Maskara, “I have a very simple rule [for any text]: if my 14 year old niece can’t understand it, it can’t go on the wall. It is open-ended…because I see lots of things. But that’s what I see. And I don’t want people to be prejudiced by [that], I want people to see with their own eyes.”
Illustrative of the thoughtful arrangement of pieces, a striking interplay is centred around the collection’s second large LED display, Fountain, where a tiny penis ejaculates a towering, ovary-shaped celebration of stars. To its right lie two small paintings: one of several gopinissurrounding an empty (real, stuck onto the canvas) emergency contraceptive pill packet, entitled Goli; and a second work called Krishna Paksha, depicting a heavily pregnant Radha, plucked from mythology, mythologised into pregnancy, but with no i-pill at hand. To the left of Fountain is another small painting, Khallass, of a woman named Radhika’s hospital discharge certificate after having undergone an abortion. This sobering piece of paper is boxed in by a thick, painted border of traditionally dressed, celebrating men.
As the light emitted by the showering Fountain falls upon its neighbouring paintings, visitors to Flavour Chart are left to carve their own meanings — as with all of the pieces — into this multi-layered palimpsest.
This piece was originally published under the title ‘Miniatures that make conceptual twists’ in The Sunday Guardian on 17 August 2013