Exhibits, Festival Honor Cultures of India
By Jeff Britton
From the ashes of adversity often comes great art. There is no better illustration of this than the whimsical folk art of Indian artist Sonabai Rajawar, whose works are currently on display at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.
In a happy confluence, the Museum of Photographic Arts — just a few minutes’ walk down the Prado — is featuring an equally striking show of women in India. Alas, this more downbeat but fascinating exhibit reveals the terrible inequality, pain and sometimes torture that Indian women must endure, often for the sake of a dowry or other financial gain.
Capping this abundance of riches from the Indian subcontinent, the Mingei and the San Diego Museum of Art sponsored their second annual Diwali Festival on the Prado Oct. 25. This Festival of Lights, a popular celebration of Hindu culture, brought out San Diego’s sizable Indian community in full party mode, as well as others intrigued by its colorful traditions.
Most compelling is Sonabai’s exhibit, which continues through Sept. 5, 2010. As a young bride in one of central India’s poorest states, she was forced by her husband to live in total solitude. Apart from him and their son, she was isolated from the outside world for 15 years, but she put her time to good use decorating the house with imagination and style, albeit from a very limited artistic vocabulary.
When her time of confinement ended, the villagers were astounded at what they saw, and Sonabai was soon teaching others her unique style. This new art form, which includes clay figures as well as wall decorations, soon had the Indian and international art world buzzing when Sonabai was summoned to New Delhi by the President of India to receive the nation’s highest honor.
It was no accident that her favorite creations were birds: their ability to fly away contrasted sharply with her own earthbound prison. Many of her human figures have huge feet and eyes open wide in wonderment.
The first thing that strikes you as you enter the exhibit is the bright range of colors, characteristic of Indian culture in general, accompanied by ritual folk music. From the women’s brilliant saris to the color-drenched scrims of every hue depicting ritual dances and festivities such as the parrot dance, bold color abounds.
They complement Sonabai’s art, a mix of cuddly, lovable animals and 14 large sculptures created in collaboration with her family. These objects are supplemented by 45 other pieces created by six artists trained under Sonabai, including her son, his wife and a nephew, who are all noted artists now in their own right. It is this rich legacy that earned Sonabai official recognition and the fact that she turned an abjectly impoverished region into one that is now prospering from this art.
At the Museum of Photographic Arts another view of Indian women emerges. Photographer and activist Fazal Sheikh depicts two different communities. The first is Moksha (Heaven), about a northern Indian city where dispossessed women go to devote themselves to Krishna and to seek release from the endless cycle of life and death. These women are outcasts and often have nowhere else to go.
In one portrait, a woman tells of her suffering: “I came to Vrindavan with nothing. At first I wanted to kill myself, but then I realized that Lord Krishna would look after me. There are many people here with grief in their hearts, and I know I am not alone.”
The other is Ladli (Beloved Daughter), an homage to girls and women in this nation of 1.1 billion who continue to suffer oppression and economic discrimination despite modern laws to the contrary.
Sheikh uses the camera and words to paint an eloquent portrait of people who would otherwise have no voice. The exhibits are profound and moving, and earned him a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. The two projects were first exhibited two years ago at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris.
In a more celebratory spirit, the Diwali Festival emphasizes the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. Stretching from the fountain at the east end of El Prado, Indian dance music set the tone as colorfully clad groups of dancers and revelers from India’s diverse regions paraded down to the Plaza de Panama in front of the San Diego Museum of Art.
The procession culminated in garba dancing, where a circle of dancers moved merrily to the exotic rhythms. Folks passing by in cars and park trams gaped at the colorful spectacle, as young and old turned the plaza into a village square.
You could get your hair treated with henna, have a light meal from five Indian restaurants, or admire the preparations for the lamp lighting ceremony, in which anyone could light a taper resulting in a brilliant array of flickering lights. A devotional rangoli floor design, created by a local Indian artist, greeted visitors at the entry of the Mingei. The young ones were kept busy drawing their own inside.
The evening’s capstone was a performance of Indian classical dance at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, preceded by speeches from the Indian Ambassador to the U.S., the president of the Mingei and a video from President Barack Obama, who was the first president to participate in a Diwali celebration.
It was a splendid day and the San Diego weather was perfect.
For more information, visit www.mingei.org or www.mopa.org.