About a month ago I went to the opening of my first solo art show on Friday the 5th at The Blue Phoenix Cafe. Downtown galleries open their doors till about 8:30 every first Friday of the month, celebrating the opening evening of new exhibits and the streets are busy with people getting together, chittering and chattering, around paintings, wine, cheese, fruit, and in the case of The Blue Phoenix, superb vegetarian fare like sushi, brown rice burgers (delicious), and hummus. My show was a mixture of media: seven framed Giclee prints of creations made with leaves, berries, fungus, and other treasures that I find and look for on walkabouts here in the woods, and eight paintings in a mixture of watercolor, collage, and india ink. I called the show Odes to Nature & Other Wise and in spending the evening chatting with friends, family, acquaintances old and new I learned a little something that was at once obvious in retrospect yet also immediately surprising.
In conversation with a local acquaintance, he brought to attention that my work reminded him of South Indian Folk Art, the eyes, the feeling, the expressions. This was the pivotal point, turning my view to something old and new; for while I know nothing ‘about’ South Indian Folk Art, what came to mind was this: when I first asked who they are, the seven earth ladies, initially my aunts came to the forefront as the heroines of the tales shown. From there the wives of Chandra, the Moon God: Bharani, Krittika, Rohini, Ardra, Anuradha, Revati, Chittra, Svati, and so on. I followed my instincts and kept going until haiku’s bespoke their personalities.
Now, this is where it got interesting later, as I was ruminating on our brief discussion. At first I thought perhaps he was picking up on the names and possible identities that had been swirling around in my head earlier but suddenly it came together:: an aha! a hand to the forehead moment! this realization:: I know not ‘about’ but have a knowing of South Indian Folk. How had I missed what was right under my nose? My maternal grandfather and many of his relatives migrated to Pakistan from South India, mainly Madras and Bangalore, during Partition, and the women of his family all are imbued with this ‘look’ that I grew up around. In migrating, they carried over their South Indian style of dressing and talking and eating and doing things to Karachi: a mixed city of millions, once home to the people of Sindh then flooded by migrants and refugees from places like Lucknow, Allahabad, Gujrat, Hyderabad, Delhi, Kashmir, Baltistan, Afghanistan, and other flavors subcontinental.
The women wear kaajal around their eyes, flowers in their hair and around their wrists, and are themselves living art; even burkhaa clad in shuttlecock styles with latticed face pieces, under the veil there’s a surprise waiting. Women’s eyes and faces are often depicted on the backsides of rickshaws and trucks with slogans that loosely translate from Urdu to, “Oh these dark dark eyes” or “Peace upon the Mothers”. They’ve woven their way into how I shaped this earthy series, which are odes to nature:: both of the earthly green kind and also the nature of the women who spun me round and spun around me; giving me paint, pastel, dupattas, saris, and bangles to play with while they chatted and worked, walking me home on scorching dusty streets from school when the cost of a rickshaw was too high yet turning the whole walk into such fun that it was how I wanted to go home instead of in a rickshaw, sharing gol gappas, jalebis, or faludas in the busy bazaars where sugar cane and falsaas piled on giant baskets tempted, negotiating with vendors over the price of ribbon, chickaaan, and mangoes. And then the conversations with the street folk, folk art of their own kind, from hijras to one armed men on trolleys to displaced Afghan boys and girls selling marigold garlands, mothers nursing babies weaving inbetween cars to pop their hands in an open window for change, mothers on the street giving a piece of their mind to men weaving in and out of crowds with hands busy where they don’t belong copping a feel:: these women folk with heart have appeared in my art: subcontinental Demeters, Hestias, Heras.
. . . as to South Indian or Not Indian or What’s Indian, does it matter? Maybe I’ll ask the hatter, in the meantime see whether you see the resemblance, which in the end is not localized to or about them in particular, but depict a fusion of the women I’ve known. Women from many places, directions, times, walks of life, women fleshly and mythic, women from fairy tale, legends, dreams; women come together infused, as revealed in congress, with a mixed media South Indian Folksy flair.