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Theatrics of Art in the Work of Durga Kainthola

Sushma Bahl

Marilyn Munroe to Aishwarya Rai, Dali to M F Husain, Andy Warhol to Cézanne, Amrita Sher-Gil to Arpana Caur, Souza to Bhupen Khakhar, Frida Kahlo to self portraits- they all make an appearance, sometimes directly and at others discreetly, in some form or another; in theatrics of sorts that Durga Kainthola recreates through her wide spectrum of artistic expressions. She does this with great aplomb combing religious symbols with pop culture, fabric with calligraphic writings, handmade art with digital prints, complex motifs with simple line markings and colourful paintings intertwined with splashes of black and white. There is an interesting juxtaposition of the old and the new, classical and contemporary, east and west in her work that comes in a range of sizes and garbs.

History Revisited

Her search for an idiom met with its nemesis when she began to read into footprints, making it the theme for her first major display at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in 1989. Later in 1996, she had Husain performing and walking for her over a canvas that she had painted, leaving his footprints as a memory and history. Belonging to a family from Garhwal but born in Kolkata, trained in Mumbai and Baroda and living in Delhi, Durga seems to have traversed a long way and absorbed a lot in the process. She had her first solo show abroad in Amsterdam at the Holland Art Gallery and has not looked back since then. With an interesting use of technology that she says, “is a tool and not my master” Durga’s work is a rich collage of images that retrace art history to bring it up-to-date for us. Consciously and subconsciously she draws myriad images that represent the familiar together with ‘something new’ and her work in Pages from my Visual Notebook series like a diary, falls in this category.

She uses selective images some that come from her imagination and others that flow from her admiration for old masters’ and contemporary artists’ work as a metaphor. History, landmark incidents and mythology that she finds inspiring come to play in her work. 
Issues around gender and violence in society also feature in her work often in subtle tones such as The Last Judgment from the Warhol series where she laments the way women continue to be treated or mistreated around the world even today.

Durga’s work is like a dreamland full of mythology, deities, incarnations and fantasy. She animates her images by connecting them with history of the world here and now and in its multi-hued facade. Blending her imagination with selective imagery from her favourite works by other artists, Durga   presents us with a new vision. In the process of recreating the metaphors and retelling old stories, she seems to be trying to rewrite art history.

In a selection of her work that relates to her Warhol and the History of Art series some of the images such as Amrita Sher-Gil, Marilyn Munroe and Dali’s clock re-enter her canvas that she seems to liken to a stage. She has also worked on photographic images of Frida Kahlo. The work in layers invites the viewer to uncover it in the mind’s eye, through her conjured up imagery interwoven with text.

Method & Matrix

Some of her work presents an interface between religion and life in an amazing mix of folk symbols within a contemporary context. The Spiritual Series that started in 2000 seems to have followed on naturally from her earlier History of Art Series. The cotton stoles or shawls (locally known as parnas), with printed images of gods and goddesses, decorative designs and symbols, have a religious significance for the priests who use and wear them. But for Durga they make an interesting material that inspires her to work differently, playing around with the printed motifs that form the base on which she works on her image almost like building blocks. Her subjects in the series vary widely including creation and destruction. The Hanuman carrying mount Goverdhan with Sanjeevani entitled Hanuman the Great signifies hope in the face of calamity. In a different vein her stunning black and blue nudes are remarkable for their simplicity and sensuality. The calligraphic markings are an integral part of her design “for a visual effect and they don’t carry any message”. On her preference for Devnagari script that permeates her canvas or work surface, she says “nothing else fits my search as well, given the delicate curves and rhythms of Devnagari that are similar to the visual appeal of Indian temple sculptures”.

Durga seems to relish a hybrid mix of styles- ranging from impressionists to surrealist, classical to folk and digital to collage. She has tried her hands at landscapes, abstract works, prints, portraits and narratives based on ideas, concerns and life; her own and of others around. Her colors too range from vibrant to subdued, depending on the theme and form of her work. The composition is carefully balanced and the aura of the work, often in mixed media, gouache and collage is in art nouveau style with a touch of kitsch. The drawing, calligraphy and pasted additions or painted markings over the original copy of the image are the artist’s own creative interventions. Using stencils, she works on the painting repeatedly to get the right texture and tonal quality that fits her imagination. Mixing figurative work with geometric patterns, she conjoins past with present. The markings and writings that creep into her imagery, add another dimension to her work immersed in mystique as she get into a dialogue with her master’s choice and voice unmindful of any issues of infringement.

De-constructing the Image 

Keen on experimentation her work is bold, at times irreverent and possibly risqué in the way she reworks others’ creative imagery. She draws and paints around and over copies of images that fascinate her, giving a new incarnation and meaning to the original picture or art work, whether drawn from Indian or Western art, taking it beyond the lexicon of time and space.

The material that she works on “is a stage upon which theatre takes place” and this can be anything from paper to canvas to textiles to photographs or posters. Upon these she smears her own ideas to transform them into different artistic expressions. Encouraged to innovate by Nasreen Mohamedi who was the teacher she adored most and whom she treated as her mentor at the formative stage of her career Durga uses a global lexicon and her work seems to make a universal appeal. In the current series including gouache and mixed media paintings around well known works by Andy Warhol, Marilyn Munroe and others, Durga extends her experimentation to include an interface with Chinese cut outs and other metaphors within her picture plane. The juxtaposition of familiar imagery such as the master’s famous cat named Sam or the self designed shoes with other material evokes a feel of punk and a sense of humour.

Painting is a passion and a continuous process for Durga who says “I am all the time thinking and dreaming about my work whether I am busy at home or struggling with an image in the studio”. Her recreated characters and avatars often emerge from one idea or image that is then built upon with more new works in the same series, adding a new depth and meaning to the entrenched characters. Her work that looks simple on the surface seems to be laden with subtext and layers of meaning and re-narration that captures the viewer’s imagination enticing him/her to get closer to the stage to get a full view of the finer details of the image.


Text copyright: Sushma Bahl / October 2007

  • The quotes in the text are from the writer’s conversations with the artist. 
  • Sushma Bahl based in Delhi is an independent arts consultant, writer and curator of cultural projects.