NS Harsha’s portrayal of the present moment in ‘Stomach Studio’
Every inch of NS Harsha’s canvas tells a story. A viewer must look closely to see narratives, infused with both humor and pathos, unfold in the paintings.
In Emission test, for example, you first feel like you’re watching rows of people seated for RT-PCR tests. However, each person is a story, in the objects they wear, their clothing and their behavior, markers of their personality. There is a sense of vulnerability in some, with their hunched bodies, clenched hands and distant gazes. But Harsha also brings a comedic twist, with one of the sample collectors painting clouds around an empty chair, another feeding parrots and more. When you see an elderly man wearing a turtle on a leash sharing the canvas with someone dressed as a king, you also realize that Harsha is trying to show how covid-19 has been a kind of social equalizer.
It is paintings like this, set in the present moment, that are part of his new exhibition, Stomach Studio, at the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi. “Relying on resemblances through time to the painted panoramas of the Orient, the architectural ornamentation of the temples of lower beings, the class cards, the daily acts of a rural economy or the diagrams of the miniature Indian, Harsha creates a polyphony of portraits. Seemingly repeated endlessly, these nevertheless carry the coherence of musical notes, all similar but different,” writes art critic and curator Gayatri Sinha in an essay, The globalization of the portraitabout the show.
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Harsha’s works have always drawn from deeply personal moments and placed them within a larger socio-political framework. His keen observation of the minute is evident in Back home, which captures a night in the life of migrant workers – a boy and a dog huddled around a fire, a baby trying to play in the most gloomy surroundings, a girl studying… moment. It can be a visual or a life experience. For me, “art” is paying attention to these moments. In this process, art amplifies these private images and integrates them into a much larger collective human experience,” he says.
“Stomach Studio” (2020)
It’s an interesting title choice, rooted in a personal memory. Once he took a friend from Australia to his studio and then home for lunch. Her mother, standing in the kitchen, asked Harsha where they were. “I said we were coming back from my studio. She immediately turned to my friend and said, “Welcome to my stomach studio.” We all burst out laughing. She barely speaks English. But sometimes she makes two words come together beautifully,” he says. The phrase “stomach studio” stuck with him.
One of the paintings, made at the start of the pandemic-induced lockdown, also takes its title from this pun and revolves around surreal culinary events – a cooking class gone wild.
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Elements of folklore are palpable in some of the works – reflections of the stories of the mouse and the rope, the falling sky and others we had heard as children. “Many folk traditions are rooted in fundamental aspects of life. They offer a quality of consciousness that is not bound by ‘time’ or ‘space’. These timeless qualities in folk traditions inspire me,” he says, pointing out that there is no direct reference to any particular story in his works.
He picks up clues in the books he reads, the places he visits. For example, a 2018 visit to the Hyde Park Barracks Museum in Sydney, Australia, which highlights the lives of convicts, led to Secular Bites. There he found preserved rat burrows and nests to show the real misery of life in the barracks. “These visuals inspired me to paint secular bites—how nature reappropriates all the social, political or religious values created by man. For example, rats could almost never recognize the difference between a convict’s or an officer’s uniform,” he says. “Informed by this experience, I became a rat in front of my canvas and started chewing up all the patterns that I had previously considered ‘values’.”
Stomach Studio is on view until May 2 at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53, Defense Colony, Delhi.
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