Jayasri Burman has chosen a naïve decorative mode to create her dense and compelling mythological narratives. European Renaissance introduced a qualitative distinction between the ‘low’ decorative arts and the ‘high’ arts of naturalist painting and sculpture. Such distinctions were meaningless in pre-colonial India and were established in our country only in the colonial era. Pioneering nationalist painters, led by Abanindranath Tagore, disavowed naturalist academic art that was disseminated by colonial art schools. They reiterated the flat lines and colours of Indian painting, dismissed by the British Raj as mere decorative art. Jayasri Burman’s mannerist style is a worthy successor to Abanindranath, as mediated through the paintings of Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ram Kinkar Baij and other teachers at the Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan. Her paintings have affinities with printmaking, which is a reflection of her experience with that medium. Jayasri had augmented her experience of Santiniketan with a period at the Visual College of Art in Kolkata, followed by training with a graphic artist in Paris and finally with the renowned printmaker Krishna Reddy.

Modernism undermined the separation of decorative and fine art by rejecting Renaissance naturalism and by creating the new art of abstraction. While abstract art extolled the purity of line and colour, at the same time it rejected the order, symmetry and balance of decorative design. As a contemporary painter who is well aware of the achievements of modernism, Jayasri steers a sophisticated course through the treacherous waters of representation, decoration and abstraction. She has developed an effective use of flat watercolours, with strong and clear lines and almost no shades, while her backgrounds create a tapestry of dense patterns culled from a whole range of decorative designs. If the first impression is of a traditional folk art format, on a closer examination we notice a strict overall control of the formal structure of composition that would please contemporary modernists.

Jayasri Burman’s choice of frontal figures with staring eyes in the manner of hieratic art, her crowding of surfaces with figures and the intricate and exquisite details of her fabric and background, and above all, the constant reference to traditional Hindu iconography, invite us to enter the world of our village patuas as well as traditional paintings from other parts of India such as Kerala. Her costumes, trappings and other details are inspired by traditional art such as the turban, the crown (mukuta), or the lotus associated with our gods and goddesses, as are her female figures who are either bare-breasted or wear the short blouse of ancient India (choli) that hark back to the Golden Age of the Guptas. Not only does she invoke Durga, Shiva, Sarasvati and other deities, she reproduces the popular Mahishasuramardiniimage of the Bengali potters well known from the autumnal Durga Puja festival. Other details include mythical flying creatures such as the kinnari or the naga, the many-hooded serpent popular since the days of early Buddhist art. This return to the vocabulary of sacred art is then slyly subverted by her in her details: four-legged horse-like women of Islamic art or modern elements, such as a foetus nestling in the womb, or a contemporary male sporting a moustache and beard in a playful blurring of past and present.


image2 JOURNEY, Mixed Media on Paper, 18”x24”, 2000

While she clearly pays homage to village art, Jayasri Burman skillfully blends different perspective traditions. The single-point linear perspective of colonial art mingles happily with the Indian perspective of the patua artists, whose overlapping figures are meant as ‘depth cues’ in order to convey distance. The figure in the background is always placed slightly above the one in the foreground so that we read the figure above as being behind the figure in the front. This convention is further reinforced by the use of the vertical format of the village scroll painters. Equally, her cross-hatchings, stipplings and a whole range of textures derived from the printmaker’s armoury remind us forcefully of her training in modern methods. She leaves faces and parts of the body plain, painted in a flat manner with watercolours, in order to reinforce her rich tapestry of textures derived from engraving processes, in addition to the use of wavy lines and figurative patterns. This combination of dense patterns, which she slowly and meticulously builds up in her large compositions, gives her works an unusual richness of texture. Her colours appear to echo indigenous organic pigments, creating a lapidary effect of encrusted stones, sapphires, rubies, emeralds and amethysts. Her blue reminds us of the pigment used by artisans to paint the outsides of traditional dwellings. These colours derived from traditional craftsmen complement her rich texture but they also add an unsettling quality to her work.

Today, in the age of installations and information technology, few artists feel the urge to turn back to the structure and composition of our humble village artists whose works now exist in a frozen state in museums or in state-sponsored emporia as a reminder of the past that is forever gone. It is this ability to imagine the past that invests Jayasri Burman’s work with such persuasive power. Her treatment of large surfaces with multiple figures reminds us a little of the remarkable painter, A. Ramachandran and her own uncle Sakti Burman, who represent an important contemporary Indian painting tradition. In a remarkable way, Jayasri has made their vision as her own though quite transfigured. Let us not forget that she is a conscious artist of our own age who uses her traditional iconographic sources to certain critical ends. One of her preoccupations is to remind us of women’s role and importance in society, not least in Hindu religion. Jayasri’s themes deal with the feminine, with the empowerment of women through the traditional language of the sacred in Hinduism, her inspiration is the variety of incarnations of Shakti or female energy, the great Goddess, who is considered the mother of the universe. With her muted but engaged feminism, Jayasri Burman refashions the universe of Hindu mythology, which acquires in her watercolour paintings an entirely contemporary meaning and nuance. This is in the best sense tradition, reinterpreted, reinvented, revised and re-imagined for India of today.

Extract from 'A Mythical Universe: Jayasri Burman', Published by Art Alive Gallery

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