ISLAMABAD: Salvador Dali once said, “Progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation.”
Keeping in line with his thought, Ragini Upadhyay Grela is one contemporary artist, continuously growing and evolving to add creative aesthetic to her work. After being in the business for almost 32 years with 70 odd exhibitions under her belt, Upadhyay’s work is housed by royalty in Nepal and India, along with private and commercial collectors around the globe.
“The energy that South Asian women possess is fantastic and that is what Ragini captures in essence in her work,” said Arjumand, owner of Gallery 6. “There is a new imagery every time and that is the sign of a creative mind and a true artist,” she added.
A unique visual of Nepali politics is on display at Siddhartha Art Gallery in Kathmandu. This is an exhibition of paintings executed by the well-known mature artist Ragini Upadhyay Grela. She has used oil, drawings and intaglio in her works. One afternoon, I visited the gallery to see her paintings mainly executed round the theme of current Nepali politics. The occasion was Gaijatra, literally translated as cow festival, which is a famous Newar festival. This day triggers ambivalent impulses of fun and sadness. Fun is associated with sadness because Pratap Malla’s queen, inconsolable after the death of their son, had laughed at seeing the fun and frolic created on this occasion. According to historians, the origin of this festival can be traced from much earlier times. However, the dead become the motif of the festival on this day. A combination of street performativity and memory of the dead constitute the uniqueness of this culture.
But when I met this artist fluently interpreting her entire art to show the weakness of Nepali politics and politicians, I became very pensive. I have done art criticism since 1971; and as a theatre person, I have used the wisdom, semiotics and symbolism of this festival for my plays as well as for my book on the history of Nepali theatre. But what struck me here was the sheer politics—the burlesque and the anti-climactic moments of Nepali politics created in art form. I know Nepali politics is not the sublime; it is not the only subject of discussion among Nepali artists and writers. But to see this Nepali artist with an international reputation dwelling passionately on the current absurdities that she sees in Nepali politics is a subject of tremendous significance. It raises questions of the following nature.
Has the current political imbroglio so completely dominated Nepali artists’ imaginaire as in this exhibition? Has Nepali art always been so responsive to the political consequences of current Nepali history? Why did the artist become so sensitive to the present state of stalemate in negotiations among the parties? I have heard about the bravado of artists and some writers about the political changes and being sensitive to the events in the past years. Some have used the often-repeated stories of their involvement in creating history as artists. But what is never seen is the picture of Nepali history when it was embroiled in the 10-year war.
No artist has significantly made any paintings on the fate of those who have lost their lives, lost their properties and become victims of war and homeless. We tried to talk to war victims from different places in the country for theatre. Their stories were heart-rending, but performing the same was not possible because the people who would be linked to the events would not allow the show to go ahead in their areas.
To artists and writers, that somber history mostly remained invisible. Of course, some good works have been written. Semioticists found the impact, the devastation and the faces of the victims and their plight photogenic. Important and sleek volumes have been published; exhibitions have been held in different parts of the country. It is easy to do photographic works and media dissemination of the same. But to execute a similar number of paintings or sculpt works on the gory themes and disseminate the same is not possible for painters and artists.
Poets have been going to different places and reading their symbolic poems. Plays have been taken to villages and performed by good theatre artists. But for artists, it is not easy to take their works and exhibit them in different places. The question why comes up. The answer is that artists cannot execute paintings as easily in different situations as media people can manage it.
Artist Durga Baral made strong paintings about the war and cartoons of the cow metaphor; several young artists to have executed paintings about the war and its consequences. But of necessity, they had to choose galleries to exhibit them. Very few people go to see the paintings.
But Ragini’s intaglios and drawings have drawn so much attention recently in the capital. Her fluent interpretation of her figures did not make me feel happy. I quietly wanted to see her exquisite works on my own. She is a very talented artist. Her lines are amazing. She draws lines without using erasers or pencils. In her intaglio, her combination of colours is powerful and charming. Her print works are very fine; she can give an expressionistic mode to her print works. Many artists who use her medium have ended up in the twilight zone of decorative and expressive art. But Ragini has transcended that. She has exhibited her works in Europe, India and Nepal. She is one of the few Nepali artists who sell their works at good prices. In this exhibition, I found her drawings very interesting and powerful. Though it takes her less time to execute them, they impressed me, I must confess, more than her much-hyped intaglio cow figures and figurines in some cases.
Ragini’s cow images are amazingly beautiful despite the burden of the bizarre theme she attributes to them. Her cows are dismembered. Some of them are in the belly of the lion that has devoured her. They yield not milk but explosives; people are exploiting her. The cow is people, suavity and the country. Lions are cheats. People are dishonest. But it is a different experience to see these bizarre figures. They do not frighten the viewers. The cows, even in their precariously imposed symbolism by the artist, give the impression of folktales and fables.
But what I find difficult and also feel intrigued about is the combination of fables and fabulation. Ragini like a Christian artist valorising a Christian theme is projecting the Hindu holy-cowism in her works. That could be a limitation; but for Hindu viewers and others who know the culture, that is a natural symbolism. But the paintings and the rhetoric of the artist exaggerate the so-called evil of politics. Valorising the holiness of the cow and feudal Hindu values, abusing the democratic system of government and the present state of political awareness, and ignoring the multiple openings of consciousness is not a progressive concept in art.
A cow’s body parts are falling off. The artist and the media said that this was the dissolution of the country’s body under a federal structure. The news spread; and I was told that Chitra Bahadur K.C., an anti-federalist communist leader, was going to speak on it at the gallery. That would perhaps be K.C.’s first painting encounter in life. But he would speak about his usual politics, not about art.
Ragini is a very good artist; she is a good friend. I will tell her what I feel about her work. But I would like to warn the politicians of this country that their reputation is plummeting; and very soon it will go down in people’s psyche through art, songs, poems, stories and folklore. Better change your ways and write the constitution before you are given permanent places of tricksters in paintings and folktales. Remember, the people’s patience with your politics is running out.
Abhi Subedi Originally posted on: 2010-09-01 08:37
Most visitors who flocked to the well-publicised exhibition of the Nepali artist Ragini Upadhyay Grela at Gallery 919, Karachi, on February 13 were somewhat mystified by what they saw. Perhaps it was because Grela’s work was unlike anything they had come across before. Or because they felt there was certain ambivalence about her art which appeared at once both childlike and highly sophisticated and had to be viewed with a morbid relish.
“Habitués” of exhibitions in Karachi are accustomed to tasting the fruits of realism and occasional forays into the world of the abstract—towards which a large number of local young painters is gravitating. The symbolic and emblematic imagery that this cerebral artist from Katmandu presented, though it was classy and urbane, had for many viewers a disparaging uniqueness to which they could not relate.
But if the visitor probed a little deeper, he would uncover a world of fantasy, hope and enlightenment. ‘Love in the Air’, the title of the exhibition, is faithful to the script. Everything that moves does so high above the ground, way up in the clouds.
KARACHI, April 7: The works of Ragini Upadhyaya Grela, a renowned Nepalese artist who believes in ‘Art for Life’ are on display at Majmua Art Gallery.
In the unique conglomeration of images around the Swayambhu monastery, a drama of revelry unfolds creating a situation of tension between war and beleaguered peace. In this melee, we see the desperate couples, a child and a bird of peace stuck on the fringe of the canvas compelling the viewer to divert their eyes from the center toward them, says reputed art critic Abhi Subedi.
This article was originally published in the Kathmandu Post (2005-05-18)
Politics of wheel
By ABHI SUBEDI
The walls of Sangita Thapa’s Siddhartha Art Gallery at Babarmahal Revisited have become vertical stage to me. Over the year I have watched the Nepali times, the somersaults of this nation’s history staged on these non-descript walls. After the drama of Nepali violent history presented almost in a neo-realist style by Durga Baral last winter on these walls, a series of drawings, etching and mixed media works executed by artist Ragini Upadhyaya Grela titled “Time Wheel” representing political times are on display at the moment. Siddhartha gallery has become a next Gurukul where the drama of politics and the spectres created by Nepali power games are staged time and again. Incidentally, Ragini’s exhibition was opened with the performance of a short silent play about time by the Gurukul artists. Saugat Malla’s powerful body theatre presented the drama of time that surges ahead leaving those who can or can not grab it behind.
An overtly political drama if it is hung on the walls of the gallery of art becomes a cliché, evoking banality and creating déjà vu effect. Conspicuous walls in the metropolitan areas become the stage especially when the times in the national history become turbulent. Demonstrators, political activists, rebels and propagandists use the walls to stage their different versions of drama in the forms of posters, wall scribbles, drawings and sometimes just colours. But the walls of a regular art gallery hang more structured images and icons of political history. Ragini’s drawings and intaglio works have brought new power and new condition of watching the subtleties of Nepali politics on the wall-stage of Siddhartha gallery at the moment. At this exhibition of the works, great number of which are already sold out, the artist Ragini Upadhyaya Grela wearing long vertical tika of a serious yogin on her forehead escorts the visitors giving eloquent speech about the themes of her works. I try my best to avoid her interpretation and concentrate on her works because there is a great gap and a necessary one between her theorising which sounds sometimes banal, and her strong and charming works that hang on both the upper and lower floors of Siddhartha.
Ragini theorises that time is evanescent; those people who were there in the past are no longer there today and we too will go away one day. These places will continue to exist and we will not be there. Time is mightier than all of us. That is her linear theory about time. An artist does not have to be a Bergeson, a Nietzsche, a Balakrishna Sama or a Michel Foucault to talk about the intricacies of the times. The artist has her/his way of looking into the philosophical questions. The most important trajectory that an artist follows to get into a philosophical world is created through mythology. But what an artist does through the medium of her works is beyond the capacity of many philosophers.
Ragini combines politics, myth and love in each of her works. The images of Nepali politics from Damodar Pande to Sher Bahadur Deuba on the people’s front and the Shah monarchs on the royal front become part of Ragini’s historical philosophy as conjured through a system of mythology, and her works are strong and striking.
The concept of wheel in this exhibition is remarkably original. The wheel of time or the politics of wheel is the main metaphor. Ragini’s drawings and collage works create a circular concept of time. The clock-like circularity is created by the collage of Nepali power wielders’ photographs–from the monarchs of the Shah dynasty to the prime ministers that ends with Deuba in the circle. Ragini’s vision of the wheel is mytho-poetic. She finds the historical times as constructed history. Time without politics and persona is amorphous for her. But time measured with the people who have held power and created the Nepali times runs the risk of representing times that are not seen from the eyes of the common people. An artist’s responsibility is to open the possibility of viewing the times from fresh perspectives. To see time from the positions and durations spanned by the rule of the powerful persons is to create a politics of wheel power. Many power players have created such images of history. Now we have a tendency to deconstruct the concept of controlled times.
But the power of Ragini’s works lies in the very quality of the works. She is the best intaglio artist in Nepal who creates very subtle effects in her works. The minute details are taken care of. She paints and touches the etchings with love, life and colour. The drawings, etching and mixed media works on display at Sidhartha precisely show that. These works lure the viewers into the world of history, politics and myth by using the metaphor “wheel of time” which is the charming recreation of the myth that combines dreams with the sense of finality. But the love of life and continuity becomes stronger in these works because of the artist’s subtle treatment of subject through the use of lines, colours and figurality.
WAYNE AMTIZIS in Nepali Times FROM ISSUE #30 (16 FEB 2001 – 22 FEB 2001)
Known for her alluring and satirical prints, Ragini Upadhyay-Grela now displays her creative prowess with her work in oil. A single figure dominates a painterly landscape. Heavy, stable, secure and complete unto themselves, the animals she depicts contain a range of displaced symbols and forms. Against a wall-like background, or one of earth and sky, stained by numerous handprints that mark the central figures as well, Ragini asks the witness to merge with the larger form even as they identify the particular figures that are bound within. Puzzled or pleased by the integrative process at work here, one cannot but be assured by the holding power of her animals. They stand (like a stupa or a Ganesh) as an implacable presence, not a cow or a lion or a tortoise, but cow-mother, lion-mother, tortoise-mother that will not abandon her progeny or her bodily parts, though they be torn from her and scattered over the earth. These forms are peaceful, yet indomitable. There is a violence here overcome, a chaos that will not prevail, for there is no moving her figures from their rightful place at the centre of creation. Only the handprints remain as signs of the forces she submits to, the violence willed against her.
These figures (the artist suggests) reinterpret mythic embodiments of the female psyche. Ragini says regarding her paintings: “The Tortoise suggests infinite patience, which is a female quality. The Cow called Kamdhenu in mythology a symbol of great and powerful Desire, which is locked in the case of most women.” The effect on the witness is two-fold; perception and intellect are triggered by the seemingly decorative placement of individual forms; yet an emotive and intuitive rapport is effected by the major figure itself. These works, though pleasing to the mind, are best encountered with the body, by a mirroring that will not be parsed with the logic of words. While her prints speak directly of corruption and hypocrisy or playfully of desire, Ragini’s oils transcend her references with a more complete embodiment.