There’s only as much as one could do with painting fruit baskets and flower vases. Or, for that matter, wine goblets and jars. But for some artists, ‘still life’ is a genre that is full of implied meanings. “This is a marginalised art form, something that goes against what we are conditioned to look at as ‘art’,” says curator Roobina Karode, who has put up a giant show at the Delhi Art gallery. The range: Chittaprosad Bhattacharya’s Van Gogh style sunflowers to Dharmanarayan Dasgupta’s egg pierced by a sword.
While the former is a classic interpretation, the latter refers to the helplessness of the voiceless. The show — what Karode calls a ‘historical survey’ with works from 1892 to 2003, poses a vital question: is the genre of still life irrelevant in modern times? Works of masters like F N Souza, Jyoti Bhatt, Nandlal Bose, Laxman Pai, G R Santosh and Kartick Chandra Pyne are present in the show, but interestingly, none of them really focussed on still life. “It’s true that most artists don’t do much with still life, much of it is also to do with attempting it in a different way,” says artist Amitava Das. The artist who’s known for his abstract works has also dabbled with still life; one of his works, ‘Bird past’ is an impression of his childhood memory. “I don’t do regular objects, instead I draw upon my own impressions.”
Like every genre, still life also had a context. It originated during late renaissance, reached its peak in the 17th century Netherlands and spread to America in the 20th century. For Indians, it was introduced in art schools and some did ‘Indianise’ the concept. For instance, Ambika Dhurandhar’s painting at the show, depicts the typical Indian domestic space with scared idols, flowers and offerings to the God.
But in an age where video art and installations have given a new language to Indian contemporary art, still life is not more than nostalgia. “Artists today are under pressure from galleries. The immense concentration that still life needs is perhaps not possible anymore,” reasons Anoop Kamath, artist and editor of mattersofart.com, an e-magazine on art. “Newer avenues like installations are giving expression to artists’ impressions. At smaller galleries there’s still a market for such works,” he says.
While the show also has younger artists like Kanchan Chander (she depicts loneliness with empty stools), the scope of still life is on the decline. Says art curator Ina Puri, “At the end of the day, a pretty picture is always relevant.” Trouble is, will the art frat take a relook?