A Symphony of Colours: The Art of Puja Bahri
A play of colours and figuration interspersed with other forms and icons on canvases replete with vibrant imagery seems to run through all the work in the current series of a symphony of colours in the art of Puja Bahri. That the artist has relished creating these works comes through in the way she has built her image working incessantly on the texture through layers of paint in these delightful works of art.
Puja who studied art at school and followed a course in interior design at post graduation level, started working as a painter when in her mid twenties and primarily as a self trained artist when she began practicing in a studio that she had taken up near her house in Delhi. More recently in pursuit of her deep commitment and following rigorous practice she has undertaken two professional courses in painting during the summer at the Central St Martin’s in London where she learnt about form, technique, composition and texture besides getting an opportunity to see and soak in original works of art by some of the Western Masters including Picasso whose figuration and palette have been her inspiration. The resultant change and confidence in her technique and compositions is marked and noticeable in her work in the show.
Her childhood spent in a boarding school amidst an open expanse of the foothills of Himalaya explain her fascination with nature that makes a discrete appearance as the underlying layer in her figuration on densely covered canvases. There is no space that is left without an image or a colour. Using different mediums the artist’s work floats between glossy or mat surface. She often works on 2 or 3 paintings at a time to allow layers to dry before the next coat is applied. Paresh Maity is her guru and muse who has been her guide and mentor and whose imagery and palette have influenced the artist’s work deeply and she acknowledges the debt.
There is a clear departure and development from the artist’s previous work. Instead of starting with premeditated ideas and sketching her thoughts out first by drawing them on paper, she has taken a plunge to get “straight onto my canvas” in some way letting her inhibitions go and thereby gaining spontaneity in this series that has allowed her creativity to flow more fondly and freely. Starting with a yellow coating of the canvas in acrylic that dries fast, the artist works her way into the frame with layer after layer of different coloured oil paints building her forms and textures using roller, spatula, brush and occasionally knife. The play of light and shade gives her palette its vibrancy, her human form a character and her painting its distinct appearance. It is the beauty of the human form in its multifarious moods and postures “that inspire me to make figures the central focus for my work”. The artist likes to work in series “as it allows me to reflect and develop an idea more fully”.
The artist is now working in a larger size and on bigger canvases “to facilitate my experiments” with a variety of colours and paint mediums and “to cultivate varied textures” within one frame. Her initial training in sculpting in clay that she learnt at Triveni during her short studies there seems to have left some impact on the recurrent appearance of human figure in one way or another in most of her work. The rendition in imagery merged within layers of colours and other symbols makes their appearance more subtle and less conspicuous.
There are two main themes that run through much of her current workflow. The recurrence of musicians playing on tubla, trumpet and other wind instruments of all shapes and sizes evokes a sense of musical symphony playing in the background, something that the artist likes doing while painting anyway. Mostly it is just the faces of the musicians with their innocent and distant look, often in pairs and lost in playing on their instruments that appear in her paintings. It is seldom that she brings them forward in the full frame of her imagery, evoking a feel of hide-and-seek. Her other focus is on couples, pairing of man and woman that brings about a sense of balance not just in her imagery but in life as such. Engaged in a dialogue of love or just any conversation or simply admiring or looking at each other, they make pictures that appear calm and balanced with no suggestion of any strife.
There is an interesting play of abstraction in all her new work whether you look at her musician series or couples or the nudes. As her technique changes to include photo transfer something she has worked on for her paintings for the forthcoming Florence Biennale, her imagery is beginning to turn less and less realistic with a growing play of imagination. Her trade mark swirls are there that she likes since “they bring a feminine touch”, but they come in a more selective rendition. The line markings that are a part of her compositions are also more studied now. All this ensures that her figuration that she finds fascinating emerges more naturally as do the colours of her palette that flow through the brush or other instruments in paintings in the show. Her favourite colours are red, yellow and cobalt blue and these somehow manage to find their way in variable shades and textures as they creep into her canvases.
There are some amazing black & white works in the show that bring another new element in the series. Using turpentine, charcoal and black paint over coloured surface of her earlier canvases Puja made a chance discovery of the colours peeping through a black and white painting. Initial coating of acrylic is painted over in oil, layer after layer to allow different shadings of blues and reds and greens emerge as if peeping through the image, making some interesting works of art. Her first solo show was a series of works on yoga, a theme that she continues to find fascinating though it now seems to rotate more around themes of musicians and couples with less prominence of nudes or bald headed men that were recurrent images in her earlier paintings that also included children and domesticity.
Like all other working women of contemporary India Puja juggles between her role as a mother of two children and her work and passion as an artist. She follows a disciplined routine and works hard to keep her balance and get the best of both the worlds. The young artist, who had her first break through early in her career when she was invited to exhibit two of her works in the inaugural show of the Chawla Art Gallery together with several leading artists including M F Husain, recalls the excitement when her first work was picked up from the show. She has not had to look back since then as the symphony of colours continues to play in the artist’s creative outpourings.
- - The quotes in the text are from the writer’s conversations with the artist.
- - Sushma K Bahl based in Delhi, is an independent arts consultant, writer and curator of cultural projects.