Seeking balance in the art of 'Chitrangada'

A woodcut in Naini Arora's "Embodiment" series, now on view at the Provenance Center.

Balancing masculine and feminine energy within oneself isn't a contemporary issue - it is a human condition that is echoed throughout time and culture.

This dilemma - balancing what we have within us with society's cultural expectations - is the rich starting point for the exhibit "Chitrangada: Connecting the Polarities," which is up through May 28 at New London's Provenance Center.

Eight artists from Goa, India, and three students from Eastern Connecticut State University have read "Chitrangada" by India's poet laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, and their work evokes the play's theme.

The play depicts a warrior princess whose father does not have sons. Once smitten with love, however, the princess finds herself faltering for the first time in life as she sets out to seduce, unsure of how to act feminine, vulnerable and alluring. Ultimately, the object of her affection, a prince warrior, returns the love, but it is expressed towards her warrior identity. It's an ironic twist that makes this work, penned in the early 20th century, the first piece of feminist literature in India, said Neeta Omprakash. Omprakash is a visiting Fullbright professor from Goa who co-curated the exhibit with Mark McKee, local artist and professor at Eastern Connecticut State University.

The work in the exhibit, said McKee, isn't so much a response to the seminal play but rather is "expressive of the complexity of the male/female relationship, as well as any individual's relationship with themselves."

One thing unifying the exhibit is the absence of art that would be tagged as "Indian."

"They do not need to identify themselves as Indian artists, as they are Indian," said Omprakash.

The eight artists could best be described as emerging, said McKee, and they are influenced by an international art scene that is vastly aided by the Internet in India.

"The art is very contemporary and universal. You can't specifically identify it as Indian - that is remarkably absent from the show," McKee said of the exhibit, which includes lithographs, wood-block prints, paintings, photo-montage and video.

The wood-block print tradition that India is well-known for does appear in the exhibit in interesting ways - not in the decorative, textile sense with which it is often associated, but to further the artists' thematic explorations, such as in Tanaji Shet's three mixed media works. In one, a man's tongue is extended, and a coin rests upon it. A telephone cord loops around his head, the scrolls taking on an atmospheric quality. At the arc of his head rests the hand piece, and inside his brain is the key pad. Clearly, communication is on his mind; specifically, the cost of speaking his mind.

From far away, the dry point print of Prashant A. Nageshkar seems like a pretty flower - the hibiscus, which grows indigenously on the verdant island of Goa.

But once you step in closer, the delicate flower is the essence of a female, and you see the legs underneath, and the sprays of pollen that have erupted from the flower - denoting it less passive, more seductive, energetic, and even aggressive.

The exhibit also displays some more hard-hitting work, such as "Burning Man" by Kedar Dhondu. A watercolor gouache, this painting does not have the soft, dreamy quality often associated with watercolor. Likening the painting to photo-realism, McKee noted that the well-executed work of a man on fire, hunched down in the street, is a powerful piece that takes on a psychological edge that the viewer can identify with. In the background, a police man walks by.

The exhibit runs the gamut, with taut, psychological works such as "Burning Man" but also including more playful figurative work by that of Naik Manjunaath. His figurative paintings depart from the representational traditional with color so bright, it seems almost irreverent in its abandonment of realism. The human form is illustrated in an almost primitive fashion, but on close consideration, the work is exuberant - seemingly spontaneous, yet complex in its design elements.

Female artist Naini Arora culled three wood-cut prints from video stills she created by filming herself digging in the dirt, creating a circle that suggests a sacred, protective space, and eventually curling up inside of it.

The work, said Arora in an email interview, is about the struggle to find one's true nature - one of the themes of Tagore's play.

Transformation and regeneration are a continual life process, said Arora.

"I wish to highlight how we are born into something but have the choice to liberate ourselves from its limitations, much like the character Chitra from the play," Arora said.

"As a young woman, I feel that one must rise above the gender division. It's about digging up to find out more and more to reach the depths where there are no boundaries, where it's all humanity."

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