Varsha Kharatmal was born in a family of painters and calligraphers, to an artist father and a grandfather who sculpted. Tatyaba Mane says his daughter could sit “for hours with paints and brushes every day,” even as a young child. “I always knew she would be a painter.”
The father’s simple prophecy came true; today thirty-five year old Varsha is a rising star on the Indian art firmament and the recipient of several government awards. She has lately shown in the American city of Chicago, a remarkable feat for a woman who grew up in a small Maharashtrian town and did not attend a big art school. Critics have described the beautiful women who populate almost all of her canvasses as “Ajantesque” and luminous with “eyes that talk.”
The talking eyes bit is important, because Varsha herself has always been speech and hearing impaired.
“She was denied admission for a course in art-teaching at a College in Satara because of her supposed inability to communicate” says husband Ramchandra Kharatmal, also a celebrated artist and a sort of Leonard Woolf to her Virginia, except the couple here are both remarkably even-tempered. “All for the good,” he says with a laugh, “She is better off as an artist than her teacher.”
The innocuous observation skims lightly over the struggle being differently abled means in India. Add to that the burden of chasing art, rather than a more “technical” career. “Varsha struggled with academics,” Ram says. The classroom and her teachers lacked the patience to accommodate her slow grace. Her supportive family and friends helped her pull through the difficult school years in Satara. But she started coming into her own only after she joined college, at the Kala Maha Vidyalaya, which was also the place where she and Ram met.
“She had trouble with art theory,” says Ram, “But she was easily one of the best painters there. I was drawn to her almost at once.” Ram picked up sign language to communicate with Varsha and today watching them communicate seamlessly is almost like watching a synchronised ballet recital.
At the Kala Maha Vidyalaya, Varsha found her voice, so as to speak, the unique vehicle which distinguishes a great artist from the competent one. And that happened when she discovered the art of Maharashtrian legend A.A. Almekar. Almekar’s ornamental, stylised figures are drawn from folk art with a dynamic, boisterous energy that jumps off the canvas. Studying them freed Varsha from the artificial, forced rigour of realism.
Newly charged, she moved from drawing precise human anatomical figures and stiff sculptures to painting her fish-eyed ladies. Finally, she could express herself in her entire range, the breadth of that deep exhalation now visible in each wide languid glance of her women.
“The style struck her as her own,” says Ram, who shares a studio in Pune with Varsha. Like in so many aspects of their remarkable partnership, they have found a well-oiled arrangement to give each other creative space here as well. “I go and teach four days at an art college at Satara,” he says, “And on those days she has the flat to herself to paint in peace.”
Their creative collaboration is fascinating to the outsider, but how does it work? Do they share techniques, talk about art constantly? “We are each other’s first critics,” says Ram, “But beyond that, we give each other room to be who we are.” This sense of serene roominess floods Varsha’s art as well.
A Beautiful Pattern
Saris draped in the Maharashtrian nauvari style, naths, palm trees in the backdrop and paisley motifs everywhere – stylised as Varsha’s art may be, it is also heavily moored in her experience and reality. In her paintings, we see the way the local and the particular transcend boundaries of time to winnow a clear path into a shared culture. Varsha’s women are wholly her creations, yet they are also the sisters to women thronging the artist’s childhood in Maharashtra, sisters to the figures depicted in the caves of Ajanta, sisters to the memory of all women.
Looking, resting, gossiping and practising shringar: these women are in organic harmony with their environment, a facet Varsha stresses through the way they are marked with patterns. We see this at work in her art over and over again, such as in “Rangoli,” where two women sit on the ground drawing floor art. Note how the colours of the women’s saris are echoed in the colours of the rangoli and how the spooling circles of patterns resonate with each other – the neat prints on the saris, in their ornaments, on the ground and in the backdrop where an even, ornate border and palm trees repeat themselves with rhythmic calmness.
To the urban, distracted viewer, these balanced, beautiful paintings appear something as miraculous and dense in their integrity as a glass of cold water.
Rooted in the Indian decorative aesthetic they may be, but we can’t call these figures strictly “traditional,” a term which is sometimes a euphemism for old-fashioned. Varsha’s women are confident in their surroundings and expressive of their surroundings, in a wholly modern way. Even when they are being arch and inviting, as in “Beckoning” it is without a shred of needy coyness. Come on over, they seem to say, but it is all right even if you desist.
The artist as a woman
Two evolving trends in Varsha’s painting are a greater sense of identification with the Indian aesthetic and women as subjects. The former is evident through her use of motifs borrowed from miniature art in the backdrop of her paintings, in the form of decorative borders, minarets and foliage, such as in “The Pose.”
As far as women as subjects go, we see a deepening sense of self and self-image. Drawn in Varsha’s fearless, fluid, unbroken lines, her women are now more direct in their relationship with themselves, the canvas and the viewer. (Attitude) Their sensuality is more pronounced, comfortably worn and ornamented, rather than ornamental. The deepening distinction between ornamented and ornamental is subtle, profound and indicative of the sharp intelligence in Varsha’s work. Like the women of her paintings, the artist’s art itself is coming into a lush flowering.