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Artist Rekha Bhatnagar On Collecting Rangoli Designs For Her Book ‘Dhulichitra’ And The Universal Meaning In Folk Art

  • IWB Post
  •  November 15, 2020

“An artist never retires,” says Rekhaji Bhatnagar to me with a smile in her voice. And if you look at her life journey through the medium of art, you couldn’t agree more.

Rekha Bhatnagar is a contemporary artist born and brought up in Rajasthan. She was always encouraged to ‘pursue her passion for art and culture in the form of formal university education‘. She has a Ph.D. in Drawing and Painting on Folk Paintings of Udaipur Region and has also conducted and participated in various solo and group shows and exhibitions. Her style, however, has shifted from realism to abstract art over the years. When asked why, she says, “Realism is when you are inspired or see something and depict it through art. Abstraction, on the other hand, is purely born from your own imagination and creativity.” The flip side means that sometimes not so deserving art gets attention under the ambit of abstract paintings. But then that’s where nurturing new talent steps in.

And hence Rekhaji’s love for her passion extends to passing on her knowledge and expertise to the next generation. She was a senior lecturer and Head of Department at Kanoria PG Mahila Mahavidyalaya and also a visiting professor and lecturer at various other colleges. With all of these accomplishments, another feather in her illustrious artistic journey has been her book Dhulichitra – Folk Floor Designs of India.

Dhulichitra – The idea and more

Dhulichitra consists of 1000 folk floor designs from India that have been extensively researched by Rekhaji through her travels over the years. Techniques from four parts of India are espoused in detail in the book that includes Mandana from Rajasthan, Rangoli from Maharashtra, Alpana from Bengal, and Kolam, Onapukkalam, and Rangavalli from South India. The book is rich in both visual and textual content with most of the designs hand-drawn by Rekhaji herself.

What inspired her to write the book? Well, her travels across the country during her Ph.D. days, as well as for various collaborations, workshops, exhibitions, etc., played a big role. Though there are many different types of folk arts, she decided to concentrate on floor arts for this book. She hopes to write more books that explore the other folk art forms, such as ‘gobar art’ and other wall arts soon.

Floor Designs

Folk arts and cultural diversity of India

Rekhaji strongly believes that it is imperative to preserve and learn the folk arts of India.  “All folk art has meaning. For example, Laxmiji’s footprints in Diwali have a symbolic meaning”, says Rekhaji.  Folk art is a representation of events, incidents, or beliefs of the local people. The art is not abstract or just an imagination of the artist. On the other hand, it is real and rooted in symbolic understanding and meaning.

Also, she adds that folk art is simple to understand and replicate. At the same time, it is traditionally created using natural and locally available materials. “The kolam, for example, is made using rice flour. And it is made every day outside their homes. The beautiful part is that nothing is wasted and everything is environmentally friendly. The birds, worms, and other animals eat the rice powder from which the kolam is made. This is the beauty of the art,” says Rekhaji.

Rekha Bhatnagar

Eminent artists Shri V.N. Saxena, Dr. C.S. Mehta, and Dr. Vidyasagar Upadhyay with Dr. Rekha Bhatnagar during the launch of the book

But what did she discover about the diversity of the country while working on her book or through her travels? Here, I have to confess, I honestly thought that Rekhaji would list out a whole range of cultural aspects that were divergent and different; however, her answer was pleasantly surprising. “The real meaning behind the cultures or traditions is the same.” In her simple statement, she enlightened on a very basic idea that most of us tend to overlook.

In trying to understand the diversity of our nation, we often forget what unifies it. She stressed that the root causes or reasons for folk arts are the same everywhere. The floor arts, whether it be of South India, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, or Bengal – all are created for essentially the same purpose. It is to invite goodness, wellness, guests, or in short, to celebrate the happiness of life. The designs or method might vary but the purpose is fundamentally the same.

Women in arts

Next, came the inevitable question of how fair the art field towards young women artists is today.

And to this Rekhaji replied in her usual simple, yet thought-provoking way. “The new generation of women artists is very inspiring. And it is great to see that they are putting their happiness and passion ahead of everything else.” But she admits that for her the story was different.

Being a woman meant that she had to give precedence to other responsibilities. She reasons that “no one stopped me from following my passion, but I just didn’t get the time myself.” With household duties that included taking care of a paralytic mother-in-law and asthmatic child, Rekhaji had to put on hold her passion for a while. And this is evident in the fact, that her male contemporaries have moved much ahead of her in the field. “They have today an experience of 50 years, whereas I don’t,” she says. But what is distinctly admirable about Rekhaji is her will to find ways to be attached to her art and passion. She says she is thankful for a happy childhood, life, and supporting family. She adds that today her sons are most excited and her biggest cheerleaders when she paints or extends her art knowledge in various ways. And she also credits her family and husband for supporting her in all her ventures, including traveling for days with artists both at home and internationally.

Rekha Bhatnagar

Artist at Bundi, Rajasthan (1968)

But, of course, somewhere the slight nudge of sacrifice at various crossroads does remain a pragmatic reality of her life. And unfortunately, this does hold true for many women across our country.

The immediate and long-term future

Finally, what about the future of Indian arts? Is it looking bright? “Yes, definitely, the young woman artists of today are driven.” Also, she highlights that participation in various competitions, workshops, and learning the ropes of art is important for the constant growth of skill and creativity. And yes, “the artistic future of the country is definitely in safe hands”.

As for her immediate plans on celebrating Diwali, she replies, “Well, my full family is with me. Both my sons are living here and this year my granddaughter said she will try and make a mandana!”

In many ways, the book Dhulichitra is an extension of Rekhaji’s vivid personality. It is deep, fraught with knowledgeable artistic discourse, and of course, rooted in the traditions and culture of the land. At the same time, it promises to never retire or tire. What is truly inspiring is her zeal and passion for continuing to contribute, learn, and expound her artistic ideas for as long as she can. Age is not a barrier for those who strive to follow their dreams.

The book Dhulichitra is now available on Amazon, here.

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