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Artist of the Day | Varunika Saraf


The cries, too, fall like rain in summer


Charcoal and watercolour on paper pasted on cloth 254 x 283 cm


Varunika Saraf is known for layering archival and mythical visual references to create a conceptual dialogue with the past and at the same time explore the antecedents of a range of contemporary political and social issues. These dense layers of often marginalised histories are narrated through the lives of dispossessed who appear alongside characters from history, and even imaginary beings in poetic landscapes. Saraf achieves this visual complexity through various techniques, which include the use of the wasli board, watercolours prepared from natural and mineral pigments, dyeing, embroidery, block printing, etc. Much earlier in her artistic career, Saraf had developed the technique of layering different kinds of paper on canvas, plain cotton cloth, and printed fabric to create a surface for painting. Her interest in natural pigments, both mineral and synthetic, which she mostly prepares on her own, allows her to expand the palette. Saraf’s painstakingly detailed images on rice paper, a surface she has been using since 2001, conceal a realm of conflict inside dense forests and architectural spaces; they are imbued with the spirit of historical enquiry. These surfaces are richly illustrated with detailed patterns in which the narrative plays out, or rather unfolds. They compel us to look closely at the peaceful surface realities to experience the violence of our times. They are an elegy to that which mostly remains inaccessible or ignored.

The idea of history and cultural memory are recurrent themes in her works. Saraf’s mournful retelling of historical events acts as socio-historical documents in the wake of the exponential rise of cultural nationalism. She resurrects an insurgent metaphor through these works and reiterates the role of art against the tide of political tyranny. In her recent painting, The cries, too, fall like rain in summer (2016), executed on a grand scale, Saraf assembles more than a thousand drawings from archival images on the backdrop of a complicated labyrinth, to chart the history of modern India. Citizen Z, an ongoing series of drawings is an evocative tribute to the extraordinary struggles that people face every day. Her other significant works are- What lurks here?, Aasman se gira khajoor me atka, The chair in the cloud, Each day you drown a little, etc.

Saraf has participated in various exhibitions in India and abroad. These include group shows such as Dwelling curated by Ranjit Hoskote (2016), Excavation/Eruption curated by Yashodhara Dalmia (2015), Touched by Bhupen at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai (2013), and Phantoms of Asia at Asian Art Museum, San Fransisco, USA (2012). She has held two solo shows titled The Chair in the Cloud at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai (2010) and Tales of Our Times at Kashi Art Gallery, Kochi (2008). Saraf has been the recipient of many prestigious grants and fellowships including the Summer Research Fellowship at Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles; Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Fellowship, Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge, NTICVA Fellowship in the UK, and Visiting Fellowship from the Max-Planck Institute, Florence. She holds an MPhil in Art History from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU and an MFA in Painting from the Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communications, University of Hyderabad. Saraf has recently submitted her PhD thesis titled- Souvenirs, Fakes and Heritage: The Making of the “Indian Miniature”.

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