Dipping into monochromatic memories with Indian modern artist Krishen Khanna

Review of a new permanent gallery inaugurated by Indian art auction house Saffronart in New Delhi

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Untitled; Krishen Khanna (Source: Saffronart)

Home to some of India’s best-known art galleries and museums, New Delhi witnessed the inauguration of a new permanent gallery in the centre of the city last week. The gallery opened at The Claridges hotel on Thursday, and is owned by Indian art auction house Saffronart. But it isn’t just another gallery where socialites and connoisseurs alike schmooze about artworks over cocktails. While the socialising bit may be an imminent possibility at any art event, what this new gallery does is celebrate works of one of India’s last surviving modern artists – Krishen Khanna, who was once a member of the radical Progressive Artists Movement.

Known for his larger-than-life expressionist style of figurative work, with its flat forms and extremely bold colours, Khanna turns to monochromatic drawings in his latest exhibition. His use of graphite (or Conte as a medium) and charcoal on the canvas creates an impression of a man “returning to his memory bank of images with a display of astounding energy, even grandeur.” (Gayatri Sinha, exhibition catalogue.)

“I have used monochrome because if there is something I want to say, it is best to avoid the dynamics of colour.”
– Krishen Khanna

About 30 artworks have been mounted at the present exhibition. Ninety-two-year-old Khanna, known for being an unschooled artist, made these drawings over the past four or five years. The works have been sourced from private collections. The exhibition comes after a recent series of his works at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, showcasing a mix of his black and white drawings, and some colourfully exuberant oil paintings.

The underlying motifs of Khanna’s present series are journey, dispossession, conflict and narratives of the battlefield – all rooted in historical events (India’s partition in 1947, which he witnessed when he was 22) and mythological/religious texts (the Mahabharata and the Bible) that have inspired him a great deal. In some of his works, the narratives of the real and the textual fuse together, and take the form of a kaleidoscope of the human condition. As he stretches the limits of the human form and animals (drawing on his expressionist influence), the canvas offers a peep into the artist’s consciousness. By implication, the artist transforms real-life events and a career-long preoccupation with these texts into an intensely subjective artistic experience.

“I have always tried to capture human emotions in my compositions – not make life studies.”
– Krishen Khanna

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‘Benediction on a Battlefield’ (Source: Saffronart website)

In ‘Benediction on a Battlefield’, a diptych painting, Khanna shows the Pandavas wishing farewell to Bhishma Pitamah before his death in the Mahabharata. It’s an image that the artist has worked on for decades, according to Sinha, and stitches together the narrative of the partition into the epic themes of heroism, conflict and “monumental” errors.

In the Benediction painting, Pitamah is seated on a chariot as he blesses the Pandava brothers. The wheel of the chariot has a special figurative significance not only because it is a recurrent motif in Khanna’s works, but serves as a pre-partition reminder of an important 18th century landmark in Lahore city. The “majestic canon”, also called the Zamzama, represents conquest and war. It may have been, Gayatri informs us, “reduced in Krishen’s childhood to a play thing for children.” After all, Khanna was born in Faisalabad (earlier called Lyallpur) in 1925, not far from the city of Lahore, a former British colony.

If the Zamzama is a reminder of the battlefield, it’s also a catalyst for displacement and mass migration, a common occurrence during India’s partition – which witnessed one of the greatest migrations in human history.

Like pre-partition born artist Satish Gujral, the bifurcation of India in 1947 is a dominant theme in Khanna’s oeuvre, who often draws migrants and their cattle undertaking a journey through patches of agricultural fields and water bodies. Given the magnitude of the artist’s canvas, his depictions offer a cinematic quality to these real-life events, without ever romanticising a tragedy. In the sheer scale and ambition of his partition series, what is conspicuous is the tentativeness, the uncertainty and the secrecy of such journeys, that may or may not lead to a home.

As Khanna marks a thematic shift from the epic/heroic to the everyday/mundane – although both are depicted in massive artistic proportions – he comes across as a champion of the subaltern on the canvas. While the engagement with the subaltern is the product of his left-leaning Progressive Artists Group, his works are distinctly un-abstract, compared to some of his peers from the collective.

“I used to do abstracts earlier and I have now moved on to human forms. I thought that the person or the individual is being neglected – the person in a particular situation who is influenced by the conditions around. I want to now emphasise the human beings caught up in their particular condition.”
– Krishen Khanna to Saffronart

Somewhat influenced by the Indian miniature painting and childhood memories of the hunt, Khanna draws the falcons and their masters – as if to suggest that themes of hierarchy, persecution and journey exist not only in historical events or grand epics, but on the streets as well.  A similar artistic and thematic trope is deployed in the largest artwork at the exhibition, a triptych, which shows a lion and an elephant engaged in a wrestling fight. Both the animals are common subjects in Indian miniature paintings. Another drawing, ‘Gaja Moksha’ (The Elephant’s Liberation), shows a crocodile slaying an elephant, who is bigger than the reptile.

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Untitled (Source: Saffronart website)
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‘Gaja Moksha’ (Source: Saffronart website)

In a career spanning around seven decades, Khanna, somewhat like another modernist Bhupen Khakhar, has found artistic inspiration from people who belong to the fringes of the bigger social and historical narratives. For example, he has drawn the loaders on city trucks, daily wage earners, dabba walas, refugees, masons and carpenters. His Bandwallas series, seen at the Vadehra Art Gallery, particularly stands out in its treatment of exuberant colours with a “muralesque” touch. In fact, the quality of the mural, far exceeding the idea of an art form as purely a living room showcase, is seen through much of his oeuvre, including the present exhibition.

The subaltern in Khanna acquires a metaphorically layered representation when he draws Draupati being dragged by Dusashna, which is an episode from the Mahabharata. The two characters, locked in a potentially sexual conflict, are seen wearing working-class clothes which makes the whole scene resemble a street side crime or violation. In the “subalternisation” of an “epic crime”, Khanna reinforces his artistic intent of unmasking the realities of the human condition, instead of going abstract.

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Untitled; Draupati being dragged by Dusashna to his lap (Source: Saffronart)

In the end, one can argue, Khanna takes a leap from his (historically and literary rich) storytelling to drive home certain fundamental truths – the impermanence of life and lurking death, irrespective of social background, class and even era. In “The Graves – A Fine and Quiet Place,” bodies of a man and a woman are kept shrouded inside a coffin, with their hands clasped to each other.

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Untitled; Signed and inscribed ‘Krishen Khanna/ K Khanna/ Garhi-1999/ Andrew Marvel “The Graves A Fine And Quiet Place” (Source: Saffronart website)

While the theme of death is unmistakable in the drawing, the clasped hands and the subtitle (The Grave A Fine and Quiet Place) are an unambiguous departure from restless narratives of Khanna’s other drawings in the same series.

From displacement, migration, loss of home, conflict and persecution, the artist finally moves onto the landscape of home (in death, however), belongingness, and a sense of things settling down. The artwork serves as a metaphorical culmination of the narrative of journey that has fed Khanna’s artistic imagination.

(Note: The exhibition will be on view until November 13, 2016 from 11 am – 7 pm. A series of works by artist Ram Kumar will be mounted at the gallery from December 14 – December 31, 2016. The gallery will also host more exhibitions and auction previews, apart from art talks and events with other galleries.)

In search of India’s indigenous modernist art through ‘Group 1890’

A review of the latest exhibition at DAG Modern, New Delhi – ‘Group 1890: India’s Indigenous Modernism’

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Introduction

The genesis of the 20th century India modern art, as with others form of modern art in West a century earlier, lay in challenging the existing order of artistic expression. In India, then, local artists were beginning to question the dominance of art forms, mainly done in realistic portrayals in oil on canvas, which were introduced by the colonialists. The struggle for a new, indigenous vocabulary and identity in 20th century Indian art took the form of several art movements and collectives, including Bombay’s ‘Progressive Artists’ Group’, and Calcutta’s ‘Santiniketan’ and the Bengal ‘school’.

One of the significant, but short-lived, collectives was ‘Group 1890’, formed in 1962 by a group of 12 artists, led by Marxist-leaning J. Swaminathan. The group got its name from the venue of their first meeting – House No. 1890 – in Bhavnagar city of Gujarat state. ‘Group 1890’ held its only – and highly successful – exhibition in 1963 in New Delhi. It was inaugurated by then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

None of their works were sold, and not long after the group faded into oblivion for ever. However, given the radicalism of their works, beliefs and pronouncements on art, they gained much attention and left a legacy that gave fresh direction to Indian modernism.

The daring artistic imaginations of ‘Group 1890’ is the subject of the latest show at New Delhi’s DAG Modern, previously called the Delhi Art Gallery, which boasts of being “one of the largest repositories of Indian modern art anywhere in the world”. The exhibition at this gallery follows last year’s retrospective ‘The Art of Santiniketan’, which is associated with Bengali artists Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij, and Benode Behari Mukherjee.

The current show, according to the gallery, is the first ever commemorative on ‘Group 1890’. It seeks to re-examine their story, historical significance, and traces their importance through Indian art practices and the positions they advocated. “The group rejected any artistic belief system behind its formation save the creation of a vibrant, new art. Many of the artists worked in the abstract mode,” wrote curator Kishore Singh of DAG Modern in an article.

For example, in their quest for a new artistic idiom, Gujarati artists Himmat Shah and Jeram Patel attacked the very foundation of art-making by using singed paper, often done by a lit cigarette, and, in the latter’s case, burning sheets of plywood or puncturing it with holes. Despite its transience, artworks of ‘Group 1890’ symbolised a kind of methodical madness that seems to suggest, in their experimentation, a limitlessness of form and achievement.The exhibition, on view until Dec. 14 in New Delhi, showcases works by 10 of the 12 artists of ‘Group 1890’.

J. Swaminathan (1928 – 94)

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Untitled (Bird, Tree and Mountain Series), 1972

Shimla-born Swaminathan returned to painting much later in life, despite being trained in it, thanks to his disenchantment with politics – he was an active member of the Communist Party of India in the post-independence period.

He was the first Indian modernist to explore “tantra-inspired” imagery, which comprises of staple such as the triangular, squarical and circular shapes. He deploys idioms of folk and tribal art; in one artwork he adds ritual graffiti seen on village walls, juxtaposing it with brown colour and dribbling the canvas with paint. During the 1960s, he moved to study Indian (Pahari) miniatures after experimenting with tantric art: in the “Colour Geometry of Space”, he juxtaposed earthy colours with geometric shapes.

His “Bird, Tree and Mountain” series, which held his creative interest for a long time, is known for its visual delight in the form of its “chromatic brilliance”.  Eventually, the artist moved to a simple, abstract style, using water colour on paper, marking a return to his early style.

Ambadas (1922 – 2012)

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Untitled, 1964

Born in Maharashtra, Ambadas pioneered the non-representational style of the post-independence Indian art, in which colour played a significant role. His works are redolent of the “earth process”, and by implication he uses earthy tones. And he shows what appear to be geological movements, involving the soil, wind, water, and maybe the tectonic plates. He works in the abstract mode; but his individualistic brushstrokes arrange themselves to give the semblance of an image. In the 90s, however, he returned to his early love – water colours. This shift brought a fluidity and lightness to his canvas, a dramatic departure from the subterranean worlds of his earthy tones.

Jyoti Bhatt (1934)

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‘Problem’, 1956

Gujarat’s Bhatt had a versatile training in art. He studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda. In Rajasthan, he learnt mural and fresco painting. He went to Naples, on the Italian government scholarship, to study printmaking. It was in Italy that he first encountered abstractionism.

Under the influence of his teacher N. S. Bendre, he created flattened representation of still life in the cubist trope, which was a strong element in his early pictorial vocabulary. Faces and human profiles are a recurrent motif in his oeuvre; he works with them in different styles, sometimes repeating them in rhythmic pattern in a single work. In other “Faces” works, he stylistically inserts into them imageries or calligraphic forms such as Urdu words or Tibetan text. He does his human profiles in the Indian miniature mould, or the Egyptian painting trope. This graphic printmaking technique is also seen in his magnificently intricate work “Remains of the Old Bungalow”, which shows rich pictorial construction that seems to convey the artist’s commentary on themes of life, society and self in a disarray.

Gulammohammed Sheikh (1937)

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‘Horses’

Contrary to some of his fellow artists in ‘Group 1890’, Sheikh, who was also a fine arts graduate from Baroda, rejected the abstract for a more socially relevant art form that was closely linked to the concerns of people. He was more interested in exploring the visual language instead of working under a particular style or ‘ism’. His “socialist” sensibilities can be seen in “Speechless City” that eponymously highlights the surreal disquiet of an ordinary existence.

A prominent feature of his works is also the depiction of horse-driven chariots from his town of Sundernagar in Gujarat, probably fueling the inspiration to paint more horses in his landscape art.

Eric Bowen (1929 – 2002)

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‘Sacred Relics’, 1994

The geometric paintings of Allahabad-born Bowen, inspired by the theory of “constructivism”, stand out in the Group’s search for pushing the boundaries of modern art-making. With the minimalist layout of lines in a grid, he creates intense patterns of blacks, blues, whites and browns that often invoke spiritual and tantric overtones.

Jeram Patel (1930)

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Untitled, 2004

A graduate of Sir J. J. School of Art in Mumbai, Patel changed the Indian art landscape of the 1960s by formulating a new visual identity and method abstraction through deliberate distortion of form and imagery. He enriched the then contemporary art with unusual and fascinating works done through blowtorch (a portable device that produces hot flame) on wood; and ink drawings (some of them in black and white) that stood out for their startling content charged with imageries of eroticism, sickness, decay and death. In his amoeba-like works, he also attempted “surrealist doodling” that Gulammohammed Sheikh likened to “foetal darkness”.

In his search for a novel expression, he attacked the surface an artist would normally work on, by burning it with acetylene (a combustible gas) torch, hammering down nails on it, or puncturing wood surfaces with a network of small holes.

Himmat Shah (1933)

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Untitled

For Shah, who also studied at Sir J. J. School of Art (Mumbai) and M.S. University (Baroda), the journey towards an indigenous route of modern art began where he was born. The terracotta available in Gujarat’s Lothal village, which was one of the Harappan civilisation sites, has engaged him extensively throughout his career as a sculptor of “sublime perfection”. So much so that it is a preferred medium for him, seen in the vast sculpture series “Heads”, for example. He also created conventional round pots, urns, bottles and abstract sculptures.

While he saw himself primarily as a sculptor, he was a versatile artist, having interacted with European modernism during his stay in Paris for two years under a French government scholarship. He experimented across forms and medium, besides the sculpture, creating collages through burnt paper or cut-outs of printed text; monumental murals; and ink drawings of brilliant workmanship as well.

He developed the technique of the “singed paper” as he sat idle in an office waiting for a friend to arrive. All he needed was a cigarette and a paper; the pale brown marks of the burnt paper pleased him. Perhaps it offers an insight into his disinterest in the conventional styles of modern art-making.

Redappa Naidu (1932 – 1999)

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Untitled, 1987

For the Hyderabad-born artist, the definition of the modern in the Indian context was derived from reworking the Hindu Gods and Goddesses through different styles and perspectives, mostly rendered in free lines and dry brush strokes. That explains his series on epic mythologies Mahabharata and Ramayana in the mid-1970s. In his characteristic style of dry brushstrokes and free lines, he also painted a tableau of musicians on stage, which was part of a series. The annual December season of Carnatic music festival probably inspired the ‘Musicians’ series.

The other two artists that the exhibition showcases are Raghav Kaneria (1936) and Rajesh Mehra (1932). Gujarati sculptor Kaneria experimented with a lot of junk material and welding technique. An untitled bronze sculptor (image below) at DAG Modern shows a thin column rising from what appears to be a lingam as if to suggest energy flowing outwards from a small ellipsoid-looking form sacred to Hindus.

In the 1960s, Delhi-based artist Mehra embarked on a phase of calligraphic abstraction using letters of Urdu alphabet and geometric shapes on quasi-spiritual themes. It was an experimentation adopted by his colleagues (like Jyoti Bhatt) in ‘Group 1890’.  S.G. Nikam and Balkrishna Patel, who are not part of the show, were also members of the collective.

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(Raghav Kaneria, untitled bronze sculpture)

Conclusion

One of the inescapable takeaways from this exhibition is the influence of Western modernism on Indian artists who sought to break away from an artistic idiom imposed by foreigners, including the colonisers. There is little insight in the show about whether these artists looked at this conflict with irony or dilemma, and what effect did it have on the larger politics of the Indian modern art movement. This is because the artists travelled a lot, in Europe and United States, which had already begun to witness significant artistic churning in the form of movements that questioned tradition.

Art review: ‘Alice from Switzerland’, National Museum, Delhi

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She came to India in the 1930s, made it her second home through much of her life, and left a legacy that globalised the country’s ancient and modern art forms such as dance, music, and architecture. And yet, questions still remain whether she has got her due more than thirty years after her death.

Switzerland’s Alice Boner made the exploration of India’s diverse culture the singular goalpost of her life. Her life, including the artists she worked with and the ancient structures she explored in her writings, is the focus of the latest art exhibition at New Delhi’s National Museum.

The exhibition, inaugurated on September 4, has been organised in collaboration with Zurich’s Reitberg Museum, which holds an exhaustive repository of Boner’s sculptures and miniatures, her diaries and manuscripts, and 30,000 photographs shot by her and others. Varanasi’s Alice Boner Institute, originally her home in India, has also contributed to the show.

The exhibition, “Alice from Switzerland”, chronicles Boner’s early life as a patron of the arts in the European country; her entrepreneurial years with Indian dancer Uday Shankar; and her intellectual inquiry into Indian architecture, particularly sculptures and temples, and the spiritual/religious themes emanating from them.

The art show, on view until October 30, has mounted several photographs, sketches, paintings, sculptures, and personal recollections that map the life of a person whose oeuvre cannot be slotted into a single occupation. And that is because of the nature of her artistic curiosity and probity that brought her to India.

She was a writer, painter, sculptor, translator, patrons of the arts, and a cultural ambassador, who showcased Indian art to a global audience in Europe and the United States. She observed the Indian life closely, and her photographs served as a foundation stone for much of her work. Her lens captured Indian weddings, religious festivals, caravans, fellow travellers, and colleagues, especially performing artists; and well-known figures such as Rabindranath Tagore.

Early Life, and Passage to India

Her upbringing was immersed in art. Born in Italy in 1889, she studied painting and sculpture in Brussels and Basel in her early years. She moved to Paris in 1928, where she worked on sculptures with materials such as way, wood, bronze and stone.

In 1936, she rented an apartment in Varanasi, which had a terrace overlooking the Ganga river. Her house was the meeting point of artists, musicians, writers and intellectuals; where they engaged in art through concerts and conversations.

India was to be her home for more than forty years.

The beginning of her lifelong journey in India had its roots in a meeting with Shankar in Europe, in 1926, during one of the cultural shows that she was organising. As a common interest in promoting art brought them closer, in 1930, they embarked on an extensive trip to India to scout for talent for their overseas tours. This initiative led to the birth of a dance and music troupe, which they co-directed. Shankar, who was heavily influenced by traditional Indian dance forms such as Kathakali, Bharatnatyam and Kathak, provided artistic content for the troupe’s performances. Boner, true to her entrepreneurial skills, worked as the financial manager, advisor and manager.

Zohra Sehgal, who later became a household name in India because of her appearances in Hindi films, also performed for the group. Legendary Indian musician Allauddin Khan – father of sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, and teacher of Uday’s much younger sibling Ravi – was a soloist for the troupe. Ravi, then in the first decade of his life, had begun to be an early performer for the troupe as a dancer and musician, before he became Allauddin Khan’s disciple.

Fallout with Shankar, and “The Third Adventure”

The working relationship of Boner and Uday lasted a little less than a decade, but their team contributed immensely to the renaissance of India art domestically and abroad. During that period, they organised shows in Europe, United States and India, until a misunderstanding caused their split in 1939. The split didn’t stop Boner from collaborating with or offering patronage to other Indian artists, musician and dancers. Indian classical dancer Shanta Rao (1928-2007) was one of them.

Given Boner’s large body of work, the joint venture with Shankar seems a smaller part of her larger connection to India. From the 1940 onwards, she began cultivating an interest in Indian temple architecture, and principles of composition in Indian sculpture – a foray that was to be her “third Indian adventure.”

“Now I am on my third adventure. The first was Indian dance. The second was Indian sacred sculpture. The third is Indian temple architecture,” she said.

In India, she documented pre-medieval era caves of Ajanta and Ellora, located in the Aurangabad region of Maharashtra, the ancient structures in Tamil Nadu’s Mahabalipuram town, and Odisha’s Sun Temple.

The analysis of Indian architecture, including temples, has a special place in Boner’s oeuvre, in which she sought to find a connection between designs in Indian architecture with the bigger, and often complex, themes of universal existence.

Her scholarly publications revealed a spiritual temperament, triggered by her life in the heavily religious and faith-driven city of Varanasi, believed to be one of the oldest cities of the world. Fascinated by the geometric forms, she researched symbols and forms in the ancient structures, and believed these were archetypes of all living forms.

Through the magnificent water colours series “Prakriti” (or creation), she depicted the “cosmological ideas about the Indian cyclical understanding” of time, represented in the much mythologised events of creation, maintenance and destruction. The triptych was thus titled in the same order: “Srishti”, “Sthithi” and “Pralaya”. The Goddess of Kali, similarly associated with the destruction of evil, preoccupied her work a great deal, resulting in large water colour paintings depicting versions of the divine feminine.

Alice Boner, the Seeker  

“Each day my eyes are opening a little more…” Boner said in 1930, the year she first travelled to India with Shankar. She was a true seeker. For example, during a trip to Kerala, she was taken in by the Kathakali dance form, then under the threat of being extinct, so much so that she began studying the mudras or postures. She also explored the dance form in water colours, the exhibition shows. More than thirty years later, she would explore Shiva Nataraja too, the cosmic dancer, in a scholarly work.

In the first decade of her stay in India, she met Tagore in Bengal in 1935, who read from his book “Gitanjali”. She recorded the meeting in a photograph, showing Tagore in his quintessential robe and flowing white beard. A year later, she photographed the gigantic religious gathering at the “Kumbh Mela” in Allahabad, located about 100 miles from Varanasi.

Personal life, death, and legacy

Her professional life was borne out of an intense curiosity to know more about art and culture, and in that she never walked a scripted path. Her personal life too defied convention. During her long stay in India, she developed an intimate friendship with Monu Mitra, who played a multi-faceted role in her life as a fellow traveller, manager, advisor, besides being a confidante.

The exhibition shows photos of Mitra, in which he’s either by himself or with Boner or their co-travellers. The pictures characterise him as an intense-looking, handsome, but a mysterious man. He died of a heart attack, much before his companion breathed her last in Zurich in 1981.

Boner was awarded Padma Bhushan, one of India’s top civilian honours, in 1974, for her contribution to art.

Even in her death, Boner returned to India in what appears to be a definite homecoming, and the end of a very exciting life. She was cremated in Varanasi, her home through most of her life, and her ashes, by Hindu custom, were immersed in the Ganga river that she lived by.

This is the first major retrospective/exhibition of Boner more than thirty years after her death, and it is perhaps an indication of the artistic and intellectual attention due to her. The exhibition travelled from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, where it opened last year. However, it is yet to reach Varanasi, Boner’s second and final home, according to this review by Nandini Majumdar, because of lack of financial support.