WITHThe illustration of the Angita Yogi Women Partying, a joyous display of a disco nightclub for all the girls, is very reminiscent of something you might see in Teen Vogue. In reality, it is on the wall of the National Gallery of Victoria, as part of a new exhibition highlighting new acquisitions by contemporary Indian artists in rural, regional and indigenous traditions, some of which have been passed down through the centuries. What is unique about 19-year-old Sangita is that she works in a style practiced only in her family: Yoga art, an energetic style of drawing in black ink on white paper, with detailed patterns and a large, complex composition. This has been practiced for three generations by the Yogi family – which is to say, it is astonishingly modern.
“What’s special about this family, unlike others, is that they didn’t inherit this style,” says Wayne Crothers, senior curator of Asian art at NGV. “It came from preserving their narrative or tradition of singing and performing.”
“I was inspired by the idea of women celebrating,” Sangita says of her work. “Women are so burdened, and women who are poor, even more so. That’s why I just thought to make a work about the opposite scenario – for women to enjoy “.
Yoga art began with Sangita’s parents, Ganesha and Teju. Their surname comes from their community, Yogi, in rural Rajasthan. Untrained in the visual arts, Yogis have traditionally been wandering musicians, singers of pious songs and stories. Their music also had a practical function.
“Yogis were the alarm clocks of earlier times,” says Minhazz Majumdar, a New Delhi curator who worked with NGV at the exhibition. “They would sing songs at the crack of dawn… we always had a barter system, someone would pay them.”
By the 1970s, urbanization made such a way of life increasingly unsustainable. Then came a severe drought. Faced with declining crops and famine, Teju and Ganesh were forced to move to the city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in search of work – often dangerous, low-paid manual labor.
It was then that Ganesh met anthropologist Haku Shah, part of a wave of Indian scholars and curators who sought to preserve cultural traditions threatened by the pace of social change. Shah invited Ganesha to record stories in Yoga songs, to protect them from loss in history. Ganesh did not know how to write, so Shah suggested that he draw stories.
“At first he was so afraid he would break the pen,” says Majumdar – she has worked with the family for more than 20 years – “and now the children are doing it in their own style.”
Ganesh and Teju had 10 children, six of whom survived; they all paint and draw.
“Drawing is like meditation for me, like a healing space – I get lost in my drawings, in creating all the details … they make me forget my struggles,” says Prakash, Sangita’s older brother.
In his intricate work Cityscape (2017), Prakash portrays his home in Ahmedabad the way he saw it as a child; tall apartment blocks, smoke towers, and a multitude of tiny human figures rushing between them, uniformly focused on their work, ignoring the fish and turtles in the Sabarmati River that winds through the city. A careful look reveals that each figure is unique – they all have different socks, hair or eyes.
Prakash teaches his teenage son to draw in Yoga style; no one in the family sings anymore except Teju and Ganesha. But while the Yoga family’s turn towards a whole new medium is dramatic, all the art forms presented in the exhibition are undergoing a rapid transformation.
“Many of these families, who have been practicing this work for centuries and centuries, are more within the domestic context,” says Sunita Lewis, project officer at NGV. “But in the last few decades, they’ve changed the medium or changed topics to make them a commodity and reach a far wider audience than just their communities.”
“Goods” is a word that curators often shy away from, but these artists are not hobbyists or members of India’s urban middle class. Art is their way of life: if they want to survive and stay relevant, they need a market. Sujuni, an embroidered quilt style, has traditionally been a way for women to reuse waste fabrics for practical gifts; they are now made for display for sale in the international art market, providing peasant women with a livelihood. Contemporary sujuni the work often contains motifs of female independence such as laptops and mopeds. Similarly, Madhubani art originates from murals painted in homes for significant events such as marriage and childbirth; now Madhubani artists are working on paper to sell or display their art internationally, addressing topics such as climate change, women’s feticides and Covid-19.
Artists are also increasingly signing their works – something not always done in the past, or demanded by collectors. Most of the older works in the NGV exhibition are by unknown or unrecorded artists.
“The fact that the market has awakened now makes it easier to promote these artists as artists, not as nameless, impersonal bearers of tradition,” says Majumdar.
But, she admits, increased interest from the art market does not always mean a secure future for artists. For the most part, the Yogi family is still pretty much where it was 20 years ago – except for Sangita, who recently moved from Ahmedabad. She lives in rural Rajasthan with her husband and has just had her first child – a baby girl.
Sangita never danced in a nightclub. Women Partying, she says, was based on the parties she saw in movies and TV and her imagination.
“My style is more like fantasy, compared to my family,” Sangita says. “I draw what I would love to see – empowered women who enjoy life.”
And, he says, he is learning to draw his daughter.
Changing Worlds: Change and Tradition in Contemporary India, at NGV, admission free, until 28 August.
Minhazz Majumdar provided translation work on this feature.