Most visitors who flocked to the well-publicised exhibition of the Nepali artist Ragini Upadhyay Grela at Gallery 919, Karachi, on February 13 were somewhat mystified by what they saw. Perhaps it was because Grela's work was unlike anything they had come across before. Or because they felt there was certain ambivalence about her art which appeared at once both childlike and highly sophisticated and had to be viewed with a morbid relish.
HabituÃ©s of exhibitions in Karachi are accustomed to tasting the fruits of realism and occasional forays into the world of the abstract—towards which a large number of local young painters is gravitating. The symbolic and emblematic imagery that this cerebral artist from Katmandu presented, though it was classy and urbane, had for many viewers a disparaging uniqueness to which they could not relate.
But if the visitor probed a little deeper, he would uncover a world of fantasy, hope and enlightenment. 'Love in the Air', the title of the exhibition, is faithful to the script. Everything that moves does so high above the ground, way up in the clouds.
Though there appears a constant striving for man and woman to come together as they whimsically frolic on a celestial trapeze, the love that the artist is trying to portray has a much deeper significance.
It has an almost subliminal, religious base, and is, in fact, a discourse on the love for God, the Creator of all things. Underlying the theme are the symbols of globalisation which, along with historical buildings and monuments, insinuate themselves into every frame and run like a thread through the fabric of the pictorial dissertation.
The items that were common to most of the compositions were the popular tourist structures that one sees on picture postcards, along with TV and computer screens and mobile phones. Often the women are portrayed as avenging deities and even the goddesses Laxmi and Saraswati, and the Buddhist goddess Nairatma appear conversant with the accoutrements of modern technology.
Sangita Thapa, curator of the Siddhartha Gallery in Katmandu, once pointed out that Grela often portrays the female form as enlightened beings that make satirical comments on the failings of politicians.
Among other pictures that the visitor saw was a nude riding an elephant over a tilting church steeple and pagoda; a couple on a horse or kissing somewhere in the stratosphere with a telephone wire and cradle dangling from the woman's calf; a woman with the head of a bird sitting on a cell phone; a couple flying over Big Ben and the Taj Mahal while the Statue of Liberty clutches a mobile phone; a woman flying towards a pram; a snake flying over buildings; a woman on an albatross; women and children flying over the Blue Mosque; a couple atop a quartet of galloping horses after somebody has pulled away the chariot.
The Eiffel Tower also pops up somewhere and there is even a woman wearing hijab sailing through the breeze on a flying carpet! And somehow or other, a bull found himself on top of a factory chimney.
Altogether, there were 32 exhibits, including digital works manually enhanced on canvas, etchings in mixed media and two 'unique prints' whose prices ranged between Rs40,000 and 50,000. Each of the four acrylics in which real gold was used on a traditional canvas was priced at Rs476,256.
Grela is very much a part of mainstream Nepali art—along with Urmila Upadhayay Garg, Pramila Giri and Shashi Kala Tiwari—all worthy successors to the pioneer women painters Jawala Shama, Bhadru Kumari and Sihi Pyari.
Grela has had considerable international exposure. She has studied in Germany and the United Kingdom, and is married to a Belgian. She has a formidable personal record of 56 solo exhibitions and has participated in 14 group shows where she always strives to be the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. Outside of Nepal and India, her works have been seen in Belgium, Poland, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Austria and Japan.
She has also had numerous appointments and has bagged three prizes and awards, one of which was in the United Kingdom. People who bought her works reside in 24 countries scattered around the globe.
The display which was inaugurated by Mushtaq Chhapra, honorary consul general for Nepal, was her third solo offering in Karachi. It is one that will stay in the mind for a long time.
1) The world tour, Digital/manually enhanced on canvas
2) Untitled, Etching/mixed media
3) Around the stupa, Digital/manually enhanced on canvas