Prints and Mixed Media by Radha Chandrashekaran.

Walking into Radha’s exhibition at Xavier, I was transported to India, which I first visited too many years ago—first because I hoped to return and expected I would, but haven’t—yet.

What evoked India for me were not just the Hindu gods and voluptuous goddesses and the decorative motifs the India-born artist uses, but, perhaps oddly, the use of canvas as the ground for some of her artworks and her dense layering of color.

India is a country of contradictions. When I was there, I stayed at a Holiday Inn in New Delhi. Taxis lined up in ranks at the entrance while the cheaper and ubiquitous pedicabs waited on the side of the hotel, and cows roamed behind the very American hostelry.* In India there is a constant jousting between extremes: dire poverty as maimed beggars reach out as you make your way through the crowded streets versus extreme wealth where the well-to-do own “farms” as a tax dodge, cottage industries in villages that are much the same as centuries ago versus the digital world in bustling urban centers. I liken Radha’s layering of recognizable imagery and decorative patterns over a field of rich color to these contrasts.

Radha’s color is not pure, which one might expect since India is sometimes described as being a kaleidoscope of color. Instead the color is muddied as she lays down color after color in her pieces that combine woodcut, serigraphy, clay, stitching, and painting with natural pigments, oil, and water-based ink on paper or cloth. The nuanced color brings to mind Rothko, but instead of being the main event, it serves as a backdrop for her imagery.

The decorative designs are inspired by the kolam patterns, which are made by women in Chennai in southern India where the artist grew up. In this tradition, passed from mother to daughter, women rise before dawn, a time when they have a quiet moment to themselves, to clean the thresholds of their homes and to draw geometric patterns in rice powder on the ground. These designs welcome everything from ants, birds, and other small animals to Lakshmi who is the goddess of prosperity into their homes—a recognition of the concept of harmonious co-existence so essential in the Hindu faith. It’s not necessary to know what these patterns derive from to appreciate them, but this knowledge enriches them.

The Hindu gods and goddesses reference more directly her homeland. In Garuda, the minor Hindu deity, who in India assumes the form of a muscular man with the head of a bird, dominates the composition. His origin is related in the Mahabharata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India; it is history with philosophical and devotional passages. In the myth, Garuda bursts forth from an egg as a raging inferno equal to that which consumes earth at the end of every age. Big enough to block out the sun, he symbolizes impetuous and violent energy, speed, and martial skills. In Radha’s depiction, Garuda is barely contained within the confines of the composition. He faces forward with a penetrating gaze with his large wings closed at his side. Above this frontal view, his head with an eagle-like beak is shown in profile facing left, west as prescribed by tradition. Stylized birds are scattered about him and float on a ground of dark blues, but the fierce Garuda is no bluebird of happiness.

Canvas as a support for art wouldn’t seem to be able to conjure up any specific place or period, but here it does for me as it recalls traditional folk art story cloths, which are like storyboards for a film. Past Unfolded (2000) obviously has a narrative even if it is not easily deciphered. In it a large woman, brandishing a large scythe-like knife in her left hand, strides forward, her power undiminished by the fact that she holds her own severed head in her right hand. Flanking her are two smaller male figures, each wielding similar knives. An intertwined couple lies at her feet.

While it was not e,ssential to understand the story—the work itself is satisfying enough—I wanted to be able to “read” it like a story cloth. Radha explained that after her second failed marriage, she was “sad, angry, depressed, and poured all of these emotions into this work.” She identifies the central figure as herself, represented by Kali, the Hindu goddess associated with eternal energy, destruction, and creation. By chopping off her own head, she cuts out her ex-husbands, symbolized by the smaller figures who are too weak to attack effectively, from her mind, and she grows “stronger and bigger without them.” For good measure she also stomps on the couple at her feet, who are emblematic of her idealized view of marriage.

Radha has captured the essence of India through the obvious—the Hindu deities, but also—at least to me—through her allusions to the folk arts and her richly layered color.

– Karen C. Chambers

*I was there to install the exhibition “Tell Me a Story: Narrative Art in Clay and Glass,” which I had curated for the late lamented U.S. Information Agency and which was the official American entry in the New Delhi Triennial. The show debuted at the Taft Museum in 1992.

Radha Chandrashekaran. Imprint of My Life: Prints & Mixed Media Art by Radha on view through February 19th at Xavier University Art Gallery, A. B. Cohen Center, 1658 Herald Ave., Cincinnati, Ohio 45207, 513-745-3811


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