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The Asian Age
14 February, 1999
Artist Madhu Jain talks to MEENAKSHI KUMAR about the unique Japanese art form of Nihonga
Hues from the Soil
In a foreign land, the best way to have strangers open up to you is to know their language. Madhu Jain realised this when she arrived in Japan. Learning Japanese not only helped in people warming up to her but also letting her into secrets otherwise closely guarded. Learning the traditionally popular Japanese art form Nihonga was one such experience. She was privy to some secrets of this traditional art form which otherwise are never revealed to a foreigner.

An artist herself, Jain was drawn to Nihonga, a unique Japanese style of painting which involves the use of rock pigments derived from minerals, shells, corals and semi-precious stones. She explains, "The rock pigments, which come in powder form, are mixed with Sumi (black ink made from carbon), gofun (shell white pigment derived from oysters shell), Nikawa (glue) and water. Then it is applied by brush on washi or handmade paper. Nihonga involves the application of layers of colours and can take up to 15 days to make a single painting. "
Her first solo exhibition in Japan was in Nagano in 1997 where she projected Indian themes in Nihonga medium. To her surprise, all her Nihonga paintings were sold --- a clear indication of her being accepted in the Japanese art society.
This encouraged her to carry on with her traditional Indian themes. She found that the Japanese were very curious to know about India. The only images they had were of maharajas, levitating sadhus and undernourished children scavenging in rubbish heaps. She wanted to change these images and feed their curiosity about India. "I wanted to show them the real India, where villagers dress in nice colourful clothes and are not dirty and emaciated."
Egged on by Japanese media appreciation and her seamless enthusiasm, Jain earned the distinction of being the only foreigner practising a traditional Japanese art form. She next decided to depict Rajasthani folk life in her works. There were two reasons for this. One, she wanted to pay tribute to her birthplace, Jaipur, on India's 50th year of independence, and two, she believed that the vibrant colours of Rajasthan would come alive with the brilliance of the rock pigments. Her first attempt showcased in Jaipur in 1998 was a success. This year, she decided to introduce this unique art form to Indians back home in Delhi.
The exhibition, Pathar Ke Rangon Se, which was on at the Lait Kala Akademi in the capital recently, was a delightful palette of bright, happy colours. The theme --- Rajasthani folklore --- may have been common but the medium was new.
Just as she introduced the art-loving Japanese to traditional Indian images, Jain wants to acquaint Indians with Nihonga. Interestingly, she found similarities between Nihonga in the cave paintings at Ajanta and Ellora --- the use of rock pigment is common to both and there is a possibility that this art was exported from India to Japan.
But sadly, as she discovered, it is a forgotten art in India. She did manage to get a few rock pigments from Jaipur but the colours are limited and the powder is of a coarse nature.
She feels proud that she has the opportunity to play the role of an unofficial cultural ambassador. Learning Japanese has definitely helped. And she intends to continue with Nihonga, even in India.

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