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The Hindu
Friday, January 22, 1999
Painting Indian in Japanese

Her husband’s official posting in Japan introduced artist Madhu Jain to a new medium --- Nihonga or colours of rocks. What began as an experiment soon became a passion and today she is all set for an exhibition of her works in Delhi from February 9. Anita Joshua talks to her….
Born in a State known for its nomadic traditions and married to a bureaucrat with a transferable job, moving lock, stock and barrel once every few years has never been a daunting task for Madhu Jain. But when her bureaucrat husband has asked to pack his bags for an assignment in Japan in 1994, she was plagued by doubts and fears of a culture shock.
Today, years later, Madhu Jain is candid enough to admit she found ‘a sense to my being’ in the Land of the Rising Sun. "Till I went to Japan, I used to paint to satisfy my artistic sensitivity. In Japan, I was introduced to a new medium of art in which I found my calling."
Talking to The Hindu in New Delhi recently, three weeks before she mounts her first exhibition of works in ‘Nihonga’ in India, Madhu Jain cannot quite cap the joy she finds in her new identity as an artist who has bridged traditions separated by oceans. "I went to Japan preparing myself for a cultural shock. Instead, I found a cultural home: one which has broadened my horizons and given my life a new direction."
An art-lover with an eco-consciousness, Madhu Jain found herself being drawn to Nihonga art which is particularly popular among leading contemporary artists of Japan. Nihonga is rock pigment painting on hand-made ‘washi’ paper. Nihonga involves the use of colours derived from natural minerals, shells, corals and even semi-precious stones. Layered on, the richness of a Nihonga painting lies in its natural matt finish and the brilliance of pigments.
Explaining the art form, Madhu Jain says: "The rocks are powdered up to ten gradations; from fine to sand textures. The finer the powder, the lighter the colour. Though paste is available, I like to do it the traditional -- albeit painstaking -- way. I grind the powder, make it into a dough, and then make a paste by adding water. Then slowly, I layer the ‘washi’ paper with the colours and give shape to my creative thoughts."
What is it that first attracted her to Nihonga? "Because the range of rock pigments is phenomenal -- 1,500 basic colours are available -- and with its application in layers, a Nihonga painting gives a three-dimensional effect. This also lends body and volume to the painting. Add to this the fact that this form of painting is totally environment-friendly. Even ‘Nikawa’ -- (animal glue) -- has now been replaced with synthetic binding media."
But learning Nihonga was not easy as she did not find a single book on the art form in libraries. This is where her ability to converse in Japanese helped. "Soon after we landed in Japan, my husband and I began learning Japanese, as it is very difficult otherwise. Today some people say I speak better Japanese than English," quips Madhu who manages to pack in a lot into a normal 24 hours.
Because she spoke their language, Madhu Jain was able to penetrate the artistic community and make them share zealously guarded secrets with her. "The fact that I had taken pains to learn the language convinced them of my sincerity. They told me that Nihonga was never written about in books and was like some of our own folk traditions which have passed down generations by word of mouth."
A keen learner that she is, Madhu Jain decided to study Nihonga closely: not just the art of painting with rock pigments, but understanding its origins. "Through my research, I learnt that rock pigments had originally come from India centuries ago. This is quite possible because mineral pigments and vegetable dyes were used in the cave paintings of Ajanta and Ellora. My conclusion was further commented by a visit to Horyuji temple near Nara in Kyoto."
Eager to experiment with this art form, Madhu Jain decided to try and project Indian visual imagery through this medium. In Japan itself she gave shape to her idea of painting Indian themes in this Japanese medium. She mounted her first such solo exhibition in the Winter Olympic city of Nagano in 1997. Buoyed by the success of the exhibition, she decided to bring the vibrant colours of Rajasthan to her canvas made of ‘washi’ paper.
What began in 1997 -- the year she turned 50 -- has over the past couple of years seen her execute many a painting in the Nihonga style. Finally, she has enough to her name to put up an exhibition. Titled ‘Pathar ke Rangon Se…’, the exhibition will open at Lalit Kala Adademi on February 9.
In between painting, gardening and performing the social duties that are demanded of her, Madhu Jain has also been trying out Nihonga painting on desi handmade paper. "Since various layers of rock pigments have to be put on paper before the final image is evolved, the paper has to be very strong. Because of the strength of ‘washi’ and rock pigments, the paintings can survive for years on end without any treatment. Neither do you need to give paintings a glass cover."
Back home in India now, Nihonga is not the only connection that Madhu Jain has retained with Japan. She continues to study Japanese. Presently she is enrolled for an advance course in the language at New Delhi’s Japan Cultural Centre. And every year for the past four years -- even after she returned to India I 1997 -- she has been participating in Nikaten: the top-of-the-line exhibition that is mounted at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art annually. This year, she hopes, will be no different.

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