New Delhi

N. S. Harsha, Emission Test, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 75 × 59".

N. S. Harsha, Emission Test, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 75 × 59".

N. S. Harsha

A penitentiary might seem an unlikely place to find inspiration, but that is precisely where N. S. Harsha stumbled the motivation behind his painting Secular Bites, 2021. Row upon row of rats nibble and chew a variety of fabrics, some bearing crosses and swastikas, others resembling national and Formula 1 flags. On a visit to the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney five years ago, the artist discovered that even the rats’ nests had been carefully preserved in an effort to re-create the convicts’ miserable living conditions. He was struck, in particular, by the rats’ indiscriminate choice of material for their homes, scavenging the uniforms of prisoners and officers alike. Secular Bites pointed to the animal kingdom’s (and indeed nature’s) irreverence for socially constructed values.

Animals, often bearing anthropomorphic characteristics, populated several of Harsha’s whimsical paintings. Their antics were evocative of those of the animals portrayed in the Panchatantra and Ja¯taka tales that children on the Indian subcontinent grow up reading. Harsha’s pictorial syntax draws as much from book illustrations of those tales as it does from miniatures, comics, and schoolroom charts. In The Light Brought by the Rats, 2020, rodents frolic, pounce, and cavort around diyas, or earthenware lamps, while in Periodical Visit of God Particles, 2021, monkeys carry flaming torches. A nonhierarchical approach to species also informs Matriarchal Maps of Matrix, 2020, which compares the ways knowledge is passed on from generation to generation in the human and animal worlds: Scenes of women tending to each other are interspersed with ethereal clusters of white elephants, nodding to the parallel role human matriarchs and female elephants play as repositories of knowledge and care.

Drawing on his keen observation of everyday events, Harsha also makes humorous commentaries on contemporary life. In the cheekily titled Emission Test, 2021, scores of PPE-clad figures conduct swab patients seated on ubiquitous plastic chairs. Rendered chiefly in profile, the patients are a motley lot, consisting of a Hindu priest, a sage, an airline stewardess, and a fisherwoman, among others. Not even flora and fauna are spared the drill: A monkey, a lion, a group of parrots, and a potted plant receive the test. One of Matisse’s blue figures also reclines on a chair in a nod to the examination of the surface of some paintings at the Louvre for the presence of the Covid-19 virus, as Harsha explained during a walk-through. The motifs in many of the paintings on display were arranged serially in rows, the technique suggestive of the repetition integral to Buddhist and Jain sculptural and painting traditions. Harsha constructed this serial effect by stamping, then painting, sequences of human and animal figures.

While the show was a testimony to Harsha’s keen observation of life’s minutiae, it also demonstrated his abiding interest in the macrocosm. In the large-scale Life Asks, 2020, the cosmos is transformed into a mendicant’s bowl, placed in a pair of cupped hands. In Back Home, 2021, a host of daily chores in the upper corner of the canvas are juxtaposed with black clouds of planetary systems. At the painting’s center, an astronaut holds a lamp in one hand and trails a pumpkin vine in the other—a reminder, perhaps, of the need to stay grounded even while flying high.