543 views 6 mins 0 comments

Ompal Sansanwal Showcases his Abiding Love for Trees in ‘Jiva’ Exhibition

In Arts, News
May 02, 2024

He spent his childhood days playing and studying in a ‘bagichi’ (garden) full of trees, and loved gazing at them for hours, especially the peepul tree, searching for its ‘eyes, nose or mouth.’

This childhood fixation for trees has found expression in Ompal Sansanwal’s works, as he presents 60 of his intricate paintings on trees, each of which tells a fascinating story.

During his childhood his mother would take him to the ‘bagichi’ behind their home in south Delhi’s Mehrauli area, where his school was located. His classes would be held beneath a tree.

“My story with trees began from there. Though the bagichi had mango and jamun trees, I would find the peepul tree most fascinating. I would look for the eyes and nose in the tree,” the National Award-winning artist says.

The peepul tree, with its labyrinthine roots and its branches thick with foliage, abounds in Ompal’s paintings — acrylic and watercolour and pen-and-ink-on canvas. The week-long ‘Jiva’ exhibition that opened on April 27 at Bikaner House is Ompal’s first solo exhibition after a hiatus of 15 years.

Curated by noted art historian and scholar Uma Nair, it is being presented by Black Cube Gallery, which marks its debut at Bikaner House.

His fascination with trees continued during his time in the Delhi Art College, and he would specifically study the peepul and banyan trees in the campus and draw them.

“Whenever I would spot a peepul or banyan tree, I would try to spot a human form within it. If you look carefully, sometimes you can spot human forms within trees. When I see trees now I can spot dancing trees, walking trees,” he says.

The artist has brought this into his works. Two eyes, a nose and a mouth emerge from amid the thick foliage and densely entangling roots in some of his intricately painted works on display. Or the tree leaves and roots weave together to take the shape of a horse’s head; or the banyan tree’s many roots sinuously curve together to seem as they are dancing with arms raised, or even two trees are locked in an embrace.

“In a tree I see a human, and I also see a story. That’s been my journey. I get lost in my paintings. It is not a tree for me, it is my tree, and the branches are coming out of me, and the stories are emerging. It is like a meditation, and I don’t know myself what form it is going to take,” he says.

His painting of Rabindranath Tagore is striking for the way the long, winding roots and leaves merge together to create the well-known visage of the Nobel Laureate, with his flowing beard and long hair.

Ompal’s smaller canvasses are as mesmerising as his larger works. One of his larger works, an 8 feet X 20 feet untitled work, is of a forest done in ochre tones. This particular one is representative of the “baghichi” that Ompal loved playing in during his childhood years.

Mythology has also influenced Ompal, especially the stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. During his childhood he would watch the Krishna Leela and Ram Leela and later read the Bhagavad Gita. These influences now show up in his paintings.

His paintings of Krishna holding aloft the Govardhan hill, sheltering the people of Mathura and the cows; Shiva as Nataraj; Krishna playing the flute as the cows follow behind; the Pandavas and Kauravas facing off during the Kurukshetra battle – all comprise trees, with their long, curling roots and leaves, telling the stories.

Describing Ompal’s work, curator Uma Nair says: “For three decades, Sansanwal has devoted his artistry exclusively to the arboreal realm, crafting delicate renderings that evoke the profound interconnection between humanity and the natural world. His reverence for the banyan tree underscores his belief in nature as a sanctified realm, eternal and sublime.”

“Against a backdrop of ochre-textured strokes juxtaposed with smoked sienna, Sansanwal’s compositions evoke a sense of harmony and ethereal tranquility, inviting contemplation of our enduring connection to the ever-unfolding tapestry of time,” says Nair, whose book ‘Meditations on Trees’ on the artist (published by Black Cube and Aleph Books) was released during the exhibition.

Sanya Malik, whose Black Cube Gallery is debuting at Bikaner House with ‘Jiva’, says, “Ompal Sansanwal’s captivating oeuvre intricately weaves the profound narrative of humanity’s symbiotic bond with nature, with an emphasis on the primordial significance of trees and roots as the cradle of existence.”

Born in 1964, Sansanwal, an alumnus of Delhi College of Art, was recipient of the Lalit Kala Akademi National Award for painting in 2002 and the 1991 All India Award by the Rajasthan Lalit Kala Academy. His works have been featured in several solo exhibitions, including at Mumbai’s Museum Gallery and Delhi’s LTG and Shridharani, besides in group shows held at the Nehru Center in London, and in Yugoslavia.