Ever since she graduated with a master’s in printmaking from The Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication in Hyderabad in 2003, Shilpa Mayenkar Naik, the deceptively shy and soft-spoken Goan artist, has consistently produced powerhouse drawings and paintings that have marked her as one of the most thoughtful, promising artists of her generation.

ESCADA at Mumbai’s Lakeeren Art Gallery is Mayenkar Naik’s first major exhibition outside Goa, and her long-awaited breakthrough moment.

Even while still in college in Hyderabad, and before that the Goa College of Art, Mayenkar Naik chose to see the world around her through a microscopic lens. She was obsessed with the tiniest details of flowers and insects, and always produced beautiful images of unsettling and slightly morbid subjects: dismembered moths, squashed lizards, roaches with human faces. All through she has remained focused on the tiny, the overlooked, the kind of subjects that usually remain underfoot and hidden from view.

It’s probably not an accident that the same can be said about Mayenkar Naik herself, an introspective, quiet artist slipping unobtrusively through the turbulent, competitive and bombastic art world. Unlike other artists from Goa—like Subodh Kerkar and Viraj Naik—who have earned international reputations, with collectors lining up for their works, Mayenkar Naik continues to work serenely in near-isolation, in the beautiful house designed and built by her similarly talented artist husband Pradeep Naik, in his ancestral village of Mandrem on the north Goa coast.

All this is new for Goa. Ever since the earliest days of the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, this tiny territory on the west coast, with its distinctive, centuries-old history of Portuguese colonialism, has produced some of India’s most significant artists: Antonio Xavier Trindade was the first faculty member of the JJ School, Angelo da Fonseca was a Santiniketan exemplar, Francis Newton Souza and Vasudeo Gaitonde were the front-runners of the most important development in the history of modern Indian art in 1947, the Progressive Artists Movement. But all of them had to leave Goa to pursue their fortunes.

In his superb curatorial essay for the ground-breaking 2007 group exhibition, Aparanta—The Confluence Of Contemporary Art In Goa (in which Mayenkar Naik was included), Ranjit Hoskote wrote: “Goan art has long been an invisible river, one that has fed into the wider flow of Indian art but has not always been recognized as so doing" and “the glossy stereotype is a more effective blinder than the heated needle of the medieval executioner: the associations of sun, sex and carnival with Goa are so pervasive that even the better informed denizens of the Indian art world seem unaware of the vibrancy of the art scene in Goa."

Mayenkar Naik’s works on display at Mumbai’s Lakeeren Gallery.

Just as Goa’s earlier generations of artists bonded via connections to Mumbai and the JJ School, Mayenkar Naik is part of another significant set of relationships to the Sarojini Naidu School in Hyderabad, from where a series of the brightest alumni of Goa College of Art have graduated with distinction.

Following directly in the tracks of Viraj Naik—a gold medallist there—they are profoundly influenced by K. Laxma Goud’s approach to his rural environment and village roots. Mayenkar Naik and her husband Pradeep, Siddharth Gosavi, Santosh Morajkar and Chaitali Morajkar, Shripad Gurav, Kedar Dhondu and several others now constitute a formidable centre of gravity in Goa’s art scene, with every bit as much potential to affect Indian art as Gaitonde, Souza, Laxman Pai and their compatriots did in the 1940s.

Though she is still only 32, Mayenkar Naik’s suite of artworks in ESCADA illustrates an eloquent and compelling world view: an ant’s sure-footed perspective of European colonialism in Goa and its aftermath.

Ants are a great choice, a fascinatingly apt metaphor for humanity. Scientists estimate that the combined biomass (body weight) of all ant species on earth is roughly the same as the weight of all human beings combined. We all know that while individual ants are weaklings, they are an irresistible force if enough of them get together. Under Mayenkar Naik’s pens, pencils and paintbrushes in ESCADA, lines of ants trudge almost imperceptibly from wall to wall and canvas to canvas, but then converge together to constitute nations, landscapes, the world itself.

The ants troop right through the makings of Goa’s contemporary civilization and culture, under an altar filled with saints, beside a crocheted lace doily, and over azulejos, the emblematic, Moorish-influenced blue tiles that the Iberians took everywhere they went. They wander through a plateful of vivid chilli peppers which entered India via Goa to transform our palates forever.

The artist at the gallery.

In 2007, Hoskote curated Aparanta in a stunning heritage building on the Panjim waterfront, once the first medical college in Asia. The exhibition was laid out in axes, the heart a series of extraordinary paintings by the Goan masters, Souza, Gaitonde, Pai, Fonseca, and stunning suites of new Goa works by Baiju Parthan and Dayanita Singh. Along with them, thanks to a gesture of generosity by Singh, who opted for a smaller room, was a sun-filled room bursting with exuberant canvases by Mayenkar Naik. They belonged. She was barely 26, but it was already clear that this was an artist who was destined for the highest level.

ESCADA: Paintings And Drawings is on till 15 November, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Lakeeren Art Gallery, 6/18, Grants Building, Second floor, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba, Mumbai. The works range in price from 60,000 to 4 lakh.

Vivek Menezes is a writer, photographer, and the founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts and Literary Festival.

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