Artists inhale Mayurbhanj

Artist Lipika Sen describes her residency in Mayurbhanj, India, where she and her co-artist Prabhjyot Majithia stayed in a palace with an erstwhile royal family and silently roaring tigers. She recounts conjuring twigs and stones into moving artworks when delayed monsoon rains inundated the countryside and thwarted the pair's original plans. Lipika was assisted to attend the residency with a Foundation Arts Practitioners grant.
Liptika standing under a porch with the rain falling

Lipika: "Everyday events turn poetic when one inhales a place for the very first time"

Inhaling Mayurbhanj – The Belgadia Palace Art Residency

Thunder crackles through the dark clouds. Our first morning at Belgadia Palace and we wake up to the rain drum-drumming down the giant glass windows. The monsoons have arrived late this year, falling straight, fat and rhythmically. Its dreamy curtain makes us pensive and our carefully carted art material damp and limp.

The rain proves to be a deterrent for the traditional dokra craftsmen to be ready in time for the festive season or to collaborate with us, as their process requires many layers of casting clay to dry. Instead, rainy Mayurbhanj becomes both our canvas and our subject.

Everyday events turn poetic when one inhales a place for the very first time. Be it the ubiquitous black umbrellas carried by the locals through rain-filled paddy fields. Or the indigenous “Gopi” – the goatherd who waits under it, in the middle of the road, oblivious to passing vehicles, as if this has been his waiting spot from the beginning of time.

Or the poignant moment when one is drawn to touch the feet of a sacred Sal tree, like the local tribes, who do not regard man as a separate entity from the forest.

Or sharing beats and stories with the drum-makers at their neat santhal huts and seeking blessings from a Santhali elder.

Or discovering the local’s love for football and “hadia” – a locally fermented rice brew, offered to the ancestors and the Sal tree before being drunk.

Or swinging to the beats of the languorous Jhumar folk dancers in the moonlit Simlipal forest.

Or meeting the enterprising local ladies in a village who diligently weave fashionable baskets, bags and lamps for city outlets from sabai grass.

Or the magic of living in a royal palace with the family in residence and becoming friends with Sebastian, their giant puppy.

Characters and encounters from our travels breathe life into the “Inhaling Mayurbhanj” sculptures in motion, conjured from found stones, grit, twigs and film.

True magic happens however, when the work can resonate with its audience. At our palace workshop, local students, some from the Santhal and Ho tribes are especially touched and overwhelmed, as the works reconnect with their own roots, allowing them to take pride in their ancient belief system, which worships the Sal tree and ancestors as providers and custodians of wisdom, especially relevant in today’s context of climate change.

View the “Inhaling Mayurbhanj” series

Meeting the ancestors

Restored to its 200 year old former glory, our palace is a time warp. The past seeping into the present with the constant presence of princely ancestors looking down from life sized portraits, marble busts and black and white photographs.

Trophies from yesteryear’s royal hunts (now a banned sport in India) – heads of antlers, snarling wild bears and striped leopard skins line the walls and taxidermy tigers, waiting at corners, often startle us with their gleaming eyes and silent roars.

Spotting a live tiger may be rare but wild animals like deer and elephants can be spotted at the nearby Simlipal Forest Ecosphere, should one spend a few nights in the forest, but the rain has washed away our chances. Instead, we find ourselves staring at a framed collection of chunky silver jewellery found in the entrails of a hunted and mounted man-eating alligator.

Meanwhile, our hostess regales us with historical legends and stories of her ancestors as she walks us through the plush green palace grounds, leading into magnificent lobbies and corridors, exhibiting ornate period furniture and chandeliers, royal travel souvenirs and gifts. 18th century first editions of famous and rare books line up the palace library, along with a wealth of literature of every genre.

The Lost City

We wake up to the distant chant of mantras as the palace priest offers prayers to the family’s ancestors, customary for Hindus in the month of Shraddha.

As mentioned earlier, the indigenous tribes in Mayurbhanj also pay obeisance to their ancestor, like Maori do.

And yet, a tingle goes through our spine when we find ourselves amidst the hauntingly beautiful ruins of the city of Haripur, the former capital of the state of Mayurbhanj built by Shri Harihar Bhanja in the 14th century.

The 21st century rain pauses politely, as the pink hues of dusk lend an ethereal charm to the domed terracotta brick temple that emerges from the ruins with intricate carvings that still survive.

Our hostess appears thoughtful as she walks around the excavation, tracing the steps of her ancestors –an inspiring image that holds up a mirror to the natural, eternal, connection that all humans have with their ancestors, indigenous, royal or ordinary. Haripur becomes our muse for The Lost City – a sensory, interactive sculptural installation.

Activated at the Belgadia Palace through workshops with students, martial art dancers and guests, the Lost City continues to bring psychological relief for those who experience it.

The project is envisioned to be created on a larger-than-life scale in New Zealand as a public art project for mental wellbeing.  

After further travels to galleries and exhibitions in Kolkata, Pune, New Delhi and Mumbai, we are back from the residency. But the heart can live in many places at the same time, we find, and time is not always a linear thing. More works from the residency are in the brewing.

Artist workshop with locals at their exhibition at the Residency

About the artists: Lipika Sen and Prabhjot Majithia are contemporary international artists and conceptualists, based in New Zealand and India. They create conceptual, multi-dimensional, interactive art experiences and large scale public art.

*Inhaling Mayurbhanj is showing currently at Kaipara Sculpture Gardens, Auckland

The Belgadia Palace Art Residency shows in July at Studio One Toi  Tū, Auckland