Street art, museum art: Guwahati has it all

Cows on wall mural in Guwahati

Most cities we’ve visited in India have street art. Sometimes it’s informal – people just grab some space and paint it – while other times it’s clear that an artist, or group of artists, has been hired to beautify a wall.

The wall paintings are not just decorative – they have a practical function, too. If there are beautiful paintings or bas-reliefs on a wall (and especially if they depict religious or cultural figures), men are less likely to pee there. As someone with an acute sense of smell, I am a huge advocate of this policy. (Though I think India aso needs to provide way, way more free-to-use public toilets around the country. But that’s a subject for another post.)

Okay, let’s get away from the subject of yucky odors and back to the subject of street art. Here in Guwahati, there’s quite a lot of public art, including wall paintings, bas-reliefs and free-standing sculptures.

My favorite walls are on the narrow road that leads up the hill from M.C. to Navagraha Mandir, the temple of the nine planets. There’s one really long wall of paintings on the right as you turn off M.C. Road and head towards the temple, and a shorter length of paintings on the left side.

Below are a few of my favorite details from these walls.

Two rishis depicted in a wall mural in Guwahati
Two rishis
Two tea workers depicted on wall mural in Guwahati
I think these ladies are supposed to be Assamese tea workers.

Cows on wall mural in Guwahati

Flute player on wall mural, Guwahati

Temple dancer in wall mural, Guwahati
Temple dancer
Dancer on wall mural, very faded, in Guwahati
Another dancer, I think, judging by the gesture of the hand near the eye. This is my favorite of all the images – I love that it looks like an ancient painting.

Lady stirring a cooking pot on wall mural, Guwahati

Monkey and bells on wall mural, Guwahati
This part is on the left-hand wall as you head up towards Navagraha Mandir. This wall is a lot better preserved than the longer wall  of paintings on the other side of the road.
Militant rishis on wall mural, Guwahati
I think this bit is referring to historical events here in Assam.
Theatrical mask on an actor, wall mural, Guwahati
This one refers to the mask-making and mask-theater tradition on Majuli Island, and in other satras around Assam.

I love these paintings, and I look at them every day as we walk up and down the hill (we are staying with a family that lives on this road). I enjoy how lifelike the figures are in these wall paintings – the faces and hands have the look of  comic-book art, but the bodies are more realistic, and show movement. The lady stirring a cooking pot for example – I can feel her leaning forward on the balls of her feet to give the pot a stir, and then rocking back onto her heels again.

The paintings are quite faded, and in many places the plaster they were painted on is chipping off the wall. This gives them an interesting look of decay, like ancient art. It reminds me of looking at paintings on a ceiling at the temple of Kom Ombu near Aswan in Egypt.

The remains of elaborate paint on a ceiling of the Kom Ombu temple in Aswan, Egypt.
The remains of elaborate paint on a ceiling of the Kom Ombu temple in Aswan, Egypt. I took this photo in March 2013.

Kom Ombu was constructed more than 2,000 years ago, while the paintings on our road may have been done just 10 or 12 years ago, possibly even more recently than that.  Somehow I like them even more because of the aging that has taken place – the bright colors and strong outlines survive even as the last bits of paint flake and fade away.

Paintings at the Assam State Museum

From narrow Navagraha Road to the Assam State Museum is about a 20-minute walk for us. We spent more than two hours at the museum the other day, there was so much to look at (and we didn’t see it all). I loved the stone sculptures, most dating from the 9th and 10th centuries, but I was really surprised by the paintings upstairs. Most of them depict daily life in the villages of Assam, and I was struck by the variety of styles and the affection each artist had for his or her subject.

The four paintings below are of weavers in a Bodo village. They are not separate paintings, but scenes from one long horizontal piece I simply couldn’t photograph as an entirety.

Mothers and children with a loom in Bodo weavers' village, Assam State Museum, Guwahati, AssamPainting detail, women weaving in Bodo village, Assam State Museum, Guwahati, AssamPainting detail, women and girls spinning yarn in Bodo village, Assam State Museum, Guwahati, AssamChildren in Bodo weavers' village, Assam State Museum, Guwahati, Assam

I love the style of this painter, and the colors are just beautiful. This work also reminds me of art my mother used to have in our house when I was growing up. She loves ethnic art of all kinds, and she also enjoys work that shows human relationships. She clearly instilled that appreciation in me. Thanks, Mom!

The two photos below are also from a larger painting. The people in this piece are choral singers, according to the museum’s label. I like the way the artist applied the paint, and I love the people’s facial expressions, and the movement in the people’s bodies.

Four choral singers, detail of a painting in Assam State Museum, Guwahati, AssamChoral singers, detail of a painting in Assam State Museum, Guwahati, Assam

The four images below are from a wide painting of an Assamese village scene. There’s a Victorian look to the artist’s style, and like a Victorian, this artist was certainly engaging in social commentary. We have the rich ladies with their styled hair, jewelry and beautiful clothing (saris with traditional Assamese woven borders!), and the old rural woman driving the cow, so poor she doesn’t even wear a blouse.

The rich ladies are clearly gossiping. I really like the facial expression of the one lady standing behind two others; her compressed lips eloquently convey her thoughts.

Two rich and stylish ladies, detail of a painting of a rural village, Assam State Museum, Guwahati, Assam

Gossiping ladies in a painting of a rural village. Assam State Museum, Guwahati, Assam

Detail of lady's face in a painting of a rural village scene, Assam State Museum, Guwahati, Assam

Detail of a painting of a rural village. Detail shows a poor old lady leading a goat. Assam State Museum, Guwahati, Assam

The old lady above, and the man tending to cattle behind her, are timeless. As we passed through rural areas of Assam on our way to Guwahati, we saw many women like her, and men like the man in the background. Rural people who wear less, both because they are poor and because their work is so physical; people who are too busy tending to crops, animals and daily tasks to care about their appearance.

The last two photos are from a large painting in an entirely different style. This one feels to me like an Assamese version of a Mughal miniature. I love the formality and the rich details – so like a Mughal miniature – yet the feeling of the piece is so much more sensual, so much more fluid and soft than any Mughal painting.

Detail from painting of  a lady and a lady artist. This is the lady watching the artist as she paints. Assam State Museum, Guwahati, AssamPainting of a lady artist and watching lady, Assam State Museum, Guwahati, Assam

It’s like the way Assam feels to us so far, after 10 days or so in Guwahati: as if mainstream north Indian culture has crept in since 1947, sending out tendrils, putting down roots that grow into Indian-style public buildings, salwar-kameez for ladies and bursts of Bollywood music from Indian-food snack shops. Yet the soil, the old trees, the handwoven tasseled Assamese saris – and most of all, the people’s faces – are still of the tribes that have lived here for thousands of years, under the umbrella of the Ahom kingdom. It feels like we still have one foot – or rather, just the toes of one foot –  in India, while the other steps firmly onto Southeast Asian soil.

2 thoughts on “Street art, museum art: Guwahati has it all

  1. Prashant Gupta April 12, 2019 / 5:55 am

    A sensitively crafted description of the place, its people and some interesting features of their lives !


    • Aliza April 12, 2019 / 10:01 am

      Thank you, Prashant. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


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