The Circus of life in a Bell Jar (Cirque de Souris)

By Georgina Maddox
September 18, 2021
Untitled- 1, Watercolor on Paper
Untitled- 1, Watercolor on Paper

For artist Manisha Agarwal the glass jar is all this and more. It contains the fragile and the precious flora and fauna that we as a species have threatened in the age of the Anthropocene. Manisha takes inspiration for her art from her immediate surroundings, hitherto bestowing upon them this poetic and ironic twist. In her childhood, the glass jar was always used to protect her favourite sweets and candies. As an adult it was the dal (lentils) and the masala (spices) that were housed in these jars. Over time it became a container to store the flowers she picked to study and slowly it morphed into the metaphor for protecting the wild-life along with the vegetation that we a species have impacted negatively, almost to the point of extinction. A phenomenon that disturbs her deeply. 




Vanishing Beauty, 8.5 x 12 in., Watercolor on Paper


Manisha also draws inspiration from Indore, one of the most populous cities of Central India that is dotted by a cluster of tombs and cenotaphs. The Rajwada Palace and the Lal Baag Palace, structures date back to Indore’s 19th-century Holkar dynasty. Indore is also known for its wildlife. The Ralamandal Wildlife Sanctuary (1989) ironically used to be a Shikar Ghar (Hunter’s Lodge) for the Holkars but it has now been converted to a sanctuary and is home to different species of birds and other wildlife. It hereafter becomes a very potent symbol of our times indicating how the overexploitation of wildlife and our natural resources has led to the need for its preservation.


Environmental Disaster, 12 x 7 in., Mixed media and Water colour on paper


Much of Manisha’s initiative to paint the stunning variety of flowers and the thriving wildlife that is characteristic to Indore, comes from the presence of the wildlife sanctuary the Panna Tiger Reserve and also the local society’s desire to preserve and recycle and sperate our waste to gain a firmer footing over all that is under threat. Personally, Manisha moved towards art from a rather young age. Her mother was a seamstress who did embroidery, and her neighbour used to work at the fine art college. Hence, she was exposed to arts and aesthetics at an early age, she got exposed to fine art colleges and also absorbed by the artistic environment that is characteristic of Indore.

Sirpur Talab (lake) plays host to many migrant birds that come to drink at the waterfront, especially from November to February. Their presence attracts several photographers who come to document and Manisha often found herself slipping into the crowds to take her own photographs or to observe the behaviour of the visiting birds. On one hand there is the noise and pollution of the city and on the other hand there is the reprieve of nature. In Manisha’s works one can see that it is nature that holds her attention, both as a common person in the crowd of observers and as an artist creating artwork.


Untitled- 124 , 22 x 22 in., Watercolor on Paper


Stylistically, Manisha enjoys painting in a hyperrealist style. Her earlier work used to be rendered in acrylic and oil, however she took a break and then she recently discovered the joy and immediacy of watercolours. It is also a demanding medium that allows for little error. Although her works are characterized by a very high level of skill, the emotion that Manisha brings to the work is also equally important. This is in keeping with the hyperrealist style that is prevalent globally. Hyperrealism is considered an effective advancement of Photorealism. This ‘newly developed style’ still contains some subtle differences from its predecessor. The Photorealists aimed to reproduce photographs as precisely as possible where the human eye could not distinguish between the original and the resultant painting, whereas the Hyperrealists took the technique even further. They developed ways of including narrative, charm and emotion into painting, not leaving it bereft of “personality” as some of the Photorealism works do.


Untitled- 163, 32 x 48 in., Watercolour on Paper, 2021

Manisha’s works also bring a narrative quality to some of her paintings. For instance, take the painting titled, Untitled, 112, water colour, 32x48 Inch, 2020. The composition features a variety of endangered species of animals and birds as its protagonists and is one of the busiest works by the artist who has otherwise created works that are more focused upon single creatures contained in rows of glass jars.

At its center is a rendition of the royal tiger perched on a throne, with multiple heads. It is clearly a reference to our national symbol, the three-headed ‘Felidae Emblem’ of King Ashoka, that became our national symbol on the rupee coin and note in 1950. However, in this instance Manisha adds a dark and humorous touch, since the tiger is wearing an oxygen mask connected to an O2 tank. A very potent reference to the times of COVID 19, that we are living with as a result of our own disregard for our planet and the delicate balance of nature. Notably our national bird the royal peacock is also perched on the edge of the throne adding a kind of shadowy finality to the whole circus of the absurd.

The reset of the menagerie is dotted by other animals, birds and trees. On the righthand side of the painting, a zebra carries a jar upon its back with another tiny zebra preserved inside it. Upon the jar is perched a white-headed bald eagle forming a kind of cycle of life. It also references the balancing act and once again references to the ‘circus’ where much of life’s ironies gets played out.


Untitled- 133, 47 x 70 in, Watercolor on Paper

On the left-hand side of the composition is the blackbuck deer with a globe balanced upon its back. The globe leads us to the conclusion that the endangerment of the species is a universal issue. In the back drop of these three lead-protagonists we spy an elephant trapped in the famed glass jar, with a royal crown upon the cover of the jar, indicating perhaps that for the artist, the elephant is the king of the beasts. In the upper register of the composition are three coloured parachutes or air balloons of blue, yellow and red that are lifting a donkey, an uprooted tree and an elephant. We are not told the destination of these three characters; however, one may assume that they are being airlifted to a better land? The artist’s premise is left open-ended, intentionally, for in this whole dark narrative she offers us a sliver of hope.


Georgina Maddox

Critic-Curator, New Delhi.

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