Varunika Saraf is known for layering archival and mythical visual references to create a conceptual dialogue with the past and at the same time explore the antecedents of a range of contemporary political and social issues. These dense layers of often marginalised histories are narrated through the lives of dispossessed who appear alongside characters from history, and even imaginary beings in poetic landscapes. Saraf achieves this visual complexity through various techniques, which include the use of the wasli board, watercolours prepared from natural and mineral pigments, dyeing, embroidery, block-printing, etc. Much earlier in her artistic career, Saraf had developed the technique of layering different kinds of paper on canvas, plain cotton cloth, and printed fabric to create a surface for painting. Her interest in natural pigments, both mineral and synthetic, which she mostly prepares on her own, allows her to expand the palette. Saraf’s painstakingly detailed images on rice paper, a surface she has been using since 2001, conceal a realm of conflict inside dense forests and architectural spaces; they are imbued with the spirit of historical enquiry. These surfaces are richly illustrated with detailed patterns in which the narrative plays out, or rather unfolds. They compel us to look closely at the peaceful surface realities to experience the violence of our times. They are an elegy to that which mostly remains inaccessible or ignored.
The idea of history and cultural memory are recurrent themes in her works. Saraf’s mournful retelling of historical events acts as socio-historical documents in the wake of the exponential rise of cultural nationalism. She resurrects an insurgent metaphor through these works and reiterates the role of art against the tide of political tyranny. In her recent painting, The cries, too, fall like rain in summer (2016), executed on a grand scale, Saraf assembles more than a thousand drawings from archival images on the backdrop of a complicated labyrinth, to chart the history of modern India. Citizen Z, an ongoing series of drawings is an evocative tribute to the extraordinary struggles that people face every day. Her other significant works are- What lurks here?, Aasman se gira khajoor me atka, The chair in the cloud, Each day you drown a little, etc.
Saraf has participated in various exhibitions in India and abroad. These include group shows such as Dwelling curated by Ranjit Hoskote (2016), Excavation/Eruption curated by Yashodhara Dalmia (2015), Touched by Bhupen at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai (2013), and Phantoms of Asia at Asian Art Museum, San Fransisco, USA (2012). She has held two solo shows titled The Chair in the Cloud at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai (2010) and Tales of Our Times at Kashi Art Gallery, Kochi (2008). Saraf has been the recipient of many prestigious grants and fellowships including the Summer Research Fellowship at Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles; Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Fellowship, Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge, NTICVA Fellowship in the UK, and Visiting Fellowship from the Max-Planck Institute, Florence. She holds an MPhil in Art History from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU and an MFA in Painting from the Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communications, University of Hyderabad. Saraf has recently submitted her PhD thesis titled- Souvenirs, Fakes and Heritage: The Making of the “Indian Miniature”.
PhD (Visual Studies), School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 2018
MPhil (Visual Studies), School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 2009
MFA (Painting), SN School, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, 2006
BFA (Painting), JNTU, College of Fine Arts, Hyderabad, 2004
Shri. S. L. Parasher Gold Medal, University of Hyderabad, 2006.
Kashi Award for Visual Arts (KAVA2), 2006.
Grants and Fellowships:
The Amol Vadehra Art Grant, Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art, New Delhi, 2016-2017.
Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Fellowship, Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, 2012.
Summer Research Academy, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2012.
UK Visiting Fellowship, Nehru Trust for the Indian Collection at Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010-2011.
Senior Research Fellowship, University Grants Commission, New Delhi, 2009-2012.
Visiting Fellowship, Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florence, 2008.
Junior Research Fellowship, University Grants Commission, New Delhi, 2007-2009.
The Chair in the Cloud, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, 2010.
Tales of Our Times, Kashi Art Gallery, 2008.
Selected Group Shows:
On/Site, A collaborative project between four galleries at Bikaner House, presented by Chemould Prescott Road, New Delhi, 2021
Sangam/Confluence, Heidelberger Kunstverein, Heidelberg, 2020
In-Touch, Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2020
Modus Operandi II, In-situ: An Artists’ Studio, Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2019.
Outside/In: An Exhibition of Portraits, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2019
Critical Constellations: An Exhibition Featuring FICA Grantees, Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, 2019
India Art Fair, presented by Chemould Prescott Road, New Delhi, 2019
Days Without a Night: An Exhibition on Memory and Forgetting curated by Kanika Kuthiala and Leonhard Emmerling, Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, 2018
Sculpture Park Project curated by Shreyas Karle & Hemali Bhuta, Madhavedra Palace, Nahargarh Fort, Jaipur, 2018
Luminously Between Eternities – The Contemporary Miniature as Evolution curated by Waswo X Waswo, Gallery Ark, Vadodara, 2018
Modus Operandi, Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2018.
Art Basel|Basel, presented by Chemould Prescott Road, Basel, 2018.
Art Basel|Hong Kong, presented by Chemould Prescott Road, Hong Kong, 2018.
Microsubversions Playbook curated by Divakar Venkataraman and Avni Sethi, Conflictorium- Museum of Conflict, Ahmedabad, 2018.
A Preview to Desolation curated by Premjish Achari, Italian Cultural Centre, New Delhi, 2017.
Here be Dragons and Other Coded Landscapes curated by Meera Menezes, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, 2017.
Things are Vanishing Before Us curated by Premjish Achari, Krishnakriti Festival, Hyderabad, 2017.
Dwelling curated by Ranjit Hoskote, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, 2016.
Excavation/Eruption curated by Yashodhara Dalmia, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2015.
Touched by Bhupen, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, 2013.
Phantoms of Asia, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2012.
Art Basel|Hong Kong presented by Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Hong Kong, 2012.
India Art Summit presented by Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, New Delhi, 2012.
5th Anniversary Exhibition, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, 2011.
Fabular Bodies: New Narratives in the Art of the Miniature, Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, 2011.
India Inclusive: Contemporary Art from India curated by Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland, 2011.
Unfaithfully Yours curated by Alex Mathews, Gallery SKE, Bangalore, 2009.
India Art Summit, New Delhi, 2008.
Meandering Membranes: A Contemporary Indian Art Show, Empire Art and Shrine Gallery, Kolkata, 2007.
Soft Spoken curated by Bose Krishnamachari, Bombay Art Gallery, 2007.
Emerging India, Art Alive Gallery and SA Fine Arts, London, 2007.
Generation Next, Art Alive Gallery, New Delhi, 2007.
Reading Paint, Gallery Soulflower, Bangkok, 2007.
KAVA2, Kashi Art Gallery, Kochi, 2006.
Inaugural Show, Kalahita Art Gallery, Hyderabad, 2006.
Telugu University Annual Exhibition, Hyderabad, 2003.
A Walk of Art, Daira Art Gallery, Hyderabad, 2003.
JNTU Annual Exhibition, Hyderabad, 2003.
Conferences, Seminars and Talks:
‘Citizen Z: Art in the Times of Religious Nationalism’, Art & Violence Now, Edinburgh College of Art, The University of Edinburgh, 2018.
‘The Making of the “Miniature Painting” as a National Craft Tradition’, Tradition/ Trans/formation: Craft, Practice and Discourse, Department of Fine Arts, University of Jaffna, 2018.
“Indian Miniatures” in the Market: An Overview of Contemporary Ateliers in Rajasthan, The Practices of Painting in Historical Visual Languages, Department of Fine Arts, Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communications, University of Hyderabad, 2018.
“Indian Miniatures in the Market”, Gallery Espace, New Delhi, 2016.
“This Curio Called “Indian Miniature” ca. 2000”, SSEA Seminar, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 2012.
“The Making of the “Indian Miniature”, SAAG, University of East Anglia and the SADACC Trust, 2012.
“Between a Museum and a Society: Revival of Paintings that Placed “Himachal Pradesh on the Art Map of the World”, Art, Agency, Empire: India in Global Contexts, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 2012.
“This Curio called “Indian Miniature” circa 2000”, ASA12: Arts and Aesthetics in a Globalising World, Jawaharlal Nehru University, 2012.
Presented paper at the seminar Exploring the Margins, History Association, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 2009.
Participated and presented a paper at the Graduate Student Summer Seminar, Visual Cultures of British India, at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 2009.
Presented paper at the seminar Visual Culture: Re-Imagining the Image, Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad, 2009.
“A Market for Fakes: “Miniature” Painting in Rajasthan, 1960–2000”, in Latika Gupta and Naman P. Ahuja eds., Art: Faked | Stolen | Censored, (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2018).
“Indian Miniatures in the Market”, Senzacornice, rivista online di arte contemporanea e critica, Firenze, 2013.
Review of Malavika Karlekar’s Visual Histories: Photography in the Popular Imagination, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013) in South Asian History and Culture.