Varunika Saraf is an artist and art historian based in Hyderabad. In her large-scale paintings, Saraf draws upon a multitude of archival sources from (art history, newspapers, popular culture, etc.) to engage in a conceptual dialogue with the past and critically analyse the antecedents of a range of contemporary political and social issues, particularly the exponential rise of violence. Central to her practice since 2001 is the use of wasli, a surface created by the Mughal technique of binding together layers of paper. Saraf modifies the original scale and form of this technique and adapts it to her unique artistic requirements. On to this surface, she casts a rich deposit of colour, each layer painstakingly built-up by different washes of watercolours ground from natural and synthetic pigments by Saraf herself. Her visually rich surfaces are further enhanced by the use of dyeing, appliqueing, collage, embroidery, and block-printing

Saraf’s works seek to bare the uncomfortable reality of violence in our times. Her works are imbued with the spirit of historical enquiry into contemporary situations and sometimes serve an elegiac function. She interrogates the contemporary world through the perspective of the marginalized. Taking a cue from Eduardo Galeano, who implores us to “search for the keys in the past history to explain our time”, Saraf attempts to chart the fissures and fault-lines that structure our society. Much of her practice seeks to map our collective past and memory, highlighting lesser-known events that can shed light on the present.

In her more recent works, she engages with “apocalyptic manuscripts” particularly the Augsburg Wunderzeichenbuch or the Book of Miraculous Signs.  She uses the medieval imagery of interpretations and revelations, to develop a language that allows us to prophesise, process phenomena, fear as well as political and social upheavals.  Drawing inspiration from Griselda Pollock’s seminal work on memory that “agitates the present to warn us of the continuing threat, not only of genocide but of the experimental elaboration of a system of total domination and systemic dehumanization” (Griselda Pollock & Max Silverman, Concentrationary Imaginaries, 2015) Saraf uses the iconography of miraculous and apocalyptic visions to engage with the growing phenomenon of violence that is bringing us to the brink of near-totalitarian terror.

Saraf holds a PhD in Visual Studies from the School of Art and Aesthetics, JNU. Her thesis, Souvenirs, Fakes and Heritage: The Making of ‘Indian Miniature’ (2017) examines pertinent questions about the historiography of paintings that are normatively labelled as “Indian miniatures” in the discipline of Art History, contemporary practitioners and circulation of paintings as souvenirs and fakes. In 2009 she completed her MPhil at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. She holds an MFA(Painting) from the Sarojini Naidu School of Fine Arts and Communications, University of Hyderabad and a BFA(Painting) from JNTU College of Fine Arts and Architecture, Hyderabad. Saraf has been the recipient of prestigious grants and fellowships such as the Amol Vadehra Art Grant (2016). In 2012 she was invited to participate in Encounters, Summer Research Academy at The Getty Institute in Los Angeles. She was also awarded Visiting Fellowship from the Max-Planck Institute, Florence (2008), The UK Visiting Fellowship, Nehru Trust for the Indian Collections, V&A Museum in London (2010-2011) and in 2012 she was the CWIT Visiting Fellow at the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge. Her research interests include– the history of Indian court painting, art and colonialism, the historiography of “miniature painting”, the dichotomy between arts and crafts, the social history of painting, art and violence, religious nationalism and its cultural manifestations. She is also the recipient of the Asia Society Game Changer Award (2023).

She has held three solo shows, Caput Mortuum at Chemould Prescott Road (2021), The Chair in the Cloud at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai (2010) and Tales of Our Times at Kashi Art Gallery, Kochi (2008). In 2023 she was invited to participate in the Sharjah Biennale Thinking Historically in the Present curated by Hoor Al Qassimi.  Saraf has participated in various group shows in India and abroad, some of these include Poetics of the Real and the Imagined (2023) curated by Latika Gupta, British Council, New Delhi, Confluence/Sangam (2020), Heidelberg Kunstverein, Critical Constellation: An Exhibition Featuring FICA Grantees (2019), IGNCA, New Delhi,  Days Without a Night: An Exhibition on Memory and Forgetting (2018) curated by Kanika Kuthiala and Leonhard Emmerling, Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, Microsubversions Playbook (2018) curated by Avni Sethi and Venkataraman Divakar, Conflictorium – Museum of Conflict, Ahmedabad, The Edge (2018) and Excavation/Eruption (2015) curated by Yashodhara Dalmia, Shrine Empire and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, Here Be the Dragons (2017) curated by Meera Menezes, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, Dwelling (2016)and Touched by Bhupen (2013) curated by Ranjit Hoskote, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past  (2012)curated by Mami Kataoka and Allison Harding, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, India Inclusive: Contemporary Art from India (2011) curated by Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, Davos, Fabular Bodies:New Narratives in the Art of the Miniature (2011), Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, Unfaithfully Yours (2009)curated by Alex Mathews, Gallery SKE, Bangalore, Meandering Membranes: A Contemporary Indian Art Show (2007), Empire Art and Shrine Gallery, Kolkata, Emerging India (2007), Art Alive Gallery and SA Fine Arts, London, KAVA2 (2006), Kashi Art Gallery, Kochi. Her work is regularly presented at Art Basel (Basel and Hong Kong), Art Dubai and India Art Fair. Saraf is represented by Chemould Prescott Gallery, Mumbai.

 

Education:

PhD (Visual Studies), School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, 2017

MPhil (Visual Studies), School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, 2008

MFA (Painting), SN School, University of Hyderabad, 2006

BFA (Painting), JNTU College of Fine Arts, Hyderabad, 2004

 

Grants and Fellowships:

The Amol Vadehra Art Grant, Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art, New Delhi, 2016

Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Fellowship, Centre for 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

Senior Research Fellowship, University Grants Commission, New Delhi, 2010–2012

Visiting Fellowship, Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florence, 2008

Junior Research Fellowship, University Grants Commission, New Delhi, 2007–2010

University of Hyderabad Scholarship, 2004–2006

 

Awards:

Asia Society Gamechanger Award (Asia Arts Future Award), 2023

Honourable mention from the Sharjah Biennial Prize jury for the series ‘We, The People’ exhibited at the  Sharjah Biennale 15 Thinking Historically in the Present, 2023

Kashi Award for Visual Arts (KAVA2), 2006

Shri. SL Parasher Gold Medal, University of Hyderabad, 2006

 

Solo Shows:

Caput Mortuum, Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2021

The Chair in the Cloud, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, 2010

Tales of Our Times, Kashi Art Gallery, Kochi, 2008

 

Selected Group Shows:

Asia Pacific Triennial 11 (forthcoming)

35th Safdar Hashmi Memorial  Exhibition in solidarity with Palestine, SAHMAT, New Delhi, 2024

60 Years CheMoulding: Framing Future Archives curated by Shaleen Wadhwana, Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2023

Art Dubai, presented by Chemould Prescott Road, Dubai, 2023

Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present curated by Hoor Al Qassimi, Sharjah, 2023

Poetics of the Real and the Imagined curated by Latika Gupta as a part of ‘India/UK Together Season of Culture’, in partnership with Charles Wallace India Trust, British Council, New Delhi, 2023

Modus Operandi III, Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2022

Infinite Reminders curated by Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi, Nature Morte, New Delhi, 2022

Art Basel|Basel, presented by Chemould Prescott Road, Basel, 2022

India Art Fair, presented by Chemould Prescott Road, New Delhi, 2022

On/Site, A collaborative project between galleries at Bikaner House, presented by Chemould Prescott Road, 2021

Confluence/Sangam, Heidelberg Kunstverein, Heidelberg, 2020

In Touch, presented by Chemould Prescott Road, 2020

Art Basel/Hong Kong, presented by Chemould Prescott Road, Hong Kong, 2020

Memories of Change, curated by Jean Thomas Martelli, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, 2019

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

AD Design Show, presented by Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2019

Critical Constellations: An Exhibition Featuring FICA Grantees, Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 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, Madhavendra Palace, Naharghar Fort, Jaipur, 2018

Luminously Between Eternities: The Contemporary Miniature as Evolution curated by Waswo X. Waswo, Gallery Ark, Vadodara, 2018

The Edge  curated by Yashodhara Dalmia, Shrine Empire, New Delhi, 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 Avni Sethi and Venkataraman Divakar, Conflictorium – Museum of Conflict, Ahmedabad, 2018

Here be Dragons and Other Coded Landscapes curated by Meera Menezes, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, 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, curated by Ranjit Hoskote, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, 2013

Phantoms of Asia, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2012

Art Hong Kong, presented by Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Hong Kong, 2012

India Art Fair, 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:

‘Caput Mortuum’, Jnanapravaha, Mumbai, 2024

‘Mughal painting and its influence on contemporary art practices’ as part of Introduction to Watercolours: Spotlight Session, V & A Academy, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2024

Intergenerational conversation with Kavita Deuskar, Shanthi Swaroopini and Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi, Dhi Art Space, Hyderabad, 2023

“‘We, The People’: Dyeing and Thinking with Cochineal” as part of Rooted and Mobile: The World of Natural Dyes, course led by Heeryoon Shin, Beka Goedde, Thena Tak and Simeen Sattar, Bard, 2023

Art & Resistance: Through a Feminist Looking Glass, panel discussion with Farah Bashir, Leesa Gazi, Ruby Chisti, Anomaa Rajakaruna moderated by Pragya Tiwari, Asia Society India, 2023

‘Mughal Painting and its Influence’ as part of Introduction to Watercolours: Spotlight Session, V & A Academy, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2023

‘Citizen Gallery: Speaking Truth to Power’, in conversation with Jerry Pinto and Shireen Gandhy as part of the series Align and Disrupt curated by Shaleen Wadhwana, India Art Fair, New Delhi, 2023

New Practices, Episode 1, A series of conversations engaging with  a fresh perspective in art. KNMA Museum, New Delhi, 2022

Stalking Art, in conversation with Kabir Jhala, Chemould Prescott Road, 2021

‘Rajasthani Miniature Painting: Tradition and Continuity’, in conversation with Mamta Singhania, R. Viyay and Dr Preeti Bahadur, Sahapedia, 2020

What Lies Beneath, Eka’s Virtual Sharing Session, in conversation with Deepshikha Kalsi, Sonika Soni and Deepthi Sasidharan, EKA, 2020

‘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 “Indian Miniatures”’, 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 Globalizing World, JNU, 2012

Presented paper at the seminar: Exploring the Margins, History Association, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 2009

Participated in the Graduate Student Summer Seminar, Visual Cultures of British India, at the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, 2009 Presented paper at the seminar: Visual Culture: Re-Imagining the Image, Sarojini Naidu School of Performing Arts, Fine Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad, 2009

Articles and Other Publications:

Caput Mortuum, Chemould Prescott Road (forthcoming)

“An infernal realm our making”, Şerābi Zine, Fall 2023

“A Critical Appraisal of Company School of Art: Some Key Questions and Concerns” (Kolkata: Virasat Art Publications, 2022)

Chihna: Annual Art Journal, Gauhati Artists Guild, Vol.XXXX, 2021

“The Making of ‘Miniature Painting’ as a National Craft Heritage” in Ayesha Abdur-Rahman and Thamotharampillai Sanathanan eds. Tradition/ Trans/formation: Craft, Practice and Discourse (Jaffna: University of Jaffna, 2019)

‘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, (Oxford University Press: New Delhi India, 2013) in South Asian History and Culture, 5:3, 2014

“Aasman se girl khajoor main atka”, A Walk in the Forest, Lovely Daze, Issue 9, 2013

 

Academic Committee:

Member of the three-member committee set up to formulate the Art History curriculum for the MFA program at the Shiv Nadar University, 2014