Artist brings the variety of India’s cultures to Utah exhibit

Artist Durga Ekambaram, born in India, talks of ‘rediscovering herself’ in Utah.

For multimedia artist Durga Ekambaram, coming to Utah meant “rediscovering herself.”

“When I moved to Utah, I was craving to do something more in life,” said Ekambaram, who has bounced between the United States and her native India with her family for the last couple of decades — living for the last five years in Utah.

The spark that ignited her artistic drive was attending a chalk art festival in South Jordan in 2019. The festival reminded her of an art form she did back home in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India: kolam art, a decorative art form that uses geometric designs.

“It’s a pattern done outside every house in the mornings,” Ekambaram said, noting that she learned the techniques from her mother, a professional artist who still lives in India. “I would go out in the mornings, take rice flour and make a small design. After a few hours, you will see birds and insects feeding on that rice flour, so the concept behind it is to start your day with charity.”

She started drawing with chalk at that South Jordan festival, and discovered it wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be. “Chalk is not like paint,” she said. “You cannot get those fine aspects because the sidewalk is really rough.”

Still, she picked up the techniques as she went that day, and earned a second-place prize out of the 40 or 50 people who participated.

In the three years since then, Ekambaram has branched out into watercolor, clay, acrylic paint, oil paint and reverse glass. All these can be seen in the 19 works in her exhibition, “Enchanting India,” on display now through July 20 at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, 1355 W. 3100 South, West Valley City.

Ekambaram’s work also utilizes several Indian art techniques: Madhubani-style art, a type of folk art that uses line drawings, bright colors and contrasting patterns; Kalamkari, which is hand-painted or block-printed cotton textile; and Lippan art, a type of mural-making that uses a combination of local materials, such as mirrors, clay and camel dung.

One piece, “Prismatic Feathers,” depicts a peacock — the national bird of India — using an Indian paper art technique. “It’s very intricate and challenging, but the final product gives you so much of your own happiness,” she said.

The exhibit pays homage to the culture and history of India in a holistic way — “It’s a vast nation, north, west, south and east,” she said. “There’s so much culture and art to learn from, but somehow people tie India to spices and the Taj Mahal and all those things.”

Not that Ekambaram thinks there’s anything wrong with those well-known symbols of India. Indeed, she shows peacocks and elephants in her work, as well as the most recognizable Hindu deity, Ganesha. And there’s no shortage of the bright colors usually associated with India.

Ekambaram said she strives to highlight the culture of southern India, which is often overlooked in Western pop culture.

She also has a personal connection to each of her works. One small sculpture depicted a Bharatnatayam dancer, performing a traditional dance form she started learning at age 7. Another piece shows a veena, a stringed musical instrument that she played for eight years. And she made a pointillist portrait of the Tamil poet and activist Subramania Bharathiyar, whose work she studied in school.

Michael Christensen, the UCCC’s visual arts manager, said having Ekambaram’s exhibit on display in West Valley City is “representative of the residents” of Utah’s second largest city. In 2018, the city was dubbed the first “minority majority” city in the state.

“What we do in a lot of ways is trick people into having an arts experience when you’re here for something else,” he said. “Because it’s a cultural center, it’s a place you want to have fun.”

Ekambaram said she hopes when people observe her work, it makes them instantly happy, “just with the vibrancy and color use.” She’s learned not to grow too attached to any one work of hers, and if it sells, she donates the commission to charity.

“Art has been with me ever since I have known [anything],” she said, recalling her childhood home, where her mother’s brushes were everywhere. “I never realized that it can be something so rewarding and something that you can be really proud about, just as any other profession.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.