Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Forbidden Truths of Nidhivan: Shine Shivan’s New Works

  (Work by Shine Shivan)

Reverence could be a way to irreverence and vice versa. Deep seated devotion and observation could lead to a sense of critical viewing of the given and also scant respect for something in the long run could change into blind devotion. But there is something in between, a transient zone where playfulness takes over and erases both reverence and irreverence. Then it becomes pure play, a sort of innocent play, a skillful re-enactment of the known and unknown alike without considering the consequences. In transience happens the flashes of innocence pregnant with the possibilities of subversion of the dominant narratives, which only trained eyes could catch.

Wide eyed Krishna figures multiplies in the matrix of common mythology when Shine Shivan, the artist who masquerades himself in curious guises, breezes through the historically and culturally marked out locations where mythology indistinguishably manifests in the daily rituals of the common people. Nidhivan, the forest of Tulsi in Vrindavan, famed to be the place of Krishna’s eternal erotic dances with innumerable consorts becomes Shine Shivan’s point of departure for the body of works comes under the common title, Nidhivan.

When the devotee becomes one with the object of devotion both of them assume the same bhava, nature, expression and trait, and this oneness is a trope that the artist has used in building up a set of narratives that is culturally shared and has become the collective unconscious of the people. Krishna and the characters around him therefore assume the stylized facial expression of the artist or the artist adopts the generic facial traits of Krishna as depicted in various traditional art forms including Nathdwara paintings and Indian miniatures. The cumulative aesthetical outcome in making these Krishna figures is an unforgettable ensemble of self portraits involved in a homo-erotic or narcissistic game.

The works in Nidhivan, for those people who hover around the surficial aesthetical appeal may not look subversive and critical of anything. However, the mild game of subversion shows up when the works are seen against heterosexual and permissible dalliance hailed in the popular mythological and devotional narratives. The emergence of this surreptitious critique is totally depended on the critical views that one can afford regarding the allowance of homo erotic interpretations within the dominant cultural fabric. In a crude political scenario where populist religious monoliths suppresses all the possible lateral readings and understanding, the artistic interventions become tricky and dangerous.

Resorting to allegorical presentations of the popular stories or retelling of the mythologies in an absolutely non-provocative manner could provide a safe interface for subversive narratives. In his works Shine Shivan makes these cute and endearing images as operative tools so that the viewers fall into the set trap of the familiar and the strange allurement of the presentation to the point of buying them even for worshipping. Its from this point of identification of the devotee with Shine Shivan’s works that the flap doors of subversion get activated, may be through an interpretative literature like this one.

Why do Krishna, his consorts, friends and other male and female characters resemble one another? Why do they keep the same facial expression? These questions should find echoes in the very act of looking and seeing. But they remain unasked because Shine Shivan through his painterly and graphic skills keeps the images closer to the traditional renditions of such figures. Their beauty and erotic drive are not compromised and there is always a constant reminder that they are true to the traditional narratives. Even the colors that the artist has deliberately chosen, reds, different shades of saffron and brown, black and blue, are all seen in the textual detailing of Krishna and his consorts  in the popular literature. Even the flora and fauna are depicted the way they should be.

The authenticity of these renderings is further accentuated when one sees the statement that explains how the artist had stayed in the Nidhivan region and studied the local presentations of the Krishna Katha. This adherence to the source adds to the allurement of the trapdoor, of tradition and convention. Each story of Krishna’s games from the local lore is chosen to give his paintings the desired authenticity. The artistic cleverness, however conveys the visual intentions when he sheds the textual baggage one by one and brings the protagonists to a pair in embrace. The multiplicity of the heterosexual orgy becomes a homoerotic intimacy, love and care for each other that subverts the normative and affirms the critique in the subtextual level.

The choice of Kaliya Daman and Govardhanodharan, two popular stories related to Krishna from the Nidhivan region is important in Shine Shivan’s works. They are two strong metaphors for homo erotic arousal and its ultimate relieving after a prolonged play. Krishna lifts the lofty hill on the tip of his small finger. And Kaliya is a vicious serpent that needs enough thrashing so that it could eject Halahal, the strongest poison. In both the cases Krishna does the act of lifting and thrashing; perhaps an extremely suggestive presentation of not only homoeroticism but also autoeroticism.

There is no direct provocation but a poetic nudge so that the dreamy viewers who have fallen for the mischievousness of Krishna could be shaken out of the mythology to face something crucial to the current socio-cultural discourse regarding gender relationships in the country. Shine Shivan does not go in the line of Bhupen Khakkar or Balbir Kishan. Direct touch of Bhupen and the agonized entanglement of Balbir using male bodies as the trope is not used in Shine Shivan’s works. Like the veils over the deities before they are revealed for actual worship, tradition and convention cover Krishnas’ bodies in Shine Shivan’s works. Critical eyes are needed to pull the veil of this tradition down and see the artist’s interpretations. Allegory and retelling work quite effectively in Nidhivan. It becomes more meaningful when we come to know that Nidhivan is a place in Vrindavan where the people still believe that the erotic of plays of Krishna still take place therefore people are forbidden to go there at night!








Sunday, January 15, 2023

Probing the Definitional Biases: Latheesh Lakshman’s New Works


(Latheesh Lakshman, artist)

Great visual communicators are masters of minimalism. For them silence is eloquence. Music makes use of silence but for visual arts silence is constituted by lines and colors. Like the movie makers create palpable inky darkness with a streak of light penetrating from nowhere into the space, visual artists use lines and colors minimally to convey ideas. The graphic quality of this minimalism is suitable to the artists who have worked in advertisement where painterly lavishness and madness are reined in by parsimony and method. Latheesh Lakshman, a Kochi based artist has all these qualities, including his solid experience in advertising.

Art cannot perpetuate itself in time without compelling stories built around it. Seeing is experiential but also it is physical and carnal, together they make a yarn; a story woven around experience and an experience felt around the physicality of seeing and viewing. Narrativizing the experience is not just restricted to the narrative paintings or deep spiritual abstract art. Minimal and graphical art also tend and tempt to tell stories. Latheesh Lakshman is aware of this and one of his latest works is about the possible narratives around a work of art.

(Name me and Make my Story by Latheesh Lakshman)

Visual art, when it is two dimensional and without joysticks, mouses or touchscreens to play with, remains static and allows only ocular forays into its space which necessitates story telling an integral part of its understanding. Latheesh Lakshman says that the very act of looking at his work of art would make it interactive because the moment one looks at the work titled ‘Name Me Make My Story’ a story starts taking shape in the mind. A visual puzzle, the visual image asks for a definition, an appellation and according to the artist, the definition and the following story around it are not a beginning but an end in itself.

Naming is a need for categorization and claiming control over the named. Most of the names in the world are given than self-generated. A name is always attached to a bias. It stands vis-à-vis a historical continuity and carries the burdens that it has accrued along. Opposed to fluidity, the idea of naming marks territories and character traits. Though there is an authorial demand on the viewer regarding the naming of the image, it evokes the subjective understanding of the traits that one tends to perceive in the manifested image before him.

(Aara, Evidunnaa, Engottaa by Latheesh Lakshman)

In fact, Latheesh Lakshman’s image is composite and fluid, cancelling the specificities and emphasizing its kaleidoscopic complexities. But the viewers, goaded by the command/demand enter the narrativizing space and come up with definitive stereotypes, limiting the possibilities of their expansion and containing them within the subjective predictabilities. Perhaps, it is a critique of human narratives that aims at expanding the existential scope but falls into the making of palatable narratives. Also, the critique is directed at the idea of advertising that despite its fluid and unconventional narratives how it contains the narrative within the boundaries of the conventional.

In Latheesh Lakshman’s work there is also a relational field of subjectivities where one acts as the author of the story and the other the subject of it. The faces that come forth in each looking make the viewer an author who is authorized by the self to generate a narrative around the other and hold him within the limits of containment zone. The authorial position of the viewer always gives him this fancy feeling of giving the other full freedom in his narrative but intrinsic censorial acts stop all the possible freedoms the other could take. That’s why the artist says that the narrativizing is not about a beginning but about ending it.

(Aara? Who are You?)

Another interesting set of works by Latheesh Lakshman also probes the relational field of subjectivities in the given territorial limits. There are these curious questions, who are you, where are you coming from and where are you going, always originate in a person or a social group or territorial beings when they come across the others who are deemed to be newcomers or intruders. Strangeness of the other is not defined by his or her strange features but there is something that cuts beyond the familiar human features that give birth to those questions. Seen as ways of befriending and mitigating the fear for the other these questions at once place the other in an ambivalent space, making him not only define himself but also defend his right to be there. Hence, the attempts to befriend create a sense of rivalry that makes even the future relationship with them tendentious.

(Evidunnaa? Where are you from?)

These questions in Latheesh Lakshman’s works take the shape of the other, a cartoonish vision of the other in the eyes of the questioner and also it becomes a mirror reflection of the other in question, together making a sense of absurdity. The inability of these questions to exceed their physicality appears to be comical when we compare similar questions philosophically raised within the field of visual arts. The lines that make the figures in them become the calligraphic representations of the questions in the artist’s mother tongue Malayalam, aaraa (who are you), evidunnaa (where are you from) and engottaa (where are you going).

This comic effect becomes intense when seen against the mural sized painting by Paul Gauguin titled ‘Where do we come from? Who we are? Where are we going?’ Gauguin did this painting in 1897 when he was going through severe depression and personal losses. He was even contemplating suicide. In such a situation one could probe into the very meaning of human existence. One could wonder at this phenomenon called life. The questions raised by Gauguin are not territorial and xenophobic but ridden with the mysteries of life.

(Engottaa? Where are you Going?)

Latheesh Lakshman tells us how we have become lesser beings in our lesser pursuits and how we have become just territorial animals living in constant fear of the other. His lines run against the flat and flashy colors like a line of ink wandering along a field of poppies and tulips. These are the questions held by the artist against each one of the onlookers for telling one or two hard facts about them.











Monday, March 14, 2022

A Factory without Alienation: Waswo’s Karkhana: A Rajasthan Studio


(Waswo with his Karkhana People)

In ‘Karkhana: A Studio in Rajasthan’, the latest book by artist Waswo x Waswo one could see/feel the spirit of a Ruskin Bond narrative. Bond loves his Mussoorie and Waswo loves his Udaipur. Bond had made India his home in 1960s itself; a sojourn in London was suffocating for him. Waswo spent his youthful days in Milwaukee and hit the road when the rural borders were closing in on his mind. Interestingly, in India he had his first professional exhibition at the Kashi Art Gallery, Fort Kochi in 2002. He fondly remembers late Anoop Skaria and Dorrie Younger who had recognized his ‘genre-less’ works, when the Indian art market was undergoing the labor pain. Since then Waswo never had to look back. Though the artistic journey was partly on bumpy roads he has finally settled down in Udaipur, Rajasthan, which he could easily claim as his home now.

(Karghana Book Cover)

Waswo works with a team of local artists and the book tells their story. Seen through the eyes of the narrator these local artists come across as legendry characters from the yellowing annals of a local gazette. The word Karkhana literally translates as a factory and the word factory brings in the mind a picture of assembly line works. This is where Marx had found alienation as the splitting factor that separated the worker from the product. In that sense, Karkhana has a different meaning altogether, perhaps a contrary one. Karkhana is an atelier led by a master artist where skillful assistants work on parts but still have an idea about the final outcome. Assistants could earn their own status either by choosing an independent course or by finding a patron and initiating a different karhana. Traditionally, artists/assistants in a Karkhana do not part ways with the master/s not only because the patronage was far and wide but also because their existence was based more on trust and style.


(Work by Waswo and his Karkhana)

Trust is something that cannot be fixed always in a signed bond. A written document may be legally binding for the parties but the unwritten trust between people who operate within a society is more reliable. Waswo was and is lucky to find a few artists in due course of time as he settled in Udaipur. He was in the right place at the right time and had the right attitude to make friends with the local artists and artisans. The growth was mutual as the local artists could extricate themselves from the demands of the tourist bazaar for making cheap and mechanical and lifeless reproductions of the stock images that defined ‘Rajasthan’ as a place and culture frozen in time, and in the meanwhile Waswo could negotiate with the problematic position/ing of his own artistic self as a ‘white westerner’ both in his mundane and creative existence. He started off as an ‘Evil Orientalist’ only to shed the honorific soon to become a benevolent collaborator and director of many selves in the creative process.

(Waswo and team)


The book tells the story of the collaborators; Rakesh aka R.Vijay, the miniature artist, Rajesh Soni, the hand colorist on black and white photographs, Shankar and Chirag Kumawat, the father-son duo who paint intricate borders on wasli papers, Dalpat and Banti Jingar brothers, who could paint backdrops and could faithfully reproduce exquisitely painted palace interiors in many frames without fault, Ganpat Mali and Jay Prakash who are multi-purpose studio hands who add a lot of value to the Karkhana process created by Waswo. There are many other side characters who come and go , and even at times pose for the photographs that eventually become full-fledged works of art as they pass through the hands of the above mentioned artists under the watchful direction of the mastermind, Waswo himself.


(Work by Waswo made by Karkhana)

Though the book is titled as Karkhana, the structure is that of a journey, sometimes on an Enfield Bullet and other times in a multi-utility van, driven by Ganpat Mali and Waswo on the pillion. The time is spread over a few years but the narrative is arranged in such a way that the reader feels that the whole thing happened on a hectic day; from early morning to night. The narrative unfolds in a reverse order. We see the border makers first and then the backdrop painters who make the broader decorative strokes in the works of Waswo. Then we go to the master artist, R.Vijay who, faithful to the miniature tradition of Rajasthan, recreates it for a modern aesthetic purpose with a sense of irony and a lot of personal touch. Today, R.Vijay is Waswo or vice versa. Each time, with the riders we too get down from the motorbike and walk into the artists’ homes or work places and what come alive are the little precious gems of their biographies.

 (Waswo and R.Vijay)

Waswo has written this book during the lockdown days. Udaipur streets are no longer abuzz with touristic activities. But the local life goes on. And in Waswo’s narrative one could feel the heat, dust and loneliness of the pandemic hit streets. However, the jovial nature of the collaborators is never gone as Waswo keeps their pay roll on with bonuses. R.Vijay underplays the hardships of the times by painting an abandoned surgical mask and a bisleri bottle, the iconographic details of the fedora man, the former evil orientalist. The book ends up in a party at the Varda studio and the night followed by that. In a way that chapter is a stock taking shot in a movie where the cast and crew gather for a party, a movie within a movie, a narrative within the narrative with the characters becoming living men and a few women in long shot or in fade out.

(Waswo x Waswo) 

Karkhana is a collective biography or rather a collective autobiography written by one person. Their lives are now intricately mixed up and positively the symbiotic relationship is not collapsed by surreptitious offers or breach of trusts. May be because Waswo remains the master mind and the glue that holds all together; without them, may be they are just border painters, backdrop makers, miniature artists and photo colorists. I do think that even mentioning such a dissection of roles is rude. The book, beyond its literature part also functions as a documentation of the works that they have so far collaborated, especially during the last few years including the pandemic ones. But without the literature, it is just another book of Waswo’s works. In creating that literature, Waswo has generated a post-colonial and truly global documentation on decentralized collaboration (not of the sweatshop version of the corporate like works of art) of artists where each one is acknowledged without fudge. One cannot complain about alienation here anymore. A must read for the art lovers.





Monday, February 28, 2022

Cosmic Battles Waged in Aesthetic Orbits: Latest Exhibition of Subodh Gupta


(Subodh Gupta)

Down here among the mortals a fierce war is being fought. World has not yet decided which side to take; that of Russia or of Ukraine. But everyone knows they have to ultimately take a side; and yes, they have more or less zeroed in on the side of their choice- that of humanity. Forget the geopolitics, they say. Whatever be the case we want the human beings, and that too the vulnerable of the lot, be safe and beyond the brutal pain that the wars are famous for inflicting upon the fleeing. From the safety of elsewhere warfare, unlike in the yesteryears no longer is exciting like the pyrotechnics that used to light up the huge flat-screen television sets. The title ‘Cosmic Battle’ of Subodh Gupta’s latest solo exhibition at the Nature Morte, New Delhi sounds like an eerie coincidence though the artist has been at it for the last one decade or so. I mean, bringing the pain of battles and displacements in his enormous and impressive installations.


(Cosmic Battle by Subodh Gupta)

‘Cosmic Battle’, the installation that provides the catchy title to the show is an apt reification for the saying like ‘suspended animation’. The phrase suggests the contrary meaning though it has the ability to show something in suspension and also in animation at once, even if the intention is to underline the frozenness of the situation. The stalemate of a confrontation may be a distant possibility when it comes to cosmic affairs, unlike the universal/global affairs like war. The suspension from the ‘dark nowhere’ is how the cosmos is described, sometimes in the form of a golden egg/Hiranyagarbha or in the form of a ghata/pot. Noted art historian B.N.Goswami writes in his essay titled ‘Engaging with Vastness’, “Hiranyagarbha is spoken of as being ‘present at the beginning’, ‘upholding this earth and heaven’, ‘whose commands all beings, even the gods, obey’, ‘whose shadow is immortality, whose (shadow also) is death’.” May be, for the ones who have keen eyes could see in Gupta’s ‘Cosmic Battle’ the definitional specificities given by Prof.Goswami.


(Cosmic Battle by Subodh Gupta)

The kinetic slowness imparted to the work through a mechanism that emulates the impalpable rotation of the earth itself, adds certain amount of conceptual magnanimity to the moderate size of the sculptural body (in comparison with the sheer size of the earlier indoor works of Gupta) and also invites the viewers for a virtual circumambulation around the object while being stationed at one place of viewing (depending on the entrance to the space where the work is hung). The unheard music (anhad garje, as said by the saint poet Kabir) reminds the visitors of the cosmic music generated by the celestial spheres along their elliptical paths. While the religious philosophy of the land is affirmative about the conception of cosmos as an Earthen Pot or as Golden Egg, the battle that takes place could be attributive, reflecting the contemporary global conflicts that cause the residual humans as refugees and homeless.


(Self Portrait by Subodh Gupta)

Size does matter when artist superstars are back in the gallery circuit. The obvious hugeness of Gupta’s works in many ways resembles the same enormity brought to being in the works of Anish Kapoor. It does not mean that Gupta imitates Kapoor or vice versa. On the contrary they share a common world view at least in the creation of aesthetics, that the object-hood of the works is important, the reflection on their smooth surfaces is an imperative and invariably the reflections should not correspond to the actual thoughts that the art should evoke in the minds of the viewers. There is a physical play between the surface truth of their works and the positioning of the viewers in front of them. Distortions and displacements caused by the imperfect reflections goad the viewers to find the meanings beyond the object-nature of the works. As Althusser puts it, it is not the artist who keeps certain relationship with the objects that he creates but the objects that make a relationship with the artist. Going by this view, the (art) objects remain in the realm of artist’s biography and history so far, establishing constant connections even if artist wants to detach himself from them and leave them as independent objects for aesthetic contemplation.


(Self Portrait Detail by Subodh Gupta)

These inextricable knots that the works of art generate in relation with the artist more or less open up the entry points in Gupta’s two other works exhibited in the same premises. The objects as a whole do not create a coherent continuity with the familiar aesthetics of Gupta. Though the hallmark vessels do establish a Gupta touch in them, the disparity lies in their organization in this work. A note that accompanies the show says that this works in fact look like a crashing down of Gupta’s works in the middle of the gallery and refused to be scavenged out. It could be one of the cruelest of qualifications that any work of art can get from a gallery introduction. Notwithstanding the cruelty of the statement there is a methodical madness in the disembowelment of the virtual pregnancy of Gupta’s vision. The heap thus generated however does not evoke revulsion but demand a mental engagement with the components as if it really were a Gupta jigsaw puzzle. In that mental engagement the continuity is established and the deliberate and accidental quirkiness of Gupta’s sarcastic and ironic takes on the Indian community practices unravel itself. The ‘sleepers’, the wooden planks that held the rails in place come as a visual suggestion or a quotation from the autobiography of the artist, a further claim of authenticity and continuity, perhaps an assertion that Gupta needs any more but too close to his heart to resist.


(Torso by Subodh Gupta)

A myth maker as he is Gupta often tells a story around his works, harking back to the real and imaginary incidents that had colored his childhood. A keen follower of Gupta’s speeches in various exhibition venues all over the world, available in YouTube could see how he twists and turns the same incident into stories suitable to explain his work in question. The articulation is deliberately patchy, moving beyond the logic of imperfect English, a language allows any linguistic community a tricky access to his works and through that he helps his works stand erect like the one you see in his ‘Torso’, a third work in the exhibition. Torso brings art historical torsos, Gomateswara of Sravanabelagola, the mutilated torsos of rampant communal violence and wars near and far, in mind. Also it is a torso in the making or in the process of abandonment. It is emblematic to the ambitions of a maker, someone aspires eternity but fails to deliver. Could it be a surreptitious commentary on the present Indian political leadership that revels in making statues that are finished physically but never achieved their conceptual completion in the intellectual sphere? One cannot be sure. Like Kapoor, Gupta cannot hide his cultural roots in the magnificent nature of sculptures; he has to give a hint of his socio-cultural belongingness. Or is Gupta a prisoner of his own image repertoire?










Saturday, February 12, 2022

Portia in Venice: Intelligent Interventions by Cecilia Alemani in Venice Biennale 2022


 (Cecilia Alemani, Curator, 9th Venice Biennale, pic source:net)

Nearly 200 artists from 58 countries. Mostly ‘women and gender non-confirming’ artists as put by the curatorial director, Cecilia Alemani. That’s the summery of the Venice Biennale’s latest edition slated to open on 23rd April 2022. The 59th edition of the world’s oldest biennale was put on hold due to the global pandemic during the last two years. The marker line that goes between the pre and post pandemic world is not yet clear though almost all the industries have braced themselves up to ‘live with’ the pandemic. Hopefully India’s Kochi Muziris Biennale also would take place towards the end of this year.


Some commentators have already said that the forthcoming edition of the Venice Biennale is based on social issues and why should one travel all the way to Venice to catch up all those politically correct art works when one could do some gallery hopping in any city and see the same. Waswo X Waswo, an American-Indian contemporary artist based in Udaipur, India opines that the ‘art world needs a cleansing and detox’. If I have understood it correctly, Waswo says that the curatorial line of the present edition of the Venice Biennale is too biased and politically inclined. The question seems to be like shouldn’t we go back to the days when art was judged for the sake of artistry and ingenuity?


(Waswo X Waswo, artist. Pic: Source the Hindu)

Modern art, an expressive mode adopted by feverishly intelligent individuals, has never been away from politics. Whenever it did take an apparent detour away from the political path, it surreptitiously upheld the larger political realities for its own existence. The seeming neutrality was a ploy that helped many to veer towards the slippery slopes of the investment market without leaving the claims of art for art’s sake, while the real intention remained as investment for investment’s sake. Art became overtly political in various countries depending on their materialistic realities. There cannot be a linear history for this though larger blankets could be used for making huge political packages on art.


During the last couple of Venice Biennales, though interesting curators were involved and politics had taken an upper hand in the formulation of the works of art, as the market boom was well in place, gallery circuits and museum managements had made tangible and tactical alliances, and above all the auction houses decided the tending styles and concerns, the choices made by these curators were largely determined by the market forces that the liberal socio-political curatorial policies never dared to contest. The result was a set of loose packages created succumbing to the arm twisting methods of the local market forces brokered through the locally sourced sub curators. The works of art created for the events fell line with the trends set by the global conglomerate of art market though in paper all were presented as revolutionary works of art with tall claims as first of its kind in history.


(Surrealist Leonora Carrington, Pic: Wikipedia)

Today Cecilia Alemani calls her curatorial project, ‘The Milk of Dreams’, invoking the life and art of the woman surrealist, Leonora Carrington. The curatorial line is unabashedly political and one wouldn’t see a lot of fancy plumes of male vanity in those exhibition halls in Venice. Instead, there would be many previously unheard of women artists from the mainstream and sub-streams whose engagement with art in many ways foreshadowed the turns that art could take in future. The post-human contentions and claims that the project evokes or even deliberately aims at are exclusive in terms of the avoidance of male interventions on the same but posits women and gender non-confirming artists as the voices of all those who have been excluded from the discursive core during the Anthropocene phase of the globe. The code of invisibility is broken and status quo is challenged in this exhibition, hopefully.


There cannot be an art for art sake anymore. Art is not judged for its formal values alone. May be that is an exclusive concern of the art makers who consider traditional knowledge of making art and also the traditional ways of appreciating art should be left alone to perpetuate itself in the mainstream and all else could happen in the sidelines. Cecilia Alemani seems to turn the tables and makes things inside out to imagine the post human world differently so that she could eventually bring a lot of ‘humanity’ into art discourse, something that has turned inhuman in all sense during the last couple of decades.





Saturday, September 18, 2021

Anpu Varkey Deals with Nostalgia in a Graphic Novel Form


(Anpu Varkey)

If nostalgia has a graphic novel form it is here in Anpu Varkey’s 2019 self-published book titled ‘Summer’s Children.’ Truffaut-esque in nature the protagonists in this graphic novel are a pair of siblings who spend a summer’s day in an extremely ‘meaningful’ fashion. Like a pair of curious puppies they move around their home looking for sensory experiences and ultimate fun. Anpu perhaps transposes her remembered childhood in a sylvan rural scape in Kerala on to these siblings and in a way becomes a witness of their relentless merry making. It could be even a story that she has imagined for her lost childhood.

 (Summer's Children, a Graphic Novel by Anpu Varkey)

Anpu Varkey, an international known street artist who likes to work on the mammoth sized public murals all alone, turning herself into a live brush perching on the moving cranes and hanging from ropes and pulleys, in her graphic novels too prefers to see the world from those high and weird angles. Her style in the graphic novels is different from what she employs while working on the street art pieces. The public art works and their styles are often determined by the spaces available and the structures are inherently intricate on which the artists hardly have any hold. But Anpu Varkey and the artists of her ilk tame these impossible spaces with their sense of images, scale and style.

 (From Summer's Children)

Graphic novels being intimate expressions of an artist who is adept in storytelling demand a different approach mainly because of the human scale as the given surface of expression. There is no need to scale up the images and the distortions demanded by the huge walls and the perspective distances are of a different nature when it comes to the graphic novel. Like a ballerina who is dexterous enough to express both tragedies in grand movements and comedies in lighter flights of the limbs Anpu Varkey too moves her brushes different here in the graphic novel.

(From Summer's Children)


The siblings are like Esther and Rahel, the famous and controversial protagonists in the novel, ‘God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy. In fact like Arundhati, Anpu also shares the same local flavor in the rendering of the story. The siblings are so close to each other that they not only resemble in form but also in gender. Though there are no characteristic highlights that differentiate the siblings in terms of gender, one is tend to feel that the author deliberately makes their genders fluid; a sort of hermaphrodites who could be either male or female. One has a knicker with a pair of suspenders and the other doesn’t have it. Do the suspenders indicate the gender of the boy while the other is left to a fluid zone?

(From Summer's Children)


The question is relevant only when we see the graphic novel as an autobiographical tour of the artist/author herself. Keeping the author out of the narrative (which is almost an impossible task) one could perhaps see them as two boys snooping around their home and neighborhood. The story opens with the smell of a jackfruit. Oh yes, in a graphic novel how does one smell the fragrance of a fruit? Anpu has an answer; she starts off with the extreme close up of something which as we pull out, I mean turn the pages, comes to be seen as a jackfruit. Then it is cut open to show the sugary golden fruits and you do smell and see the golden yellow though these are pictures done in black and white. Though the images around the children are done realistically, the children have a painterly fluidity.

(From Summer's Children) 

Constant form shifters they are like the mischief makers in a Truffaut’s movie, they are seen anywhere and everywhere in the village, emulating the acts of the grown up in an imaginary world while the nature goes on nonchalantly. The children imagine all sorts of pleasures and dangers, yet they are unstoppable. Anpu hardly portrays the grownups in the world of children; there is the presence of a grand old lady at the cocoa tree or the hen’s pen or the man who opens the tender coconut for the children. They are like Apu and Durga in Pather Panchali; the only difference is that they don’t wish to travel into the unknown world. The world of imagination ignited by the lascivious greenery around is more than enough for them.

 (From Summer's Children)

Anpu Varkey is an extremely sensitive artist and an adept storyteller as she winds up the story with the children looking wistfully at the night sky filled with stars and suddenly Anpu replicates the world of wonderful lights in the closer to home realities with the chimney light and the light of the glow worm. Lying next to the mother or grandmother the children listen to two musical renditions; of the kri kri sounds of the crickets hiding the fields, enjoying their nocturnal flourish and of the story of a jackal told by the mother in a sing song voice. Sleep creeps into their eyes of the children as they try to see the jackal prowling by and Anpu closes the story taking the viewers/readers outside to show that a cunning fox is already carrying a hen away.


(From Summer's Children)

Graphic novels are the latest fad among the new readers though their favorite styles come from the Japanese Manga and Anime. Anpu Varkey stands differently like Marjari Satrapi, Joe Sacco and Nicholas Wild. Anpu tells the story of a village through a pair of siblings and she doesn’t turn the graphic novel into the more text based productions like Jeff Kinney or Bill Waterson. Anpu in this work remains more provincial and this provincial narrative has already got an international traction through the new genre of graphic novels. Let’s wait for Anpu’s next graphic novel which perhaps would speak of her journey as a street artist.


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Parade of Our Own Collective Uncertainties: Paintings by Apurba Nandi


(Artist Apurba Nandi)

The timing cannot be better; Apurba Nandi’s solo exhibition titled ‘A Parade of Uncertain Destinations’ at Delhi’s Palette Art Gallery is right there at a historical juncture. With the images of the faceless and hapless people falling off from the landing gears of the rescue flights in the skies of Afghanistan fresh in memory, the faceless masses that mill around and about in pre-destined patterns in Nandi’s paintings look like fresh wounds that refuse to heal. These images of the human beings dig further into our collective memory that has by now reconciled with the atrocities meted out to the urban poor who were made to flee while the authorities asked them to ‘stay where they were’ during the pandemic lockdown days.

(Painting by Nandi)


Meaning of a work of art largely depends on the readerly/viewerly intentions. One could take the works of Nandi for happy abstractions made out of human-like pigments a la late Chuck Close. Someone else could also take them for politicized citizenry invested with constitutional rights and protections that it assures. The age old theory of urban spaces being a flux where identities merge creating ‘unmarked’ bodies may not hold much water these days, especially after the onset of the pandemic that has changed urbans spaces more controlled, regimented, marked out, surveilled and if need be subjugated as per the needs of the authoritarian governments.


(Painting by Nandi)

In Nandi, these human parades occur as a result of the lockdown woes. These works, I believe, embody an unresolvable helplessness of the artists’ destiny, which is not a collective destiny at all as common pursuits towards a single goal is never imagined or achieved through creative works but for the time being artists cannot but think of the human redemption from this unavoidable viral trap. The fate that has fallen upon the milling masses with whom the identification cannot go beyond the level of sympathizing through empathetic visualization, which is ironically a distant and still distancing way of engagement with the perils that are experienced by someone else, is never the fate of the artists in general. It is where the helplessness of the artists comes in; they could register the pain in their own terms or just be the callous witnesses.

(Painting by Apurba Nandi) 

Whose parade are we witnessing while looking at the largescale paintings of Nandi displayed on the walls of a gallery? And whose uncertain destinies are they encapsulate in precise and fragmented frames? Artist here cannot be the documenter of the individual self of those people who have been rendered abstract not through the enforcement of state cruelties but through the very experience of them on the roads, dockyards, airstrips, fences and so on conveyed through mediatized images. These images in turn become another experience in itself that helps the artists and the people in general to visualize them in their given conditions. It is a complex process of experiential cognition, like a mirrored image of an affliction that could be seen in real if the viewer turns his or her head towards the other side.

 (Painting by Nandi)

The reluctance that we as a survived lot feel collectively to look at the other side helps us to continue with our conscientious existence even in the midst of continuing atrocities. True, the uncertainty of the uncertain masses who have suddenly become intermediary human beings who could be received or rejected elsewhere cannot be given a concrete expression and if one does so it can maximum become press photographs that speak directly and move the viewers to unimaginable pain. Here art does something else; it mitigates the pain, sublimates the reality, reorganize the living human beings into acceptable patterns that not only edify one with their ‘social and art history’ but also entertain as affable art objects.

 (Painting by Nandi)

In that sense Nandi cannot do anything other than transform the human suffering into an affordable visual that could perhaps in the coming years speak of the sufferings of the human lot in a particular time in history, without really feeling the pain instead could make others exclaim about the abilities of a work of art to evoke history and the perils that it contains. This parade is an abstraction of the other and ironically the other is not the disenfranchised, dispossessed and disowned human beings but the artistic feelings for them, which I feel is the responsibility of art because art cannot do anything to assure a definite destination to these people. Art and artists can only display their own inability to do anything towards their rehabilitation. Nandi’s paintings are the parades of our own collective lack of empathy or sympathy; our own callousness is seen queueing up; these are mirrors held unto the viewers.


(Painting by Nandi)

Art historically speaking, Nandi’s works evoke the memories of the early works of N.S.Harsha, who has done multitudes of people engaged in common activity like eating or sleeping. Through the repetition, the images are caused to melt and become a feeling, at times a feeling of absurdity. Nandi’s works, though they do not follow the color scheme or similar patterns that Harsha had used, still goad the viewers to connect with a contemporary master artist like N.S.Harsha. That is not a problem at all because what I emphasis while saying this is art’s inescapable indebtedness to its own past. Nandi subconsciously pays tribute to that past of our art.