Sunday, February 10, 2019

Amol Palekar, Jesal Thacker and the Story of NGMA Seen Differently


(Amol Palekar and Sandhya Gokhale at the NGMA -M- pic Scroll .in)

I think I need to put this row into perspective considering the fact that I had the privilege to interact with some of the directors of the National Gallery of Modern Art during the last few years. What the veteran actor-director and artist Amol Palekar did on the opening ceremony of late Prabhakar Barwe’s Retrospective exhibition at the NGMA, Mumbai was simply his concern and as one of the makers of contemporary culture Mr.Palekar has all the right to do so. Curator Jesal Thacker is seen stopping him from making a sharp critique on the Culture Ministry, Government of India that has been plunging its claws into the administrative body of the NGMAs since ‘November 2018’ by abolishing the ‘local artists advisory body’ that negotiated the presentation of retrospectives and other important shows in the same facility. Ms.Thacker was curt at the same time polite asking the veteran to stick to the subject of the evening ‘Barwe’. Obviously she was under pressure and she had taken clear cues from the authorities who were sharing the dais on the occasion. The audio-visual-textual evidences on the row are available in the public domain and one could cross check the visible discomfort that the curator was feeling at that moment.

(NGMA Mumbai)

Let me talk from a curator’s point of view before I get into the administrative mishaps that have been going on in the NGMA set up. Jesal Thacker is a young curator who has been investing all her energy for more than a decade in bringing out the Barwe literature both in Marathi and English and also in realizing a retrospective of his works in the present scale. Gauging from the facebook posts that she has been making ever since the declaration of the exhibition I understand that she is elated and is quite proud of her achievement. The moment belongs to her. Hence, when she recognizes that the whole evening is veering towards a political controversy at the cost of her decade long effort, whatever her political leanings and hand in glow arrangements with the establishments (I am not accusing her of anything of that sort but playing a devil’s advocate to cite the maximum) she would put all her might to defend her project. And I believe this is what we see in the video. As it was Ms.Thacker who asked Mr.Palekar not to digress, and it was she who had been addressed by Mr.Palekar whether he was censored and so on, one could come to an easy conjecture about Ms.Thacker’s role in curtailing the free speech of Mr.Palekar. He is not the only one who has been gagged; Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Nasiruddeen Shah, T.M.Krishana, Nayantara Sehgal and many more.

(Jesal Thacker, curator of Prabhakar Barwe Retrospective)

While I say Ms.Thacker’s intervention was circumstantial for she wanted her project to be saved from getting derailed, I would say with more verve and passion that Mr.Palekar has all the rights to speak and he need not choose another occasion to vent his anxieties on the growing grip of the Cultural Ministry in the affairs of the NGMA. Mr.Palekar need not wait for or organize an appropriate gathering to say the same. Late Barwe was his close friend and as he is no more now, Mr.Palekar took the liberty to connect the fierce independence that his generation enjoyed as artists and how the things have gone wrong today. I have been told that Mr.Suhas Bahulkar and Ms.Anita Rupavataram, the former Chairman and the present Director respectively also expressed the same sentiments as Ms.Thacker which I feel was done with more vehemence and like a policy statement as the representatives of a Ministry or the Ministry’s politico-cultural ideology which definitely has been contested by the liberal and leftist intellectuals of this country.

(a work by Prabhakar Barwe)

As per the new decision by the Cultural Ministry through the Director General of the NGMAs, only one sixth of the available space will be given to the local artists to have their exhibitions; retrospectives or otherwise. It is definitely a wrong decision. It deprives the artists of the city of their rightful and pride place of exposition. However, it is high time that we ask about the nature of the shows that these local artists advisory body used to present there. The NGMA B (Bengaluru) has been interesting shows of the artists like G.R.Iranna, Madhvi Parekh, Manu Parekh, K.S.Radhakrishnan, S.G.Vasudev, J.S.Khanderao and so on. Some of the retrospective exhibitions were curated by the Delhi NGMA team and were taken to the NGMA (M) and NGMA (B). I do not think there would be much of dispute on the quality of these shows or the priorities that the NGMA Delhi had shown towards mounting those shows. One should also remember that it was in 2014 after the Narendra Modi Government took over from the UPA and Mr.Adwaita Gadanayak was appointed as the Director General of the NGMAs a huge Jitish Kallat show was mounted in the Delhi NGMA. With the abolition of the local artists body what would happen to the character of the shows in the NGMAs nobody knows.

(Prof. Rajeev Lochan, former Director of the NGMA)

Going by the Delhi example, Mr.Gadanayak has been slumming it for quite some time. An artist with considerable repute and a strong allegiance to the RSS Mr.Gadanayak seems to have been succumbing to the political bigwigs as his organization was forced to present the ‘gifts’ that the Prime Minister had accumulated from his endless travels. Recently there was an auction of the PM’s Gifts. Definitely, these are not good indicators. The involvement of Sanskar Bharti in visual culture could drag contemporary art of India to two or three yugas backwards. However we should be aware of the fact that there has been ‘progressive lobbying’ even before the NDA Government. Till late 1990s, the NGMA Delhi used to rent out its place for private galleries. With a controversy raked up by the rightwing forces of that time, the decision was revoked and only official shows were mounted. When Mr.Rajeev Lochan came to power as long as the UPA remained in power, that means fifteen long years, there was an equal effort to snatch power from the NGMA (M) and (B) and concentrate the whole power on Mr.Lochan. Intellectuals and artist efficiently fought the move and till the end of his tenure Mr.Lochan could not hold absolute power. However, in due course of time he had liberalized the norms and had invited the private agencies to hold shows there. For the Skoda Art Prize, the NGMA (D) became a permanent venue. Overt and covert negotiations were done in order to present the artists of the ‘progressive lobby’ making the NGMA a ‘Lochan fiefdom’, turning it absolutely elite almost bringing back the memories of the License, Quota Raj of Indira Gandhi’s time. I have to say that Mr.Gadanayak reversed the policy and made the NGMA accessible to people.

(Adwaita Gadanayak, DG of the NGMA. Note the background)

Take the example of the NGMA (M). As I mentioned before there have been strong resistance from the Mumbai art fraternity to the effort of the NGMA (D)’s taking over idea. And they were successful. But how many ‘local’ artists’ shows or retrospectives were conducted there till recently? The crème de la crème of the Mumbai Art Scene was literally holding the establishment and letting only a set of curators and artists to mount shows there. A few private galleries were always favored and irrespective of the quality many group shows were mounted there at the NGMA (M) during the last few years. If that is the case, we have to ask what kind of an local art advisory is going on there? Who is benefitting from it? Look at the number of curators who have worked with the NGMA (M), the scholars who have been invited to present papers there; you will find the same elite team. Once I had approached Mr.Bahulkar for presenting a local Mumbai artist there in the NGMA. He said there was an advisory board. And who all were in that advisory board that the Chairman appointee did not have a say, let alone a decent cabin to sit?

(the controversial moment: When Amol Palekar was asked to stop)

In my view Mr.Palekar did the right thing. Ms.Thacker also did the right thing. If Ms.Anita Rupavataram, the Director of the NGMA (M) retorted, she too was right considering the given situation. My heart goes out to both Mr.Palekar and Ms.Thacker. Before shooting down the government’s decision, let us see who all would be getting into the new projects directly appointed by the Cultural Ministry. You never know the erstwhile curators who did only curated cutting edge art and alternative practices could masquerade themselves as curators of ‘Hanuman’ images from all over India. We have to target them. May be they are among us already; it just takes a few months to see them turning coats easily.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

An Artist’s Life that You Need to Know


(MS Sudhilal)

Perhaps he does not want this story to be told by me. But a writer is always on the edge; he has to say. Writing is life and death rolled into one; one saves the other. I believe artists have a life after death and I also believe that artists have only a life after death. While living they are in the process of dying. Some are in perpetual confinement, unable to perform their best for they have already done their worst. Some get dragged into performing the worst. They get confined for life. Luck saves them, perhaps education. Judges are not always cruel. They let the artists sing a song, draw portrait or do a jig and once impressed let them go. By the time they are out of their prison rooms, times would have flown by. Looking at the mirror they find their facial hairs grown thick, voice roughened, palm calloused and mind hardened. Some may die many deaths at that moment itself. But some may see that smiling face, that innocent face just before committing that perennial error and decide to live a new life.

That is the life of MS Sudhilal put in nutshell. Yesterday when I posted his picture with me I said that he had a story to tell. I had demanded that the top art faculties in the country should invite him to be a post graduate student. I thought of recounting his story to which I am privy partially, at a later stage. The story is so compulsive that today I itself I put into words. His story goes like this:


(Self Portrait)

He is MS Sudhilal. He hails from Kannur. His parents do respectable government service. He has got a younger brother. When he came to study in Trivandrum Fine Arts College sometime in 2006, he was all eighteen years old. Shy and hesitant, he remained a silent student, picking up the lessons from the preparatory classes that stressed more on artistic craft and tried to learn the ways of the city. Trivandrum Fine Arts College, for the students coming from the Malabar region is as strange and good as Delhi or Baroda, perhaps more rigorous and challenging. They enter the gate of the college as obedient youngsters and come out as rebellious artists. That has been the history of it; but over a period of time it too has changed. Change is perhaps fundamental to all changes.

Sudhilal spent his days trying his hands on drawing and clay modeling and so on. And it was time for him to go for the vacation during the Onam days. How happy he was to get back to his home. Something was however brewing in the cauldrons of time. Sudhilal’s father had a tiff with some youngsters in the neighborhood. Those were festival days and some were tippling hard. Started off as a mere teasing the tiff reached a physical assault. Things were settled for the day. But at night the guys came prepared. They came home knocking violently at the door with clear intention to kill. They assaulted Sudhilal’s father before his eyes. He responded as any self respecting and father loving son would respond. He did not know that he had so much of power in him; the power of his love for his father, the power of his righteousness and the power of his morality.


(Sudhilal during student days)

Sudhilal counter attacked the boys. In the meanwhile, his father stabbed one of them. He died two weeks later in hospital. Both father and son were accused with murder and assault. When the case came to the court both of them were sentenced for life. Pleas went thick, high and far. The judge took pity to the young boy and allowed him to continue with his studies. Sudhilal came to Fine Arts College in Trivandrum now as a jail bird. Many did not know. He kept to himself. Prof. Ajayakumar was the Principal then. He invited me to give a seminar there. “Your speech gave me confidence and the fundamentals about art. It reassured me to continue with my studies,” Sudhilal said. He was coming against me as I got down from a state transport bus. I did not know who he was. He extended his hand towards me. I could see the smile in his eyes and the benevolence in his face. Some kind of relationship that lives through ages and lives. I held my hand out and held his for a long time.

The sun was throwing fire balls on our heads. There was no shade to move into. But the heat of the moment could beat the heat of the sun. It was soothing and transcending at once. I took him for another young facebook friend, which he was. But then he spoke with the smile on his eyes and lips and said the above words. As he said he finished his BFA from this college I just asked him what he was going to do next. He said, a post graduation. He asked about Delhi College/s. I said Baroda, Santiniketan and Hyderabad are better. Perhaps I am biased. Then suddenly he said he was not working for a long time. How long, I asked. Till October 2018. Goodness. What were you doing all these days? I was in jail. I was not shocked but I felt a lot of love for him. He narrated his story. We had forgotten that the sun was screaming at us to move. I felt more love and care for him. I told him that he did the right thing. His father had done the right thing. Sometimes killing someone looks so just. It was happening at that moment.

(MS Sudhilal)

I am thirty now, Sudhilal said. ‘But that is not a problem in our field, no?’ he asked me. I touched his shoulder and said, ‘No, you are much better equipped to study art than many already in the art schools.’ Yes, he said. I asked him whether he was still traumatic about the whole thing. He said he had reconciled with the past and he has developed spiritual inclinations. I said, ‘do not opt that spiritualism that makes you alien to people.’ No sir, he said. I am in that spiritualism where I feel a lot for the people around me. It was the right time for me to ask whether the guys who had assaulted him and his father still around. They are still around, said Sudhilal. But they too have now learned their lessons. Sudhilal’s father is in the open jail still serving his life sentence. The family has learned to live in truth and reality. I asked him to send me his images. ‘I have not painted for long. And whatever I had done don’t look pretty now. I am going to start now,’ Sudhilal said.

At that moment I knew that I did not need to see his works done so far. What I want to see are the works that would come out from him now onwards. He has an exceptional life experience. I had asked him whether he tried to do painting in the jail. He said he couldn’t. He was just trying to adjust his life there still appalled at the turn of events. Sudhilal needs to study. Upon hearing his story a friend of mine spoke out the names like ‘Caravaggio’ and ‘Jean Genet’, who had crime and prison terms. Goa’s painter Norman Tagore was once implicated of a crime that he had not done and had to undergo prison term. Today Chintan Upadhyay is in jail for a crime which only he knows whether he was a party or not. Here is a young man shining like a sun after going through the fire test. He needs a post graduation, a career and life. If Indian art institutions cannot give him that who else would?

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Unsung Artists Lose Greatness the Way Untended Flowers Lose their Fragrance: The Case of JS Khanderao





(Artist JS Khanderao)



Jagadevappa Shannkarappa Khanderao (b.1940) aka JS Khanderao still lives and works in Gulbarga in north Karnataka. Occasionally he comes to Bengaluru as his daughter lives in the city. Otherwise he prefers to live in Gulbarga and teach art. The sudden attention that has come on him with the retrospective exhibition curated by the curatorial team of the National Gallery of Modern Art-B (B for Bengaluru) does not seem to bother him much. Perhaps, he has never aspired for such adulation and attention from the city folks who go to the galleries and museums and say a few good words about somebody’s art over wine and cheese (or chai and samosas). JS Khanderao, the 78 year old veteran artist underlines that he remains an art teacher and he finds happiness in teaching art. 



(An early landscape by JS Khanderao)



Known to his region as a realist portrait painter and a fine landscape artist, JS Khanderao had gained his name as a fine painter with experimental verve in 1980s itself when he achieved ‘transparent broken glass’ effect using oil paints in his works. Though it cannot be considered as a great achievement as far as oil painting techniques are considered in those days not many artists were using oil as a medium to get water color effects. Oil was to be first and last an opaque medium with some amount of gloominess on the one hand and royal pomp on the other. Finding transparency using water color was not the forte of many artists nor had many tried to gain that effect with great care. However looking at the works of the Northern Renaissance artists one could see that they had been successful in getting this transparency especially when they were painting bed curtains and veils. 




 (A Commissioned portrait by JS Khanderao)



Taking this transparency to the secular subjects or rather existential subjects was the feat that JS Khanderao had achieved in 1980s but somehow the achievement got limited in his own geographical location without it becoming an imitable mode of painting. Nor did Khanderao try to send the style around in exhibitions and catalogues. Khanderao taught many students from his own Ideal Fine Arts College, a private institution whose legacy that he carried forward as a teacher. Before that he got his training in art from the famous J.J.School of Art. The works that he had done during his college days in late 1950s or early 1960s, show his familiarity with and influence of the European post-Realist art styles of which Impressionism stands dominant. His water colors of that time were done in pure Impressionist style and he seemed to have taken great pleasure in doing landscapes in the plein air style. A major portion of his works is done as demonstration works for the students whether they be landscape or architecture sketches or spontaneous portraits.


 (Portrait study by JS Khanderao)



Khanderao likes to do two kinds of portraits; one, Expressionistic portraits and two, naturalistic portraits. While the former is often done as live demonstrations or purely for his pleasure the latter is done on commission. As a commissioned portrait artist Khanderao has earned a good name in his region. However, this has not helped him in arriving at a particular style. As the commissioned portraits demanded all the royalty and pomp of the good old oil painting tradition that had got filtered into collective unconsciousness of the people in the subcontinent via the European portraits and predominantly by the home grown Raja Ravi Varma, Khanderao couldn’t have applied his expressionistic style in those portraits. Hence, as far as the commissioned portraits are concerned he remains a conventional artist. But his creative verve comes out in full play when he sketches and paints in ‘live’ sessions. In his studio works and the class works done for the students, one could see similar looking models being portrayed. This could have two reasons; one, he used the same model in his art teaching institution or he had some inspiring men and women around him. Two, even when the models were different Khanderao was trying to get one ideal form in all of them. The slightly elongated faces of women with wistful looks perhaps express the artist’s earning for the ideal beauty in his career as a portrait artist.





(painting by JS Khanderao)



Khanderao also had a stint in depicting the traditional ritualistic performances in his paintings. This body of works perhaps is the pursuit of one particular time in his life as the color scheme, predominantly yellow and red, remains the same in more or less all the works and also the traces of this experience are not seen in any other works that he had done before or after this particular series. Khanderao, may be because of his teaching career looming large over his mind, seems not to have taken any particular trait even subconsciously as a binding thread through a major body of his works. Each period stands out differently except in his landscapes and water colors. This particular body of works that depict the ritualistic performances in North Karnataka could have been a good intellectual pursuit for him had he given a bit more attention to cultural politics behind those performances. But as a modernist, Khanderao’s idea is to find a new theme and a new form expressed with some amount of freshness. 



(Latest abstract work by JS Khanderao)



What makes Khanderao a worth remembering artist is his latest phase of abstract paintings that could stand at par with any of the great abstract artists that India has produced. Modernist in nature and meditative in content, these paintings are done with a clear intention to come out of the strong figuration that the artist is famous for. And I believe this also has something to do with the confidence of the artist that he could also do this. Khanderao had studied at the JJ School of art when the high modernist artists were doing their abstract works. This distinct body of works does not carry any particular message or meaning, instead they stand for the color fields that the artist has created. The cutting lines and the curves generate some sense of rhythm and balance and looking for that intrinsic balance or rather the very question why the painting makes the viewer look for something beyond itself makes these works worth pondering over. While the artist is confident that he could go back to the figurative works, there is a question whether it is to be taken as a stop over a stop for good. An interested viewer could see that the finesse of abstraction in his painting that has surfaced with the recent body of works was already there in 1980s itself. But somehow the pressures of whatever kind on him did not allow him to pursue it till recently when he found that there was no such pressure to bother him anymore.





(abstract painting by JS Khanderao)



A question haunts me personally; why artists who belong to the rural folds do not gain ‘greatness’ the way the artists in the urban spaces have achieved. The answer is with me and it is painful and hurting. The greatness has to be achieved through exposure. Exposure needs conducive materialistic and spiritual environments. Such environments bring recognition and riches. To achieve these one needs to really struggle for a long time. Harder they come harder they go. Some artists after their education go back to the rural folds where they find happiness and solace. But they often miss a chance to develop greatness because greatness like a garden of flowers needs tending and caring. Happiness of simple life and the greatness of an artistic life are two different things though finally sum up in the happiness quotient. Today people could go back to the rural areas and function from here because technology and advanced travelling facilities have helped them to remain connected. Khanderao perhaps has been happier than any other artists of his time who chose to struggle in the cities where they could seek patronage, fame and artistic flourish. But greatness did not come to Khanderao not because he has any lack of money or happiness but because he could not get a chance to push his genius towards greatness. He flitted across various styles and derived his pleasure from teaching his students required skills. Finally he is at the verge of a great opening; his abstract works. But together they count around twenty. And if JS Khanderao let his works to be tested by time, this twenty will pass; rest will be forgotten including his broken glass transparent paintings. The National Gallery of Modern Art B has done a commendable job in bringing this lesser known artist to the mainstream art lovers. This show has to travel in the other centers of the NGMA. The exhibition has also got introductory essays by art historians, Suresh Jayaram, H.A.Anilkumar, Pramila Lochan and K.V.Subramanya that put the works of JS Khanderao in perspective. This is one show that I recommend to all so that they could make their own assessment about the greatness quotient of an artist whose chance to greatness has come to him with the latest body of his works.








Thursday, January 10, 2019

Politics of Folk Idiom: Santosh Kumar Das at Ojas, New Delhi




(Santosh Kumar Das)
 
Training in modern art proves a boon for many artists who hail from the rural areas with strong folk/artistic traditions and for many others it is a curse for they find themselves caught between the genuine impulses of the folk aesthetics and the newly acquired tastes and techniques from the academies. There are yet another rare set of artists who could balance between both; means, keeping the rural idiom intact while letting the contemporary ideas and subject matters seep into the pictorial renditions. It is an act of faith for such artists who do not want to let the tradition go astray and get lost in the din of the ambitious contemporary art lingua blooming vicariously elsewhere. Santosh Kumar Das from Mithila region in one such artist who swims beautifully and gracefully in the ink of Mithila art and dares to deal with many issues including the political ones that gnaw our country’s body and conscience but not really referring to them directly in terms of identifiably stark iconographies. While the iconography of the Mithila paintings remains safe in the hands of Santosh Kumar Das, he shows the determination to transgress to the areas which are often overlooked by the traditional artists or put into allegorical terms. Hence, Santosh Kumar Das is an artist who loves to perform contained explosions which would find resonances and shaking up among the sympathetic and aesthetically egalitarian minds. 




(work by Santosh Kumar Das)

I have decided to write this small note of appreciation for the artist and his works as his solo show is slated to start today at the Ojas Art Gallery in New Delhi. While going through the works of art, I was reminded of the words that I had written about him and his book ‘Black- An Artist’s Tribute’ in 2017. Let me quote that here: “Mithila painting with its own logic and world view has been a domain of traditional women artists who imparted the skill and knowledge from generation to generation. Santosh Kumar Das took to this feminine visual language and explored his own self through its idioms. He created a repertoire of imageries and narrative patterns without breaking radically away from the norms of traditional renderings and gave it a further edge capable of revealing his own world view as a contemporary artist.” (http://johnyml.blogspot.com/2017/09/art-ink-santosh-kumar-das.html). Some of the works in the present show at the Ojas, titled ‘Rerouted Realities’, curated by Katherine Myers are extremely political and contemporary that makes Santosh Kumar Das’ stance as an artist a bit problematic vis-à-vis his visual language.


(Muslims Taking Shelter in a Mosque by Santosh Kumar Das)

It is not that the traditional/folk artists have not done enough towards bringing contemporary socio-political and cultural imageries including the popular cultural matters in their works. As human beings living in the present time, mostly connected with the external world through smart phones and other mediums of engagement and social connection, these artists are no longer living in a vacuum absolutely insular from cultural penetrations. They are literate (many have been to high schools, colleges and fine arts colleges apart from imbibing techniques and traditions from within the family itself) and connected to the world which automatically make them respond to the contemporary matters even remotely or metaphorically in their works. But often due to many pressures including those of the market and patronage, they resist themselves from making such transgressions. It is easier and comfortable for them to continue with what they already know. If the traditional artists are not really making much inroads into the contemporary art the reason is not that they are unaware of the contemporary matters but because the demands of patronage. Patrons want them to be in a cultural vacuum that gives them insularity as well as pristine quality. 




(Mother Earth Invoking Lord Shiva- work by Santosh Kumar Das)

I do not want to say that the way the economic functions within these traditional and folk artists and their art productions is mainly exploitative but the demand in the market is for certain kinds of work. What makes Santosh Kumar Das exceptionally different from the folk/traditional artists is his ability to articulate the contemporary issues without pawning away the traditional/folk idiom. I repeat this since the beginning of this short essay because had it been any other artists from his own region, he/she wouldn’t have directly mentioned the insecure Muslims taking shelter in a mosque during a riot which we know as the Gujarat Riot or the Post-Godhra Carnage in 2002. The artist also dares to show that a Muslim man and a Brahmin/upper caste man standing on either side of a trident (which has been made into a potential weapon of attack or just to flaunt the right wing belligerence in the streets) and trying to assert their case. With the knowledge of the right wing fundamentalism growing in India, just behind the minds of the onlookers, they could easily deduce that the Muslim man’s belligerence is just an act of survival than protest or provocation. 




(Muslim and Hindu on either side of a trident, by Santosh Kumar Das)

In another work, Santosh Kumar Das goes much ahead when he portrays the mother earth emblematically invoking Lord Shiva, the annihilator of evils and asking him to bring forth Durga; and Durga does manifest on the upper right side of the painting. And the artist does not shy away from saying that this call of mother earth is nothing but a call for vengeance against the perpetrators of atrocities against the Muslims or rather the Dalits and minorities in this country. Therefore the works of Santosh Kumar Das (the above mentioned ones come from the body of works done during the post-Godhra riots) become political in nature. While we need suggestive titles to take us to the crux of the work, in some of them one does not need even an indication by name. In another set of works, we see Krishna, the blue/dark god annihilating Bakasura, a demon in the form of god. Who could be this demon that is countered by Krishna? This could be the political evil embodies for sure as we know the implications of the other works by Santosh Kumar Das. Bakasura becomes a stand in figure for the right wing evil, I assume; one may differ in opinion.





(Krishna by Santosh Kumar Das)

Santosh Kumar Das, in this exhibition also presents a few works where the artist himself seems to be painting an iconic Krishna figure. With a brush in hand and the romantic aspect of the blue god expressed in his plume, posture and parrot guest perching on him, Santosh Kumar Das at once become the ‘maker’ of god as well as his devotee. Here the painted image is animated to become a part of the living scenario of creativity seen within the painting. May be the fact that Mithila is where the blue god had spent his time shepherding and eve teasing the village belles, the artist is all the more interested in depicting him again and again. Or it could be a subtle way of presenting his political case as Krishna belongs to the Yadava caste, which is considered to be a backward caste in the North of India and the non-concealable darkness and lasciviousness that go against the White gods of all kinds who had incorporated him in to their pantheon of gods. That is how resistances are absorbed and accommodated for nefarious political purposes by the fascist ideologues. Santosh Kumar Das a subtle resistance to this cooptation through his paintings that makes his works more appealing to an art lover like me. While the modern contemporary artists fail to tackle the political issues in their works for various reasons, an artist who has taken the folk idiom as his forte seems to have gained some mileage at this front. It is a must watch show.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Interior Monologue of an Exquisite Painter





(Artist Shashikant Dhotre)

Exquisitely painted images and charming beauties from some dreamy lands, dimly lit surroundings contrasted by the starkly lit models and their silk saris cascading and rippling, and the absolute mystery enveloping the maker of all these images together imparts an absolutely captivating aura to the paintings of Shashikant Dhotre. In the social media his works, at times with acknowledgement and mostly without any mention of the artist’s name, are a sensation often eking out comments of excitement and wonder; the common man out there in the social media expresses his fascination for Dhotre’s paintings mainly by underlining that fact they are ‘painted’ images. A painted image, at least in the eyes of a common man is attractive and awe inspiring only when it surpasses the perfection of an image captured in a photograph. This immediate comparison comes from the fact that a photographic image is an image that concurs with the image caught in the human eyes. Here human eyes become the ultimate judge of perfection and similitude though they overlook the manipulations mechanically possible in the case of a photographic image. 



From the very beginning of modern art an image produced by a camera has been the ultimate referential point of paintings. How far an image created by an artist on a two dimensional surface was similar to a possible photographic image captured in the given time, space and light had become a touchstone for determining the success of a painted image. This in turn had given birth to another system of knowledge regarding modern art where the ‘modernity’ was determined by observing how different an experimental image was from a possible photographic image which had been its referential point. Much before photography was invented, artists had experimented with various forms of crude lenses in order to get the very similar image that the eyes had perceived. Renaissance was the highpoint of it as far as western art was concerned and once they achieved what they had desired, they started going beyond the perceived realities in order to capture the eternal and divine in the perfect naturalistic style. This metaphysical interiority of naturalistic paintings did not stay simply within the images but it sought its manifestations in various symbolic representations that included the objects included within the painting and the ways in which the draperies were depicted. Renaissance paintings presented their spiritual content through the opulence of representation as against the sparseness and crudity of the pre-Renaissance works that preceded them. 



Seen against this historical perspective that illuminates our understanding of the contemporary works of art, Shashikant Dhotre’s works, despite their popularity amongst millions of faceless netizens and their fascination and awe for the apparent, reveal a different kind of interiority which is metaphysical and materialistic at the same time. Coming from rural Maharashtra where different schools of naturalism and realism flourished during the phase of post-Ravi Varma modernism, Dhotre picked up his style along the way as he did not undergo painterly training in any school with a dominant style, and he completely invested his creative energies in developing what he had innately received; the ability to do naturalistic drawings. Colors came along as he chose (color) pencils on paper as his favorite medium. Hence, something that started off in him as an affinity towards naturalism soon turned itself into the depiction of an interiority of the self and surroundings, their eternal beauty and the driving life spirit. One would become overtly conscious of such qualities in Dhotre’s paintings especially when he/she sees the quotidian nature of the lands, people and life style that he chooses to elevate in his paintings. 



Dhotre, as many people, both insiders and outsiders of art know today is famous for his exquisitely painted/drawn naturalistic images of beautiful girls/models who live both in the rural and urban spaces but dress up for the artist who in this way has adopted a very royal courtly method of working on his paintings. Whoever we see in Dhotre’s paintings are real people in real situations but they shed their ‘realism’ and ‘reality’, and their indebtedness to a particular place or location once they are transformed into painted images by the artist. This is an alchemic moment where the interiority of human beings are brought out through the erasure of ordinariness and location, and also through the accentuation given to their draperies and textile qualities, along with the illusionistic depth and texture. Those who have pursued the light sources of the Renaissance paintings often come to a conclusion and settle for the internal glow that illuminates the images. In Dhotre’s work, ordinary girls/women are attributed with this internal glow resulting into the ethereal-izing of the same human beings. Therefore what we see in Dhotre’s works is a romantic galaxy where ordinary people become heavenly ones. 



What does Dhotre achieve by turning ordinary people into divine ones and by romanticizing the scenes? I have already mentioned how the interiority of the models which is akin to the manifestation of the latent spiritual side of the same people as well as that of the artist comes out through such depictions. However, it does not just stop there. While depicting the internal beauty of a moment or an event or a series of moments that gives the illusion of an event what Dhotre captures is the aspirations and desires of a people who are even denied the chances of such dreams. That means, these depictions of the real events are in a way a romantic projection, an absence that is presented in disguise. The sparkling silk saris that the models flaunt could turn into tattered cotton rags if one keeps looking at them. No spiritual wall could stop the people from seeing it; but Dhotre knows that the art of art is concealing art. Through the depiction of beauty he overcomes the residing ugliness, deprivation, dispossession and uprooted existence. The residues of such memories are packaged into palatable and attractive capsules, turning a massive tragedy into an engaging comedy. 



If one looks at these works carefully, with more surprise than it generally gives away one could see the loneliness within which each female model is placed. Their bodies are absent presences for they do not evoke any sense of (male) gaze. The maximum they evoke is the ultimate compassion and sympathy, especially when one is freed from the initial awe and surprise at seeing the technical virtuosity of the artist. Dhotre has draped them with absolute loneliness and compassion. Each female protagonist in Dhotre’s works is deeply involved with herself (even when she is in the company of another woman), she seems to be decking herself up but a closer look/ a deeper look would reveal that she is no longer beautifying herself but she is in a deep meditation where she and her chosen act has become one and the same, a silently said prayer unto herself. It is quite Tagorean in this sense, perhaps Dhotre through his visual poetry has moved closer to Rabindranath Tagore, who in fact had never depicted a figure naturalistically but had always been efficient in capturing the lonely depths of one’s own self both in lines, colors and words. Traveling from a different direction, without making any tall claims, I would say, Dhotre too has reached such an exalted position of the artistic self. 



This meandering through the folds of selfhood could sound a bit conventional for the rebellious beginners, but I would say that the interiority of the artist has been plumbed for meanings by the artist himself, that’s why at some point we feel that the loneliness that envelopes the female protagonists in his works is nothing but his own loneliness, the much-kept-aside story of his existence, the reticence and the implosion of thoughts. During the last three years, without many taking a real notice of it, Dhotre has moved a bit far away from the usual painterly style that he is known for. This is not so apparent when one takes a look at the works cursorily because the style remains ‘naturalistic’, colorful and familiar to his innumerable online and offline fans. But a pair of critical eyes could see that the bodies that once held those clothes, those saris and draperies have gone missing. Now the saris are hanging on their own on some pegs (they are almost absent as the saris fill the pictorial surface leaving no space for any other embellishments). They show the cascading and rippling of silks but one would wonder why the artist has kept his favorite female protagonists aside? In my view, Dhotre has been preparing for painting the absence directly for many years and the naturalistic paintings that brought him fame and riches have been just his warming up towards the depiction of the larger truth; the truth of his creativity and existence. 



The interim phase of the saris even has been over by now as Dhotre has moved into a different zone of creativity that many least expected from an artist like him. Dhotre has never expressed his political views in any of his early works directly. Nor has he ever made a direct political statement that would make him a staunch follower of some kind of prevalent political ideology. But of late Dhotre seems to have taken a decision to show his political nature; the politics of the dispossessed, disadvantaged and discriminated people. He speaks of them through the symbols that he has carefully created in his new zone of creativity, large and small scale installations and assemblages. In them he seems to have become a great champion of the women’s cause. The early romanticizing of female protagonists for revealing their interiority has given way to the exteriority of the living conditions and living culture of those women who are absent because they are not beautiful in the conventional sense. The silk saris now look like the projections of the ambitions and desires of his ilk. But behind those silk attires there are the rags that envelop the female folk in the rural areas. They convert those cheap saris, after using them for a long time, into quilts and duvets, they exchange them for goods, if not they are using them for winter comforts. 



The installations and assemblages that Dhotre has created of late are not completely represented here in this given display. However, with the given works, one could see how he has become the champion of women’s cause. The assemblages are made out of those cotton saris and each constituent image/symbol carries a particular meaning; one could see women holding hands to form a human chain, some of them representing the female genitals and so on. These relief-like works depict the life of women in rural settings, their successes, failures, their angst and anger, and their ultimate ability to fight and survive. In some of the works, if one is privy to know the details of Dhotre, he/she could see the autobiographical references of the artist. He has created a pair of huge sparrow nests that resemble the shape of a pregnant belly too. The surfaces of those nests are also created out of the cotton clothes prepared and used by women. There are phallic symbols stacked in rows, beautiful covered with silk sari pieces, as a critique of male aggression, patriarchy and containing them with female power. This is the only space where Dhotre goes back to his romantic projections about a world which would be flawless through the interventions of art in general. 



Shashikant Dhotre, as I mentioned elsewhere is a man of few words and is reticent in vocalizing his pet ideas as he has chosen visual expressions as his forte. Dhotre is not a feminist in the conventional sense; I do not think that he ever wants to be known as a feminist. But he has great regard for the female folk. Dhotre does not do any lip service to this effect, on the contrary he has set up large scale working units in his village Solapur, where hundreds of village women collect, prepare and stitch for Dhotre’s work turning them not only into paid support staff for his large scale installation works but also as potential collaborators in creating his art as well as in standing for their own cause. Such artists are rare these days who pay back to their own communities and Dhotre is one such rarity with laudable contributions.