Friday, June 22, 2018

The Patriots - A Short Story

(Source: net)

The Patriots

They are around thirty people. Young and raring to go at anything.

All of them have different haircuts. Some are mushroomed. Some are puffed at the sides just above the ears. Some are taken off completely making a patchy curve starting from the right temple and reappearing at the left.

I could feel their breath around me. I think of snarling dogs in animation movies. They are just that. But they behave as if they were directly from the war movies, complete with armours and assault rifles. They have even camouflage lines all over their faces.

I am just imagining things. Am I frightened while standing right in the middle of this young crowd that exudes a sense of aggression, definitely not adulation?

One of them has a T-shirt on with camouflage pattern. Rs.150/- for anything, I think for I have seen them in the pavement. But he feels so confident in it. He is taller than me and I looked down as he talks about his country. Yes, ‘his country’. I see the seams of his trousers rolled up and pushed into the ankle boots.

He holds his mobile phone as if it were a grenade to be lobbed at me, if there is a provocation. I know anything could happen then. I have offended them.

You would be surprised to know the scenario. I have just finished a speech. A few minutes back I was on the stage there inside these huge door panels, where these young men now crowding me were my audience. Something I have said about the country seems to have understood differently.

Someone opens the door and walks out and with him a mild fragrance and a whiff of cool air come out and follow him to the foyer like a trusting dog.

I look around and see similar crowds in some parts of the foyer.

These young men have come from different colleges and they are there for an integrated workshop for the youth. Male and female experts from different walks of life have come to give them short speeches. Yes, short speeches but sooner than later I realise that each short speech could last for an hour.

My speech was short indeed. But the interactive session was a bit longer.

Now in this foyer what you see is the continuation of that interactive session.

‘How could you say that soldiers and primary school teachers are to be given the same respect?’ They insist asking. I feel a strange hiss in their voice and the rising aggression in their bodies.

Their fingers twirl. They could catch hold of my neck at anytime. Between those terrifying fingers and my logical neck there is a very small distance which could be measured by the satisfaction that my answer would give them.

I smile, first unto myself and then to them. I have faced such situations before. Facing hecklers is a part of my job.

“For me, primary teachers do a better job than the soldiers at the country’s borders,” I say taking special care of the smile on my lips.

‘Do you have anybody in the army?’ One of them asks.

“No, No relative of mine works in the army,” I say.

‘That’s why you don’t know the pain’.

“Is it necessary to have an army man at home to know the pain of a soldier?” I ask.

‘Because of them you could sleep without worries’, one of them pitches in.

“I am not sure about that. My sleep does not have anything to do with the soldiers. But I do lose sleep over what they do at some places not only in our country but elsewhere too,” I reason.

‘We are ready to sacrifice our lives for our country’, the guy in camouflage T-shirts moves in.
“What else does a primary teacher do?”

He does not sacrifice anything.

“So according to you, fighting in the army fatigue is the only way to serve the country? Or is it always necessary to make sacrifices to serve or love one’s country?”

‘What do you do with the enemies then?’

“This is exactly where I talk about the primary school teachers. If they teach you who is our enemy and who is our friend, and also tell us ultimately there are no enemies or friends, then this overt love for the country wouldn’t arise at all.”

‘But we have enemies.’

“What do you do if I say having enemies is a sort of illusion spread by the state? If we understand history and economics, we will understand this whole idea of war is just a game played periodically by vested interests not by the soldiers. And soldiers in fact should be peace keepers not war mongers.”

The boys go silent for a moment. I find a gap to insert another argument.

“A bus conductor, an engineer, a nurse, a doctor, a carpenter, a cobbler, a vegetable seller or anyone who pursues any job diligently does serve and love his country, if really has one. It all depends whether the country wants his love and service or not.”

The boys look confused. But at the next moment they regain the density of their blindness.

‘We are patriots. You are a traitor. You fail to see the enemy. It is as good as colluding with them.’
“I don’t have enemies from across the border. They don’t make my life hell. But my fellow citizens do it. They beat up my brothers and sisters for sitting on a chair, riding a horse in a wedding procession, for sporting a moustache, for taking a cow to the market, for passing an examination with good marks, for washing themselves in a public pond, for dressing up well, for just being free and proud. What do I do with those tormentors? Will the soldiers of this country save my brothers and sisters from such insults?” I shiver while I say this.

‘Sir, you are a guest here. Otherwise.....the answer would have been different.’ Someone gnashes his teeth.

“This is what exactly I say when I say primary school teachers are important when it comes to the shaping up of a country and its psyche. I think your teachers too have lost the plot and they have taught you something else,” I tell them politely and try to move out.

‘Hail thee Mother Country’, they call out behind me, obviously to jeer at me.

I hold my head high and walk out of the foyer as their exhortations grow high, wild and frenzied.

 Still I could feel the loud slogan ‘Hail thee Mother Country’ stalking me with a bare dagger clenched in its fist.  

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Honourable Prime Minister, Please Consider Making No Comments on Art

Portrait of PM Narendra Modi by Veena Abhyankar (pic courtesy Indian Express)
Post-modernism gives this freedom for anything to be an artist. It also does give the freedom to anyone who would like to be an art lover. If anybody could make art whether it is shallow or deep in terms of meaning, then anybody else also gets the right to make a judgement on that work of art. Hence, if our Prime Minister, Mr.Narendra Modi congratulates a home-maker artist for her efforts in paper-quilling art we cannot complain. But there is a danger; that too a very grave one! If the Prime Minister goes on congratulating the works of art being sent to him by enthusiastic artists (who are academically trained or self trained or partially trained under a real or virtual tutor), it could create certain roadblocks in the art history and criticism in this country. Before I go into that let me tell you why I am forced to write an article like this.
Hanuman, Karan Acharya, PM Narendra Modi (pic courtesy Financial Express)
Today’s (24-5-2018) Indian Express, a national daily, in its Delhi edition publishes a four column story complete with a picture of the Prime Minister, Mr.Narendra Modi, which is created by a Pune based home maker, Veena Abhyankar who has been practicing paper-quilling for the last three years. Paper-quilling is an art form created out of differently coloured papers of different properties by cutting, pasting and twirling them aesthetically. I do not have any problem in an artist who does paper cutting and twirling to make that particular genre of art. Though not in the same mode there are contemporary artists in our country who use paper in various ways to create their works of art. For example, Sachin George Sebastian makes wonderful city-scapes and complex art works out of twirled and twisted paper and his works are internationally exhibited and appreciated. We have also Dilip Chobisa who uses paper in various ways in order to create 3D illusions. Paper has been a favourite medium of many especially the hobby artists. But remember Post-modernism gives complete freedom even to the hobby artists to claim a place in the larger history of modern-contemporary art of any country. It is only the discretion of the art historians and critics save the country out of such onslaughts.
PM Narendra Modi
Of late our Prime Minister has literally taken a cultural route to win the hearts of the people (read voters). Cultural nationalism that his parent organisation (the RSS) preaches is slightly different from the cultural expression that many an artist practices in this country. But the Prime Minister of our country is neither an art historian nor an art critic, nor is he a connoisseur of art and aesthetics. When you are rich, yes aesthetics and a love for the cultural comes naturally to you because that is the only way that the rich could claim a place in the collective memory of the country for there are many rich people doing the same thing such as buying the same brand high end cars, living in cosy farm houses in the same posh area of the city, flying to the same tourist destinations, playing in the same gambling dens, staying in the same five star hotels, wearing the same high end fashions and mixing with the same right kind of the people/celebrities. But when it comes to art, they all prefer to be unique and individualistic. Yes, they do all buy Damien Hirsts and Subodh Guptas, but they also buy works of art that are not possessed by any other rich man. Power also gives a right to the people to make an opinion about art. When the rich and the powerful talk about art or anything, that becomes the rule of the day and many people emulate it. Mr.Prime Minister can privately love a work of art that attracts his imagination. But when he does it in public, it might become a national example and such an aesthetic could become a national benchmark, dismissing or suspending all the other kinds of aesthetics prevalent or practiced in the country.

Karan Acharya, Hanuman image
When Mr.Prime Minister was touring Karnataka, campaigning for the recently held assembly elections, he had praised on Karan Acharya, a boy from North Kerala, a self trained graphic artist who has set up start up company with his friends to do business with the big animation houses and graphic design studios. He came to limelight a few years back when he did an angry Hanuman’s face, going by the macho image of the Bajrang Dal, a extreme right wing Hindutva outfit established in the name of the monkey god Hanuman. This picture of Hanuman was made into a sticker and it had found its ways to the windscreens of Mumbai taxis and it had got its due press space at that time. Like any other sensational news in this world, this too had its run for a couple of days and had subsided. It was Mr.Prime Minister who picked it up again during his Karnataka campaign trail and praised the artist for making such a ‘wonderful painting’. It was suiting to the purpose of Mr.Prime Minister and he did not mind saying good words about a work of art though it was done in whatever intention had turned out to be a fuel to the aggressive right wing male politics that gets played out in the Indian streets, especially in the places where the minority communities live. Mr.Prime Minister was definitely turning himself into an aesthetician for He simultaneously paid rich tribute to a cartoonist who turned out to be a plagiarist and a provocateur by doing vulgar and misogynist cartoons.

Angry Hanuman poster
Ms.Veena Abhyankar from Pune might not have thought of any of these when she sent a portrait of Mr.Prime Minister in the medium of paper quilling. But the Prime Minister praised her high saying that ‘her passion for learning new things is admirable...’ This may sound a very simple and patronising statement from a senior statesman who heads the country. But we have to understand that Mr.Prime Minister has chosen to praise a work of art which has a portrait of his in it or rather I would say that it becomes a work of art for him as it is his portrait. Still I give the benefit of doubt to the Prime Minister. Even if it was a painting of a sun rise he would have definitely praised it. But then the problem is, what kind of a sun rise it is and why he has chosen to praise it. The praising from the state head comes unqualified. The statement then becomes irresponsible because the majority of the populace in the country is unsuspecting about an apparently humanitarian and aesthetical comment of the Prime Minister. Even his worst critic would say that at time the Prime Minister is very sensible and sensitive. But unfortunately, I have to say that the Prime Minister is indiscreet when it comes to praising works of art or it could even be said that the Prime Minister chooses certain works deliberately to praise not just because his portrait in it but because it suits to his political purpose.

His foraying into the field of art should be seen with apprehension. I say this mainly because the Prime Minister is not a natural appreciator of arts. He may be receiving thousands of paintings and thousands of books, pieces of music and so on. As the state head he deserves all those gifts and artistic attention. But he does not choose to see all of them and we cannot expect him to do so also. It is here we expect him to be a bit discreet about making comments of works of art and finding easy ways to be an aesthetician. The Prime Minister is at fault here even if he is making an innocent comment on an otherwise harmless work of art, he is doing a great damage to the contemporary art of this country. The main reason is that the Prime Minister is not looking at the contemporary art that are being presented in the major galleries and museums in our country. He is not picking and choosing the works of art from there and making such comments of accolades. He is not even finding a few minutes from his busy schedule to speak about the great artists who are still alive in our country. He is not taking a few minutes to speak about the artists who are bringing us international recognition to our country. We have been a country where the entourage of the Prime Minister carried artists, musicians, historian, journalists, scientists and so on during his/her tours to the international countries. Mr.Prime Minister has severed that tradition. Okay, no issues. But how can the Prime Minister choose the worst kind of art (I humbly make use of my professional standing to make this statement) and showers praises on it? It is in effect altering the vision and aesthetical approach of at least those people who believe in him. When he has an aggressive majority, his words become almost dictums and laws, especially in the tender issues like aesthetics. When Karan Acharyas and Veena Abhyankars are brought to lime light, what happens is our reputed artists get removed from it and they lose their social as well as mental space. That in the long run would put the country in danger.

Karan Acharya
Mr.Prime Minister could make any number of opinions on art. His right as the state head and his existence within the post modern discourse allows him to express his views freely. But they should be conveyed privately and discreetly. If it becomes a norm, the artists who are simply doing their hobby and have an infantile or childish enthusiasm to hear good words from the higher ups get undue social space which would corrupt the minds of the people who otherwise think and view art in a totally different way. Our country’s hobby artists and mediocre artists have turned the Lalit Kala Akademies into degenerating cultural establishments. I was one of the national jury members for the national exhibition selection by the LKA, New Delhi. I found at least twenty per cent of the artists sending the portraits of Mr.Prime Minister in various guises including doing yoga, thinking that these images would give them the right to be in the national exhibition. It is a very dangerous sign. Either the Prime Minister should consider not making any comments on art or he should do it quite often about the contemporary art and artists of our country. Our media also should think about whether such loose statements of the Prime Minister should be highlighted in detail or not. While today’s Indian Express covered the Man Booker Prize Winner and the Polish Writer, Olga Tokarczuk in one column in the 21st page Veena Abhyankar gets four columns in the 9th page. That puts everything in perspective.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Conversations Abundant and Abandoned: Art of Vishnu Priyan

(artist Vishnu Priyan)

Some of his works exude the feel of the widely known Mexican Murals. But a closer look reveals that these works do not have anything to do with those murals. Ask the artist, Vishnu Priyan, he would tell you that all his works are about conversations; an image conversing with the other image or images. They are also conversations without any particular reason. What Vishnu Priyan loves to do is to allow his stream of consciousness flow freely on to his canvases. A post graduate in painting from Kerala’s Sree Sankara University, Kalady, Vishnu Priyan also had won a first rank in graduation in the same discipline. He stands at the crossroads of life, waiting for a major decision to happen and the precariousness that he feels at this juncture is perhaps palpable in his recent paintings. Emotions, aspirations, desires and dreams overpower him while he stands firmly rooted in the materialistic reality around him, confronting people, witnessing events, participating in conversations and eavesdropping in village grapevine. They all together forms a stream that spreads like a thick liquid resembling blood and there each organic part of human or animal body gains autonomy and speaks as well as acts for itself while the inorganic objects cling together each other to form metastasising structures enveloping the organs that have just gained autonomy.

(work by Vishnu Priyan)

In the Mexican Murals there is always a movement; a movement to the right or to the left or bursting out from the centre and going towards all the four sides. There are no disparate movements so that the whole picture looks shaky and flimsy. The Mexican murals have structural cohesiveness like the march past of a trained army. It may be army or the ordinary people but as they are anticipating progress and forward movement, their movements are rhythmic and coherent. There is heroism in each face and magnanimity in each act. Even the humblest of farmers look Grecian heroes even in their ordinariness. Make a contrast of these qualities with the paintings of Vishnu Priyan, we would come to see his works stand for all what is not said about the Mexican murals. What I want to say is that his works should not be seen as a takeoff from the mural tradition of the west. Rather, they are more like dream like expressions, merging socialist realism with surrealism, and Expressionism with the refined cubism of Fernand Leger. We could also see some works taking inspiration from the works of the great Travancore mythologist, Gopikrishna and some works travelling back in centuries and landing up in the Mughal courts where miniature karkhanas were established. Vishnu Priyan also likes to take a detour all over the contemporary art scene and find quirky examples to embellish his works.

(work by Vishnu Priyan)

‘Here is a Bus Waiting for You’ is a large watercolour work done by Vishnu Priyan in 2017. This work has the quintessential features of his thinking and handling of the images. The artist simulates the form of the popular red and yellow fast passenger bus run by the state transport corporation in Kerala. The bus is just a shell. It has no seats, platform, engine or tyres. But the bus is seen filled with people. Even on the top of the bus one could see a couple of passengers; a bull and a monkey. The crowded bus has a large variety of people; both male and female. Their dresses show that they are from different religions. Their feet are on the ground, which doubles up as a road but is strewn with colourful weapon like forms. Those forms could be some kind of network leading information to some other place. At the same time, as in a cross section of ground, we could see the underneath side of the road, which leads us to some sort of a nether world which is filled with strange plumbing networks. What does it all mean? Does it come as a critique on the current political scenario in which the artist is meant to live with all satisfaction? From his facebook profile I understand that the artist is a supporter of the left front in Kerala and believes in the future offered by the dominant party, the CPM. However, this belief seems to be thwarted at times and the artist seems dissatisfied with the kind of ‘progress’ that the party is making today. That may be the reason why the bus doesn’t have any tyres and people have to push themselves to the places where they want to reach.

(work by Vishnu Priyan)

That means, Vishnu Priyan believes in the human aspirations and desires, and also in the collective will to move forward despite their religious and racial differences. It is one way of presenting the progress that could be achieved even within chaos and the chaos that an ordered society often carries it in its brain and belly. What makes me think about the works of Vishnu Priyan fondly is the way the images and their handling form a language pattern that is often followed by the free and regular societies. Any linguistic usage/conversation in a ordinary life situation starts with a particular purpose and after fulfilling that it veers into the areas that it was not intending to enter. That means human conversations in a daily situation are not ‘ordered’ the way language is ordered in specific situations like operation theatres, political summits, science conferences and academic classrooms. In non-specific situations language breaks loose of itself and goes into the directions, creating a series of webs and interestingly each web creating its own sense and remaining there unaffected while another web creates another meaning. That means in our life, we live in such webs of language/s that move between purposeful conversations and idle talk. Vishnu Priyan seems to take each of the images in his paintings as a piece of conversation and let it develop on its own and leaves it there once its aim is achieved and engages with another stream of images.

(work by Vishnu Priyan)

The autonomy of the organic body parts emblematised in the images like a tongue or a piece of intestine climbing a stair or coming down by it in Vishnu Priyan’s works also exemplifies the autonomy of a conversation. That means, each layer of conversation (here in Vishnu Priyan’s works they are the layers of images) could be peeled off to see the underlying layer. However, as the artist makes each layer transparent it becomes easier for the viewer to follow another layer without really peeling off the first one. It is interesting to see that the artist paints a train entering into the platform in a very realistic style and suddenly he leaves it there and starts another layer of images just beneath it as if those human images were run over by the train, which in fact is not the case. We see some human images resembling the red volunteers of the CPM party turning themselves into animal incarnations. They must be the visions of the artist and without connecting them logically with another image ensemble for deliberate meaning creating, he leaves them off. So we have a series of images in Vishnu Priyan’s works that are owned up by the artists and at the same time by abandoned by him. It is same with the conversations that we do in our day to day lives. We do not own up all the words that we utter even if the ownership remains with us. But we ruthlessly abandon some words and sentences and even ideas as if they were not ours. That means our linguistic sphere is filled with utterances disowned by the speakers. Vishnu Priyan just makes a visual statement of the same. And with shock we come to know what are the images that we dream up and abandon half way exactly.

(work by Vishnu Priyan)

Vishnu Priyan uses stock images in his works in order to emphasis the fact that human beings think of the same thing repeatedly without any reason but leave them halfway. Also such topics come into our conversation just for the sake of talking about it like some meaningless words or expressions. The artist has stocked up such images in his repertoire and one of them is a woman in purdah eating bananas. Also there are many people seen eating bananas. Another stock character is a man-camel figure running towards some place. The image of banana bunches and the act of people eating bananas is interesting because it at once shows a banal act and a very erotically suggestive gesture. The presence of banana has multiple connotations; it shows eroticism for sure but at the same time it tells us that the act of eating banana is a banal act because it does not make on doing something very heroic. At the same time one tends to feel that we are living in a banana republic where the rules are created and twisted as per the need of the dictators. The people look absolutely foolish in such banana republics. Vishnu Priyan does not say that he lives in one or all of us are living in one. But he always shows the possibility of all of us falling into one. Besides, what I see is the proliferation of male values and patriarchal arrogance that most of us carry around in the society. The bananas look good but they are the gestures of blind arrogance also.

(work by Vishnu Priyan)

If we consider the canvases of Vishnu Priyan as a land, then we could definitely say that it is filled with the words and symbols of the people who live there. They are not only the words and symbols that manifest in reality but also take shape in imagination, thinking and dreams but not yet manifested in physical forms. So there is an etherized state of existence in these works. The dominant Hindu philosophy says that one should stop the act of thinking in order to achieve peace of mind and find salvation. Buddhism says that we just need to watch the thoughts that come and go often. They are not connected at all and the moment we look at the thoughts and their disconnectedness we understand the absurdity of it and as time passes the thoughts too will vanish and we achieve a sort of tranquillity. What Vishnu Priyan does in his paintings is simply watching the thoughts and recording them in his canvas in order to present the absurd drama of life and the life that blooms in the thought process. By doing this the artist must be getting some sort of tranquillity and happiness. In one of his latest works we see the image of Sankaracharya in his iconic posture and eating bananas. Vishnu Priyan studied in the Sankaracharya University and the presence of the iconic figure in the campus must have made him to come up with this image. The serene and meditative image of Sankaracharya becomes a bit banal and comic when he is seen eating a banana. That means, taking anything out of context or adding anything in a specific context would change the meaning of a thing completely and also would collapse the whole ideology behind it. It is like adding a moustache to Monalisa. Vishnu Priyan somehow subverts the dominant Sankaracharya ideology that had once thwarted the Buddhist philosophy which was more accommodative and had asked people to just look at their thoughts.

(work by Vishnu Priyan)

Of late Vishnu Priyan has been working in large canvases. He says that he takes around seven to eight months to complete a canvas. And he explains why his canvases are now becoming more crowded now. According to him, as he keeps sitting with the canvas for many months, he develops a sort of intimacy and the canvases assume certain ‘life’ in itself. Vishnu Priyan have long conversations with the canvas. He fights with it, abandons it and comes back and patches up with it. In the meanwhile the images that he takes away and brings back keep changing. “There is only a nascent idea when I start a work. But as this conversation starts with the canvas the whole thing changes. Working a painting means developing a love-hate relationship with the canvas and I do not know what could be the outcome of it. Sometimes, the works surprises me. Perhaps, life is also like that. We start somewhere and however we try, we reach somewhere else. I am not talking about destiny; but I am talking about the encounters that we have at every juncture in our lives. My canvases are full of such encounters. I enjoy these encounters now,” says Vishnu Priyan. In one of his works we see a purdah clad woman stitching a dress resembling a human body. And I reminded of the description of the terrible beauty of a young boy by the French poet, Lautreamont, “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”

Monday, May 21, 2018

A Young Magician in Printmaking: Meet Rama Chandra Majhi

Printmaker Artist Rama Chandra Majhi
“I like Haren Das,” says Rama Chandra Majhi, a twenty one year old graduate in Print Making from the Government College of Art and Crafts, Khallikote, Ganjam District, Odisha. Looking at Majhi’s works, especially the woodcuts one could understand why he likes Haren Das so much. Haren Das (1921-1993) was a master printmaker who proved that one could be an excellent story teller, documenter, visual chronicler and a fine artist and the medium was never a limitation. The fineness of his lines surpasses the expressionism that Chittoprasad Bhattacharya, one of his early contemporaries had brought to his works. Haren and Chittoprasad worked in two different lines and employed their creative prowess for different purposes. Haren Das was a Romantic and Chittoprasad Bhattacharya was a Realist. Haren Das did not want to change the surroundings that he thought were beautiful, serene and slow moving despite all the tribulations such a rural place would have. Chittoprasad wanted his surroundings to change and the existing oppressive system to collapse. He believed that art had the power to move people. Rama Chandra Majhi confesses his liking for Haren Das and his works don’t betray this confession. Besides, Majhi adds that he has not yet begun brining ‘politics’ into his art. “But I am aware of the fact that art cannot live without it (politics).” 
Work by Rama Chandra Majhi
Born to a family in Mayurbanj District of Odisha, disadvantaged in many ways that includes the remoteness from the city life, hard labour in farms and lack of proper educational facilities, Rama Chandra Majhi has fought odds to gain his degree from the Government College in Khallikote. His woodcuts are huge in size (123x 235 cms) and the size reflects the size of the wood surface that he uses for making his works. The industrially made plywood planks are available in the said size and that has become a fascinating size for many of the young printmakers who would like to go for daring experiments. If I am not wrong, the early indications of using plywood for making woodcut prints were seen in the printmaking department in Hyderabad, which later found its full blooming in the Printmaking department at the Fine Arts Faculty, Baroda. Out of the box thinking had led many young artists to experiment with these plywood planks, an unusual and ambitious surface for an art practice that had found its satisfaction in smaller size wood blocks that could be worked on and from a table top. Pratap Modi is an artist who found early success in large scale woodcut only to be followed by many in the Baroda school. Among the women artists, Sohra Khurasani has adopted plywood as her working surface so that she could produce ambitious woodcut installations predominantly red in colour, which has become her hallmark style by now.  
Work by Rama Chandra Majhi

One could imagine the artists working on plywood surfaces going all down on fours like careful animals armed with a spoon and pressing the paper down on the wooden surface and taking the impressions carefully. Those people who are familiar with the traditional woodcuts are in for a shock here because the new technique has allowed them to come up with multicoloured prints thought it demands patience, perseverance and tremendous skill. If someone is creating a large scale be sure that the artist behind the work is a highly skilful person, knows the spatial dimensions well and also knows the impact of the final work on the viewers once the final impression is done. Rama Chandra Majhi comes to us as a highly accomplished artist and it is difficult to believe that this artist is just a graduate. Majhi has not yet hit the art market and he may take more time to do so for the simple reason that these days, due to the lack of an active art market the gallerists are not really looking for potential artists. If at all they are looking they are looking those sophisticated artists who make nonsense inanities and hang them from the ceilings and add a lot of autobiography to it. Majhi’s works too have the artist’s autobiography in them but one could test it, taste it and even love it. Hence, it may take time but I am sure if not today, tomorrow the market cannot overlook the artistic contributions of Majhi. 
Work by Rama Chandra Majhi

Now let’s take a look at the works of Majhi. He works both in woodcut and large scale watercolours. At present, as he is so tuned to the vertical size of the plywood boards, even his watercolours take shape in the same format; vertical. He could go for horizontal articulations, but Majhi finds it comfortable to stick to the vertical format. This verticality has given him a different stylistic advantage. First of all, instead of spreading over a large panoramic space, he could stick to a focused space, like a piece before the vision sliced up and placed for scrutiny. At the same time, it allows him a sort of virtuosity to develop a narrative the way the Mughal miniaturists had approached their sceneries. We see some sort of a crowded space in Majhi’s works and there are several areas where contours of the images and figures overlap. But take a careful look at them one would find that one image does not dismiss the other on the contrary it comes as a layer that supplements or complements the previous image or layer. Majhi has a very special tendency to present the flora and fauna of a place, that place is nothing other than the place in and around his village, and make them look very beautiful. The complicated arrangement of the flora at once functions as a border of the prints and also as a mode of embellishment. However, for Majhi they are the integral parts of the work that set the mood and backdrop of the ‘events’ that take place in his works. And if anyone of you have noticed that there is something quite Henry Rousseasque about his works, then yes, Majhi gleefully admits that he loves the works of Rousseau. 
Work by Rama Chandra Majhi
As mentioned elsewhere in this essay and as asserted by Majhi himself, his works are ‘not political’. But it is up to us whether we should see politics in his works or not. May be we could go by his words and say that there is no politics in these works and they are very beautiful one. True, one should not always look for political issues in someone’s works. But what one should do when the works subconsciously gives away the hidden intentions or the very subconscious of the artist himself. So here we look at a work where we see a herd of cattle, mainly of cows, is led by a few cowherds. And they are walking forward and one could even think of the Godhuli time, the beautiful twilight time, as in some of the works of Nandlal Bose, Binod Behari Mukherjee, Gobardhan Ash and so on. But something is different elsewhere in the painting. There is an absolutely unsettling act on one side of the painting. There you see a group of people beating or taming a defiant bull/cow. What exactly is that? Ask Majhi, he would say that in the village he often sees such scenes. There are very obedient animals and unruly ones. Some need taking. So there is nothing exceptional about it. But considering the present political scenario in the country where cow is a scared animal and the killing or hurting of it could get you killed (and even yesterday something of that sort has happened in Madhya Pradesh). This may be a subconscious expression of the artist or it could be absolutely a normal scene. But an onlooker cannot overlook the implications that it brings forth. I am reminded of a side show within a painting of Bhupen Khakar where two angels try to kill or dominate each other.  
Work by Rama Chandra Majhi
In one of the woodcuts, we could see a forest space interspersed with a village space and young men with their bodies tattooed to the wrist making a sort of circular movement. What intrigues us is that presence of a woman inside a basket and apparently is being carried on the shoulder by a young man. Is she being abducted or is it a rural ritual? Majhi has an answer about it. They are the present youth who are devoid of any respect of the elders. But at least one of the many still has it for his parents like the mythical character, Shravana Kumar. He also says that though there is a practice of boys tattooing their bodies in the village, it is not customary that they should cover their bodies with pictures. Majhi does it out of his will to embellish the painterly feel. In another work, one could see a host of sheep, as it is normal in the case of Majhi’s works walking towards us and one of the goats in the forefront has a magically transformed face; the face of the goat is now transformed to that of a young woman who has a pair of goggles, ear rings and lipstick on her lips. Majhi may refuse to say that he has done it with a message or commentary for he wants to keep his works ideologically neutral. However, we cannot avoid seeing the obvious; a young woman becoming a scapegoat or getting fattened to be slaughtered on the altar of marriage or other social demands.  
Work by Rama Chandra Majhi

There is another interesting work that Majhi connects directly to a series of accidents that have occurred near his village. A new road is created in his village to ease the traffic. First of all there was no such busy traffic to ease. But something else was happening on the other end of the village. Big business was coming and they needed big road. So a new road came and accidents became a normal sight. Majhi says that he has witness several car accidents in that road. So here is a work where he has captured his pain and the irony that he has felt about the whole thing; a door is opened and what you see is a series of cars tumbling down into the dark recesses like toy cars. Majhi laments the loss of human lives and happiness. He says that it is what development brings to us. But he does not want to critique it directly. He says that at present his intention is to capture whatever seems attractive to him. And he wants to make his works attractive. And true to his intentions, Majhi’s works are attractive. (When he talks about roads, accidents and developments, I think of Manjhi, Dasrath Manjhi, who is also known as the Mountain Man, who had created a road through a hill in Bihar using only a hammer and chisel just to connect his village to the city so that the villagers could avail medical facilities faster than otherwise they could by circumventing the hill. He took twenty two years of his life to bring about that ‘development’).
Work by Rama Chandra Majhi
How does Rama Chandra Majhi develop the images for his works? For Majhi, his village is the repository of a huge number of images. He says that he uses his mobile phone to register the images that he likes as he moves around in the village. Later on, in his college studio, he makes the initial sketches on paper by picking and choosing images from his photo gallery. He does not use them as they are but make creative alterations to fit to his woodcut works. Then he does the lay out on the plywood before going for the carving. It is a painstaking process and he makes at least five impressions in every work. His young teacher, Trinath Mohanty says that Majhi is a highly talented and devoted student and a look at his works proves that Mohanty is not wrong in his assessment. Majhi likes to do a post graduation in Printmaking and yes, from Baroda. He has given the applications and is waiting for their call. He loves the works of Laxma Gowd and A.Ramachandran. And what does he want to learn from Baroda? Perfection and more perfection. And what is Majhi going to do with more perfection which he already has? “I am going to work more and find out new expressions in printmaking. Baroda is a place that I am dreaming of,” says Majhi. Baroda, listen, ain’t you still accepting talents? 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Art of Experiencing: Introducing the Art of VB Harilal Krishnan

(VB Harilal Krishnan)

Art is a result of experiences. What an artist creates is nothing but the aggregate of his experiences distilled, reformed, re-formed and put into a form which is neither the experience in itself nor is it far away from the experience that has caused the work of art. Artist hence becomes a transitory station from where the experiences could take certain directions or even languish there forever without ever finding a destination therefore permanently denied a journey. Artist does intend to convey his distilled as well as raw experiences but his expressions need not necessarily be containing a message capable enough to move the ones who come to encounter those expressions. While an artist does not stand directly responsible for his expressions, his works of art, as separated from the artist, finding themselves in a different space and time stand responsible thanks to their evocative powers. By the time the viewers are moved by such distilled experiences (works of art), the artist must have moved further from those experiences and have accepted them as memory traces constantly generating a remote yet decisive framework for receiving as well as expressing different/newer experiences. However, till he finds the courage and space to move out of them, he finds it difficult to overlook those experiences and the metaphors and images caused by them.

The above said factors explain why an artist keeps repeating certain images and metaphors in his works or rather why he uses a certain colour or mood in order to build up his works. For example, Picasso was obsessed with the colour Blue and later Pink/Rose in his formative years. He also chose the themes pertaining to the fallen/failed/depressed people like clowns, prostitutes, old musicians and so on. Pink period reflected his optimism before his actual success as an artist. Once Picasso had grown into maturity and facing middle age crisis, his works started getting populated with the erotically powerful mythical creatures like minotaurs and satyrs. Perhaps, he was too afraid of facing the possibility of losing his virility both as an artist and a person. A potential artist outgrows his images and metaphors according to the different ways in which he receives the experiences, absorbs them, distils them and then refines or re-forms them. Failed artists are the ones who repeat the images and metaphors not because they are unable to outgrow their early experiences but because they are afraid of moving away from the set repertoire of images and metaphors for the fear of social rejection. The latter set of artists may be financially successful in their careers but it would be too difficult for them to outgrow their own times because they never let their works of art to grow on their own in time. That means, such artists control the meanings of their works and fix them in time, blocking the possible avenues of interpretations when the works meet their viewers in a different time and space.

(A work by Harilal. detial)

However, during the formative years an artist’s insistence on using certain set of image repertoire should be seen with sympathy and care. That’s why I started taking interest in the young artist V.B.Harilal, an artist from Kerala, who currently lives and works in Delhi. This artist in his mid 20s has a graduation in painting from the famous Mavelikkara Fine Arts College, Kerala. Harilal’s works are infested with the images of houses; the fundamental architectural image that is geometrically constituted by the combination of a square and a triangle. These two simple forms sometimes have further geometrical sections inside them imparting a sense of windows and doors. At times, as onlookers we feel that these ‘home-forms’ metastasise in his canvases and also in his drawings done on paper. Harilal likes blacks and greys; exactly the way Picasso had liked Blue and Pink. Familiar with the blue sky of Madrid and the pinks of women’s clothes and architecture, Picasso had all the reasons to let those colours to stain his imaginations. Harilal, despite his upbringing in the green and lush Kerala, due to the adverse living conditions developed a liking for whatever is black. He does not say that it is a colour of pessimism but he underlines the fact that is an excluded colour. He likes when I say that white surface of his canvases and papers exclude the black lines that he draws there. But the lines fight back powerfully to belong there and in the process look more prominent, almost relegating the white into the background.

Why homes? I have asked Harilal, the artist whom I call ‘Hari’ in all fondness. After hearing out his words, I have never had a second question on those homes. Have you ever experienced such a devastating occurrence in your life, as in, you are a primary school student and one day you come back from school to the place your ‘home’ once stood and you find that the home is no longer there? Sometimes you come back to your home and you see your parents have bundled up all their worldly possessions and waiting to move to a different place. Hari has experienced it ‘eighteen’ times in his life so far. For him ‘home’ is a ‘moveable’ entity; there surety in it. Why they have to move home all the times? Perhaps, the colour black would explain. Disadvantaged by caste and further disadvantaged by Kerala’s unuttered yet subtly articulated socio-economic discrimination, Hari and his parents have been moving from one place to another, looking for work, social security and happiness. I do not know whether there are still readers out there waiting for me to explain why Hari uses the images and metaphors of homes and he predominantly uses the black colour. But what makes me say good things about his works is their ability to make the viewer go into the core of his works even if he is not present in them. They are not just patterns meant to create rhythm and beauty; but you do feel rhythm and beauty in those repetitive images but you don’t just stop at it. You would go further and find out why Hari uses house images in his works because finally you would understand that he is still looking for his ‘home’, his hearth, his stability and happiness.

(work by Harilal)

When I look at Hari, I see a Basquiat just coming out of his cardboard box laid on the pavement as a temporary home and walking towards Andy Warhol who is seen sitting at a window table in a restaurant across the small street. Basquiat swaggers in and shows his small works to Andy Warhol and says that ‘I am Basquit and you may buy my works’. Such a confidence and I am impressed when I see him in Julian Schnabel’s biopic on the late young black rebel, Jean Michel Basquait. Perhaps, Hari does not exude that confidence but I can always see him walking out of a cardboard box to light, to the famous with lot of confidence. Why, because he has works with him and is ready to work forever. Like the Black radicals who have later become internationally known creative people, Hari too has a life rich in experiences. He did not know he was heckled by some senior students while college because he was Black. He thought it was his timidity that allowed them some space to enter and heckle him. Hari is a black belt in Kung-Fu. He could have thrashed them up. But the Zen of Kung-Fu has helped him channelize his anger to his works of art. Had he chosen to fight back in college, he knew he would have been landed in jail because jails are always for the blacks. In Kerala, we call blacks as Dalits. In India too. Hari chose to live in the free world and paint houses.

Let me tell you, when I just said, ‘paint houses’ it was not metaphorical at all. Hari painted houses, the real houses to eke out a living. Even when he was a student in the college, Hari did the job of a house painter, a help in the construction sites and many other jobs. To fund his post graduation Hari did work in a quarry where his ‘assignment’ was to carry large granite pieces to load the waiting trucks. So Hari’s works have the black of the granite stones too. Hari’s works have the black of skins burnt by the sharp sunlight. Still the yellows bordering those blacks in Hari’s paintings give us the Chaplinesque hope that he would make it finally because there is a tomorrow always. It’s not a sob story and Hari would hate to base his works in the shallow water of tears but in the rock strong foundation of his determination. Even today, people ask him why couldn’t he give public service commission tests and become a policeman or a peon. That’s the story of the blacks in India. None would ask him why shouldn’t he become a Husain or a Picasso. But it has been predetermined that a black in India could maximum become a policeman or a peon. A policeman always goes to the black ghettos on behalf of the state and catches his sleeping brothers and thrashes them up for the wrongs that perhaps they have never committed. The society also thinks that if there is a theft in the locality the culprits would definitely be from the black ghettos. Hari just wouldn’t like to be one for he is born to be an artist.

(work by Harilal)

Hari’s works are not just about homes; homes that fly, dream, swim, float and run. Hari also paints woods. He paints forests with thick and tall trees with a intertwining branches and foliages. And he always shows us a path that goes into the depths of the forests where all the secrets of life are kept hidden. When you look at those paths, you remember the poem of Robert Frost, ‘Road Not Taken’. Hari does not have time to sleep, perhaps he even doesn’t have time to stand and stare at the beauties offered by the forest. He wants to go miles before he could really sleep. Hari also gives the feeling of the images evoked by the Nigerian writer Ben Okri. While standing before the works of Hari we would feel that his forests are filled with magical creatures. He is full of compassion for the creatures around him; whether it be fellow human beings, dogs or cats. That’s why even if we don’t see human beings in his paintings (as they are around him a lot) we see cats, dogs and birds in his works. But to see them we need to train our eyes very hard because like in a puzzle they stay interspersed with the images of homes, burden supports and urine cans.

Those who do not have the experiences of a pre-globalized India and then too an India of 1950s and 60s, may find it difficult to understand what I mean by ‘burden supporters’. I do not know whether it has an actual English word because it comes from a Malayalam word, Chumadu Thangi. Chumadu means a heavy load/a burden metaphorically, and Thangi means a support/or a platform where one could keep the weight for some time. This is a granite stone structure reminding one of the Stonehenge. This is a horizontal stone slab propped up on two vertical rock pillars driven into the earth. Wayfarers carrying heavy loads keep their burden on it (as it is shoulder height one could transfer the head load on to it easily) and take rest under it till they are ready to proceed further. Human beings who take the burden of the family always evoke this metaphor, sometimes calling themselves as Chumadu Thangi or saying that they don’t have one to share the burden. Hari has brought this structure into his works, in the beginning as a realistic one and of late as a metaphorical one pushing it to its graphical minimalism. Hari sees the structure as the bend form of a human beings and he remembers each human being around him who have just made their lives into these forms in order to support their disadvantaged families. The urine can comes from a personal experience as his beloved grandfather incapacitated by illness had to use this ‘can’ for his ablutions. Slowly in Hari’s works, these cans appear as birds, a sort of headless swans flying around. Hari also paints the images of plantain orchards but in a stylized fashion where their leaves also contain the images of homes; at times remembering how the landlord broke all those leaves only because he didn’t want Hari and brother use these leaves for packing their humble noon meal.

(another work in progress by Harilal)

One may think that I am trying to create the image of an artist based on his sad story. But Hari’s is not a sad story; what I seen in him is a bold young man who is determined to rough it out in the big bad world and never say die. That is the spirit of a young black man today. Today nobody speaks of Picasso’s poverty or struggle. The blue and pink periods have become art historical categories. Hari’s story as it is too close in our times has not yet become an art historical category devoid of its painful under and overtones. But distanced in time and space, with his success as an artist in future, I am sure the sob stories (if anyone feels about them so now) of Hari would turn into art historical points.  Hari has a lot of potential to be one of the best artists in India. Hari’s experiences are so strong to be shaken off. They would mature and season in him. The metaphors of today would transform and take many incarnations in his canvases. He would be creating the art of the black and they together would be telling the story of the blacks in India of a time when we all sleep tight thinking that everything is alright around us when it is not the case.

(I couldn't source the right pictures for this essay. I will be uploading new pictures soon)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Reading a Contemporary Painting: Case Study- Jyothiraj Mayappilly

(Painting by Jyothiraj Mayappilly)

A work of art functions in the minds of the viewers as certain points of evocation, mainly of familiarity as well as curiosity. If one of these evocations doesn’t take place in the minds of the spectators, a work of art remains as a mere object before their eyes. An object raises its value as an aesthetic object through its ability to find resonances in the minds of the people who come to encounter it. A work of art also could be ‘enjoyed’ for its sheer ‘advertised value’ which in turn evokes familiarity. For example, a majority of the people who talk volumes about the masterpiece, ‘Potato Eaters’ by Vincent Van Gogh hardly have seen its original. However, the moment a similar image is presented through other mediums, thanks to the sheer ‘advertised value’ of it they start ‘admiring’ it. Even if a work of art doesn’t have any cultural affiliations with the viewer therefore cannot expect the evocation of ‘familiarity’ in him, still he could ‘enjoy’ it if it could evoke some sort of curiosity about it. To cite an example, I would take the most celebrated work of art by Picasso titled ‘Guernica’ instantly generates a curiosity about it among the viewers because the disparate images or rather (a carefully dispersed heap of) broken images evoke a sort of curiosity that from there takes the viewers to the familiar ‘war images’ that they have witnessed in their literature or contemporary events. Evocation of familiar feelings or knowledge is possible in the case of a work of art depending on the literature that has been built around it. That’s why we often say that art history and related critical literature are important for the proliferation of the ‘image’ of a work of art along with its intended meanings which in turn would give rise to many more interpretations in different cultural scenes.

I would like to ‘read’ a work of art done by a Kerala based artist Jyothiraj Mayapillly against the back drop. I came across this image in the Facebook and I was amused to see it. Even if I have not seen the original work (the way I have not seen the originals of many works of art in the history despite the fact that I deal with them in my writings as referential points and as cultural examples), thanks to the familiarity of the theme and the simplicity with which the images are rendered (or rather the whole painting is ‘built’) I find this work worth interpreting. This work has a family in it. Because there is a ‘family’ in it, even if it is not a family that could be seen all over the world, anybody from any part of the world could ‘understand’ this painting. This in a way ‘reassures’ the belief of the human beings that they build in and around the ‘society’. As the basis of a society is determined and conditioned as a ‘family unit’ anywhere in the world ‘family’ is concept that is revered even if that family is mired in disputes, disagreements, torturing and hatred. Family soothes one exactly the way a man lost his way in the desert is comforted by the sight of a mirage. One knows that it is a mirage yet he finds it so attractive and compelling therefore worth striving. In Jyothiraj’s painting,  as we see a family, ‘a happy family’ without any past or future discord visible, we are reassured the way when we see a painting of the Holy Family of Jesus Christ, Santhal Family by Ram Kinkar Baij and so on.

(Santal Family by Ram Kinkar Baij)

Interestingly, this family is not a typical Kerala family; I would say, this family is a family conjured up by the artist himself. This family could exist in the imagination of the artist. Let me explain why; the landscape against which the family is depicted is not a real landscape but an emblematic one. That is the case of most of the works of art. A work of art brings to the painting what is necessary in a painting; it could be done by way of editing out what is available and present in the actual landscape and also by picking and choosing certain elements from the given landscape that would make the setting look complete in itself. Except those artists who are staunch landscape painters who travel around the places and make paintings directly from the ‘nature’, artists who create landscapes sitting in studios imagine a landscape or base their landscapes in an existing photograph or picture and then make sufficient alterations therefore the work of art looks ‘nothing more nothing less but just enough’. In Jyothiraj’s untitled work we see this ‘just enough’ landscape as the family on the move is flanked by a palm tree (obviously a coconut tree as the setting is in Kerala) and a plantain tree with a banana bunch hanging from it. Barring these two trees and a few saplings down the plantain tree, only a green patch suggests that the landscape is lush and green.
This family doesn’t exist because it cannot exist. But it could exist in the imagination of the artist and it could grow into the minds of the others who view it. This family is an unreal tableau because we do not know their whereabouts. When we do not know someone and we encounter them quite unexpectedly they may look quite magical. So I would say here is a magical family and I would also say that the magic is because there is nothing real in it and it merely an illusion. Look at the moon that has risen far in the sky. Scientifically speaking the ‘side’ that we see in this painting should have been in the ‘dark’ as the light source is behind the images. But these ‘people’ in the painting are illuminated by a frontal light as we see them in full light. Now look at their shadows. Considering the shadows, we could deduce that the light source that illuminates the painting comes from thirty to forty five degree angle from the left side of the painting. A moonlit night cannot have two moons at once in the sky. So the artist actually sets up these people in this emblematic landscape. It does not come as an artistic fallacy but in magical realism the artist does not stick to events that could scientifically therefore logically proved.

(work by Jyothiraj Mayappilly)

Here is a family unit that is coming back from a village fair after buying whatever they have found interesting there. They look content and they do not need to go back and cook food at home. So their pace is leisurely. The children are caught up with the toys that they have just bought from the fair. Under the moon and against the romantic setting, the husband and wife exchange glances while engaged in an animated talk. What intrigues me is the dhoti that the man is wearing. This style of dhoti has never been the fashion or habit of the Kerala men at any point of time. The men from upper castes (especially the Brahmins who did the temple related activities) wore such kind of dhoti. But the complexion of the man or that of any member of the family gives a hint to think that they could be from upper caste. Besides, the man is not wearing a sacred thread across his body. From the clothes of the woman what I understand is that they belong to the lower middle class or the peasant caste. All of them are barefoot and the man does not wear a shirt. From the clothes of the children too I understand that they wear such clothes only on rare occasions. Here, they had gone to a village fair and they are on their way back. They had set out for the fair in the morning itself and they had anticipated intense heat or heavy rain as the man has an umbrella hanging from his right shoulder. Definitely they are not coming from a temple because they do not wear any sandal paste mark on their foreheads. This leads to another reading. Are they Christians therefore devoid of religious marks on their bodies? But a Christian is supposed to go to a church wearing his best clothes that includes a shirt. Generally Christians do not go to the church bare bodied.

(Mahatma Ayyankali)

Now I am going to make a sort of sociological reading of Jyothiraj’s painting. As they are wearing very clean clothes (white) and they do not carry any religious mark on them, they must be from a Dalit family that is involved in agriculture. The toys in the hands of the children show that they belong to the contemporary times. Though the whole setting could make us misread it as a scene from 1940s or 50s or even before that, the presence of the toys gives us a clue to understand it as a contemporary scene. Five decades back you could never have bought such toys from a village fair. This family is emblematic of an ‘awakened’ Dalit family in Kerala. The Dalit social reformers of the late 19th century and the early 20th century had insisted that all the Dalits should get educated and they should gain wealth through setting up business. Leaders like Ayyankali strived quite hard for spreading education among the Dalits, even if he was absolutely illiterate. He also insisted that Dalit should wear clean clothes because untouchability came from the idea of ‘cleanliness’ of the physical body (as Atman was neither clean nor dirty!). Till early 20th century the Dalits were not allowed to wear clean clothes (even if they bought fresh clothes they had to smear it with mud and dirt before wearing it in public). In the painting we see the family has bought educational equipments for the children. That means they are ready to take any pain to educate their children. The happiness on the children’s face show that they are contented and are very hopeful about the education that they are going to get. They are futuristic as they are playing with a helicopter and a robot. Interestingly, the artist has not pushed a ‘doll’ into the hands of the girl. She is also going to grow up into a mechanical engineer, come whatever may.

(Lord Shiva and Family- Kalighat Painting)

Jyothiraj Mayapilly is very romantic in this painting. I have noticed this romanticism in other paintings also. This romanticism happens mainly during the times when the strong hold of the mediatic realism and hyper realism wanes. Starkly realistic paintings had killed the possibilities of imagination. Maximum what the mediatic realist artists could do was creating a sort of surrealism in their works. Romanticism has the possibility of creating magical realism for it runs parallel with realism and also at times collapses the dryness of realism. As an art genre Realism had tried to depict what the mainstream art had avoided in those days (latter half of the 19th century) but that realism had also resisted the possibilities of turning them into magical realist works. Jyothiraj’s work is romantic as he looks inwards to device a time and space but there he creates a sort of realism which is quite magical. When I look at this work again I am reminded of one of the famous Kalighat paintings where we find the family of lord Shiva coming back from a village fair.