|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).”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’).
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?