(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)