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. 

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