Saturday, July 19, 2014

Anatomy of an Unknown Chair: Mansoor Ali’s Show at Maskara Gallery

(Mansoor Ali)

The interior of Gallery Maskara in Mumbai reminds of an old chapel in a war torn territory where rustic old parents come to pray for their sons who had gone to the warfront ages back, perhaps never to return. Kindled by faith they oscillate between hope and despair. This is a hangover of having seen too many Tarkovsky movies when mind was fresh and not overtly corrupted by theories and ways of seeing. There in the gallery I too oscillate between hope and despair as I watch the sculptural installation of Mansoor Ali, who has been obsessed with the idea of ‘chair’ for a long time. As I know the artist, I understand, while doing these works he too moves like a pendulum between hope and despair. The gallery director, Abhay Maskara, who has written a small introductory note, posits Mansoor’s works strictly in the context of politics, power games, corruption and the human beings’ greed for holding on to the chairs, the positions of power. May be, that is an entry point, one of the many doors to get into the skin of those works, and that entry point should not be wrong either. However, these works of Mansoor evoke a series of images and thoughts in my mind and I would like to jot them down. And let me tell you my dear reader, it is not a critique, nor is it a note of appreciation. It is a silent prayer in which, though people would like to focus on one thing, as desperate as they are, they tend to wander into various ruminations, tragic and comic.

Mansoor’s chairs raise the fundamental aesthetical values flagged out by Plato and also in due course they pose this perennial and disturbing question of originality. A chair is not a chair but an object three times away from the ideal conception of it. According to the ancient philosopher, in his Platonic view, the original chair is there in the custody/imagination of god. And then comes the imagination of the crafts person and the final chair is the outcome of these two imaginations, a physical object. Therefore, the chair that we see today around us is an aesthetical interpretation of these two imaginations, perhaps not the representation of the original idea of the chair. Joseph Kosuth was perhaps arguing this case, but more in a desconstructionist verve, when he placed a chair at the gallery and pasted a dictionary definition of it on the wall. It was as good as ‘This is not a Pipe’ by Rene Magritte. But as I stand in front of Mansoor’s works, I feel obviously that the artistic intention is not to raise the already raised questions of structural linguistics and the deconstructionist clamours that followed it. But I see Mansoor’s chairs as a tragic-comic vivification of the world hierarchies that either seeps down or vapours up to the various layers of society, vying each other to replicate each other and find satisfaction in such replications.

Four chairs come to my mind: The prime ministerial chair that the noted cartoonist R.K.Laxman had drawn repeatedly in his pocket cartoons. Jawaharlal Nehru was the first victim of that chair and the saga continues till in the case of Narendra Modi. But what amused me amongst them was a large chair where a small Lal Bahadur Shastri sitting with his legs dangling in mid air. R.K.Laxman was either obliquely referring  to Shastri’s small physique. Or was it was an ironic understatement that Shastri was not big enough to occupy a chair that Pandit Nehru had occupied. Chair, when seen in the political context is not just a chair but it is a musical chair, it is an electric chair and above all it is a machinery of repression and oppression. The second chair that comes to my mind is also from the same time, where Chittoprasad Bhattacharya, the Communist artist, had cartooned a chair; this chair has two occupants at a time, the kings of post independence India and the common man. Both of them want to occupy it and they are on an uneven scoot fight. And today we know who has won. The third chair is none other than the chair of the Imperial power in India, the peacock throne. And the fourth chair is the chair in Kiss Kursi Ka, a novel written by Amrit Nahata, which later on became a satirical movie on Indian politics. 

Mansoor Ali’s chairs perhaps comprise all of these chairs. As visual objects or sculptural installations these chairs evoke a visual impact. But I am afraid whether they have become too illustrative as the direct connotations of politics come naturally to these works. I feel it as a curse of the contemporary artists; the more they are inclined to comment upon the existing socio-political climate the more they get entangled in the meanings cleverly planted by the very same climate and its productive agencies. It has been happening with many an artist not only in our country but also elsewhere. Where the singular and monumental objects fail the artists tend to repeat the same image in the same ensemble several times or repeat it many times as components of a whole exhibition. The solace lies in the fact that Mansoor does not attempt to create familiar structures with the familiar chairs as that has been the norm for many contemporary artists these days. Some make trees, buildings and even skulls using steel utensils and some others make vehicles out of bone pieces. In both the cases these components are used as alphabets to create a visual statement but in the case of Mansoor’s ensemble of works, they are not alphabets but visual images that evoke multiple reactions but tied to the political critique.

‘The Restless Chair’ rotates and it rotates faster when the viewer approaches it, and it has all the visual characteristics of an authoritarian structure, in this case Indian parliament. In another work, Mansoor employs the same parliament structure and the work is titled the ‘Weight of the Political Brain’. It is a weighing machine, an industrial scale, and the weight of the brain here is equated as the weight of the parliament building, which in this case weighs around 1.33 kilograms. In another work titled Monument to an Unknown Politician, he uses around seven chairs of different sizes (the smallest one is three inches in size) in rusting iron/steel, and implies that to reach the top one has to start climbing from the smallest one. But I tend to call it a wishful work as in today’s Indian politics, where dynasty is rampant, small chair has lost its value altogether. To sit on the biggest chair you need to take birth in the right womb at the right political palace and also at the right time. Exceptions are there but they will be rendered useless within 49 days after staging a dharna at the parliament street, in peak winter. The best work in this exhibition is ‘Anatomy of an Unknown Chair’ which adequately deconstructs a rocking chair and displays its components in a glass case exactly the way objects are displayed in an ill maintained Indian museum. How an inconspicuous chair starts resembling ancient weapons and guns when it is deconstructed! It is a very interesting work indeed. The title is loaded as it reminds one of the India critique written none other than the first Indo-Anglican writer, Nirad C.Chowdhury who perhaps gave birth to the literary genre later flourished by V.S.Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, especially in their India baiting.

This show of Mansoor sticks out because of ‘Anatomy of an Unknown Chair’. The other work that receives the viewer at the invisible threshold of the gallery is titled Beautifully Corrupt II. This is an architectural structure made out of small dysfunctional chairs and they are filled with cobwebs. Does it resemble a government office that has left its mission of public service behind and has gone into an eternal lull? Or is it a contrast between the defunct public sector and the optimistic corporate sector? Or is it a statement saying that the chairs do not matter anymore? Mansoor's show evokes too many questions in a thinking person’s mind. For the rest of the wine drinkers, it is ‘an Abhay Maskara presentation.’

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Balbir-Michael Marriage: A Possible Beginning of a New Chapter in Indian Social History

(Michael Giangrasso and Balbir Krishan getting Married)

Balbir Krishan came to meet me all the way from Bagpat in Uttar Pradesh and it was in 2011. Facebook had brought me several friends from different places; ‘like’ ing spree was not an epidemic yet and in its naivety facebook-izens were updating their daily routines as status messages. Facebook had not evolved as a public interface of ideas and activities. Hung over by Orkut and Yahoo chat rooms, people were still using facebook as an exclusive chat room. When Balbir Krishan introduced himself as an artist, I happily accepted him as my ‘friend’ in facebook. One day he expressed his wish to come and meet me as he wanted to show me some of his original works. Reluctant as I am in meeting ‘strangers’, I politely discouraged him from coming. I found it was atrocious to expect someone to come and meet me from Bagpat, just to show few works. People still say that they would like to meet me; they call me from Dubai or Canada or Calicut and say that they just want to meet me. They are ready to travel any distance to meet me. I dissuade them, telling clearly that I am one of the most boring people available on the earth and they may be disappointed when they see me in person.

(Balbir with myself in Pradeep Puthoor's Opening at Nature Morte)

When Balbir called or when I agreed to meet him, I did not know about his personal details. I did not know about his life story, I did not know anything about his sexual orientation, nor did I know anything about his art. Generally I test the patience of the people who would like to work with me. I test their seriousness by showing some kind of disinterestedness. If they persist, I acknowledge their grit and even accept that offer to work with them. I made Balbir also to wait. But he insisted on meeting me. Finally I relented. He came to Musui Foundation, where I have my evolving dream archive, on a cold November morning. He struggled slightly to get out of the auto-rickshaw. Assisted by friend, Balbir came supporting his steps with a pair of walking sticks. He had a shy smile on his face and a mournful voice. He spoke to me about his life, its struggles, the tragedy that had rendered him a physically challenged person, his art, his village, his sexual orientation, the opposition that he faced from the society. I listened to his talk silently. He showed me the works. To cut the story short, Balbir had his solo show in 2012 in Delhi to which I wrote a catalogue essay introducing him to the mainstream art circuit. Some hooligans came to the gallery, attacked him, broke his works and left him shell shocked. But that incident made Balbir quite popular. Even Salman Rushdie referred him recently in one his speeches.

Balbir is a married man today. Michael Giangrasso from the US is his partner. They got married in the month of June 2014 in New York. In India, gay marriage is a criminal offense. However, as they are legally married elsewhere, they cannot be questioned. Balbir and Michael are now supported by many of the gay activists in Delhi and elsewhere. They lead a happy and normal life, just like any other married couple. They go out to see exhibitions, they just roam around in the city, visit friends, invite friends over and remain happy. Balbir’s transition from a lonely artist mourning over his fate to a happy, famous but a shy married man is not without its own suspense and thrills. Balbir was teaching in a school in Bagpet. When people came to know about his sexual orientation and his overt affair with Michael, they literally chased him out of the village, first forcing him out of the job. But in Delhi, at Michael’s place Balbir found a new life. A supportive partner, Michael does not limit Balbir in any manner to pursue his creative career. Their honeymoon days in the US were rather museum visits than indulging in any other pleasures that the US could offer. If you have seen the pictures of Balbir-Michael wedding in facebook, you know how happy they are about their marriage and also about visiting museums.

I have not visited Michael’s home where Balbir stays now. But somehow, they have taken me into confidence. Balbir calls me or writes to me about the developments in their life. He even asked for my ‘blessings’ for his marriage. I was overwhelmed. Balbir has always been a bit shy in front of me. Whenever I meet him at the exhibition openings, he speaks to me with great respect and discretion. Michael, though we are not friends in the formal sense, appreciates my writings and shows the same respect that Balbir has for me. I am very happy about their marriage and also very appreciative about their silent and normal life in Delhi. They keep themselves away from the fashionable crowd that generally pretends to be gay because that is much cooler than being a heterosexual. Balbir and Michael do not flaunt their presence anywhere so that they get noticed and looked at with admiration. They are not the activist-types who want to fight on anything and everything just because they are differently oriented, sexually or otherwise. Balbir and Michael, we accept it or not, represent a silent rebellion. Unlike many, they could get married there in the US and now fearlessly live in India. They are fortunate in that sense. But their dignified life in the Delhi society as a proud couple speaks volumes about the freedom that they have gained for themselves. I may be wrong, but I want to believe that Balbir-Michael marriage will be marked as an important event in future, as India would evolve more and become tolerant and reasonable about issues like gay marriages and general sexuality.   

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sepulchres of Icicles: Sajeev Visweswaran at 1 Shanti Road, Bangaluru

(Sajeev Visweswaran)

Sajeev Visweswaran’s drawings look like fine incisions made on the surface of a paper; they resemble the precise etching lines made on a zinc plate with an acute stylus. Though Sajeev was trained as a painter during his graduate years, his calling was to become a graphic artist for with the kind of dexterity in capturing images using lines, which defy all kinds of volume possible through shading. Sajeev’s drawings are not lyrical and their warm precision does not even resemble the studied clarity of the architectural drawings. They, for me at least, look like flattened images, peeled off layer after layer from his repository of memories. This must be one reason why Sajeev, after his post graduation in graphic arts from the Fine Arts Faculty, Baroda, spent a few years as a teacher the same department and became one of the most sought after teachers by the young students. Deliberately reluctant in using colours, Sajeev’s works look like minutely detailed paintings from where colours and volume have staged a walk out, leaving the lines to stand naked, stark and like razor’s edge.

When his solo display opens today at Bengaluru’s 1Shanti Road, Sajeev must be anxious about the audience's response for the space is already famous for experimental art including gallery based installations and performance art. From the images I gather that the ambience as well as the demand of the space have influenced Sajeev to do some kind of experiments with his drawings, if not about colours and volume but about their sizes and appearances. There are straight drawings in the hallmark style of Sajeev Visweswaran but at the same time there are certain assemblages where his miniature size drawings are kept in tiny containers that are generally used by the watch repairers for keeping the micro machine parts of the wrist watches. In today’s use and throw world, perhaps watch repairers are anachronisms like tailors in city; they almost look like sailors in their crew uniforms stranded in the middle of a desert. But when Sajeev brings those outdated vitrines to an exhibition space, it cannot be for anything but to remind the viewer of those good old days where people could see the finer details of things, when they could stand and stare with absolute concentration, exactly the way a watch repairer looks at micro world of machines through a magnifying glass.

Only up to that extent we could say that Sajeev’s works are lyrical or poetic. But however precise he is in his drawings, and however he eschews consciously the romanticism of colours, so long as he uses memories as his raw materials, he cannot do away with lyricism completely. In a sense, for Sajeev, these drawings come to life as a part of his self purgation or catharsis. Strangely caught up in the web of love for his wrinkled grandmother, the early drawings of Sajeev were a recurring tribute to the old age of that grand old lady. Sajeev saw his creative world moving around an axis in the form of his grandmother. He repeatedly drew the portrait of that lady, sitting, sleeping, thinking, speaking, day dreaming, speaking to cats, dogs and birds, and so on. This strange of obsession with an old woman, a grandchild’s perennial need to be in the vicinity of a story telling grandmother, had set the tone of his drawings, at times to the dismay of the viewer. What is there so much to speak about an old lady, one would wonder. But for Sajeev, he saw the world through her, the papaya tree seen in the courtyards, his parents in a morning stroll in their backyard vegetable garden, the room interiors, the cats that move around; they looked like registering moments for the artist to cherish on later days. But then, why couldn’t he do the same with a camera.

Sajeev with his skill for creating line drawings feels it impossible for him to see an image through a camera. Perhaps, he is a young artist who is without a digital camera that could instantly convert an observed image into a permanent moment, and proliferate if need be. But Sajeev, with his film camera enjoys that anxiety about a captured moment which manifests only when it is treated in a darkroom and he likes to see the surprises that it would reveal there. He is a strange pilgrim in a popular site of pilgrimage. He is a pedestrian in the street filled with digital vehicles; and he enjoys the walk thoroughly. After his grandmother’s death, Sajeev seems to have come to his own devices of negotiating the world. What he has been taking in from around his surroundings subconsciously seems to come back actively to goad him to see the truth of his life without the context of familial love and gratitude. In the new body of works, Sajeev uses memory as a spring board and take a plunge into the political memory of the country. 

However, I do not say that his drawings are overtly political. They suggest politics only when we know for sure that he has been living in Baroda for almost a decade now and has seen the after effects of communal violence and designer pogroms. He never has been a direct victim of all these social atrocities. But once he has overcome the grip of the memories about his grandmother, there seems to have happened a transportation of his own artistic self to the living moments of larger reality. The internalized violence of a society comes to take unprecedentedly strange forms in Sajeev’s drawings. Hence, here you see a lotus pond in fire or a lotus pond with fire emitting from at least some of the lotus flowers. Does the artist obliquely suggest a political party that has lotus as a political symbol and has all the tendencies to instigate communal divisions and hatred? Is burning lotus a symbol that surreptitiously comments upon the political changes in the country? Or is it a radical shift from the painterly traditions created by senior artists like A.Ramachandran, who has been drawing and painting lotus ponds relentlessly for some many years?

In one of the works, Sajeev uses an old wooden box with a sliding lid that moves along a pair of horizontal grooves. This box, seen from the memories of a rural past, was used for keeping spices in the kitchen. Sometimes these boxes were used as containers for keeping anything that would have a future use; it could be a shell, a few pebbles, buttons, needle and threads, old coins, broken toys and so on. Interestingly, these boxes were the favourite items/possessions of the grandmothers. From these magical boxes they used to conjure up divine objects for their grandchildren to play with. This particular treasure trove today is a useless object devoid of even aesthetic value as they are not ornamented or intricately carved with an inlay of mother pearls or ivory. This simple box, with a lid half slid opened, has a little drawing in it; a drawing of a burning wagon. I say Godhra but the artist says Auschwitz. I say 1921 mutiny and the artist says one is free to find associations. Effective in its simple visual presence, this particular work, however is not exceptional as a few artists have attempted this several years before.

 Sajeev titles his works as ‘Forgotten Memories’. If they are forgotten memories, then definitely these works are the reclamation of the same. Memories are a war against oblivion. So if someone asks, the way someone had asked Picasso, what is happening in your lines, then Sajeev could obviously say that a war is on in his lines because these line drawings are his attempts in retrieving the memories from a permanent loss or from them getting submerged into the glitter and glamour/clamour of the present day world. Seen from a different perspective, Sajeev works could be seen as fading lines. They are almost invisible on the surface and this near invisibility could be a ploy used by the artist to make his viewers to remember hard. For the familiar ones, there would be sense of elation in finding similarities, and for the new comers, Sajeev’s works would function as a key to open their own memories. Have they got such fading memories? Are the still in a war with oblivion? These works, for me, are Sajeev’s attempt to memorialize moments than memorise them. Sajeev’s drawings are sepulchres created out of icicles. Will they withstand the heat of time? Let time tell the answer.

(pics by Cops Shiva)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Final Illusion: The Works of Yuvan Bothysathuvar at District XIII

(Yuvan Bothysathuvar)

When you look at the works of Yuvan Bothysathuvar, exhibited at the newly opened Art District xIII, Lado Sarai, New Delhi, the feeling of finding a new and exciting artist embraces you. Yuvan is the winner of the Bestcollageart/Glenfiddich Emerging Indian Artist Award for 2013. A prize carrying a purse of Rs.10,00,000 and a three months residency at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Scotland is now considered to be one of the highly coveted art prices for the new Indian artists. Yuvan’s works, made out of carefully shredded papers by hand impart a new experience. His art could be called collage art yet they are not collages in the conventional sense; the paper pieces are not cut and pasted to create a particular form, but to create a feel and from taking in this feel into one’s system of aesthetic understanding is the first step to enjoy Yuvan’s works. As you see the works along with the artist who speaks no other language than his mother tongue, Tamil, you are thrown into a dilemma; are the works more interesting or the artist himself? Give a little time and have a little patience, soon you recognize that both are equally interesting.

A digital image of Yuvan’s works may not impress the viewer as the flatness of such images eat way the nuances that the artist creates on his pictorial surface, which is predominantly a thick plywood board. It would have been a near miss for Yuvan had the jury not been given a chance to see the original works during the process of selection. Same would be the case of a general viewer who sees a Yuvan ‘painting’ on a computer screen; the way Yuvan would have missed the prize, they also would miss the ‘works’ completely if they do not see them physically. Yuvan’s choice of materials, plywood surface and paper shreds, comes from an economic necessity. In his earlier avatar, Yuvan was a hoarding and banner painter, mainly catering to the film and political clients. But the heavy dose of academic realism that went into the making of hoardings and banners, after a decade of professional practice, slowly started disturbing him. He abandoned his commercial painting altogether and joined the Fine Arts College, Chennai, for pursuing a BFA and later MFA in Visual Communications, at the age of twenty eight, where he honed his skills to use different materials other than enamel paints. Shredded papers were the natural and easiest choice to begin with but he did not abandoned his favourite surface, the plywood on which most of the hoardings were created and his perennial love for the enigma that the posters had generated in him.


Does it sound too close to the story of the legendary artist, M.F.Husain? But nowhere in Yuvan’s works one could see a trace of Husain like modernism as the similarities between these two artists separated by time and geography, language and experience end in the fact that both them had once painted hoardings. Yuvan’s followed the call of papers. When he shredded them using hand and machine, he realized that not only the pieces but their rugged edges also could create tonal values and put them together skilfully, using visual communication faculties, could generate painterly effects. In his Glenfiddich sojourn too he had asked for locally available paper, which turned out to be the old brochures and other stationary materials of the company. As a master illusionist, as most of the hoarding painters are, Yuvan too started making illusions of spaces, landscapes and experiences using these shredded paper. In this exhibition, which comes as a part of the prize package, Yuvan presents a few works that he had done in Scotland and many others done in his studio at Lalit Kala Academy studios in Chennai. The experiences of Scotland, however do not dominate the show though there are a few works that directly elaborates the Scottish countryside, Scottish walls and Scottish landscapes. Yuvan was there during last winter; perhaps a time when everything is seen in a gloomy grey. But Yuvan sees the colours of the life there through the shredded papers and their painstaking arrangement on plywood.

‘Dilemma’ is a work that captures the attention of a viewer as he enters the gallery space. From one side it is a green painting and from the other side it is red and from the front it is an illusionistic mixture of peacock blue. But you are not a naive viewer; you know that it is the technique used in the ‘blind’ advertisement where the blinds have images on the both sides. As a former visual communicator and advertising painter, Yuvan has skilfully used this technique in his painting. He tells me a small anecdote and perhaps ‘Dilemma’ is a tribute to that anecdote. Once while working with the famous advertising company in Chennai called J.P.Krishna, Yuvan created a huge film hoarding using this static blinds. From one side people could see the face of one film star and from the other another one, and from the front yet another emotional filled face of the star. Upon installing at a street corner people gathered to see this ‘magical’ hoarding, which caused a couple of major road accidents. The local authorities asked the agencies to pull down the hoarding and that was the end of that ambitious advertisement feat. In Dilemma, Yuvan subconsciously touches upon that incident.


In a work titled ‘Poster’, Yuvan creates the impression of a street wall on a course of constant dressing and undressing by film and political posters. The technique, as you look on, comes out to be very simple; on a cleverly created corrugated surface, Yuvan pastes a lot of posters and runs a cutter along the grooves, leaving a hollow strip between each protrusion. From a distance the work gives the impression of a wall or a shutter stripped off of its ‘own’ posters. Yuvan says that the inspiration for this work comes from a ‘still on’ real life incident. In Chennai, the ‘poster’ boys go around and paste film posters all over the walls and shutters. Metro authorities come on the next morning and start peeling them off. The charade is repeated endlessly, leaving the surfaces with a permanently scarred look. For Yuvan they are memory traces of visuals; maybe one could just visualise the whole poster from a trace, from an eye or a calligraphic letter, without seeing the poster as a whole.

Experience and practice have helped Yuvan to create eye fooling illusions. He creates a white and off white background on a plywood surface and then makes black and white figurative drawings. These drawings are later shredded as per his visual needs and paste on them like ‘painterly’ lines in order to create an illusionistic space and movement. This technique he repeats in many of his works, which from a closer look would reveal that is a combination of textural and textual materials. The printed texts on the shredded papers give an additional visual quality to the works; they are like minute brush strokes, blobs, patches and daubs and drippings. One of the works that I found quite emotionally charged is titled ‘Experience’. This work is in a vertical glass case with its interior covered with papers shredded from a Tamil literary work that Yuvan had taken along with him to Scotland to read. Right in the middle of the box is a Glenfiddich bottle suspended upside down with its cork falling a few inches down from its mouth. Yuvan says that it is an exclamation mark; the wonderment that he felt at the distillery, in the strange Scottish environment and by the strangest of weathers. But I would say, projecting Yuvan as a grand illusionist will cause trouble for him in the long run.

 (My Bed)

A few words about Yuvan’s life are quite important to understand this artist and his work. Born and brought up in a remote rural area in Tamil Nadu, Yuvan spent his childhood with his mother’s eldest sister. They were eleven sisters, says Yuvan. So he never spent his childhood with his parents. As it is a custom in the villages, elderly couples take care of children and they in turn give them a sense of fulfilment and protection. This elder mother was a great story teller and Yuvan was a great listener. Perhaps, he was destined to listen to more and more stories. A military returned gentleman offered to teach our young Yuvan some ‘English’. Instead of English, Yuvan heard a lot of stories from this military man. “Through these stories, I thought I came to know the world much more than the kids of my own age,” Yuvan says. He was sent to study in school in the holy town Thiruvannamalai where he spent almost twelve years in hostel. Thiruvannamalai had a lot of film theatres and all of them wanted posters and banners. Skilful in painting, Yuvan started making banners for them. By the time he finished his school he was a locally famous advertising painter. Confidence took him to Chennai where he approached the famous J.P.Krishna company that excelled in making huge hoardings, cut outs and banners for film stars and political leaders. Seeing his skills, Yuvan was absorbed into the team and it was his entry to the world of spectacular hoardings. They used projectors to do the tracing, that too part by part. The final impression was seen only when the hoarding went up. For Yuvan a thirty feet hoarding was a half day job. Speed was the USP of any hoarding painter especially in a place that produced around an average of three hundred films in a year.

Even if you try to hide your talent, someone looking out for it would definitely find it out. Yuvan was not deliberately hiding his talent but his hoardings were telling about it to the world. Literally the world came in search of him. When Belgium initiated a project at Brussels’ new bus terminus, they invited Yuvan and few other hoarding painters from Chennai to Brussels to paint the portrait of national celebrities there on the walls and other public buildings. It was in 2004. And even today, every year, Belgium authorities commission Yuvan to make portraits of their national leaders. A few years before, Yuvan was invited to finish a mural scale painting in Dubai, which he finished within fifteen days with a fellow artist and spent rest of fifteen days ‘enjoying’ life in Dubai. While in Belgium, he travelled all over Europe. However, he says Scotland was a different experience. Before I wind up my interview with Yuvan, I ask him a question about his very special name. “Yuvan is young,” says Yuvan. “Bothysathuvar means Bodhisatva, Buddha.” I am a bit confused as I could not find such surname in Tamil Nadu. Yuvan smiles. “I was Sivakumar. That was the name my parents had given me. After my life as a hoarding painter, when I joined the arts college, I thought of a name that set me free, free from numerological humbug, godly associations and parental tyranny. Then I chose the name Yuvan Bothysathuvar.” I am not surprised; he has the strange alchemy of turning papers into paintings. He used the same alchemy to change his name. And I am sure that is working for him. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Three Drawings of Usha Ramachandran

(Usha Ramachandran)

Somehow these drawings attract me. They are not too far away from the tradition of creative illustrations that one has been seeing for quite a long time in Kerala. But Usha Ramachandran is not prolific when it comes to drawing; she is prolific in her sculptural output though. The drawings that she has recently posted in her facebook page are striking for their simplicity. I maybe wrong here because simplicity is the hallmark of all drawings. If drawings are complex either they end up as conscious efforts in creating that effect or just doodling. Yet, I feel that there is something that makes these drawings distinct and it is ‘love’. It is not the kind of love that develops between two people, tinged with, at times at bit of carnal desire. Nor is it the pure and ideal romantic love, which in psychologists’ parlance known as agape love. Nor is the kind of love that one professes for the humanity or for the whole universe and the animate and inanimate inhabits there. It is that kind of love that manifests in people who have lived a fruitful love and removed all kind of competitive egos from one’s own self. That love comes with age; if not with age, with wisdom.

One can argue about the age limit for having enough amount of wisdom and that argument could be endless. I do not want to enter into that kind of futile exercise. Prolific painters are masters of drawing too. Take Picasso or Ram Kinkar Baij, Nandalal Bose or Binode Behari Mukherjee, K.G.Subramnyan or Shibu Natesan, their drawings are simple, pure and full of love for the subject that they choose to draw. Their drawings are a delight to watch. But they did their drawings even when they were young and full of life. However, it is not wrong to argue that as an artist advances in age, things get simpler and pure. If it does not happen, then we have all the reasons to think that they have not aged enough. Or maybe, drawing is a way to capture life in most effortless strokes. I think, drawings become more alive when the artist starts to see things around him or her in simpler ways. Why more lines when a single line could capture the complexity of life? Why more colours when a single patch could embody the whole volume?

In Usha Ramachandran’s case, I think, from circumstantial evidences, that of late she has been thinking more about the advancing of her age. The more she is conscious of her age, the more she becomes reconciled to the world. The complexities of the world are shed one by one and she feels that life could be captured in simple lines. And these simple lines originate from simple love. Look at her themes; a young mother bathing her infant child. An old sleeping dog curled up to himself. An old Muslim tailor does some hand stitching on a piece of cloth. In the age of plastic revolution, no young mother uses her thighs as a bathing cradle/tub for an infant. It had been a practice amongst rural women. They put oil and turmeric on the child’s body, keep a trough of lukewarm water nearby, roll up their mundu (dhoti) till the thighs, lay the child on them, pour a palm full of water first on the stomach and chest of the child, see it giggle, call out to the birds, cats, dogs and other kids to come and witness this bathing performance. This simple spectacle of life has gone with plastic ducks quack around in tiny tubs kept on the marble tiled bathrooms. Usha Ramachandran recalls those good old days. It is simple nostalgia of a time. It is not necessary that she thinks about her own childhood or her own motherhood. It is the memories of such love; drawing the possibility of touch and communication with lukewarm water.

In a small note, Usha Ramachandran writes that her dog has grown old and it spends most of the time sleeping. Curled up to itself, the dog is created out of a single line. I do not call it a phenomenal drawing. But there is something that holds the viewer’s attention. Maybe it is my sensitive state of mind. I see the black nose of the dog and its laziness. Is it an extended imagery, a projection? One could say so. But I would say, it is the artist’s turning from the macro world to micro world. Usha Ramachandran’s sculptures have always captured the events of a smaller world, where wind gets caught into an open umbrella, a woman walk fast under rain holding a leaf as umbrella, a postman rushing with a postal bag, a girl on the swing, a bird and so on. In this drawing, however, she focuses further on smaller events of life; an old dog sleeping. If someone is intently watching a dog sleeping, then that person cannot cherish or nourish an iota of hatred within. She watches the slow pace of its breathing and draws a picture. I always wonder, especially when I see dogs sleeping, what do they dream of?

The third and final drawing that I would like to consider is the old Muslim man sewing a cloth. The expression is curious and could be seen only by children (children who could talk to dogs and cats) and Usha Ramachandran assumes the state of a child. His right hand goes up in the air with a needle in his hand. His left hand holds the cloth. And in the drawing, only coloured area is that of the fabric. This skilful use of colour adds to the dynamics of the drawing. Again, Usha Ramachandran draws it with a lot of love, which is recalled from the storage of memories for such wandering Muslim tailors are no longer seen in the social landscape of our times. These drawings make sense to me and I enjoy looking at them, for the love that has gone into its making and for the sheer pleasure of seeing something so simple and unpretentious. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Invisible Ends of Our Material World: Pradeep Puthoor’s Show at Nature Morte, Delhi

(Pradeep Puthoor)

Before a work of art, an enthusiastic viewer, though he claims to be looking for something new and strange, in fact often looks for something familiar. Looking for familiarity is the mind’s very deliberate attempt to derive associations that would evoke a sense of coherence and comprehension, which would eventually lead to the understanding of a work of art. Familiarity also sends the viewer to a comfort zone so that he could be at peace with what he witnesses. It reassures the patterns within which one has set to lead his life, makes negotiations with the society where he lives and also makes him feel secure in front of someone else’s aesthetic expression. A work of art could be disturbing at the outset, it may have some shock values and it may even challenge the very notions about art that one holds sacred for a long time. However, the moment one finds some kind of familiarity with the subject/image/style one is satisfied. Dejection and rejection turn into acceptance. If you are a buyer or an art collector, perhaps then you could look for a cheque leaf to sign and own it. Then you say, “I want to leave with this work of art.” An art collection basically shows the collector’s taste, true, but it also shows how much he wants to familiarize with the strange beauties and be at peace with them.

Pradeep Puthoor’s paintings, despite its riot of colours, at the outset do not take the viewers to a comfort zone of familiarity. They are large scale paintings with organic images and bone structures filling in the space defying possible logic of symmetry and structure. However, they do not collapse under their own weight as the more one looks at them the more one sees the structural integrity and the compositional strength. But that is not enough for a viewer to feel comforted or reassured in front of a work of art. The search for familiarity should start from somewhere and often it happens from the title, but the titles do not yield much as a title like this ‘Animal on the Ramp’ does not show either an animal or a ramp. Instead they show organic figures, strange flora and fauna, an underwater world feeling or an ethereal kingdom of strange creatures. Yet, the creatures are not fully formed though some of them have eyes popping out from here and there. Some pupa like forms gives the expectation of transforming themselves into fully formed winged creatures but that also does not happen here. In short, Pradeep Puthoor’s works primarily unsettle the viewer. But the good thing about this work is that cursory glances or visions tainted by wine do not help one to understand them. One has to stand and stare, if need be, for a very long time. The paintings absorb the viewer. After a long time, perhaps, a viewer is made to stand before a work of art and wonder what it is all about.

The paintings that one sees here in this untitled show are not abstract and they are not figurative either. Surprisingly, they are more about painting, the very act of painting than its representational possibilities. Each image is connected to the image next to it through an internal logic of painting. They look like a bone structure or a nervous system. Here the familiarity associations start. They look like anatomical studies yet not clinical or scientific. They look like internal organs pulled out, but without violence. They are not cross sections of heart or lungs. However, from a distance they could fool the viewer making him think that it is all about an internal space aesthetically externalized. Pradeep Puthoor’s paintings are strange landscapes where brushes and colours take a walk, a very long walk. According to the artist, the logic of the painting lies in the act of painting, not in conjuring up images. “We live in a complex world, where money rules and values decay. But I cannot be overtly critical of money because money is the driving force. But the question is how money and values co-exist without deteriorating into a vast land of dump yard where everything is in a state of decay. I capture this world of degeneration and if you look minutely, you could see how in this decaying world, everything transforms in a strange way, opening up a world beyond our comprehension,” says Pradeep.

This world of slow deterioration is another matrix, exist in real and in imagination at once, having a sort of independence as a republic but without strict rules of governance and policing, and abundance of autonomy. The material world and the human beings who revel in materiality provide fuel to this transformation and they without knowing, live on a world which is caused by themselves, which is perhaps much more interesting than the world of malls, wide roads, heavy traffic and multiplexes and shopping complexes. Pradeep enjoys watching this world and when he makes his mural scale works, he almost feel the orgy of a new life existing parallel with our material world. This is not a spiritual world that we understand in the conventional sense. It is not an attempt to go within and beyond for the realization of the self, releasing the hidden powers. Pradeep’s pictorial world is neither a nether world nor a paradise. It exists right here, now as our extended existence, which we cause but refuse to experience. When he paints that world, only in the structure and composition, as an artist he makes certain interfering, otherwise he lets the images grow, exactly the same way this parallel world grows right here and now. But where does it exist actually?

As I said, this world is not in our mind, it is not in our heart, not in our thoughts, not in our feelings, not in our passions, not in our consumptions. But it is in our acts, at the invisible ends of our acts. Whatever we do here and now, manifests in this invisible world. That means, almost like a butterfly effect, our actions causes these worlds; these worlds of beautiful decay. Pradeep, in one of his works, makes a Temple for Yellow Bones. If one really wants to feel comfortable with that painting, one could imagine a gothic structure with peculiar windows made of bones. But according to the artist, these temples are made by our own gluttony; our greed to eat, consume more and more. What we leave behind are bones and hairs that keep looking at our lives as hieroglyphics of disaster and destruction, which unfortunately we do not care to decipher. Hence, Pradeep makes a temple for these bones; perhaps all historical monuments are temples for/of bones.

Eventually, as an art critic I have to be at peace with myself. So I spend a lot of time before Pradeep’s paintings and look for familiar entry points. I have seen the early works of Pradeep, therefore these works do not shock me. However, I need to justify myself. Hence I start seeing Joan Miro’s surrealist abstractions in him, later on an altered version of the Damsels of Avignon. Then I reach a point where I could attribute any historical work to the ones that I see in the gallery. Finally I drop that attempt because I know that the strange eroticism of Pradeep’s work would take me even to Delacroix. That is a futile exercise and perhaps would go against the grain of my argument that these paintings as the invisible ends of our own making.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What They Speak to the Dogs: Is it about Revolution?

(Picture for illustrative purpose only)

I live in a street full of children. When the electricity goes off for indefinite hours, they come out in hoards with their plastic toys, dogs and skipping ropes. In the balconies women and men appear cursing the authorities under their breath. Along the narrow street, the balconies on either side look like extensions of the same space connected by an invisible bridge. People talk across the street, standing in their balconies. Women share gossips, men talk loudly on their mobile phones; women discuss the prices of vegetables and men that of real estate. Down there the ground level people, both men and women stare at darkness as thick and deep as their lives. They are muted beings with words lost in the darkness, dreams lost half way, with a life that leads to nowhere and yet they live on. But children unaware of all the vagaries of the world play on. Load shedding or scarcity of water does not seem to affect them. They live in a world where spirits are real things. Perhaps they have been there till a few years before, playing with their spirit mates. Now they are here in this nondescript street where the spirits also have followed them beckoning them to come back to the original abode of peace and bliss, exactly the way Azaro of Ben Okri’s Famished Road used to get allured by his spirit mates.

When there is load shedding (temporary outage of electricity, which is known otherwise known as current cut) I go out for a stroll. I walk with my eyes fixed on my feet. I can see a number of eyes watching me from balconies but I am not worried about those eyes. But I am worried of my foot steps as the pathway is uneven with rubble, cow dung, garbage, dilapidated vehicles, an array of water canisters, air coolers, folding cots and so on. One has to watch out the steps. But I keep my eyes open to the happenings around me. I hear the people talking; more than the talk of the elders I hear the voices of the children talking. They talk so many things that even their parents don’t understand. Had they been born to rich households their babbling and acts would have been video recorded or photographed by the doting parents. Here their actions are not registered, their voices are not recorded and their dreams are not captured. They get lost in the process of their growing up. But they seem to be eternally happy. I have been seeing a small girl with her right leg in a plaster cast, from her ankle to thigh. She seems to be absolutely fine with it. She runs, limping behind the other kids. Many times I thought of asking her mother, who cooks at the street side, about this girl. Why the cast is not removed so far? I resist myself; maybe they do not like an intrusive question. However, children in this street have become familiar to my presence. Occasionally they give me a smile. I secretly make faces at them and they smile again.

The other day I heard a few of them talking. One child, holding a small dog on a leash, was asking her friends whether they knew what her doggie told another doggie of a particular moment. I did not wait for the answer. But the question itself was enough to know the surreal world which they inhabit. They can listen to the communication between two dogs. One day I saw a very young child, must be three years old, playing with his toy suddenly leaving his toy aside and walking cautiously towards a cat which was lying near a water canister and licking her body clean. As the boy went near, the cat stopped cleaning herself and stared at the child for a moment. The child stood frozen. The cat looked at the child. They stood like that for a few moments. I could not listen to their communication but I knew something interesting was going on between them. After a few moments, their silent dialogue snapped. The cat got up and left, mewing calmly and the child went back to his toy.

Yesterday, while walking along the street, I saw a child playing with his tricycle. The blue tricycle had some extra fittings which made it look like a miniature spaceship in which aliens generally visit the earth at unearthly hours. The boy was not sitting on it, instead he was pushing it around and suddenly he realized that if he pushed it up on the rising side of the street, once it was released from there it would come down on its own. He was deriving tremendous pleasure. When I was coming, he with a mischievous smile on his face pushed the cycle up and the let it run towards me. I jumped aside and tried to stop it. He was feeling so good that he could frighten me. I bent down, touched the cycle and gave him a smile. He returned the smile but that was the smile of an alien; only aliens could smile that way.

When electricity comes back, all the children in the street make a sound. The coolers start buzzing and the television sets rambling and in the ensuing din the voices of the kids get submerged. I have seen children talking to the mangoes that they are eating; talking to the hand pump as they pump the lever up and down. I have seen children talking to goats. It is a beautiful world where under- privileged children make their lives happy without any modern distractions. They permanently eat outside because they eat sitting outside their one room homes. They play video games with stars, moon and anything that moves in the night sky. They visit theme parks and malls as they climb the garbage dumps. They have the book of life in their hand and street as their university. Unfortunately we fail to see their degrees. So they remain subzi walas, istri walas, auto walas, masons, samosa makers, dish washers and so on. But I am sure, one day they will come out and they will let their childhood take over their lives, and along the streets the spirits of the kids will come marching with placards that say, Give us our words back, Give us our meanings back, and Give us our memories back. Then there will be a revolution. I will not live to see that day. But I can see that these children are preparing themselves for that great march, that great uprising, for the time being camouflaged in kids' plays.