Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Epic Theatre of Current Absurdity: The Art of Pravin Dhanuskar

(Artist Pravin Dhanuskar)

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it,” said the famous German playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht. The re-articulation of the classical dictum, ‘art is a mirror held up to nature’ came via William Shakespeare had taken an absolutely different form, shape, complex and effect in the hands of Brecht. For him art is a hammer that could ‘deconstruct’ and ‘reconstruct’ the society. It connotes the physical power directly employed unlike in the technological world where physical power is always mediated through machines, tools, networks and retailing. Here in the case of Brecht we should be taking ‘physical power’ as the imaginative power of the human creator who mediates it through his/her works of art. Pravin Dhanuskar is quite Brechtian in this sense both in revealing the epic theatricality of life and also in eking out a response from the audience.

Epic theatre, though the word connotes magnificent scale and form, does not really reflect upon classically epical subjects but the topics and subjects around the artist and builds its dynamics in the course of an interactive display of histrionics. We see the same in the works of Dhanuskar as the subject matter that he chooses for painting those ‘dramatic’ scenes is rightly picked up from the society around him. Hailing from a farmer’s family and later on migrated to a buzzing metro city like Mumbai Dhanuskar knows the best of the former and worst of both the worlds. But that does not put him off, nor does he turn into an existentialist who either turns his gaze into oneself or unto his shadow. Instead, Dhanuskar boldly looks around and picks and chooses such vignettes of events that could be easily identified by even an unsuspecting spectator in an art gallery. The images that I would be elucidating soon in the following part of this essay have a telltale nature and invite the viewers for a closer inspection. The format that Dhanuskar prefers may not be epic in scale but the essential politicization involved in the image making process has an epic quality.

Dhanuskar’s politics is his art and vice versa. Outside the art the politics of his kind cannot function for the sheer functional impossibility. An artist who speaks of the deprivations that the farmers face today in India may be ostracized just for his dissenting voice. While he is expected to be singing praises of the sacrifices done by the farmers and soldiers for the country, his dissenting could be taken for an act of betrayal and his dissenting voice might place him among the anti-nationalists. In such a scenario, telling truth and using the hammer at once to wake up the society and reconstruct it needs a different aesthetical strategy. Dhanuskar employs the image of a cage (as quotidian as the wire mesh cages that protect the saplings along the road dividers and footpaths) and attributes a different functional value to it. He makes a series of ink drawings titled ‘Stringing Up’ in which instead of the expected saplings he places an emblematic human figure, which is attacked and vandalized by daggers of different sizes from all the sides. At one point a stringed cage is cut up into two in the middle and the process the man inside also is cut into two parts. 

A sapling is expected to be nurtured and cared for. That’s what a farmer does to a sapling or the paddy shoots in a field. The wire mesh cages on the road sides are supposed to protect the saplings that would grow into trees to give shade and oxygen to the future generations. Gardeners water them from all sides and even make the soil at their roots loose so that easy absorption of water is made possible. But what happens here is the ruthless attack. The sapling is replaced with the emblematic farmer himself and he is ‘cabined, caged and cribbed’, besides he is vandalized and annihilated. Dhanuskar’s politics comes in such a metaphorical way, which is akin to the epic theatre that Brecht had initiated in the last century Germany. The simple, harmless and a bit childlike ink drawings in the first instance itself cajole the viewers to what they know; it is then they are forced to see how do they know it and why do they know it. The moment they understand it through the process of general information regarding the contemporary times of our country, one enters into the world of such simple yet difficult metaphors and feels the persuasive politics of those images.

‘Hunting Binoculars’ is an interesting series that is treated a bit more directly than the other works by Dhanuskar. Binoculars, as we know, do not hunt; they are used by hunters. Binoculars, at the same time suggest the safe distance that the hunter/s takes during the act of hunting. That means from a safe distance a group of people are hunting hapless human beings who live harmoniously with the nature. However, the moment the hunters locate a place for their game the fate of the dwellers in those places is changed forever. They get displaced or become permanent migrants elsewhere. Some may become urban poor and some become urban laborers. It is the grand metamorphosis that India today is undergoing; transformation of people from human beings to subhuman creatures in a world of urban slavery in a Kafkaesque turn of events.

In one of the lenses we see an emblematic face; it could be that of the hunter or that of the viewer. Here is an interesting alchemy as we look through the lens of a pair of binoculars we too become a part of the hunting group temporarily and the sight seen through it must be fascinating. In the other lens there appear three scenes; one, the face of a troubled farmer and the field sprawling behind him, two, a jumble of worshipping centers like temples, mosques and churches, and three, a cluster of nuclear reactors. Dhanuskar quite subtly identifies and sets before us the conflict zones without making much hue and cry about it. We could see development, unrest in the agricultural field and religion are the three conflicting points in our society. People are ready to die and kill for these three things and it mars the whole onward journey of a might country like India. Perhaps, our politicians want to retain these issues unaltered or they do not want to find a permanent solution so that the vote bank politics would find its future niches decelerating the progress considerably. What one never fails to notice in Dhanuskar’s ‘Hunting Binoculars’ series are the faces of the emblematic human beings that almost become the faces of Scarecrows.

‘Scarecrow’ is a closer to home metaphor for Dhanuskar as it stands curiously and eerily for the others (and absolutely naturally for the farmers in the fields or living in the farming villages) and with its hidden power scares away the avian pilferers. Here, Dhanuskar gives a twist to the meaning of a normal scarecrow; the hidden and unarticulated power of a common man, as it was a reflection of the Bollywood line, ‘Don’t underestimate the power of a common man.’ At the same time scarecrows could be simple effigies that represent evil powers and negativity. In Dhanuskar, the scarecrow faces oscillate between these two meanings. In his series, ‘Height of Memorial’ he almost lampoons the political bigwigs who go around in a statue installation spree. A statue of any height, made of any material or has any ideology to back up is bound to collapse in the long run or rather assume a new meaning in a changed time. Dhanuskar forwards this critique on memorials through this series where the faces of the statues, as expected become the faces of scarecrows. The same political satire once again comes to play in yet another series by Dhanuskar, titled ‘Trepidation.’ The same scarecrow faces are repeated here also but they are fitted on to the bodies that enact the famous yogic postures and challenges, advertised and propagated by the powerful mainstream media and the power centers itself. The viewers need not go very far to understand what the artist exactly wants to convey. But he forwards the critique with discretion and does not want to hurt anybody’s sentiments unnecessarily. As a master craftsman, Dhanuskar knows how to hammer the society and wake it up.

‘Pachyderm-ic Pressure’ is another series that Dhanuskar brings out in this exhibition without losing his critical verve but keeping the idea of epic theatre in mind. Elephants are curious animals, reminding always of the magnificent forest lives of yesteryears and the distant historical times when the mammoths and dinosaurs had ruled the earth. However, in his series Dhanuskar presents the elephants as multi-trunked magical creatures that could exert their pressure on the society and tame it; an elephant that grows to the level of a monarch or an autocrat by virtue of his mightiness could control societies with fully developed and intelligent human beings, and render them absolute puppets in his hands. Whether this series should be taken as a direct commentary on social events or they should be seen within the aesthetical context is up to the viewers, and that is the beauty of the epic theatre unlike the proscenium theatre based cathartic presentations. In this context, a latest series titled ‘Ill Omen’ depicting three nocturnal creatures should be mentioned. This work, which is quite striking, comes as an underlining to his politico-aesthetical thoughts. Dhanuskar believes that the bad times are not over; it has just begun and many more to come. How and when it would come, as an artist he does not have answers, but he sketches out the ominous times where we are destined to live through.

I would conclude this essay by mentioning two video installations that Dhanuskar has presented in this exhibition. One is titled ‘Orthodoxism’ and the other is ‘Vibration of Negativity’. The titles as well as the presentations are simple and direct but as I mentioned in the beginning, there is an epic theatre quality to these video installations. Orthodoxism, as the word suggests, has political orthodoxy working overtime to retain their chairs of power. They are ready to do anything for that; including bribery and backstabbing, kidnap and murder, confinement and encounter etc. In the video we see masked characters in a mime charade enacting telltale acts of power struggle but what makes us sit up is the sound track that contains the screeching and howling of these ominous characters. All of a sudden we realize that our lives are enveloped by such inhuman cacophony that often we get accustomed to. Separated out of the living context and posited in the theatrical situation, this shrieking wakes us up, hammers us down and instills fear in us but at the same time the courage to call out ‘stop’. In ‘Vibration of Negativity’, Dhanuskar goes back to his familiar zone of agricultural field where he places the scarecrow as the central figure. We see a man trying to approach it but failing in each attempt. There is something negative about it the scarecrow; taken in a positive sense the negativity scares off the birds but in a critical sense, as we see here, the scarecrow becomes a stand in image for the autocrat who does not allow people to go near him. He is not only negative but also dispels any efforts to assail it. It takes a lot of effort to cross the invisible ring of negativity that it exudes and overthrow it.

Pravin Dhanuskar is an artist who takes subtlety as his mode of action; but his mode of expression is different. Through very subtle washes and strokes he creates such images that surpass their shyness and take people by force and ask them to delve deeper. Playing with the familiar today in our socio-political scenario is as good as playing with fire. But one needs to develop special techniques to avoid headlong collisions with the current times but with well-aestheticized moves he could take it into his stride and articulate for an enlightened and politically conscious audience. Pravin Dhanuskar has this wonderful ability/agility to handle the current socio-political forces and it gives him the courage to be a true political artist in one of the pivotal phases of 21st century India’s history.

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