Saturday, January 19, 2019

Unsung Artists Lose Greatness the Way Untended Flowers Lose their Fragrance: The Case of JS Khanderao

(Artist JS Khanderao)

Jagadevappa Shannkarappa Khanderao (b.1940) aka JS Khanderao still lives and works in Gulbarga in north Karnataka. Occasionally he comes to Bengaluru as his daughter lives in the city. Otherwise he prefers to live in Gulbarga and teach art. The sudden attention that has come on him with the retrospective exhibition curated by the curatorial team of the National Gallery of Modern Art-B (B for Bengaluru) does not seem to bother him much. Perhaps, he has never aspired for such adulation and attention from the city folks who go to the galleries and museums and say a few good words about somebody’s art over wine and cheese (or chai and samosas). JS Khanderao, the 78 year old veteran artist underlines that he remains an art teacher and he finds happiness in teaching art. 

(An early landscape by JS Khanderao)

Known to his region as a realist portrait painter and a fine landscape artist, JS Khanderao had gained his name as a fine painter with experimental verve in 1980s itself when he achieved ‘transparent broken glass’ effect using oil paints in his works. Though it cannot be considered as a great achievement as far as oil painting techniques are considered in those days not many artists were using oil as a medium to get water color effects. Oil was to be first and last an opaque medium with some amount of gloominess on the one hand and royal pomp on the other. Finding transparency using water color was not the forte of many artists nor had many tried to gain that effect with great care. However looking at the works of the Northern Renaissance artists one could see that they had been successful in getting this transparency especially when they were painting bed curtains and veils. 

 (A Commissioned portrait by JS Khanderao)

Taking this transparency to the secular subjects or rather existential subjects was the feat that JS Khanderao had achieved in 1980s but somehow the achievement got limited in his own geographical location without it becoming an imitable mode of painting. Nor did Khanderao try to send the style around in exhibitions and catalogues. Khanderao taught many students from his own Ideal Fine Arts College, a private institution whose legacy that he carried forward as a teacher. Before that he got his training in art from the famous J.J.School of Art. The works that he had done during his college days in late 1950s or early 1960s, show his familiarity with and influence of the European post-Realist art styles of which Impressionism stands dominant. His water colors of that time were done in pure Impressionist style and he seemed to have taken great pleasure in doing landscapes in the plein air style. A major portion of his works is done as demonstration works for the students whether they be landscape or architecture sketches or spontaneous portraits.

 (Portrait study by JS Khanderao)

Khanderao likes to do two kinds of portraits; one, Expressionistic portraits and two, naturalistic portraits. While the former is often done as live demonstrations or purely for his pleasure the latter is done on commission. As a commissioned portrait artist Khanderao has earned a good name in his region. However, this has not helped him in arriving at a particular style. As the commissioned portraits demanded all the royalty and pomp of the good old oil painting tradition that had got filtered into collective unconsciousness of the people in the subcontinent via the European portraits and predominantly by the home grown Raja Ravi Varma, Khanderao couldn’t have applied his expressionistic style in those portraits. Hence, as far as the commissioned portraits are concerned he remains a conventional artist. But his creative verve comes out in full play when he sketches and paints in ‘live’ sessions. In his studio works and the class works done for the students, one could see similar looking models being portrayed. This could have two reasons; one, he used the same model in his art teaching institution or he had some inspiring men and women around him. Two, even when the models were different Khanderao was trying to get one ideal form in all of them. The slightly elongated faces of women with wistful looks perhaps express the artist’s earning for the ideal beauty in his career as a portrait artist.

(painting by JS Khanderao)

Khanderao also had a stint in depicting the traditional ritualistic performances in his paintings. This body of works perhaps is the pursuit of one particular time in his life as the color scheme, predominantly yellow and red, remains the same in more or less all the works and also the traces of this experience are not seen in any other works that he had done before or after this particular series. Khanderao, may be because of his teaching career looming large over his mind, seems not to have taken any particular trait even subconsciously as a binding thread through a major body of his works. Each period stands out differently except in his landscapes and water colors. This particular body of works that depict the ritualistic performances in North Karnataka could have been a good intellectual pursuit for him had he given a bit more attention to cultural politics behind those performances. But as a modernist, Khanderao’s idea is to find a new theme and a new form expressed with some amount of freshness. 

(Latest abstract work by JS Khanderao)

What makes Khanderao a worth remembering artist is his latest phase of abstract paintings that could stand at par with any of the great abstract artists that India has produced. Modernist in nature and meditative in content, these paintings are done with a clear intention to come out of the strong figuration that the artist is famous for. And I believe this also has something to do with the confidence of the artist that he could also do this. Khanderao had studied at the JJ School of art when the high modernist artists were doing their abstract works. This distinct body of works does not carry any particular message or meaning, instead they stand for the color fields that the artist has created. The cutting lines and the curves generate some sense of rhythm and balance and looking for that intrinsic balance or rather the very question why the painting makes the viewer look for something beyond itself makes these works worth pondering over. While the artist is confident that he could go back to the figurative works, there is a question whether it is to be taken as a stop over a stop for good. An interested viewer could see that the finesse of abstraction in his painting that has surfaced with the recent body of works was already there in 1980s itself. But somehow the pressures of whatever kind on him did not allow him to pursue it till recently when he found that there was no such pressure to bother him anymore.

(abstract painting by JS Khanderao)

A question haunts me personally; why artists who belong to the rural folds do not gain ‘greatness’ the way the artists in the urban spaces have achieved. The answer is with me and it is painful and hurting. The greatness has to be achieved through exposure. Exposure needs conducive materialistic and spiritual environments. Such environments bring recognition and riches. To achieve these one needs to really struggle for a long time. Harder they come harder they go. Some artists after their education go back to the rural folds where they find happiness and solace. But they often miss a chance to develop greatness because greatness like a garden of flowers needs tending and caring. Happiness of simple life and the greatness of an artistic life are two different things though finally sum up in the happiness quotient. Today people could go back to the rural areas and function from here because technology and advanced travelling facilities have helped them to remain connected. Khanderao perhaps has been happier than any other artists of his time who chose to struggle in the cities where they could seek patronage, fame and artistic flourish. But greatness did not come to Khanderao not because he has any lack of money or happiness but because he could not get a chance to push his genius towards greatness. He flitted across various styles and derived his pleasure from teaching his students required skills. Finally he is at the verge of a great opening; his abstract works. But together they count around twenty. And if JS Khanderao let his works to be tested by time, this twenty will pass; rest will be forgotten including his broken glass transparent paintings. The National Gallery of Modern Art B has done a commendable job in bringing this lesser known artist to the mainstream art lovers. This show has to travel in the other centers of the NGMA. The exhibition has also got introductory essays by art historians, Suresh Jayaram, H.A.Anilkumar, Pramila Lochan and K.V.Subramanya that put the works of JS Khanderao in perspective. This is one show that I recommend to all so that they could make their own assessment about the greatness quotient of an artist whose chance to greatness has come to him with the latest body of his works.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Politics of Folk Idiom: Santosh Kumar Das at Ojas, New Delhi

(Santosh Kumar Das)
Training in modern art proves a boon for many artists who hail from the rural areas with strong folk/artistic traditions and for many others it is a curse for they find themselves caught between the genuine impulses of the folk aesthetics and the newly acquired tastes and techniques from the academies. There are yet another rare set of artists who could balance between both; means, keeping the rural idiom intact while letting the contemporary ideas and subject matters seep into the pictorial renditions. It is an act of faith for such artists who do not want to let the tradition go astray and get lost in the din of the ambitious contemporary art lingua blooming vicariously elsewhere. Santosh Kumar Das from Mithila region in one such artist who swims beautifully and gracefully in the ink of Mithila art and dares to deal with many issues including the political ones that gnaw our country’s body and conscience but not really referring to them directly in terms of identifiably stark iconographies. While the iconography of the Mithila paintings remains safe in the hands of Santosh Kumar Das, he shows the determination to transgress to the areas which are often overlooked by the traditional artists or put into allegorical terms. Hence, Santosh Kumar Das is an artist who loves to perform contained explosions which would find resonances and shaking up among the sympathetic and aesthetically egalitarian minds. 

(work by Santosh Kumar Das)

I have decided to write this small note of appreciation for the artist and his works as his solo show is slated to start today at the Ojas Art Gallery in New Delhi. While going through the works of art, I was reminded of the words that I had written about him and his book ‘Black- An Artist’s Tribute’ in 2017. Let me quote that here: “Mithila painting with its own logic and world view has been a domain of traditional women artists who imparted the skill and knowledge from generation to generation. Santosh Kumar Das took to this feminine visual language and explored his own self through its idioms. He created a repertoire of imageries and narrative patterns without breaking radically away from the norms of traditional renderings and gave it a further edge capable of revealing his own world view as a contemporary artist.” ( Some of the works in the present show at the Ojas, titled ‘Rerouted Realities’, curated by Katherine Myers are extremely political and contemporary that makes Santosh Kumar Das’ stance as an artist a bit problematic vis-à-vis his visual language.

(Muslims Taking Shelter in a Mosque by Santosh Kumar Das)

It is not that the traditional/folk artists have not done enough towards bringing contemporary socio-political and cultural imageries including the popular cultural matters in their works. As human beings living in the present time, mostly connected with the external world through smart phones and other mediums of engagement and social connection, these artists are no longer living in a vacuum absolutely insular from cultural penetrations. They are literate (many have been to high schools, colleges and fine arts colleges apart from imbibing techniques and traditions from within the family itself) and connected to the world which automatically make them respond to the contemporary matters even remotely or metaphorically in their works. But often due to many pressures including those of the market and patronage, they resist themselves from making such transgressions. It is easier and comfortable for them to continue with what they already know. If the traditional artists are not really making much inroads into the contemporary art the reason is not that they are unaware of the contemporary matters but because the demands of patronage. Patrons want them to be in a cultural vacuum that gives them insularity as well as pristine quality. 

(Mother Earth Invoking Lord Shiva- work by Santosh Kumar Das)

I do not want to say that the way the economic functions within these traditional and folk artists and their art productions is mainly exploitative but the demand in the market is for certain kinds of work. What makes Santosh Kumar Das exceptionally different from the folk/traditional artists is his ability to articulate the contemporary issues without pawning away the traditional/folk idiom. I repeat this since the beginning of this short essay because had it been any other artists from his own region, he/she wouldn’t have directly mentioned the insecure Muslims taking shelter in a mosque during a riot which we know as the Gujarat Riot or the Post-Godhra Carnage in 2002. The artist also dares to show that a Muslim man and a Brahmin/upper caste man standing on either side of a trident (which has been made into a potential weapon of attack or just to flaunt the right wing belligerence in the streets) and trying to assert their case. With the knowledge of the right wing fundamentalism growing in India, just behind the minds of the onlookers, they could easily deduce that the Muslim man’s belligerence is just an act of survival than protest or provocation. 

(Muslim and Hindu on either side of a trident, by Santosh Kumar Das)

In another work, Santosh Kumar Das goes much ahead when he portrays the mother earth emblematically invoking Lord Shiva, the annihilator of evils and asking him to bring forth Durga; and Durga does manifest on the upper right side of the painting. And the artist does not shy away from saying that this call of mother earth is nothing but a call for vengeance against the perpetrators of atrocities against the Muslims or rather the Dalits and minorities in this country. Therefore the works of Santosh Kumar Das (the above mentioned ones come from the body of works done during the post-Godhra riots) become political in nature. While we need suggestive titles to take us to the crux of the work, in some of them one does not need even an indication by name. In another set of works, we see Krishna, the blue/dark god annihilating Bakasura, a demon in the form of god. Who could be this demon that is countered by Krishna? This could be the political evil embodies for sure as we know the implications of the other works by Santosh Kumar Das. Bakasura becomes a stand in figure for the right wing evil, I assume; one may differ in opinion.

(Krishna by Santosh Kumar Das)

Santosh Kumar Das, in this exhibition also presents a few works where the artist himself seems to be painting an iconic Krishna figure. With a brush in hand and the romantic aspect of the blue god expressed in his plume, posture and parrot guest perching on him, Santosh Kumar Das at once become the ‘maker’ of god as well as his devotee. Here the painted image is animated to become a part of the living scenario of creativity seen within the painting. May be the fact that Mithila is where the blue god had spent his time shepherding and eve teasing the village belles, the artist is all the more interested in depicting him again and again. Or it could be a subtle way of presenting his political case as Krishna belongs to the Yadava caste, which is considered to be a backward caste in the North of India and the non-concealable darkness and lasciviousness that go against the White gods of all kinds who had incorporated him in to their pantheon of gods. That is how resistances are absorbed and accommodated for nefarious political purposes by the fascist ideologues. Santosh Kumar Das a subtle resistance to this cooptation through his paintings that makes his works more appealing to an art lover like me. While the modern contemporary artists fail to tackle the political issues in their works for various reasons, an artist who has taken the folk idiom as his forte seems to have gained some mileage at this front. It is a must watch show.