A short synopsis
Earth or elements of earth have been a principal metaphor or constant presence in the works of many Indian artists. Amidst the divergent paths of search and research happening in art, in terms of language and content that take the artists in various directions, some artists remain integral with their earthy concerns.
The proposed show, ‘Earth’ is an attempt to bring together five artists – belonging to five distinct generations, and going through different phases of their career – based on the presence of Earth or elements of earth as a principal concern in their work.
The artists are Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Sudhir Patwardhan, N.N.Rimzon, Rajan Krishnan and Sujith S.N.
The show will explore the presence of Earth or the elements of Earth, in various manifestations, in the works of these five artists. Earth is a subtle undercurrent or the milieu or the silent source of energy in the works of Gulam Mohammed Sheikh. In Sudhir Patwardhan’s works the presence of earth is in the portrayal of life that springs forth from the earth, in all its earthiness. At the same time, in N.N.Rimzon’s works, Earth, at a metaphorical level, has always been the basic milieu around which his concerns were carefully built up.
While Rajan Krishnan’s works are essentially a tribute to the earth, to everything that comes out of the earth, Sujith S N explores the marks or remnants of human activity on the face of the earth.
All five artists represent five distinct generations in the Indian art scene, and naturally, the socio-political contexts of their individual times have left deep marks on their works.
Expressive / Articulated / Rooted / Truthful / Hallmark
May the earth live long!!
Experts from around the world are predicting that a couple of years from now, all life on Earth could well come to an end. Some are saying it’ll be humans that would set it off. Others believe that a natural phenomenon will be the cause. And the religious are saying it’ll be God himself who would press the stop button.
Oscar Wilde says “Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.”
‘Earth’ is like a dream came true not only for me and Gallery Open Eyed dream but for many others also. The story of Earth has started with a work called ‘Map is not a Territory’ by a young artist friend Sujith, which has taken the shape of a show at the very moment on the issues based on The Earth.
Later another friend Kavitha and I went for an interview in Mumbai with artist SudhirPatwardhan. His conversation was surrounded by a number of issues about earth and the civilization. Instantly, I have started the process of comparing their works. I found a huge gap between these two artists, actually the gap of two generations. Then the idea of filling the gap with two other artists representing the two generations in between had occurred. Looking for a representative of the generation immediate senior to Sujith was ended with Rajan’s intervention. Rajan’s work and practice always address the issues of the Earth. Gradually I have realised Rimzon as the best in his generation to address ‘Earth’. The small dream started with Sujith has grown bigger and bigger in scale and shape with the ‘Earthscapes of Sudhir to sculptures and the most appealing drawings of Rimzon; and from the huge, massive works of Rajan to the responses from Sujith.
Long discussions and series of sessions with Rajan about the concept and the show has resulted in Rajan agreeing to curate the show. With the entire concept and idea, we have approached Ghulam Sheikh to participate to which he had positively responded.
SudhirPatwardhan belongs the free generation of artists born in the 40s whose socio-political pledge seem to have been best realised in their work through figuration. Rimzon skilfully uses the power of the metaphor to comment on important social issues, where the earth plays an important role as changing contexts in his various work. He always addresses earth with rocks, temples, ponds, stars with kind of a spiritual approach. For Rajan, the decay of earth as environmental issue becomes important in his practice. Rajan has made series of paintings paying attention to the changing landscape, as man-made structures are occupied and then deserted in the quest of something better.
Sujith experiences an ancient clash between history and the idea of Urbanisation and the future. Sujith has reservations with the entire issue. It is almost with a sense of dejection which Sujith witnesses the unplanned and rather abrupt “planning” or “growth” of Indian Cities. He is rather un-nerved by the aspirations of millions of Indians who live in rural areas and hold a desire to migrate to the “cities”. Gulam Sheikh being the flag bearer of the narrative generation, has his own way of addressing the issues related to the earth and the very earthy things in life with a simplicity yet the complexity of a story teller.
As such these five artists practicing in different parts of the country, with very individualistic concerns and approaches towards the same idea has been brought together through this show Earth. The result is ready for all of us to see.
May the earth live long!!
The EARTH. It is the source and the inspiration to the imagination of the artist. It is from here that he or she draws strength to create and to reveal the secrets of human existence on the metaphysical or material plane. And yet the Earth is also a challenge for the artist because it is changing, evolving and continuously redefining social, political and economic relationships. And, these changes also reflect themselves at the deepest personal levels. How can the artist respond to these changes? How can art take flight and yet retain its links with a changing milieu, a changing landscape and a changing history? Can it reflect the present without a representation of the past and, perhaps, a glimpse of the future? Can it afford to ignore these realities and take a course all on its own bereft of any moorings?
At another level there is the private vision and language of the artist. It is a vision and language that has its own traditions: shaped by memories of family ties, of relationships, of language and music, of laughter and tears, of growing up with a host of experiences and discovering a world. How does the artist then link up his private Earth with the public one? Does he retain his personal identity and yet reach out to a larger world or does he discard it and create a vision and language that is once again bereft of any moorings?
All great art is the result of it being firmly rooted in the artist’s personal vision. It reveals his struggle and pain to come to terms with his private reality and, through it, the public reality of the larger universe. That is why such art reaches out to the world.
Stations of Change
Landscape, as a genre of painterly expression, is relatively uncommon in India. If there is tradition to be found it is one that is loosely defined and spans across three distinct historical registers. The first is found in the miniature expressions of the Mughal court, another is attached to the optic nerve of British colonialism and the third obliquely emerges in the nationalist movement and anti-colonial struggles of the early 20th century. Undoubtedly the jewelled surfaces of Mughal miniatures were designed for personal enjoyment; their small size cultivated a quiet, intimate relationship between the viewer and the image. Although miniatures spoke the language of territorial possession the picturesque images of topographical artists like Thomas and William Daniell were caught up in the rhetoric of empire writ large. The work of Thomas Daniell in particular functioned as an ideological boundary marker through which newly acquired territory was catalogued, and circulated to British audiences.1 Daniell’s widely disseminated lithographs helped to create an idea of India that was predicated on a salvage paradigm and a paternalistic need to “preserve” and “civilise.” Not unlike their Mughal predecessors, the images produced for the burgeoning colonial power spoke the encoded language of possession; however, the British landscape paintings of the Indian country side had a terrible beauty imbedded in them. They were beautiful because they represented an idealised land resplendent with the trappings of the picturesque. But they were terrifying because they created a blind spot that concealed the often draconian assertions of colonialism and the merciless acquisition of land and labour through the practices of vision.
Landscape (or at least the idea of the land known as India) underwent another change in the early twentieth century when it donned the cloak of nationalism. These landscapes were also bound up with notions of territory but when the subcontinent was divinised as Bharat Mata she stood as the source point of social solidarity and political autonomy. It is against the backdrop of this cursory tripartite history that Rajan Krishnan’s landscapes stand in sharp relief. His images may bear the weight of this history but they also construct a quiet counter- narrative. Krishnan’s images are not meant for private consumption, they do not call upon the tropes of the picturesque and they do not blind us with their beauty; if they speak of territory, it is one which is local rather than national.
Land in Kerala is a loaded signifier. It speaks of the annexation of the Adivasis, the changing conditions of agriculture, and the ruthless logic of development. Taking my clue from ArjunAppadurai and the ideas presented in Modernity at Large I would like to begin my discussion of Krishnan’s landscapes by first separating the word “land” from its suffix “scape.”2 The word “land” is synonymous dirt, earth and the potential for growth and sustenance but it also connotes stability, ownership and a sense of belonging. “Scape” on the other hand is a more fluid and elusive construct that dilates and constricts in response to cultural stimuli. As an ever changing form, a “scape,” according to Appadurai, is a “deeply perspectival construct[s], inflected by the historical, linguistic, and political situatedness of different sorts of actors.”3 To this end, a “scape” is an active and productive concept that carries with it the endless juxtapositions of the personal and the public, and the past and the present. The word “land” therefore serves as an anchor when it is joined to the slippery term “scape.” “Land” anchors and arrests the endless drift of the “scape” so that when we look at a landscape it appears stilled and complete yet somewhere, not far beneath the surface, there are ripples of movement.
Landscape painting is never transparent; nor does it represent complete and closed statements. Its ability to remain open ended is predicated on the inferred relationship between the image and the viewer. Representations of the land are open invitations to imagine ourselves within the space they create. In writing about the power of landscape to interpolate its viewer into an alternate world W.J.T. Mitchell suggests: landscape (whether urban or rural, artificial or natural) always greets us as a space, as environment, as that within which “we” (figured as “the figures” in the landscape) find — or lose — ourselves. 4 In keeping with this, Krishnan’s Blank Peasantry, by virtue of its large size, is a conduit into the space of the land, though the painting may be devoid of people, the viewer has the ability to insert themselves as a key figure. The question remains: in standing before the expansive vista represented in Blank Peasantry does one find or lose themselves?
The blue sky of Blank Peasantry reaches deep toward a distant horizon where it meets the ordered grids of the paddy fields. The emptiness of the blue expanse contrasts with the fullness and fecundity of that which grows beneath its unwavering eye. Yet the harmonious relationship between the flat sky and the rhythms of the field is interrupted by the arrival of the unwieldy kaitha emerging in the foreground. Its unexpected wildness obstructs our vision and its entangled, discordant branches defy the stable architecture of the fields. The incongruous plant, emblematic of the autochthonic stakes a claim on the land, it boldly declares its rootedness to the earth and yet its placement within the image alludes to a profound displacement. Here I refer to how food production in Kerala has experienced a marked decline over the last two decades. Fuelled by low wages for agricultural workers and the lure of gulf money, the land is growing increasingly uncultivated. I cannot help but think of the kaitha as a symbolic reference to those who have left the land and its insertion into the image as a bid to return. If this image allows us to lose or find ourselves, it depends on who “we” and where “we” stand. It is here that Blank Peasantry evokes movement; it speaks of departure as much as it does of return. If the “land” moors the relentless drift of the “scape,” this image, not unlike the Daniell’s, functions as a boundary marker. Yet the boundary is paradoxically unstable, it is a slippery and intangible line that oscillates between the past and the present.
The motif of the plant carries through in the smaller and earlier paintings Plant from the Locale, and Plant from the Riverside. Within these two images the vegetal form is not contextualised within the images but rather by their titles. Like the kaitha that grows unrestrained in Blank Peasantry, these plants have an undeniable presence in the environs of Kerala. In Plant from the Locale I find the positioning of the Palmyra palm tree against the concrete wall particularly interestingas it, perhaps like the kaitha, serves as a marker of both potential loss and recovery. Traditionally, almost every part of Palmyra has some utility: it produces strong building materials, food of various sorts and its fronds can be adapted to a number of uses from the pragmatic to the frivolous. However its use value grows increasingly redundant in a world where local materials are cast off in favour of globally produced imported goods. Krishnan positions the palm and the concrete wall in Plant from the Locale in an analogical dance that speaks of the tensions between the local and the global. The palm holds firm its position within the locale; it boldly and assertively resists the encroaching wall that stands as a visual testament to the ongoing urban development in Kerala. The defiant presence and fortitude of the Palmyra demands a revaluation of the local, indeed the entire tableau seems to ask questions about what is at stake in participating in the cult of the new. This image is not, to my mind, an antediluvian appeal to tradition, but rather a call to reconsider the principles of the local and recoup the potential of the home-grown conventions in opposition to homogenising trends.
The vicissitudes of time and circumstance explicitly ripple the surfaces of the previous two paintings I have discussed; however, in Plant from the Riverside, the markers of time and space are completely evacuated. The plant stands solemnly before us consuming the entire field of vision. Autonomous and free floating the only thing we know is that this plant grows by the river but the image leaves no hint as to where it is now. Is it still beside the river, or has it moved elsewhere? Unmoored, the plant is cast adrift like a seed pod caught in the wind ready to take root anywhere. It obeys its own logic, refusing to be defined or confined to a system or a grid. Though the specificities of terrain are denied it is still, to my mind, a landscape, albeit a referential one that speaks of possibility and perseverance in the face of all odds. Unlike Blank Peasantry and Plant from the Locale, this image underscores the syntax of displacement and the importance of home as a conceptual rather than geographic locater. It speaks of rootedness, in opposition to the experience of dislocation – it speaks of an identity that can be reclaimed and reactivated against (or perhaps in spite of) the regimes of a normalising global discourse.
Krishnan’s landscapes both deterritorialise and reterritorialise, in that they articulate an absence through a presence. It is the clash of these dialectically opposed ideas that creates the counter narrative I mentioned at the outset. Blank Peasantry, Plant from the Locale and Plant from the Riverside mark out the variegated stations of change and in doing so they reclaim the landscape not as a genre of painting but rather as a cultural medium embedded in an endless circuit of social and political relations. It is the conceptual and stylistic spaces between them that encourage an active rather than a passive engagement and in doing so they urge a reconsideration of loss and reclamation. Krishnan’s images of the land of Kerala move according to the tempo of the times, they call upon the lines of history while simultaneously opening up alternate routes.
Kathleen Wyma is a Canadian art historian and critic specialising in contemporary Indian art. She teaches art history and film studies at the University of the Fraser Valley.
The landscape of sacred life
Rimzon’s vocabulary is replete with rudimentary, reductive forms that simultaneously hold symbolic-metaphoric content and remain embedded in immediate, if generally understood, reality, its holistic character encompassing and unifying hoary intuitions, philosophical values and an embodied affirmation of life’s generative, caring forces that have to mediate destructive and subconscious ones. Offering images denoting and expressive of core existential phenomena and processes, allows us to feel his and our being with and within those. Structured as well as evolving organic-like, his images-signs of things vast and close by reach out to the most archaic layers in human recognition around the fundamental and the precious and have been sourced from a time before the sacred was divided from the profane. The sculptor reveals those as an ever continuing presence which he embraces through its manifestations in simple daily objects and creatures of nature and home or temple architecture and statuary. The fluid unison of everything is suggested by a number of motifs of distinct identity as well as metamorphosing into one another. The egg is the concentration and starting point of cosmic potential and of mundane birth and growth. The earthen pot participates in its meaning as a container of life, of waters and nourishment equated with the womb of the great goddess and the female belly also with the stone and the holy mountain, the vessel of the body, the self and its spirit. The tree, the mandala, the human figure and the icon, the shrine and the house, the soil and the river, the sky with stars and the moon partake in the eternal cycle of birth, sustenance, dying and rebirth where nothing is wasted over constant transformations whose periodic disappearance into a void becomes the new beginning and where entities minute reverberate of their equivalents on the macro scale. As static and dynamic energies permeate attracting as well as repelling each other, the essential wholeness of things guided by a universal logos lets binaries be surpassed, the male merging with the female, the animate with the apparently inanimate, the literal with the poetically metaphoric, the palpable with the transcendental. The artist is drawn to the compassionate, ethical inclusiveness of Buddhism, some of its premonitions, now at another level corroborated by physics and astronomy, which has absorbed archetypes earlier than itself.. His references, without quotations, pertain to the underlying ethos, structure and behaviour of the symbols and attitudes. Similarly, Rimzon’s reinterpreted appropriation of its aesthetics comes through a contemporary attuning to the sensuous qualities of a symbolic form and its capacity for abstraction into an idea. Here the artist alternates as well as blends single, minimalist images of compact potency and complex ones threaded from many, almost loose elements or ones intertwined under dense atmosphere. While the former dominate in his sculptures, the latter tend to develop into veritable landscapes of shapes-signs in his sculptural installations and drawings. Rimzon unfolds these sceneries for himself and for us to grasp the world so that, against the violence inherent to it, we can preserve and in wonder identify with the rooted, uplifting hub of the fertile, benign and tender powers that give us protection and need our protectiveness.
In a gesture of compact summation layered with symbolism and emotion, his “Rock Temple” conjures a tactile and at the same time almost abstract metaphor for the dynamic existential condition as a constant struggle between the opposite and yet pervasive forces of fecund sustenance and annihilation. The few sparingly represented archetypal objects, rather than images, are positioned in a way that depending on their mutual proximity and the spectator’s perspective in movement stimulate a palimpsest of highly charged connotations and relationships. Approached from afar, the stone silhouette enclosing the sculptural installation approximates the shape of a vast earthen pot, the simple toranas of granite demarcating its swollen curve and erecting the gate to the sacred ground at its neck. Closer on, the viewer can look into the symbolic plan, while the rough-cut slabs gain mass and steadiness reminding of immense prehistoric megaliths and of ancient stupa railings that designate and shield holy places as well as, by intrinsic extension, shield what is precious in life. The archetype recreated bears evidence of the still practiced quarry technique, so letting in a sense of the present in the timeless and of the artist’s tender hand. The firm toranas are spaced out as if unable to prevent the external from entering inside, since huge cast iron swords have passed through, their elongated blades pointing threateningly at the egg in the centre of the shrine, moving along its oval and appearing to proceed further, beyond the sphere of potency. Between the stasis and the progression, there is an aura of the inseparable duality underneath manifesting itself in an ever lasting flux – security and danger, fullness and porosity, sacredness and mundaneness, birthing and dying. The immense ovum is the cosmic egg of all possibility and beginning, its outline a geometric symbol whose grand volume becomes the anda dome of the stupa, while its palpable, textured surface possesses the warm immediacy of a fragile yet surging shell familiar from daily routines. Standing near by, one feels the defensive prowess of the stones and the reassuring supremacy of the egg.
Anchoring in this intuition Rimzon draws the primordial landscape that issued from this hiranyagarbha, its symbolism permeated by the memory of the lush vegetation in the land as well as of the farmer tending it with reverence and living among it. The tree of life takes the centre-stage here, its trunk powerful and static and its sinuous branches spreading a canopy of rich foliage. The rounded plasticity and rhythm allude to the compact, immobile wholeness that binds universal transformations and its self-contained potential for motion in expanding. While the massive boulders flanking it have a fullness of the cosmic egg and a corporeal softness, the circular forms on the ground seem to be reverberating of celestial orbits, having also absorbed plough-tilled ruts in the soil. A cosmic ovum is descending into the forest and nearly making it soar, but the acute black of a vaginal hollow at the roots of the tree reminds us that the profusion of existence arises from the substratum of a recurring nothingness. The muted and yet intense and awe-inspiring atmosphere, like during twilight or dawn, compresses radiance and shadows, day clarity and nocturnal saturation. The charcoal strokes, both simplifying and luxurious, structure essential forms that act in the manner of signs but induce a sensation of supple human skin. The consciously adopted naïve quality within the sophisticated draughtsmanship has to do with the simplicity of the paradigm behind the world and with latent innocence as our saving grace. The minimalist lines, on the other hand, evolve an intricate design whose pulsating density accommodates even the air into the physicality and the enigma of being. Its network astir is able to seize the spirit of traditional figuration amid ornaments that is pre-sentient of the vibrant connectedness between the organic world and its cosmic dimensions. In fact, Rimzon’s line contours shapes-symbols with pliancy that creates lithe volumes, its gently-firmly graded thickness imbuing the white within it with corporeal convexity. Here again, he touches on the affectionately internalised foundation of old Kerala murals.
The sacred tree underlies and guides the constitution and actions on the earth. Having soaked in the hues of sunset and daybreak along with the luminescent circles of the stars and planets, brings a more dynamic, however, uncertain relationship with the oval stone, while steps lead to a temple on the mountain in the vicinity. The railing around it secures the holy site but accepts ordinary life, too, becoming perhaps the fence of an orchard with a ladder to pluck fruit from the tree. The kalpavriksha turns into a palm abundant with coconuts among shadow-providing fronds, its voluptuous trunk almost like the breathing bodies of the people sheltered inside the tile-roofed house, the stability of its skeletal shape speaking for the peaceful, inner space. The home settled on the double circle of procreation is immersed amid ploughed fields whose grooves echo of cosmic motions, while an expansive radiant ovoid seems to be guarding the scene as well as indicating its origin. The ovum then, emerging from behind tactile, live boulders, becomes yet more ethereal like an iridescent, lucid void into which the journey of existence is bound to return with serenity. The vehicles of this journey are like fishermen’s boats and like dry, curled up leaves resting on the quiet ripples of the soil-river between palm trees of life and a bare skull. The cosmic egg watches over the harmony of everything alive and pregnant with death, of death as the seed of life.
This simultaneous grounding in immutable laws and transitory metamorphoses, the essence continuing in shapes becoming other shapes, finds its reflection in Rimzon’s working method as well which can be observed in the numerous preparatory drawings for sculptures. Using similar but sketchier lines the artist tries out a diversity of permutations and possibilities emphasising both those aspects that relate the options in the core idea-image and dormant or hesitant ones. In the abundance of such small drawings the egg becomes a lump of clay-earth only to acquire residual, subsequently evident properties of a bulging pot endowed with the sensuousness of skin. It becomes a stone, the carved head of an icon and of a man. Under pressure from within, it begins to duplicate itself or slowly transpose into a house, while the mandala surrounding it repeats the oval of the original form. It may become a self-multiplying vessel of generation, a nourishing ritual urli or the womb and the navel-bearing belly of the mother goddess and the human mother. The earthen pot, too, turns into a belly. As a breast it gives birth to trees and grasses. It may become the divine mountain with a cave shrine in its womb or an amorphous matrix yielding a sage’s of god’s body in the posture of meditation. The tree fructifies transforming into a maternal breast. The fullness of these forms is often pierced by the dark, vaginal shunya hollow, as the coffin motif recurs sporadically. A nude female shape reclining under the vessel of plenty remains its own manifestation and follows the vessel’s plurality. The human figure is one of worship and immersion in the epiphanies of sacred life, when a prostrating devotee embraces the cosmic ovum-mundane world to merge with it. Like the worshipper, amid the constancy of metamorphoses in becoming and growth, in negation and renewal, the artist must be gaining a calm premonition of the core and a cathartic experience.
The Earth is what we have in common
‘Earth’ is a fairly melancholic word. As planet, or as a geographic entity, it brings with it the urgent need for sustenance and care; and in the absence of them, the risk of extinction. The melancholy perhaps lies in the fact that human exploitation has set this planet on its way to an inevitable decline, and its course is progressive and irreversible in nature. Changing its course hasn’t remained a possibility anymore; what is in our hands, us humans, is to defer the end as clearly as possible. In the two works of Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, featuring in this show, the vision of ‘Earth’ is realised through the care and love which are needed for such an act of deference. His vision of Earth, as something that is realised by the act of holding onto things that are crumbling around us, is what touches us from these works. It turns the conception of Earth abstract and physical at the same time, for it [Earth] is not just something that we may make sense of, but something over which we make sense of ourselves. This conception, as we know, is founded upon love, faith and trust, the universal human values which have kept life on earth going since the dawn of everything. These values, mediated through historical and cultural interpretations, manifest them in Sheikh’s visions, often taking their resources from the philosophy and theology of everyday practice.
It goes without saying that Sheikh is one of the very few artists in modern India to have responded to personal and collective faiths in religion and in spirituality. This is important because we know that with the formation of modern States and Civil societies, religion and religious practices gradually slipped into the interior domain of private faith, losing the role they had in shaping the affairs of the state and its culture. Understandably, art, like other cultural practices, came to be configured as a ‘secular’ activity where an artist’ spiritual/religious interpretation was pushed to the domain of private faith alone. Today we know that as a result of this division, religion lost its discursivity in the political and cultural forums in most of the modernised states throughout the 20th century, only to make a violent return towards the end of it. The last two decades of twentieth century saw the worst acts of communalism in south East Asia which crashed through the defences of liberal secularism on several occasions. This ‘return of the repressed’ not only revealed the carelessness of the secular state in reckoning with alien forces but also exposed a hole in the discourse of secularism itself.
Modern political secularism, we know is founded on certain difference blind principles, and it thrives on the paradoxical virtue of tolerance. Now the problem with ‘tolerance as value’ is it implies that we can only tolerate someone who is ‘intolerable’. Therefore very often minority religious, caste, and sexual groups come to be ‘tolerated’ by the normative majority under the rubric of secularism, squarely reinforcing the difference nurturing hierarchies. However, looking beyond the present models of political secularism does not necessarily mean falling back to the pre-modern practices of religious worship. Sheikh, interestingly, takes an angular stance with regards to the whole problem. On one hand, rather than just relying on the secularism of a modernised state, Sheikh aims to explore the tradition of discourse and critique in the various faiths around. On the other, he aims to recognise and register these everyday beliefs against the ideology of mobilised religious communities, affirming his faith in the eternal humanist values. His approach is neither one of conservation, nor one of celebration, but rather one which is rooted in the love and friendship between different equals, preserved and nurtured through histories and geographies.
The two works displayed in this show are part of one of Sheikh’s earlier projects entitled ‘Kaavad’. A ‘Kaavad’ is a small portable shrine that houses an idol, and has folded painted walls, like panels, which depict icons or stories of various kinds. It is common in the western part of India, and in itself it is a fascinating example of artwork which involves painting, storytelling and performance together. It is therefore quite understandable that a sensitive artist like Sheikh would find it more than curious and interesting, and would, in turn, make his own ‘Kaavad’ as a response to it. He made a few of them back in 2009, with each having a ‘story’ to tell to its viewers/audience. The stories revolve around remembrance and commemoration, and bring together people, real or imaginary, from different continents, times and traditions under one roof. The two works put up in this show are from the ‘Kaavad’ called ‘Home’, which is about the interiority of home, as a space owned, lived and memorised. Much of this ‘Kaavad’s panels refer to the city of Baroda, as seen, imagined and lived by Sheikh. Images of people, creatures and objects across histories and geographies populate these panels, especially the two we have here. In their original situation, these two panels formed the interior walls of ‘Home’, facing each other and joined by a ceiling panel titled ‘Visitors of the Sky’. Here I must mention that in relation to this ceiling panel which depicts an open sky, these two panels give a very different experience to the viewers than what they give us in the present show. However, in this essay, I will treat them as individual panels, since here they are displayed in that way.
This first work is called ‘The Ark.’. We see an Ark, gently floating over a water body with quick, restless waves, moving about like a thousand crawling snakes. Yet the vision is not of a deluge; for all its surface tension, the sea promises calm inside. At the left end of its semi circular body, we see the Gandhi of 1921, one who is about to set foot on the long walk of freedom. At the right, we find Kabir with his characteristic grace; absorbed in the act of spinning a yarn. In comparison to the other characters portrayed in this panel, these two figures appear larger than life, with their assured, anchoring presence over the ark. The inside edges of the Ark are bordered by several collaged views of Baroda, a couple of them from the Sursagar area. They appear loose, almost as makeshift separators between the Ark and what it holds inside.
What it holds inside is what makes this panel so remarkable and intriguing. The neatly designed Ark, with a double semicircular construction, creates a unique circular space which looks like the inside of a vessel. This welcome confusion in its design at once triggers off beautiful associations of all kinds. Sheikh fills the inside of the Ark with water, the plain, frozen water of a deep lake, or that of the monsoon sky. This second water body, reflective as mirror, and dark as the pupil of an eye, holds a congregation of seekers. The coming together of people of various faiths, believers and skeptics alike, completes the logic of the Ark.
In Sheikh’s own words, the idea here is to ‘host a ‘sangat’ (assembly) of all the characters from life and art together. A sangat is open and free, anyone can join. Saathbaithna (to sit together) is the basis for it. If you wanted to invite a world sangat, where would you find a space for all of them to sit? It could only be in your heart…’
Therefore, on the deep dark water inside the Ark, seekers, people of faith and sceptics come together to sit and reflect on each other’s thoughts. There are saints, theologians and philosophers from different geographies and traditions. We see the radiating figure of Joachim, wrapped in his pink robe, perhaps dreaming of the future. We also see the beautiful follower of Kabir at the left, quietly listening to the saints and the theologians. Not far from him sits an unassuming seeker, aware of his own mundaneness, eagerly observing the rest of the group. Two sadhus, straight out of a Mughal painting, join the discussion; one even looks out of the space, promptly returning the gaze of the viewer. I particularly like the image of St. Francis, frail and inconspicuous, like a shadow in the dark. Everyone here seems to be immersed into their own questions. Sheikh heightens this introspectiveness with the addition of a beautiful detail, the figure of a sweeper at the bottom. He seems to be so absorbed in his task that he doesn’t have time to react to what is happening elsewhere. His labour is his own prayer.
Above, we see a small piece of land, half immersed in the sea. It almost looks like another ark from a distance. A closer look reveals that not only is it a township, but a land viewed not from above but from the ground up. This peculiar cartography is a result of digital manipulation, where a bird’s eye view is craftily piled over eye level perspectives, and familiar locations are repeated and reversed in places so that they constantly play hide and seek with the scrutinising eye. A very touching detail of the township is seen at the left, where a man and a boy in a red shirt seem to be walking into a neighbourhood. At the right side of the township, the detail is reversed, but this time the boy is erased from the detail. This little alteration captures the everyday life in its very tentativeness; familiar faces and gestures get etched in our mind’s eye through repetition, whereas invisible, missing images remind us of the very impermanence of things around.
The other work, titled ‘The Speaking Tree’, is about a legendary, mysterious tree which has the keys to truth. There are several legends where we come across such trees which speak up to humans and answer their queries. The story of Philostratus, or Alexander the great contains such fateful meetings with talking trees. In Shah Nama, we come across Iskander’s [Sikander?] encounter with a speaking twin-tree which tells him that he will die in a foreign land. There are also legends about a certain Speaking Tree of the sun and moon in India, so called because it’s two trees in one, a male who speaks during the daytime and a female who talks in the night. Sheikh’s inspiration has been a 17th century Mughal miniature which depicts a similar tree.
The speaking tree in Sheikh’s work dominates the whole canvas with its dazzling colours and beautiful hues. We identify it as a chinar tree, embraced by an equally brilliant creeper which coils up around its branches and becomes one with its body. This also results in the dense foliage of vibrant colours which sparkles against the gold background. A closer look reveals what the speaking tree is all about. Sheikh craftily places a range of images, of various spaces and associations inside the dense foliage, sometimes as negative spaces, setting off the leaves to the fore, and sometimes, as positive spaces, as piled up collages hidden in the density of the overall pattern. The images are at once about vision and sound, there are musicians from various traditions, playing a range of instruments belonging of the musical culture of South East Asia. There are fakirs, dancers and dervishes who join the group. There are mythical creatures and pious pilgrims, half hidden and half visible from the foliage, and then there are the quiet images of Iraqi refugees, the victims of a cruel war, and the Bamiyan Buddha, before its destruction in the hands of the iconoclasts. We also see the image of the two domes of the Babri Mosque, about to be vanquished by the fundamentalists, the image of a prisoner before electrocution, and the unmistakable, burning taxi set on fire during the Gujarat pogrom [also known as riots] in 2002. The poignant contrast between the music of the instrumentalists and the violence of the carnage gives the speaking tree its true character. Its truth-telling borders on the pleasure of music and the horror of a scream. And how beautifully does it echo with the conception of the tree itself! The blood red creeper runs through its branches like open veins, resulting in the blossoming of flowers everywhere, and at the same time letting it bleed all over while doing so.
The two standing female figures on the sides of the tree appear as cut-outs against the golden, hand painted background. The figuration is graceful and reminiscent of marble sculptures, typical of the early Renaissance in Italy. Sheikh craftily presents them in a newer context, and this strategic ‘lift’ only becomes apparent when we relate these figures to the source image. The two figures belong to the painting ‘Piercing of Christ’s side’ by Fra Angelico, where the artist narrates the story of Longinus and the Holy Lance. Fra Angelico’s work presents the grief stricken Magdalene and the consoling Virgin on the side, close to each other, where one’s gesture is answered by another’s. Sheikh’s employment of the figures here enables a newer spatial relation between the two and the tree in the middle. The distancing and the separation of the figures here take us away from the very particularity of the cause of their gestures. The central placement of the speaking tree replaces the Crucifix almost silently. And this results in a newer semantic network; the two mortal souls, with their haloes removed, silently float over the blankness like ghosts, reflecting on what went wrong with the earth they once walked on.
The two works, together, reflect more than the artist’s deep faith in human value and the worth of friendship and sharing. They are essentially about a ‘coming together’ of apparently distinctive figures, images, incidents and associations. This ‘coming together’ doesn’t call for any erasure of differences for its elements, each one brings his/her/its own distinctiveness without being apologetic about a non-correspondence to any norm. What is this, if not a parallel understanding of enlightenment, when love and respect for differences pave the way for communication between unknown equals. It may also be noted here that this distinctiveness is equally a result of the digital media, which allows Sheikh direct ‘lifts’ without the need to ‘process’ or ‘level’ the images in order to suit the character of the panel. In this way, Sheikh’s vision is perhaps completely opposite to someone like Benodebehari Mukherjee’s vision of a syncretic tradition as articulated in the ‘Medieval Saints’ mural in Santiniketan. Benodebehari’s vision essentially found expression in his strong outlines that flowed like a river, connecting apparently distinctive social reformers into one inspiring narrative of spiritual quest in everyday life. Sheikh’s vision frees him from the danger of erasing differences, but its articulation perhaps presents him with a newer set of problems that Benodebehari never had to worry about. In Medieval Saints, the figures, however glorious they appear, are all strongly context bound, and are beautifully reclaimable to the social collective they emerge from. Sheikh’s figures are perhaps too much self-occupied to build such a relation of warmth and sharing with each other.
Technically speaking too, the collage here is perhaps not a very high order. The adjustment made on the scale and the relative brightness of the figures often stops short of the visual effect they could have brought. The surfaciality of a digital image tells on such occasions, since it is in the very nature of pigments to render flesh to figures and spread their bodily warmth to the ambiance, something that digital images can never achieve satisfactorily. However, to talk about technique is to deflect from the issue at hand. What come through these assemblages of images are visions of plurality and an imagination of history which is worth its promise. It is a promise of love and friendship, of good faith and common welfare, and it is made by believers and non-believers alike, who, with their differences aside, have always been drawn towards each other by their common love for the earth they lived in. Fanatics are known as people whose aspiration for paradise obscures the value they have for earth and its people. All those who aspire otherwise, like the characters in Sheikh’s world, perhaps have a better place to live… not in paradise, but together, on the Earth.
The poetics of soil and soul
Appearing as if fashioned out of wet earth, SudhirPatwardhan’s drawings and paintings are pregnant with gentle epiphanies that tell tales of lives untold.
A keen observer of life in its full bursting vigour, as also its vagaries, SudhirPatwardhan claims “experience” as the starting point for his work. From there, on the strength of “distancing,” he crafts observed reality such that the verisimilitude that captures and freeze frames the fleeting moment, leads the ‘seeing eye’ towards the still centre to dwell on the heart of a matter.
Fernand Leger wrote in 1945 that “the object in modern painting must become the main character and overthrow the subject. If, in turn, the human form becomes an object, it can considerably liberate possibilities for the modern artist.” This could be seen as a note towards the understanding of four decades of Patwardhan’s oeuvre as Leger and Cezanne remain important and abiding sources for the artist.
Informed by Marxist ideology and acutely aware of existential dilemmas in his early years, Patwardhan has created important works that are also commentaries on class divides and the human struggle. His own social background makes him acutely aware of the schisms that continue to run deep within the fabric of Indian life. Drawing skeins from the varied traditions of Impressionism, German Expressionism, romantic landscape painting, the European Mannerist Tradition, and the classicism of Piero de la Francesca, Patwardhan constructs vistas and figuration that appear, as though built brick by brick or physically sculpted out of pliable earth.
During the` 60s, Patwardhan, who imbibed anatomy more during the course of his medical practice, sketched urban denizens in transit around rail and bus stations: the figure was caught in action as it went about its daily rigors. From the late 70s till date, Patwardhan has continued to heed his artistic impulse and make drawings which are a graphic record of perceived reality. Sometimes these drawings are just preparations for larger canvases. But they reveal the delight that he derives through simple acts of drawing, shading, rubbing, imparting light and shade with pencil and biro. The figuration, with it short, squat form and unusually elongated limbs has come to be a recognisable type. His paintings of life in and around the denuded lands around Pokhran in Thane and the teeming squalid spots of Ulhasnagar on the extremities of Bombay, now Mumbai, are seen as seminal bodies of work. These remain a tragic and strangely poetic record of urban space in flux.
In a catalogue essay written in 2007-2008, JitishKallat pointed out that the artist’s drawings “roughly fit into three groups: the human figure captured during moments of violence and aggression, a contemplative private moment registered as pictorial document, while a third group portrays fragments of mundane everyday activity”. The drawings from the 1990s focus on the personal, on men and women, relationships, and the aging body.
Patwardhan has been quoted as: “As a boy I watched my father work with tools. I would sit for hours with carpentry tools. Later in college reading about the evolution of the human race, the role of the anatomical hand impressed me. Further, in Marx’s writings, the role of work, as in physical work, is emphasized. The physical working with hands has always seemed to me anterior to thinking. “ “….Drawing and painting have been two poles counterpoints of my activity as an artist. The natural movement of the activity of drawing for me is towards expressive catharsis. To get into a state where all mediation melts away. And the natural movement of my painting is towards clear, rational absolute truth. I try and get more of my drawing into my painting – which translates as becoming more painterly.”
The drawings here record the peculiarities of profession along with the persona. They are crafted with discernment, aided by the distancing that the artist brings into his approach. The artist negotiates the depiction of reality and the demands of art making to create bodies of work that rise above the recording of a situation. Patwardhan’s protagonists appear to allow a glimpse into their prevailing state of mind. Empathy, a key component in his scheme of things remains a mainstay.
High contrast is a painterly device that makes its presence felt admirably in the work of SudhirPatwardhan. It is used to articulate the painter’s held belief that a human presence animates or charges the space around it; it either lightens it up or weighs it down. It is also used to establish a connection between figure and ground. In doing so, the distinguished painter’s quest is to bring to the fore an awareness of the tension that exists between the two – a result of “the gap between the seeing and the recording.” Another device that Patwardhan’s enjoys is the handling of chiaroscuro. He records the play of light as a poet might, harnessing it to evoke mood, as it illuminates or throws into relief attendant architecture. Even as it works to draw attention to time and the ever present divide, it lifts the work, just as sunlight may redeem a damp patch on a dank wall.
He is prone to approaching and treating the body as he might a landscape. The foreground and background equation is of importance to him and is handled with certain sensuousness. The curvature of body matches the dip and crevice of hills. His art making strives to encapsulate the texture of a feeling, often that of an unnameable loss. He cites the “crucial and lasting influence of Mughal painting” that has assisted him with the organisation of space within his compositions.
Interestingly, the quickly sketched drawing too appears measured. Leading the viewer to realise that in many ways the artist is a classicist. His is an oeuvre stained by elegance.
If, for instance, he were to think of pink, it is most likely to be a Venetian pink.
Mumbai, December 2010
Anupa Mehta is arts consultant and a writer. She manages two arts project spaces – THE LOFT at Lower Parel and Arts Reverie – in Mumbai and Ahmedabad. She was the founding editor of The Art News Magazine of India