Since this column
has to do with the art scene in the Capital, I may at the very outset for
this once plead a bit of truancy. I have been gallivanting, perhaps brushing
up my art and life education during the last few months. So that some of
all that alien material may willy-nilly creep in over here. My two-and-quarter
month binge in California, New York and Boston, plus an afternoon in London,
was surely not long or deep enough, and nevertheless so far as the art
are concerned, if I felt exhilarated On one plane or another one, at the
same time, I was a trifle disenchanted. Colossal are the arty goings on,
as say, in New York - the epicentre of world art - and yet where were the
pukka, rock-bottom works from among the days' art? Did such art works have
only to be in the hallowed past? Of course each moment, which is called
'present' contains chaff - to be weeded out by the remorseless old one
of the swishing scythe, but even so there is no question but that the sheer
material resources, the instrumentalities, as the relevant information
vis-a-vis art from across the continents in the hands of artists is now
so superabundant that we expect from these miracles, and so in quantity.
Alack, that seems like chasing a mirage What we have instead are amazing
number of bright boy, inventive, mightily brainy innovations, novelties,
head turning contraptions and what not, but then an absolutely miniscule
amount of perfected artistic forms, or transmutations of human experiences
by skillful but unostentatious strategies.
You inevitably are regaled by much of all this
crazy fare, but touched only a little. What you are really impressed by
is a precise, thought-provoking commentary on the parameters of art, decade
by decade, as at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This is most instructive.
The same at the exhibition titled 'A Hundred Years of Californian Art'.
All these commentators had done their homework stunningly well, equipped
as they seem to be with an intellectual culture that is first rate. But
no sooner does one turn to the art objects therein describes, you are crest-fallen.
These ostensible art works are often enough out to establish a fresh definition
of an art work, indeed at moments, at pain to act as moral teachers, social
catalysts or merely to give you a necessary therapeutic rude shock But
far too many, as if rejoicing in the ephemeral, cannot bear to dive below
the surface. In this way they are variably familiar, reassuring. When art
is not really all-involving, it surely has an entirely different meaning.
Perhaps only less than one percent of the works being done right now, or
during the last few- decades, can be so described. Most of all, the material
that these artists seem to quarry is from the surface of the mind, not
the unfathomed depths. It is for this reason these works themselves appear
so very self-conscious, unself-forgetful. They are playing to the gallery,
strutting before the prospective viewer. As a contrast one of the choicest
of Jackson Pollock's works shot me squarely between the eyes from among
the earlier works, as also did his wife's (Lee Krasner) at the Brooklyn
Museum. And barring some other admirable exceptions from across the seas
(or one native of US) it was only the works from perished civilizations
that kept you breath-bated - Mayan, African, Egyptian, Chinese and above
all, some from out own India - all-instinct with a meaning, beauty and
sublimity (those are passe words, I well realized) beyond belief!
Not all works from the past have that vertigo
inducing rhythm - such as for instance the miles's on mile of the academic,
historical or legend-based painting in the National Gallery in Trafalgar
Square in London and for that matter in some US museums. These works have
simply died in our eyes, to cave the undieable minority intact. But still
more works from the vanquished civilizations shine bright - and some of
these never explicitly setting out to be works of arts in the first place,
but either just craft, icons and other objects of such nature. All of them
not overly, self-conscious, as art alone.
One is not being dismissive, or cavalier -
like vis-a--vis the large body of works in reputed museums, but only to
note that a pious attitude to whatever finds place in museums and galleries
does not automatically ensure the worth or the degree of sanctity, as accredited
to a lot of works of art. This becomes doubly so as we approach our own
present moment. One ironically, strange, quite odd manner of the sanctification
of really choice works was when we noticed in London's National Gallery,
as also in Boston, the works of an electrifying painter like Van Gogh trained
in baroque golden frames. Oh dear! But what really took the cake was our
presently famous woman painter's work at an Indian gallery in New York
- that is Admit One.
To revert back to home ground, I was happily
gratified, while judging the AIFACS-sponsored millennial J&K state
exhibition in Jammu that the level of some paintings from the valley had
risen steeply and this in the hands of the younger practitioners of the
medium of easel and canvas. Here it is not a question of techniques, important
as those are, but primarily of the vision as was reflected in these particular
works. Some from the Jammu region also showed a similar intensity, of course
Jammu excels in sculpture, but with those like Gayoor Hasan Vani (also
displayed in the Triennale). We have observed the medium showing true maturation
Later, during a Chandigarh Government College
of Art lecture, the photography of Vijay Ozo took one's breath away. Here
is one rare creative cameraman, who understands the medium, and brings
much sensibility to what often ends up as documentation or exercises in
maudlin beauty. The canvases of Deepak Tandon at another venue in Chandigarh
also showed a fine idiosyncracy - as though he wove their texture from
some soft fiber. The understatedness of these compositions signalled the
high-water mark of this, rather comparative newcomer on the art scene.
But his personality is a lot in need of more patience, bubbling effervescence
not being enough in the practice of art craft.
Even as we go over the works in the latest
of Lalit Kala Akademi's Triennale, we are perforce obliged to ponder over
the connotations of the
term 'art' afresh. This is unanswerable to the end of time, but of course!
And still, so many were mete flashes-in-the-pan order of exhibits like
those from France, Britain, Cyprus and elsewhere - that one felt these
too slight felicities were either a designer's beat or else high class
cracks at the public. Could such 'art', seriously speaking, find place
among genuine paintings, prints, and sculptures? I do not mean to be conventional,
but then the flimsy points of departures of several of these supposed works,
or else their sheer didacticism, heavily ad-message proneness, makes one
Is concrete poetry really poetry? However entertaining,
it is a visual genre and wherein the drift of words, their meanings and
their music has become absolutely of little import. Similarly if one trespasses
too far beyond the boundaries of space art, the seemingly bold act only
goes to belie the very raison d'etre of the discipline. I felt this happening
often in the visited US art galleries, and this same trespass is repeated
on our own art scene by dutiful followers of an anarchical cultural ethos.
IF all such caprice is hugely amusing on the lackadaisical, in our soberer
moments it does not apear to merit the title of art proper.
The installations in this Triennale which
observed the norms of art and not flouted them, were those like the ones
by the sculptor from Orissa, Adwaitya Gadenayak, in a work titled Soul,
a genuine piece where full justice would seem to have been done to a hallowed
word. Here potent idea and the created image were finely, very precisely
dovetailed, in order to build up a convincing metaphor. Mumbai's Hema Upadhyay's
Cockroach Cocktail regaling a lighter version in the same line of work
The Japanese artist, Kiyoshi Nakagemi is among
the most authentic painters in the show. So great is the brevity of his
artistic statement. Really superb, and quite in line with the Japanese
tradition of good sense and understatement. Ravi Shankar whose digital-based
(Heal of a Man, and Mask) painting is so cunningly anointed with other
elements, that it has come up with a dark human visage of unusual compellingness.
This particular work hangs on the left-hand side to Kavita Nayar's suave
experiments on the first Floor of Rabindra Bhavan.
Dattatraya Apte is still another one with a
fine mixed collage, if one may so dub it. Opposite this are Sukhvinder's
large prints that are surely his best. There are a few other inclusions
in the exhibitions, which have weight. But, by and large, the standard
good works miss out on fresh perceptions. Art is a hard taskmaster indeed.
Out in Purana Qila the brick-based installation
by Peter Strauss of Germany is based on an exciting knowledge of ancient
sacral architectural as well as geo-physics. Here, it visually we are not
straightaway bowled over, the thing grows on us and gradually our imaginative
horizon widens no little. Such Knowledge could be a point of view
from which other artists may fan out in meaningful direction. This work
is no usual random meandering, doodling, but a purposive exploratory envisioning.
All in all, this latest Triennale is modest
in its expressivity. Worse, the lawns of Rabindra Bhavan were nor even
swept around the displayed works on the opening day! What to do, but say
ugh! To come back to Chandigarh for a minute once more it was hilarious
to observe a large show at the University Art Gallery arranged by a group
led by Peter Nagy. How could one take such daring liberties as of lumping
other's works any which way, one atop another or by fixing curious objects
or attachments to individual works (as, for instance, the garland on Swaminathan's
painting) Displaying and design are all important, but there are strict
boundaries as to flow you may play with other folk's original creations,
Thus, this display termed Context as Content Museum as Metaphor
is nothing but smart game playing, an interlude at a moment of time when
the substantialness in one's own work is not forthcoming.
Anyhow, in certain of the other Delhi shows
that I went to the contrary pulls of abstraction and figuration or realism
seem to have come to the fore. And I discuss these questions at some length.
Among our senior-most painters in Rajasthan, PN. Choyal continues to be
respectful to normal human appearances. If in some works he paints ponds
and sky these are not the true subject of his works, for tight at the back
of the waters and below the tinted sky; there will be the ghosts of ruins-
Works like this woo you straightaway; define, as they do, the spectre of
the dissolution of the past, or rather, its unique creative expressions
- the architectural ruins.
Rajasthan has been absorbing to visitors, long
before Tod wrote his chronicle. Here, in this arid state there is hardly
a hillock, a man-made water reservoir or It's teeming colourful architectural
structures which are without myth, legend or anecdote. All these thicken
around a visitor's path at every turn. This Rajasthani painter, with a
deft brush and with a sure instinct 0£ knowing his state from within,
charms the viewer with the mirage that is past lime intruding into a mundane
and too self-preoccupied present. With these works we suddenly wake up,
and lift our heads to grandeur, which is entirely missing in the squalor
of contemporary urban India small and big towns alike. The painter is pictorial
but not unimaginative - each offering connects up with the other. In this
way nostalgia and sadness come home to us without fail. This hints at the
poverty of vision in which we presently subsist, with few beauties of brick
stone or stucoo to exhilarate the passing pedestrian. The deep gay colours
in which these Rajasthani structures are bathed are, as it were, a shot
of life to droopy lacklustre spirits. Here is Indian history, but still
not a dead one despite the fact that many of the sites are dilapidated
and deeply fissured. In fact it may well be said that time has added its
own spell on these intrinsically harmonious, very thoughtfully planned
buildings, forts and havelis. These show the intrinsic, authentic face
of India, a moment when our creators were in complete accord with their
landscape and modes of life. These ruins then serve the Seeing Eye with
pleasure - which in itself is a form of knowledge a - knowledge in the
life of good forms.
Choyal applies his experience expertly but
not woodenly, he is faithful to the spirit of what he espies. At places
the colours are runny, being informed with the patina of time, but never
do the blackening compounds blemish the original tones of these ruins.
They blend with them perfectly to deepen the overall effects, At other
places the interiors are as though bathed with son-et-lumiere lights, and
the sounds of a ghostly music, The arches invite us into their depths.
Lured, we relive the lives of those who once trod these arcades. Some compositions
are close-ups, other's distant views; some grilled, others with porticos
and niches. The effect of Choyal's works collectively is one of a chameleon
that is changing colours miraculously and thereby holding us in suspense.
Also, the simulated effect of reflections enhances the resonance of the
given composition. The many tiered forts complete with window and apertures
intrigue and astonish us with their visual finesse.
Thus does Choyal the realist, evoke memory
with careful toning strategies that coax and cajole the viewer by their
witchery. Though Choyal's work connects us with the past it is not unevident
that other such works may stem from entirely opposed facets of the overall
reality. The continuously shifting kaleidoscope of human concerns and the
accompanying perceptions helps lend different colouring to particular artistic
compositions. There is no telling what will emerge from the womb of the
future. In the charmed circle of the arts everything in unpredictable.
Once art had shut its eyes to the social world and the extreme among the
abstract art works would seem to have abolished every natural distance
between the artist and the social environments, quite as surrealism had
turned it's back on outward reality altogether to find vistas and distances
Within the expanses of the dreamself alone.
But despite all this, a sort of cyclicity would seem to persist.
Works like Shruti Gupta's recent ones testify
to the above stated scheme of things in the art sphere. Her new work, by
re-introducing the human subject in an overt way once more emphasizes inter-subjectivity,
such as represents the salient contour of being - that is of our involvement
in the world with our fellows. Not an easy proposition, surely. Here is
theatre of life, par excellence, but perhaps, many of us would like to
escape it, at least in our leisure hours. Still, that as it may be, at
some moments both artists and viewers will like to lock horns with our
own trying human reality in her own individual way, Gupta has done this
without whittling down her style to naturalistic simplicities.
However, unlike social workers or scientists,
artists do not set our to solve problems. As and when they approach the
canvas this way they fill between goals. No, in art the opportunity for
intellectual exertion, curiosity, in a word, freedom, depends precisely
on the assumption that
human problems are in some sense insoluble, just as the moral and aesthetic
imagination is in some sense inexhaustible. Thus, in art, the artists do
not set out to solve social or human problems, but even so the artistic
expression may be a form of knowledge, though its expressions provides
no answers in a rational or scientific sense. The job, with this painter,
is to supply experience, a vital one, so that we may sense and feel the
intricacies of our being human - those complexities of self-aware beings,
living among other such self-willed, self-aware beings. At least the human
story emerges out of this very condition. Even if we are solitaries or
misanthropes, our dialectic is with the other. Those are the terms of our
very existence. Indeed, we are so immersed in this situation, that we tend
to become unaware of it.
Artists try to effect that necessary distancing
and so show ourselves in our togetherness, despite all our contrarinesses
and rejections. We must learn to know ourselves personally. But this cannot
be done unless we know the other, and also in order that the world of hostile
strangers is no more. Both love and hate are a sign of union, a kind of
bond, even though a crass world refuses recognition, denies the existence
of a neighbour. With the coming of vast megacities the world over, has
not come the disdain and obliviousness of the other? Thus the sense of
being human, of fellowship are in peril. Nihilism, most certainly, has
festered under such sociological conditions. The urban is advanced in his
skills, his alertness of response and in his curiosities, but with it may
have come a new order of the proverbial jungle, with each on his own. Not
lack of self-feeling, but the feeling towards the other - and so come the
anonymous ciphers, numbers, almost objects, not persons. Now whether the
painter intended all this or not we can construe from her concerns: solitariness,
confrontations, encounters, challenges, head on collisions, as well as
the privacies that humans are heir to.
In the more achieved of these works, the painter
is able to suggest the city mind satisfactorily belonging as she too does
to the same milieu. The city mind being more mobile, unanchored and able
to scatter its attention and interests, is insubstantial and unnaturally
rarified. Urban consciousness, unlike die rural, more traditional one,
almost becomes a different order of being in the one and same body. This
urban being can be a gathering of fugitives and for which the passing events
are only passing, but, and also nick, the not-quite-loose ends of many
unstated meanings, though minus the rituals and affirmations of the traditional
The moral and emotional favour of our contemporary
existence may be witnessed in these works. They work out well the landscape
quality of the city, seeing through the eyes of a townsperson, reacting
to it with taut nerves. It is likely that whatever has come to be descibred
as an abstract painting - that is to say neither representing, interpreting
or transposing any reality from the external world - is the expression
during the spell of that particular state of mind in the executor when
he or she is utterly abstracted, lost to the rational (and therefore mainipulatable)
order of whatever meets the outward eye. The said outward eye is normally
not to be put at the services of the muse. It has got to pilot us through
a rigorous scheme of things. It
has to watch and to describe, to name, and divide and rule. In the so-called
naturalistic painting you don't set out to rule but still you are entirely
faithful to the botanic, zoological, geometric or physical face and facet
of whatever meets the eye. Here everything would seem to make 'sense' or
you may call it commonsense, even when those works may be deemed artistically
pleasing as well.
In the order of art that has come to be termed
abstract, the mind of the artist would not appear to merely deify reality,
much as scientific procedures seem to prescribe, but to select those of
the features of the presented reality as offer the finest, or else deepest
of sensuous fulfillment. Fulfillment? In this case it is entirely, or almost
so personal, that is experienced by that part in us which has the gift
of freeing itself of the hold of necessity, for however brief a spell Only
a persona that is through with demanding references, implications, overt
meanings, etc. is open to those of the features of reality - the given
- as are mute, entirely silent, and that do not serve any creaturely function.
In their very being the said features, or contours, of the existent make
the partaker of them, in turn. The seeming indefiniteness or whimsicality
of this genre may well be the onlookers own limitation, that expectation
of security, of a too rounded picture of the moment with no loose ends
to perplex one. But what form, as the genuine of the so-called abstract
compositions would attain to or reveal, is assymmetric, subtle, or subtler;
the permutation and combinations almost infinite. Hues, tints, contrastings
of likes with unlike, the amplitude of structurings and shadings, the nuances,
etc on the face of it appear make believe, a hopelessly chaotic jumble.
You can't seem to make sense of it all, if, that is, the usual bearings
and moorings are what you are after. But forms like these may, at best,
never be answers to our own socio-cultural compulsions. Their rationale
is not narrowly rational. They do not confirm us in our inherited points
of view, do not afford any points of vantage. They are not a look alike
or replicas of the world we know, or are familiar with. Then, if they illustrate
experience, it is of the basic infinitude and the teeming togetherness
of the world phenomenon. These works imply that is foolish to dissect and
analyze the appalling complexity of all that we see, all that we meet with
This then may be the eye of innocence, and
completely unschooled, totally surrendered to an ocean of experience, one
that which it cannot master, but is rather mastered by. Now when you are
thus mastered you can only feel, utter, exclaim your vast Surprise in fits
and starts. It is pure feeling and not that tutored thought that here takes
possession of an artists' brush, fingers, or whatever. It is sheer feeling
that dictates the artistic movement. The automatism is however not really
mechanistic since it is the living being in you that has registered the
truth that lies out there in such super abundance.
How else allow the genre in the hoary canon
of art? What are its credentials? Many abstractionists may try to fool,
and others in turn be fooled by professing the manner. No doubt of that.
On one plane it is simplistic, facile, no apparent draughtsmanship, no
artistic hardware. Granting that, and also granting the fact that there
are other superior states of being which entail different artistic strategies,
the true of the abstracts carry the full frontal charge of the basic reality.
It is not by ignoring the form and face of the world that an artist arrives
at such a genre, but by admitting his or her awe, by admitting cerebral
limitations in summing, or sizing up the root reality as assails the eye.
It is this haunting that express abstractionists devote themselves to.
If, however, you were a technician you could size down the components of
these works, measure the lot, pin down mostly chaos or squalor. But then
this apparent chaos is fecund, the mechanic in us tries to deal with it
as a dead body as is not functioning or moribund. The man has not readily
let himself go, has not dived in to its caverns and caves, its wide spaces,
its grottos, its oceanic depths, the abysmal heights, etc. Now I use figurative
language to describe what is minus a definite profile, and this is illicit
in one way. But what else to do to bring home to doubting thomases that
the mystery of being, of being at all is bigger than all our terrestrial
and familiar analogues. This mystery is out there, because the truthful
organ of perception in us also owns this truth and perhaps bows before
it in acknowledgement. The acknowledgement, and then the evocation of that
same state of mind.
Artists are said to play, but some in such
a play, subscribe to received, set rules. In the case of the abstract genre,
though, there is no written constitution to consult the rules if form arrive
afresh every moment. Practice and patience tell when to pause, to hold
back, not pitch in, the space of the forming the canvas sending out it's
own cues to the making hand. There are checkpoints all along this seeming
freeway. Since nothing is being taken down literally from outward or inward
appearances, the only injunction is to create, improvise, but in accordance
with the laws of sensibility. Euphoria and reserve, both injunctions operate
in the working out of this order of art. Of course the painters' minds
are replete with images of nominal reality, but it is not in servitude
to them. It allows them due recognition but then goes on to draw out their
inner fragrance. The denotations are whittled down, and connotations raised
to rule supreme.
Already, at the beginning of recorded time,
it was opined that the overall reality was faceless, and that all we could
was to give it forms - now this, now that. The forms perish but are renewed
by our applications. Thus the abstractionist engage, with that overall
formlessness, never hoping to map it, only to immerse in it in the diurnal
round and express that very disparate states of being. Abstractionism however
is not the only storey in the mansion of art. But even so it is invaluable.
Artists like Jackson Pollock, down to some
of your own, are perceptive practitioners of this very gharana. In some
of her present works, Sarab Soni evinces a born understanding of the genre.
The life palpitating in her own artistic fingers, should find a still truer
expression given a closer understanding of the mystery of existence. That
is what it an abstractionist is.