Talks, works and realism
Experiencing a week of varied critical engagements, GAYATRI SINHA takes time out to take a look at the works of seasoned artists in the Capital.
Reena Salni Kallat's "sword Swallower"
IT HAS been a week of varied critical engagements. The fall out of India becoming a global destination is the number of art scholars who touch down here before jetting off to the next seminar engagement. In the last few weeks, Partha Mitter has lectured at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Pramod Chandra delivered the C. Sivaramamurti lecture at the National Museum on Tradition and Innovation In Indian Art. The National Manuscript Commission has also engendered a series of lectures on Oral Traditions And Indigenous Methods Of Conservation of Manuscripts with leading speakers like Kapila Vatsyayan, Irfan Habib, Champakalakshmi , M.S Valiathan and Lokesh Chandra.
On a recent visit to the Sarasvati Mahal library in Thanjavur, the urgency of conservation of traditional manuscripts and their dissemination takes on an urgent edge. In this corner of the South, Serfoji, the Maharatta ruler of Thanjavur, had built up an impressive collection of manuscripts which at present number 40,000. There are a number of aesthetic delights and curiosities like the Sivapancaratna stotra is which every letter is composed by writing Shiva, an illustrated copy of the Rig Veda dating to the 18th Century, meticulous panoramic illustrations of the 64 bathing ghats in Varanasi, anthropological drawings by itinerant European travellers, and scores of other textual treasures. One of the most remarkable documents on view is a detailed record of the eye patients who visited the Dhanvantari Mahal for treatment. In every case, the description of the disease is meticulously supported by drawings. Art historians in the contemporary sphere in the West and Japan have been studying the body and illness as a subject of artistic representation, in areas as varied as obstetrics and court hagiographies and portraits which both revealed and concealed disease. Perhaps Serfoji's invaluable collection will become one more site for enquiry of the mapping of the body in 18th Century India.
Shibu Natesan's paintings titled Existence of Instinct was recently shown at Shridharani Gallery, courtesy Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai. Natesan, trained as a printmaker from the MS University of Baroda before serving as artist-in-residence for two years at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdamworks through a particular method of startling photographic simulation of the real. It is then rendered tense and evocative through an unexpected elision of symbols. In this way, he challenges the comfort of recognition. Given his painterly facility, Natesan has in the past done his share of paintings that do not rise above a skilled photo-realism. But here, he brings in taut metaphors of physical domination and power structures in a world of moral contestation. Natesan tends to hone in a large number of his paintings on the palpably vulnerable in any social situation - street urchins, children, public performers, in short supplicants of a universal goodwill. It brings in the presence of the predator and the hunted, and the ever present, if passive, spectator. Thus - as the cheetah chases the deer - all violent action becomes spectatorial, and all assumptions of power are asserted as moral positions. The interest in this exhibition lies in Natesan's obvious painterly skills and his ability to cross reference other histories, other narratives in art, and to bring them within a frame that must remain finally, open-ended.
Nature Morte presents three artists of different persuasion and temperament - Chrysanne Stathacos, Ajay Desai and Reena Saini Kallat in an ongoing exhibition. Stathacos, a New York based artist, tends to work with ephemeral materials - mainly flower petals. It is her small photographic installation of sites of magic in different societies that is something of a contemporary anthropological journey.
"bichance" by Chrysanne Stathacos.
Desai paints with a pure intent, working in this series of paintings, with optical possibilities through a minimalist, monochromatic approach. The forms vibrate loop, and pulsate to create rhythms independent of a centre. In this way, the artist plays with the notion of musical structures, rhythmic accents and movements, that interlock, or undulate, to create a challenging visual field. Desai has moved a considerable distance fromhis earlier charged palette with impasto strokes to create in this series the illusions of harmony and control.
In the work of Reena Saini Kallat, the collision of mythic and the everyday metaphor does not always enhance readability of intent. In the series of painted panels Sword Swallowers - which are deliberately worked to looked street-soiled - the artist employs the portraits of ordinary people that then lead into the lotus chakra, and mythological figures like the Narasimha, Shravan Kumar, sword wielding asuras like Sumbha Nisumbha and so on. The viewer is invited to interpret the work, to concur if these subaltern faces picked off the street have not been demonized by historical processes - of caste domination and economic exploitation ? But then what of the ambivalent redemptive avataars that she employs whose function is finally restorative?
Reena is more effective in her ironic use of rubber stamps in the work Birthmark with Tattoos, comprising 64 photographic prints in a large wall installation. Each of the partial forms is stamped with an identity, and in a complementary piece, the rubber stamps appear in the colours of the Indian flag issuing perhaps an indictment of the invasive presence of the Indian state that determines social identity.
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