The artists on this show have a rich background of crucial ideas which have shaped the forms of art for decades, writes G. RAGHAV. Their works are a sample of manifestations evolved from a complex sense of life that has gone in to shape the Indian mind. The show is now on at the Garden Theatre in Delhi till December 30.
Finely textured canvasses ... "Tiger", S.G. Vasudev, oil on canvas, 2001
THE works of four artists were on display at the Apparao Gallery in Chennai. The artists have been chosen for their understanding of one another, for their distinct styles and for their cultural contribution. The artists are S.G. Vasudev, C. Douglas, K. Muralidharan and Rajasekharan Nair. The show is entitled "Metaphorical Dialogues". Through two metaphors, the elephant and the tiger, the artists have tried exploring how each of their styles interacts with the other. The elephant and the tiger are broad symbols that can subsume a culture's view of life and its past. The past that these animals evoke springs from a culture's living traditions of myths and stories handed down from generation to generation. Tamil Nadu, being a conservative society, is richly alive with these images, while it appropriates the demon of globalisation selectively. The imagery and the icon worship of the people of the region still rest on a living tradition of temples and music wedded strongly to each other. Indeed, the culture is so potent that artists cannot divorce, even if they tried, their place-ness from their preoccupations the stories, the myths and the music. Yet, these artists in question have either travelled and returned home, or are constantly (re) visiting their formative culture to nurture a dialogue/s with their past to re-interpret the present.
Each artist's oeuvre is derived from stories, its allied representation theatre or both. Vasudev's finely textured canvasses hold constructions which suggest stage performances. The actors are an elephant and a tiger. His paintings produce a tension in cognition when animals, instead of humans, occupy the centre stage. Sometimes, human masks occupy the periphery of the stage, only waiting to get into the limelight and be noticed centrally. But that is not going to happen, for the animals have assumed all the importance. The stage also houses subtle human shapes white silhouettes floating in mid-air against white backdrops. Vasudev finds it important to box all this into the frame, and "so a stage is required". (Vasudev, 2001)
His elephants are recreations and reinterpretations of elephants that are a regular feature at the Mysore Dasara procession. He remembers his boyhood days when the huge animals overwhelmed him. He has worked in the elephant and the tiger to the schema of his Theater of Life series, and has planted them where human faces could be.
Rajasekharan Nair twists the formulation of his stone sculptures to create paradoxical readings.
If Vasudev schematises the stage, Douglas's works invite pluralistic readings of juxtapositions of complex metaphors. The facture of his works displays a culmination of various media among which are mud, charcoal and cloth. While the semiotics of his paintings play with irony and humour, his objects come from everyday life, painted so that they entertain an idealised sense of the past. For example, in a mixed media on canvas, he plays with the form of the elephant by giving it a concave form. There are two faces, and two trunks meet each other at the lower half of the painting. A boy is mounted on the elephant and this unit of the boy and the elephant is encased in a bell. At the bottom of the bell, a white silhouette of a boy holds a rope entwined to the clapper. Douglas regards the boy as "archetypal" thus transporting the literal reading of the boy to a primordial sense of the past.
"Douglas and I were classmates," recalls Muralidharan, "and we were fortunate to see each other's work." Presently, even though there are more contrasts rather than similarities between their work, "we reacted to each other's work personally and emotionally".
The crux of Muralidharan's work reposes in the context of working between the tension created by ancient stories handed down from generation to generation, and the demands of formulating and practising a style. His huge canvases powerfully abridge various myths from the Indian folklore tradition. As a boy, he grew up listening to stories from the Puranas and other folk tales. Born to a religious family, he was part of the regular discipline of visiting temples. Now, as a powerful artist who works through his own style, he cannot help avoid the imagery of the gods and goddesses. He does not, however, bring in religious connotations while painting, but is fascinated by the forms of the imagery that he has been exposed to from childhood. "I used to imagine Hanuman flying above the sea," he says, "but I don't feel religious when I paint the figure." That way there is a distance that he maintains. Without going back to earlier sentiments which may have been at work in his childhood, he tries to only paint figures without actually attaching the ritualistic significance which is omnipresent in the cultural/political milieu he works in.
Douglas' work sees a culmination of various media, with objects from everyday life, painted to entertain an idealised sense of the past.
Rajasekharan Nair's work is in stone. He uses abstractions from everyday life and twists the formulation of his sculptures to create paradoxical readings. His works in the show, however, provide a contrast rather than a pattern. There are two significant and powerful works that testify to the artist's understanding of stone and texture. In one of them he brilliantly merges smooth and raw texture. The Ganesha in stone has one side of the face smoothly laid, while the other half assumes a rough and raw shape. His other work is an extremely stylised cat (which may remind the viewer of a tiger), that represents a tense face. A flat seat reposes on the cat and is part of the form. Broadly, the artists' styles are influenced by the tradition of miniature representation in India. Their production of space on their respective grounds can be traced back to the flatness of representation and the absence of single point perspective in the miniature format. "My paintings also have their source from murals such as Ajanta," says Vasudev. Muralidharan could be included in his company, while, Douglas, however, also significantly draws from various questions raised internationally about the practice of contemporary art.
The artists are still part of the landscape of Cholamandal, whose heart and brain, four decades ago, was the great K.C.S. Pannikar. Panikkar did not envisage a school; among other things, he visualized a utopia where craft and art merged to a strong conclusion.
K. Muralidharan ... Fascinated by the forms of the imagery and Indian folklore that he has been exposed to from childhood.
A few artists who lived in the village later travelled and returned to visit or settle down. Voluntary mobility bridges distance and provides access to other ideas. Ideas transform the traveller, and push him to reevaluate his past and change his perspective on the present. For every travel involves addition, deletion and a modification of basic premises. After travel, the wayfarer's home is not the same anymore. Reconciliation with the past is initially unsettling. Adaptation assumes supreme importance, as the unsettling experience of such extra-mural peregrinations leads generally to nostalgia, which helps in recreating and redefining the original landscape. Aided by the techniques of the present, the final synthesis leads generally to a homely idealism, which locates images from the past that comfort rather than challenge.
These four artists paint or create art that is a stand-in for something which is missed and can never be completely recovered. The sorts of representation that these artists have engaged with, are born out of the culmination of this tension between the past and the present. Macrocosmically, the idea upon which Cholamandal rested also belonged to a larger political context which had premises of a similar synthesis. The re-location of Indian art which reposes in the rich craft traditions of India yet at the same time, the colonial influence which brought in techniques of Impressionism and Expressionism gave rise to new movements such as the Madras Art Movement.
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