BIBHUTI MISHRA talks to artist-writer Prafulla Mohanti.
"I WAS relieved to have found a room of my own in Leeds. But I became aware of the four walls and a ceiling ... the walls were dark and covered in old wallpaper. So I drew rural symbols of the lotus and Lord Jagannath on large pieces of paper and stuck them to create a secure environment," reminisces celebrated Indian artist-writer Prafulla Mohanti in his memoir Through Brown Eyes.
This was, in fact, a process of self-discovery for the artist who, with the predominance of circles and splashes of colour in his art, is proud of the fact that he is the only Indian artist whose work is rooted in the soil. "When I was taken to the village school at the age of three, my teacher placed a piece of chalk in my right hand and holding it made me draw three circles Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar, the Hindu trinity. My visual experiences were the red bindu (dot) on my mother's forehead, the lotuses and lilies in the village pond, the drawings on the floor on festive occasions, different manifestations of Nature like vivid sunsets and the image of Lord Jagannath with his half body and half hands!"
Born in Nanpur village in Orissa, Mohanti is based in Sussex Street, London. For more than three decades he has been coming back to his village every year. Prafulla Mohanti went to England in 1960 after graduating as an architect from Bombay's J.J. School of Art.
He got a post-graduate diploma in town planning at Leeds University in 1964. The same year, he had his maiden one-man exhibition at Leeds, which was very well received. He joined the Greater London Council as an architect-planner but gave it up in 1969 to devote himself to painting and writing.
Mohanti has held more than 60 exhibitions all over the world including Europe, America, Japan, and of course India.
Talk to him about conceptual art, performance art, environmental art and installation art that have held the international art fraternity in its thrall and he comes down heavily on Indian artists who have been drawn to it as well. "We have artists here who have eyes but they cannot see. They cannot recognise their own country. In the West, art has no relation with life and that's why they are borrowing from us and passing it off as their own. Tell me what is this concept, installation, performance and installation art? These have been there in our country for long. A fisherman casting the net for fish in the village pond or tribesmen dancing and singing could be performance art, the lush green of the paddy field could be an example of environmental art, the stone slab pasted with vermillion and worshipped as a deity by the roadside could be an example of installation art. And we Indians are following them! Our artists go on scholarship to study western art and do not respond to the vibrant culture that beckons them right here! These artists must see India through their own eyes and internalise the colour and energy and just not imitate the West."
He is equally caustic about Western art historians and critics. "These people do not want that India should develop its own art language and form. Western outfits here take our artists on scholarship and brainwash them. So, Indians are condemned to lose their individuality and keep aping third-rate western artists! That is why the common man in India has no time for or interest in Indian contemporary art. He cannot relate to it. The relationship between the artist and society has broken down."
As an artist, Mohanti is self-taught; most happy expressing his feelings on canvas and with a freshness of colour scheme and composition not found in other Indian artists. In the village, he used to paint faces, flowers and deities for various religious functions and that has shaped his art sensibility. He has been hailed as the pioneer of Tantra art and his paintings largely comprise bright concentric circles in red, yellow and blue.
"I never looked at my art as tantra art. My village culture inspired the basic forms in me the circle, the lotus, the shape of Jagannath, the Shivalinga, the worship of mother goddess, a stone pasted with vermillion. All these happen to be tantric symbols. Perhaps every aspect of village life was Tantric. The village symbols became personal symbols and personal symbols became universal ones. In 1970, when I had my first exhibition at the Kumar gallery in Delhi, the gallery owner said that my paintings were perfect examples of Tantra. Unknown to me at that time a group of artists had taken tantric images consciously for their paintings. Among them were Paniker, Santosh, Biren De, O.P. Sharma, Mamtani, P.T. Reddy. Dr. L.P. Sihare, educated in New York, appointed as the director of the Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, and keenly aware of his Indian identity arranged touring exhibitions of this group of artists and included my paintings.
... and symbols of his childhood...a predominance of circles and splashes of colour
"He called the exhibition as just `TANTRA' and it went to several museums in Germany where it was greatly appreciated. In 1985-86, the University of California selected our paintings for a major exhibition, the only contribution of Modern Art for the Festival of India in America. The director called it `Neo Tantra' and said it was important as it developed out of Indian tradition while being aware of western art," says Mohanti who further reveals that his childhood symbols have undergone changes through abstractions becoming circles, ovals and turning into bindu.
Absolute abstraction makes the bindu disappear into shunya from which is the end and the beginning. He feels that only in Indian culture do figure and abstraction exist side-by-side.
Through his art and his books My Village, My Life and Changing Village, Changing Life and Indian Village Tales, Mohanti has carried his culture everywhere. His books depicting rural life have been very popular, especially in the West.
Mohanti recollects his brushes with government and planners to give the village a facelift and preserve its pristine purity. But where does he go from here, now that his inspiration, his village is vanishing? Mohanti looks sad. After a pregnant pause, he responds: "Indians find it fashionable to drink `Coca-cola' rather than coconut water! Where does that leave Indian art and artists like me? Perhaps it is time I wrote my last book Death of an Indian Village."
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