Pictorial riddles, intimate perspectives
Mythic heroes, historical figures, a brace of geese ... enter the space of Dilip Ranade's paintings, and in turn a universe of fictional events. RANJIT HOSKOTE on the artist's recent show in Mumbai.
Universe of fictional events ... "Franz Kafka in the Aquarium", 2003.
TO enter the space of Dilip Ranade's recent paintings, exhibited at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, is to enter a universe of fictional events. Here, we find mythic heroes placed in contemporary settings, historical figures occupying unfamiliar locations, the present turned uncannily into an estranged past or an unfathomable future. Kafka wanders around a darkened aquarium or natural history museum: a haunted, melancholic figure surrounded by monsters of the deep in effigy. The marble bust of a Caesar suffers breakdown, a wire-mesh dictating the limits of its freedom; a brace of dead geese, embodying the classical Roman method of augury, act as an image of mortality. Or do these defunct hamsas suggest, perhaps, the soul's lost dream of transcendence? Birds and animals play an important role in Ranade's art: they serve as symbols of the threatened, endangered self, but also as images of its redemption. If the hare, stuffed and operated by wire, represents the self as subject to necessity, its leaping, luminous double suggests freedom. Similarly, the giant fish contemplating escape from a space of containment that is part stage, part museum, is a personification of the urge to break away from an existence dictated by the Other-in-authority.
While Ranade deploys the resources of the surrealist tradition to achieve his ends, it would be simplistic to gloss his work under that rubric. His paintings treat the surreal as a handy springboard rather than a definitive paradigm, as when they actively reference de Chirico, Carlo Carra or Magritte. The events in Ranade's paintings are "surreal" to the extent that they occur in a meso-realm between a recognisably normal and widely shared reality, and a private domain of dream, reverie and phantasmagoric association. But his drama is always low-key, the wit discreet, the painting disturbing in subtle ways, never fussy or melodramatic. By exhibiting a suite of smaller, exploratory acrylics and watercolours alongside their larger manifestations in oil, Ranade also plays with our preconceptions about the process of image-making. The preparatory work and the final version never simply coincide; we are left wondering which is the more definitive work, then realise the irrelevance of the question, and savour the engaging counterpoint established between the two scales.
In Ranade's handling, Kafka appears first as a secular saint and martyr; only by degrees is he revealed as a vampire. The museum, at first a store for cast-off stage properties, develops slowly into a horror show. The city is presented as an instantly available formation of grey, glass-fronted skyscrapers, absolute as mountains; and yet the columns bear fruit in the form of a pumpkin and a human torso, struggling to liberate themselves from the fast-drying concrete. The bull and cow, joined at the tail like a hinged near-mirror image, are based on a Harappan seal dating from remote antiquity. Set against an Indian red field, they are painted the colour of a cloudy sky, dappled grey and white, so that we see them and see through them at the same time. Ranade accomplishes his special effects by proposing an ostensibly specific and well-known image, but quirking up the pictorial space into which it is introduced.
Ranade's oblique, x-ray vision enables him to look through and past the evident, to offer intimate perspectives on the familiar. His materials and settings are drawn from the substratum of his experience as a curator, trained in taxidermy, active in the conservation of paintings and the handling of fossils, fascinated by animal maquettes and mediaeval weapons. If the stuffed, yet animated, creature is one of his recurrent tropes, the bejewelled dagger is another. Death is never far away from Ranade's conception of the world, but he has a variety of afterlives to offer. If taxidermy is an interim resurrection, narrative is a means of ensuring continuity; every day is a booby-trap, and the gift of deciphering riddles is vital to survival.
Indeed, Ranade's favoured form is the pictorial riddle: his paintings assume protean forms of conversation addressed to the viewer; they play on proverbs, damage the ordinary notions of scale, and stand conventional wisdom on its head. A camel can pass through the eye of a needle here, if the needle is a prism; the green cloud is an elephant pouring stormily into your teacup; in more phallic vein, you could peel a banana and bite into the fish inside. Ranade's dream tableaux evolve into lyrical chains of association: shadows lurk and lunge out at the viewer; dead fish carry tales; mirrors, possessed by a mysterious looseness of tongue, refuse merely to reflect.
The interval between living and dying, action and memory, gesture and explanation, is of extreme interest to Ranade. Often, it affords him the occasion to express his love of the absurd enlightenment. In a watercolour that is at once highly entertaining and briskly sobering, Ranade unveils a brace of geese: one dead, suspended from a hook, the other alive, scrutinising its deceased companion in bafflement. The not-quite-parallel with the Upanishadic motif of the two birds perched on a branch one eating a fruit, the other watching it eat sets off a moving resonance in this work. In the original, the birds represent the existential situation in which the contemplative aspect of the self observes the active one: detachment paired indissolubly with action. Ranade's geese posit a different scenario: here, the survivor examines the victim, checking for vital signs, evidence of a struggle, struck by the common fate of all that lives.
We empathise with the bird that watches: it embodies all of us, as we journey through the corridors of work and play, receiving the routine and the surprising with equal unreadiness, waiting for the clock to strike the final hour.
Despite the unsettling, penumbral atmospheres that he conjures up, however, Dilip Ranade is no pessimist. In his account, the human predicament can be overcome by the wry life-affirmation of wit, which is an intelligence and a heroism in its own right. These apparently sombre paintings are, by allusive implication, works of lightness, celebrations of light.
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