More Than A Feeling- Thoughts On The 2nd National Painting Exhibition

The 2nd National Painting Exhibition at Bharat Nivas was one of the times that I again had to blink and again remind myself of what Auroville actually is- a city, not a town spread too thin. It takes the magnitude of a city to attract exhibitions of this kind, where the aim is to give the locals a real overview of what’s happening, rather than simply giving the townsfolk some pretty pictures to look at. For this, we have to thank Sridalaadevi G, who organized the event and took some time one day to show me around. Her stated idea behind the exhibition was an excellent one- to “help upcoming artists to learn from the legends”, while the legends can take a peek at what the younger generation is up to. After all, it’s not often that up-and-coming talent is showcased right next to perceived masters, so such happenings are always a big deal. In this particular case however, I think the exhibition may have fulfilled its purpose almost too well.

The downfall of modern Indian painting could be said to be its love of the literal. Compare it, for argument’s sake, to the great black American painters of the twentieth century- Norman Lewis, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson- what is now known as the Harlem Renaissance school. Faced with seemingly endless social and economic struggles, they represented the world around them with a shrewd, discerning eye and a knack for celebrating the iconic with both irony and innocence; witness Lawrence’s Panel 28 from his Frederick Douglas series (about a bloody Civil War-era lynch-mob riot in the streets of New York, by whites who refused a draft to fight for slaves, and so decided to kill them instead). This is a subject of mythic importance to African-American history, yet Lawrence’s painting deals with it so subtly, so symbolically, it is almost imperceptible- what is left is the residue of pain, a sense of doom that is wholly impersonal but serves the picture far better than any explicit references would. This is the crucial point that not many Indian artists seem to agree on. Modern Indian art is a tidier affair, based on formal recontextualization of traditional imagery until the artist arrives at a point where they only have to fill in the blanks- a sort of reconstruction of memory, aided by art. While this can invite some fascinating crossovers, they stop short at being crossovers; much like the vast majority of Indo-European fusion music, these experiments don’t blossom into a fully formed idea or expression because they try to simply bridge two worlds without actually attempting to harmonize them- the visual equivalent of hard-rock guitar players shredding next to Carnatic violin players over a rock-steady 4/4 beat. The end result is often closer to refined decoration than fully-formed expression.

So how refreshing to see at least a handful of artists leave these ideas behind and reach for something different altogether! Among the older participants, the first to really catch my eye were Chitra N and John Joseph. Joseph’s work in particular had a homegrown tenacity that immediately drew me in, planting me firmly in a delta-like world of fine, winding etchings. He says that all his works depict “frames of mind,” yet it’s hard not to imagine him being very connected to his land when his works could well be abstract aerial landscapes of Kerala backwaters. Chitra, meanwhile, comes from a more formal side, which is visible but not overbearing in the least. Her present series of abstracted cityscapes shows a brilliant way with color, often working in blocks over layered and textured backgrounds in a way that recalls a more organic incarnation of Mondrian- indeed, her canvas Infinity brought the Dutch theosophist’s early Dune series immediately to mind, showcasing some of the wonders of abstract landscape painting; with a tilt of the head, a cityscape can become a seascape, and vice versa. 

Of the older generation of artists exhibited, the three others who stood out were Vidya Sundar and her canvas Denested- The Conquest, Mookkaiya K with his monumental charcoal work Nandi, and two small canvasses by Dr Zaheda Khanam. Sundar’s work seems to glow when one first sees it- a combination of her chosen medium (acrylics and Korean hanji paper) and the amount of space she leaves blank. The reddish capillaries of the paper throw her central figures- the bird and the apple- into exquisite relief, buoyed by a very light touch with her acrylics.  There is a sense of foreboding in the picture, indeed of the ‘helplessness’ she describes feeling when confronted with the confusion and displacement of the postmodern world at large. Meanwhile, Dr Khanam’s pieces are like an interlude unto themselves, with her dabs and scratches of pigment cutting and dripping across the canvas to produce a startling surrealist effect. Her Beautiful Scene is just that, but quite ghostly- simple skeletons of trees poking out of a grey-blue mist, with generous dabs of white and red both acting as foliage and lending a dreamlike sense of depth to the composition. Mookkaiya’s Nandi is a piece that can make you stop in your tracks. Not many mediums can capture movement like charcoal, and Mookkaiya is an obvious master. Here also is the bull, that one fail-safe all-around symbol of India- within its symbolic quotation marks there lies everything that could be said about the country or its philosophies. It is rendered here with an incomparable amount of power, majesty, sheer force- a focus on the ellipse as his stroke of choice makes for a vortex-like density, particularly around the shoulders and the eyes, where the spiraling blackness turns the bull’s sockets into voids. The commonness of the subject does not in any way detract from the work, and here is where Mookkaiya succeeds where so many of his colleagues/contemporaries do not- he doesn’t allow the omnipresence of his subject matter to get in the way of what he himself wishes to make it say.

For me, however, the most refreshing part of the exhibition was getting to see the younger artists’ works next to the previous generation’s. Despite the commonly held notion that young artists are not as serious as their elders, this was precisely the aspect that made me react arguably more favorably toward their work. The best examples of this new generation are largely free from pretension- a watermark in any field, let alone visual art. They seem to make art because they have to, not because it’s their profession or responsibility. Keren Soruba Joseph is an example of one of these. She believes that we must all surround ourselves with what makes us happiest, which is her reason for making art. And it shows- her textured, expressionistic canvases, exemplified here by Floating City, have more than a touch of the surreal and none of the cultural pretension of some of her older peers. One feels as if the canvas is a direct window into her world, not the world of her family or city or religion. It’s a warm breath of personality in a national art world that has lingered far too long on the impersonal, the metaphysical, and the historical.

Vidya Lakshmi continues in the metaphysical direction, but her eye for nature speaks just as clearly; in her thick swirls of impasto, she manages to perfectly capture the relationship of two elements, fire and water. The confluence of elements always brings to mind grandiose imagery, yet her constructions here are imposingly humble, focusing on space and flow of colour to end up with a composition that almost seems to be collapsing on itself.

Iyappan V, meanwhile, nailed a replica of Chagall in his canvas Unity, but his second work changed my mind entirely. An ingeniously conceived abstract, it evoked any number of allusions; for this writer, with its black background and shadowy shapes under a delicate red splatter, it brought to mind the backroads of the American west- North Dakota, Montana, yellow-eyed houses scattered haphazard in blank rolls of night, with radio towers blinking, blinking towers of crimson and electricity  spitting out FM comfort for all the lonely drivers. Iyappan’s way with colour is impressive, as is his eye for the bigger picture- the way he isolates his scene by surrounding the “night” with an uneven white border is a crucial, and brilliant, decision.

Sridalaadevi G herself, the curator of the exhibition, offered up her own works to be displayed as well, and they provided another high point. As constructive abstractions, they again take nature as their starting point and move forward, in her hands becoming first-person scenes from the life of an insect. Her forms are strongly biomorphic and completely unforced, and she tempers their complexity with a childlike, Fauvist palette that lends a sense of both wonder and urgency to her compositions.

These are some of the artists I really enjoyed. But the best thing about an exhibition such as this was to be able to compare the works of different artists, to see what spoke to me and what didn’t, and to figure out why. For example, the majority of the rest were split down the middle between pure abstraction and pure regionalism. The pure abstractionists- Viswam A, Thirunavukarasu S, Ravinath PM, Ravi R- brought to mind many associations, some too close. Pure abstraction in today’s art world is hard to pursue in a wholly formal manner, and Viswam’s evocations of DeKooning and Kline, alongside Thirunavukarasu’s of James Brooks and Baziotes, seems like an unnecessarily low bow to the Cold War abstract masters. In this sense, the curation of the exhibit has played an important part- in a quest to expose the most serious of artists, it has also revealed the downfall of seriousness. On the opposite end, there was banality as well, with the usual smattering of village women with covered heads and bindis, lotuses, sunsets, tigers, Krishnas, Buddhas and other icons all vying to be the national mascot. This is where I find it hard to judge anything, because the painting originates from what is essentially pop culture- it retains no personal meaning for the viewer to interpret or feel. There is a great chance that a lotus or a religious statue will mean the same thing for one person as it does for another, and likewise for a saree-wearing woman carrying a clay pot atop her head. The real meat of what is to be expressed is no longer in these images, for they’ve been milked dry by decades of overuse in a formal setting, in which they are stripped of the real significance they attain in a traditional folk-art setting.

In Claude Levi-Strauss’ autobiographical manifesto of structuralism Triste Tropiques, he compares and contrasts the difference between native craftsmen in Brazil and Bengal, namely the Ganges delta. The inhabitants of the delta had been made to change their lifestyle completely in order to meet European demand for raw jute and woven goods. During the 19th century they had been banned by British authorities from practicing their traditional weaving in order to leave markets open for cotton goods from Manchester, resulting in the loss of an entire part of their culture. A hundred years later, they were being forced, through destruction of their arable land for jute production, to import most of their food; entire regions were devoted to the production of pearl buttons, with no sign of any other local craft; when independence was achieved and the markets toppled, the entire region almost starved to death overnight. On the other hand, the lazier brand of colonialism practiced by the Portugese in Brazil, perhaps together with some strange cultural twist, resulted in small-town craftsmanship thriving. Many markets were kept local, and craftspeople could still eke out a decent living without bowing to anyone else’s tradition- they continued to be free to express themselves through their work.

I believe a similar problem is applicable here, except symbolically, since modern art is a symbolic venture; the narrowing down of Indian art to a collection of motifs derived from crafts and using them to create multilayered works with many meanings- that is, modern art. In this time of general upheaval, the natural human consensus is to turn to nationalism. But it is and has always been the imperative of the artist to go against the natural consensus, to get at what is underneath, to the reason behind the upheaval itself. This exhibition made it plain to see that both sides are with us in force- all the more reason to believe that the Indian art scene will only keep getting more and more interesting.