Artist N S Harsha’s enthralment for extremes is deployed in his practice with remarkable equilibrium. His works straddle a vast spectrum: they integrate elements from the quotidian to the astral, the intimate and the capacious; his gaze extends into outer space and also looks down on the world from above; the details allude to playful eccentricity as well as perceptive political awareness; and characters include locals from his neighbourhood in Mysuru - where he grew up, and now lives and works - and mythical beings from fantastical lands.
Harsha, who studied fine arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara, is known for making works that are larger than life. In 2014, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale featured his painting Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam (2013), a massive brushstroke resembling an infinity symbol stretching across a length of 24 metres. The bold, broad stroke feasibly is a reference to the movement of a gaze coiling back and forth endlessly between the individual self and the cosmos. His work Nations (2007/ 2017) was an installation comprising flags of the member countries of the United Nations draped on 192 foot-operated sewing machines, their threads entwined with -- yet connected to -- each other.
After a gap of thirteen years since Charming Nation - Harsha’s last solo exhibition in Bombay, held at the erstwhile Chemould Gallery space at Jehangir Art Gallery - the 51-year-old artist has returned to the city, albeit with a mindful diversion. The works are now pared down in terms of scale. With paintings and sculptures largely from the last two years, recent life at Chemould Prescott Road brings together familiar elements that underpin his almost two-and-a-half decade long practice -- of the cosmos, of speculation, the simian figure, and the painter as a vigilant observer of expressions and actions.
There is no single protagonist in Harsha’s paintings. While the figures may appear repetitive, these are individual renderings of a range of characters, not mere replicas. A sense of discipline and near symmetry exemplifies these works. As Harsha has previously stated, “Repetition gives some sort of mobility to be grounded, to be focused.”
In a mammoth, untitled diptych, a vast concourse of strangers are brought together at a certain place in time by common circumstance. Seated on plastic chairs in Harsha’s distinctive style of placing dozens of figures in grid-like matrices, his cast of characters are engaged in the act of waiting - or not wanting to wait. There is a man who appears benign, another whose face is writ with impatient inquisitiveness; will he fly into a rage soon? Yet another is slumped into indolence and needs to be snapped out of his daze. Did the animated girl in a yellow vest just have a moment of epiphany? A half-clad old man lies sleeping across three other people. Is he unwell or tired or is he dreaming? Each figure is distinct in terms of their postural and gestural expressions yet it appears as though they have an albatross around their neck; all of them are carrying the weight of the world.
Having shown his work at exhibitions and biennales internationally across cities such as Sydney, Moscow, New Delhi, Osaka, Tokyo, London and Berne, among others, Harsha stylistically draws inspiration from pop art and 20th-century German Expressionism, especially artists like Anslem Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. The fact that he owns an enormous collection of comic books and Japanese manga is reflection of his sardonic sense of humour.
While Harsha’s paintings contain generous splashes of whimsy and waywardness, they also assess the wider structures of society and culture, and can be read in parallel to the tumultuous times we live in. The work A4ian time drifts (2019) depicts a circuitous queue of people with sheets of paper in their hands, perhaps lined up at a government centre to prove their identity in order to obtain an Aadhar Card (Unique Identification card). Harsha’s motley crew looks outlandish -- a three-headed woman with a tumble of tawny hair and clawed feet; a man carrying an oxygen cylinder; a hunchbacked chimeric creature having the body of a human and the head of Satan. Are they actors in costume? Is it a staged occurrence? Or are they merely citizens in delirium and despair, whose identity awaits an imminent fate? Clerks sit at tables stationed at each turn, inimical to those who are in queue, with the intention of bringing them under scrutiny. A maelstrom of sheets of A4-sized paper meanders across the canvas, propelled by conflicting currents which segue into what could be an uncharted terrain, leading to a bizarre climax that leaves us with more questions than answers. Harsha made this work last year; however in the wake of the recent nationwide protests calling for the immediate withdrawal of the discriminatory Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), it can perhaps be read as an expression of the turbulent upheaval and simmering anguish in India.
There is a chromatic richness to Harsha’s paintings, an unhurried accretion of detail that allows him to re-imagine a world where the mundaneness of everyday life is morphed into flights of fancy and fiction. While the viewer might postulate that the scenes he paints are out of Mysuru, they could well be from anywhere in India. Take, for instance, the work At the Landing Site of Voyager One (2018) -- a spacecraft falls from the sky and gets enmeshed in the branches of a tree, narrowly escaping a crash-land. On the busy thoroughfare are yet another medley of characters -- some curious, some oblivious -- this time gathered around a tea stall. The stall owner is precariously holding on to a strand of the galaxy; a cow is stretched out languorously, giving birth, no less; two seemingly expat men dressed sharply in black suits are perhaps taking a tea break from their business meeting.
With Gazing Agrarians (2019), Harsha paints a caveat, of how fraught the world is with catastrophes and devastation. Harrowed farmers at the bottom of the frame look up at a blazing forest where animals are in danger. What would have once been a thriving, prosperous tract of land is now ravaged by the influx of global capitalism that furthered the mechanisation of farming, or technological advancements that robbed the farmers of their livelihoods. Some are displaced from their homes and habitat, some are struggling under the weight of a crippling debt, some are perhaps contemplating suicide - their future looks bleak. Harsha’s wry pictorial depictions double as social commentary-- critical and timely in a world where forest fires are raging, right-wing nationalist groups rising, and the propagation of communal polarisation and sectarian clefts tearing people and places apart.
The farmers who stare at the burning land, or the figure of the monkey looking andpointingupwards--the‘gaze’findsits place in many of Harsha’s works. This gaze does not simply involve looking; it also suggests the object or person being gazed upon. The gaze is reversed when the viewer, observing the work, finds her own gaze returned. This is Harsha’s opus; his work is immersive theatre in which the viewer is both audience and player.
recent life by N S Harsha is on display at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, until 13 February 2020.