Artists

Originally published by Sakshi Gallery and the Synergy Art Foundation Ltd.; Kolkata: Impresario; New Delhi: Gallery Espace, 1999.

When the Emblems Moved

The free animal

Has its decrease perpetually behind it

And God in front, and when it moves, it moves,

Into eternity, like running springs.

***

There will be nothing outside…; For trees and mountains, clouds, and waves will be but symbols of the realities he will find within himself. Everything has flowed together in him… The very ground beneath his feet is too much. He will roll it up like a prayer carpet. He will no longer pray. He will just be. And when he makes a gesture, he will create and hurt into infinity many millions of worlds… How other, remote worlds will ripen to gods I do not know. But for us, art is the way.

Rainer Maria Rilke

There the gentle forest stood in sleep. A still swab of colour. Flat and infinite. No more a forest. One entered here the realm of sylvan repose. Without even the lightened foot-falls. Without even the remembered narratives of yore. Through a wreckaged memory one moved closer to an irenic laasya. The stranded limbs dissolved into a quiet reunion within a dreaming body. There were postures alongside of occasional objects that had stayed on as uncertain reinders of now forgotten tales! There were forms sliding against the translucence of colour! As we looked on, the colour reappeared as a thin gauze. It was as if the hijab had been upturned. Not so much to reveal a face as to be itself revealed by the not expected. We could not look across the body into a flattened infinity - a mystical hollow!

We had stopped here after a long walk through the narrow footways that kept on opening till we reached the clearing all of a sudden. Within the forest there were clearings. They appeared like palpable traps and we were easily led astray as if in a primal affirmation of a lost bond. Often our journeys ended in the middle. And then began anew. The day seemed so long. The night so far.

The Emblem Had Begun to Move

Lighter than air

than water

than lips

light light

Your body is the footprint of your body

TRANSIT, by Octavia Paz

There was a presence that had followed us laterally through the forest. Someone had been seeing us all this while. Someone had sbruptly disappeared behind the rustle. There was a movement in the foliage. As we looked back, we could not see the forest anymore: a swab and no details. The grass awash with the cool softness of a peering sun. Amidst the mossy fragrance, there it stood - the blue animal. The furry sheen of its hide would become lightly astirred with shallow wind in between. Now and then a shiver would seem to run down its stretched spine. Its ears would halfflap in a slow deepening gaze. It had come to us from an unknown space or had we strayed too far! From where did its blue spring? From its skin? Hair? Or did it harbor the darkling forest somewhere deep within? And then it turned its neck and the blue changed - at first a shade violet and then a growing indigo. This was an unexpected move… Ever so silently, we were placed into a stillness of being. On this clearing, we saw the seal finally cracking under the lure of its eyes. The embossed animal had stepped out of its weightly confines to deburden an entire civilisation! The emblem had begun to move.

Silence as the Open Space of Voice

I’m like a bird from

another continent,

The day is coming when I’ll fly off,

but who is it now in my ear

who hears my voice?

Who says words with my mouth?

Jalaluddin Rumi

In the cool intensity of the mountainous air, the blazing sun caressed us mildly and we began to move further up the mountain… towards a peak we could see now and then through the trees rising into an unseen sky.

…Peak is where the forest ends. Peak is where the ultimate clearing is found. That is when the fear would finally vanish and you would long to be a narcissus in continuity with an enormous image. Aflush with light, you would see yourself standing amidst a huge carpet of white lilies. Your ears would be filled with a low, constant jingling sound you hear and yet heard not. Where did it come from? This sound? In a sudden burst of rejuvenance your lungs want to throw aloud the sounds that have remained with you - sounds that were less than words and would forever be so. You would see your voice travel across the distant steppes. There the grazing cattle are looking back uncertainly. The voice does not return. It keeps going and then you see it no more. It is only deep in the forest that your own voice surprises you. As a memory. Was that really you, you begin to wonder! Frames of eternity have now become laden with the myriad silences and silences have opened up as a continuous space of voice…

As they walked past the slow curve, the forest was filled with the sound of wind. This was the moment of captive listening - of sama’s amidst a weald of deepening shadows/ The moist curve kept on winding and the forest shifted ever so restfully. We reached an imaginary limen. The green forest was about to end. On its farthest threshold stood a woman in folds of unstitched violet. Her hand rose from her elbow, even as her fingers played gently across her ruddy lips. Her hair a coil of martian brown and raw amber went round her neck. She stood against this dark, green frame of infinity that was about to end. Against this frame, she was cast in a moment of pagan spell that was about to break. This woman stood there thinking about a small detail, a chance encounter, a sudden parting… not aware of the ghosts that were flitting past her to disappear into another forest, another journey… As she began to go down the darkling quiescent forest, we saw time now reappearing as the duration of her gait, her movement through the foliage as a cosmic cascade. A little beyond the limen, the forest shifted completely and the red burst forth…

Mothers had always warned us against venturing into the red forests. The women of these forests, they told us, were endowed with extraordinary powers. They painted their lips with the red-wood peel and put you into a trance. They made an entire forest resonate to the drone of a spinning wheel, and the animals in hibernation came out of their meditative sleep. These women could stop forests from disappearing behind the curtains of clouds. They could roll the approaching clouds into neat folds and wear them around their unclothed breasts. We were not to watch them comb their hair with their fingers.

The benign animals you saw sitting next to them used to be blue once. They were now beginning to turnalanguorous pink. You saw the shift and wondered if in fact those animals were animals at all; if they had not cast their spells and turned humans into pets. The pets were tied into tangles of immobility and an arrested, wondrous gaze. These women made the sun settle quietly over their body. The lure of sun! They made us hear the sound of the stationery wind. The lure of the wind! They made them see their own body without a mirror and in a spell of raving madness, they made them say “I’m there! I’m there!” The lure of one’s own self! They captured the letharfy of elements and converted it into the arrested elegance of posture and gave their bodies a magical line. Mothers had warned us not to look at their tails for that is where some movement had remained still. They had warned us not to look at their flesh for that is where the running shudder had been stopped. Go if you must, but don’t look… And for no reason whatsoever, you always met these women sitting in the middle of the road at the entrance of the rest forests. “Beware! Beware! Do not enter the red forest! The footways you see are spells laid out. The red you see is a chimera cast! Their lips parareal! The image would stay awhile and then dissolve and bring anguish! O man, be warned! Do not tread those grounds!”

Arising from Earth

A moment when the being begins to listen of the act of listening as remembrance in Sufi thought.

Black deer, black deer

roaming the wilds

jingle-jangle anklets

horns inscribed

with myriad forms

and many a size

a patridge here

a fowl in flight

maize and oats

was all your diet

flapping long ears

ringed with pride

stretching your body

you leapt new heights

ditches narrow narrow

now bring new frights

leaping across one such

you cried

in pain and shame

you quietly died

(An old folk song from the Malwa region of Punjab)

***

Bho bho raajan

Aahram mrugoyam

Naa hantavvayo

naa hantavvayah

Listen O King!

The deer you chase

is the deer from the cloister

Do not kill her

Do not kill!

(Sounds from the forest as King Dushayant enters the forest on a hunt.)

(From Kalidas’s Abhigyan Shakuntalam)

Bhu: Listen to the resonance of terrestrial memory arise from the Earth

Losing his way amidst the desolate crags of the crumbling red earth that had arisen from an invisible sea in aeonic remembrance, he stumbled upon the sutra scribbled amost hurriedly on a leaf of paper but left behind in anticipation, faith, love… It had been carefully kept under a stone in the hollow of a tree that clung precariously to the precipice floating over a landscape from which it had been separated many a rain ago. That is how the childhood would appear to him in those dreamy days of dust - dreaming…

Inside the house was a large family, outside the haunting lure of wilds. An untamed landscape overflowing with thorny bushes, blades of prickly grass, sun-dried berries, the dying aroma of human visitations hanging weakly through the ages. It was an enchanted landscape. Burnished stretches of wilds.

They had come here from an earlier settlement on the edge of a desert far away in the land of rivers. He often wondered how the river songs had receded from his memory. All he remembered now was a vast and silent landscape where, he often felt, a song was as if about to begin. Any moment now, the riverscape would return a sound. Carrying a flute in his tiny hands, he would fly from mound to mound longing to hear the imagined sound. He could not recall any boats dotting the normity of muddy waters. The image of a woman holding an unbaked, crumbling pot in blinding rain on the edge of the torrent appeared now and then like a smudged poem.

The bare majesty of the silent rivers had stayed in his mind. The memory of the habitation had remained with him like the image of an oasis. Limpid. Unreal, almost! Occasionally, he remembered the time that was measures out by the haze of dust the grazing cattle raised while going out and then returning from distant pastures in the evening with their shepherds and dogs. It wasn’t time they measured. It was the very duration of their reposeful being.

As he grew up he began to wonder if in some way it would be possible to write a history of their times in terms of how those spaces had once appeared to him. In terms of images. He so obviously enjoyed little narratives of these personal histories. The oral presence of the failed historians - the mendicant singers and acrobats - had him in absolute captivation…

He had vivid memories of the cowstand where he was born; memories of his father whose pious caress could make the dry cows yield milk all over again. He had seen him chanting in whispers strange messages in an unknown language in their ears. The image of this tall man sleeping in a sitting posture atop his white horse on long and lonely journeys had obsessed him completely. The horse negotiated the way on its own. It would trace the shallow bed in the river and wade across without waking up the master-rider. In between a little wind would caress the bearded rider deep in the warmth of his sleep.

The Oeuvre: A first note

Looking at the totality of Manjit’s work, one moves through a clearly and consciously marked out process of evolution and choices. Animal and human forms, their organicity, limbs, mysterious natural growths without ambient details - these are some of the features that have appeared as constant markers in his painterly propositions and engagements throughout. In the earliest phase of his work one finds an obsessive preoccupation with strong textures and recurrent, at times almost fierce, motifs of hunting. This phase is strongly reminiscent of the primeval, raw energy one associates with a beginning. The word that for me best evokes this period of evolution if the Sanskrit bhu which could be translated literally to denote the element earth. In a more ontological sense - one which is relevant to our understanding of Manjit’s work - we may interpret this root word to mean terrestrial memory. These works carry in them a strong resonance of primal habitations. In think textures they stage a carefully choreographed act of hunting. Originary impulse of raw creativity. The hunted animal in its last rising or sprawl just before death brings about an aura of savage nobility.

In his next phase, the strong textures recede and the motifs of hinting give way to organic forms in disjunction from a clearly identifiably originary source much like the limbs in separation from the body.

The evolutionary term I propose here istheSankrit bhav which - tracing its root back to bhu - is often translated as the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to become’. For our purpose here, it would be more appropriate to interpret it as ‘that which, embodying the terrestrial resonance, is in the process of becoming’.

One may be tempted to look at the obsessive concern with organicity and its disjuncture as an instance of arrested disavowal and fetishism. One finds enough symptomatic signs of this in his childhood. After all, he was the youngest member in a very large family where it was not quite unnatural to remain unnoticed for long intervals of time and then be in sudden demand for odd jobs and running errands. However, it is equally important to remember that the pre-Partition Delhi in which Manjit grew up consisted mainly of large stretches of wilderness and it was not exactly surprising to suddenly come face to face with embedded signs of primeval organicity and civilisation. Closer home, partition and the ensuing communal holocaust left a trace. The image of his blood-soaked father tottering home having seen his Muslim friend off to safety stayed with him.

The first two phases of his career could as such be seen as constituting a period of intense preparation and could be places or mapped along the city of his adopted domicile or even the nascent nation itself. This is the period of observation and learning - of endless drawings, diagrammes, studies, lonely treks through a vastly untraversed landscape of a dreaming nation.

It could be argued that the second phase of preparation has never quite ended and that it overlapped and indeed merged with the next two phases of evolution in his work = namely, the bhaav and bhavya. In our daily discourse, bhaav is often used to denote ‘value’, ‘production of value’ or ‘emotion’. Translated literally, it is a conjunction of bhav with an infix a and would therefore read as a state of being with ‘that which is becoming’ - it is as such treated as a consolidation of emotion - a state nearly material and tactile. Such a view of bhaav differs radically from the classical pose or posture that has unfortunately come to be part of our rasa typology. Bhaav addresses a phenomenology of being rather than a typology of pose. Bhavya, on the other hand, is ‘that which unfolds, unravels or opens out as it becomes’. It is the spectavising and spectavised impulse of the bhav and stages the moment of its creative separation and autonomy in almost joyous narcissism and, in doing so, puts the image into a mode of reflective vastness.

The act of arising from terrestrial resonance may thus be said to have been accomplished in the last two phases of his evolution. From the earlier organicity of forms, there is once again a movement towards choreographic aspiration performer. Instead of the textures of materiality, there is a clear staging of the spirit on almost the last moment of balance - a moment beyond which the spectacle of the self would dissolve into infinity. This is the stage where the mystic acrobat rises in dignity and the saintly warrior finds his impossible peaceful mirror image. This paradox of harmony is extended to the abstemious organic world and the animal kingdom. The gaze there has entered a somewhat languid though playful mode. Paradoxically, the extreme elation of the acrobat coincides with an equally extreme reflective mode of restful beings - pagan women, androgynes, posing animals, attired men.

This is the phase of the haunting iconographic tableaux - fitting past in a stop-go movement. The deeply reflective mode in some of these iconic images have to do with the notion of zikr or remembrance in sama or the act of listening as practices by the Sufis travelling through and experiencing the vastness of ecology.

It is possible to look at the evolution of the totality of Manjit’s work as a series of steps in a chain of remembrance. This childhood mode of remembrance, for instance, is the incantatory mode or zikr-e-lasaani. It is like learning tables through a rhythmic recitation. The heavy texture of materiality, the frozen choreography of hunting then gives way to the study of organic forms. It may be mapped against the next two steps of remembrance within the sufi practice - namely zikr-e-qalbi or remembrance through reflective focus and zikr-e-roohi or remembrance through experience of the externalised imaginary. The next phase in Manjit’s oeuvre works almost like a poetic caesura. It is the moment of both internalizing and staging. The act of staging assumes a presence outside is cast in performative mode. It is the state of remembrance known as zikr-e-sari where the presence of an outside invisible subject is essential to define the inner gaze of the image. The next three modes of remembrance address the state of being in various moments of staging and dissolution of the self - zikr-e-khafi where the performance of the staged self becomes subservient to the outside presence and the inner gaze begins to disappear; and, zikre-akhafi-ul-akhafi where the distinction between the act of remembrance, the one remembered and the one remembering melts.

The various modes of emembrance proposed by the Sufis in relation to their practice of listening offer exciting, challenging ways of engaging the notional categories such as bhaav and iconography. It offers possibilities of opening up not only the image inlaid with a range of cultural/civilizational references but, even more important, of addressing the question of being before inserted into the narratives of subjectivity. It could be argues that Manjit’s work in his last phase has moves assuredly away from a typological iconography of the face. There is an unambiguous aspiration towards emblematic remembrance. This is his way of approaching the domain of subjectivity, perhaps.

The western rhetoric and semiotic studies have not paid enough attention to the emblematic mode of representation. The closest it comes to the emblem is in its description of iconic sign. It seeks to establish a parallel between the two at the level of memory. Both these terms seem to indicate the containment in them of something much larger in that they produce a resemblance effect. Unlike in the theory of metaphor, the iconic image is not just described, it is quite clearly presented. It is what Paul Henle calls ‘a schema for the construction of icon’.

The icon functions quite definitely within a mode of visual economy - the question of economy being in turn related to the idea of resemblance which constitutes the essential attribute of memory shared between the icon and the emblem. If the resemblance is to be both epochal and evocative, if it is to function as a visual episteme, it will be perforce required to drop ambient indexic details and expected to work with almost austerefrontality.However, whereas the resemblance is built into the produced image in icon, the same happens to grow over a large period of civilisational time for an image to be identified as an emblem. Manjit’s work in the very last phase of his work moved away from the iconic schema and has entered emblematic mode - not as a pose which most emblems are but as a movement out of the burden of a civilisational/cultural memory.

The Oeuvre: A second note

The work of Rilke is perhaps a useful reference in approaching Manjit’s animals cast against the frames of infinity. There are in Rilke references to how “a hunted animal can sometimes successfully avoid a predator by ceasing to move, assuming a pose of “arrested life” and thereby passing out the experiential world of the predator into a kind of nonbeing.” He likens this to “a state of inner numbness” which has been interpreted as a “retreat into his interior world to preserve his poetics from threat”. Manjit’s oeuvre, equally strongly moved by the lonely animal. However, the schema of self-preservation in a conscious move to stimulate stillness of non-being in order to protect life has been given up. Even though he brings together contrary dispositions within the same frame, it is always fearless coming together against a wall of infinite monochrome. Thus one finds a goat next to a lion, a squirrel almost ready to nibble at the lethargic lion’s foot, a benign cow squatting next to the pagan woman. The earlier antagonism between the predator and the hunted has disappeared. Instead, there is a sense of a deepening ecological bond. Rilke was profoundly influences by idea of individual creature’s unwelt proposed by his ethologist friend Uexkull. It is the phenomenal or self-world, that surrounds every creature, including man. A creature’s Umwelt is a biologically given adaptation to a particular environment, the long term result of a lengthy period of evolutionary development and the immediate effect, in part of a creature’s very metabolism, its “moment” - the unique pace at which it takes in sensory experience from the external world. An Umwelt is like a soap-bubble surrounding the individual, filtering all that it sees and feels, and yet it is almost impossible to grasp and to witness, so close does it like to the intrinsic, tacit nature of the creature, so much does it contribute the substance of its accustomed orientation. Heidegger has also described unwelt as a “world” which cannot be easily observed because it is that “with which” we see, rather than “what” we see. (for a detailed discussion on this issue, see David LAvery’s - “Everything is Trying to Hide Us”: Rilke’s Poetry of Mimicry - in The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 5.1, 1987). In the context of Manjit’s work, the notion of a creature’s umwelt - a world with which we see could be understood in reference to the phenomenal /ecological meaning of the Sanskrit sahaja which is erroneously translated as spontaneity. The word is a conjunction of sah (with/together) plus ja (birth). Writing elsewhere about the experience of “being with” in Manjit’s work, I had refereed to the translucent wall of infinity against which the animal and human forms appeared like a chimera - “This wall of infinity luminesced as the grand imaginary against which children would set up their small performance, there finite leela, their little joy. Between the finite and the infinite, between the pagan and the God, this excessive celebration! It was as if light had peered through the closed eyelids and created a purely imaginary play of colour on the very surface of the eye”. The idea of proximity in “being with” and “togetherness as pre-natal remembrance” is central to sahaja. The idea is auto-reflexive rather than cognitive. There is a play of sahaja in our sudden recognition of spaces we have never seen before. The idea of clearing or lichtung in Heidegger and its relation to both light and sound seems equally relevant in Manjit’s construction of the ecological sign through an intertwining of light and silence.

As against Shiva’s apocalyptic dance, the taandava, his consort Parvati evolved the gentle dance - and called it laasya. Hijaab is the equivalent of the veil in Arabic. Clearing: “Light can stream into the clearing, into its openness, and let brightness play with darkness in it. But light never first creates the clearing…” - Martin Heidegger

Notes

Arabic:

[1] Zikr: remembrance

[2] Zikr-e-lasaani: oral incantatory remembrance - loud or soft

[3] Zikr-e-qalbi: remembrance through a study/meditation of allah’s name

[4] Zikr-e-roohi: remembrance as experience of God

[5] Zikr-e-sari: remembrance assuming the presence of God

[6] Zikr-e-khafi: remembrance when God’s presence begins to overwhelm and the self is erased

[7] Zikr-e-akhafi: remembrance as union and ecstasy

[8] Zikr-e-akhafi-ul-akhafi: remembrance when the distinction between remembrance, the One remembered and the one remembering is lost.

Sanskrit:

[1] bhu: earth, terrestrial memory

[2] bhav: that which is becoming

[3] bhaav: with that which is becoming

[4] that which unfolds, unravels or opens out as it becomes

[5] Sahej: spontaneous, but literally one whose birth is concomitant with that (phenomenon, person or thing) it experiences or responds to

German

[1] Umwelt: in natural sciences environment, in social sciences milieu but in Heidegger’s ontological terms, the Umwelt is a “world” which cannot be easily observed because it is that “with which” we see, rather than “what” we see. (This tradition of thought has its origin, of course, in Kant’s conception of the “cetgories of human understanding, a tradition to which Uexkull consciously attempts to add a biological grounding)

[2] Lichtung: literally luminosity (also a glade) but in Heideggerian ontology clearing: “Light can stream into the clearing, into its openness, and let brightness play with darkness in it. But light never first creates the clearing. Rather, light presupposes the clearing.”

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