How much can be crammed into a single picture? How redolent of symbolisms and meanings can one painting be? The challenge would seem to invite bombastic posturing and conjures up memories of lugubrious late 19th Century Salon paintings in which kitsch eroticism cuddles up to ersatz historicism. The Indian tradition has always preferred hyper-complexity in the plastic arts, better to properly categorize all manner of comings and goings, both celestial and earthly. This meant for an anxious relationship with artistic Modernism but in our Post-Modern times it puts the contemporary Indian artist at an advantage, so genetically adept is he or she to traverse the contradictions and rope together the sundry difficulties of present day living.

Released in 1966, Fantastic Voyage was an American movie starring Raquel Welch, Hollywood’s favorite sex kitten of the time. The premise had a group of scientists and their submarine temporarily shrunken to the size of protozoa so that they could be injected into the body of a diplomat and save his life. The scientists cavorted in a world strangely similar to outer space, battling alien beings (white blood cells and the like) and free-floating through abstract landscapes. Around the same time, Hanna-Barbera, one of the preeminent American producers of television cartoons, chose to bring together in a few episodes their two most famous families: the stone-age Flintstones and the space-age Jetsons. To a young child (myself) observing such Pop Culture phenomena, these conjoinings of polar opposites (one spatial, the other temporal) seemed effortlessly appropriate to a newly synthesized world, the harbingers of more to come.

Jyothi Basu achieves many of the same effects in his art, through the guise of a candy-colored demeanor that belies the deadly earnestness of his subjects. In large-scale oil paintings and a wide variety of works on paper, Jyothi Basu wills into being a universe of his own making: hallucinatory and timeless yet grounded in astute observations of the world in which we live. Like an animated cartoon that brings together cavemen and astronauts, his art playfully synthesizes profound conflagrations, sees delight inextricably bound to terror.

Fantastic Voyage came to mind the first time I ever saw one of Jyothi Basu’s landscape paintings. Here was a space that was both cosmic in scale and inside the body, inter-galactic and sub-atomic at the same time. The landscapes depict inter-connected systems that carry both energy and information, circulatory and neurological paths, multiple flows of both light and matter moving in numerous directions, an interface of technology with biology, the genetic coding of solar systems. The landscapes seen from an omnipotent viewpoint evoke cosmological diagrams, inferring a theological program, while the artist’s fluorescent colors ape the special effects one expects to find in a B-grade science fiction film.

More recently, Jyothi Basu’s paintings have accomplished a secondary collapsing of poles. His art has always been deeply influenced by his home state of Kerala, with its dense palm tree jungles and aquatic horizons where back-water canals meet the sea. After a few years of living in the megalopolis of Mumbai, Jyothi Basu has imbibed in the language of forms and patterns of chaos endemic to the city to come up with yet another synthesis of opposites, now the urban and the rural. Both are grist for his mill that pictures vegetation as an electronic grid, roadways as jungle vines, trees as concrete towers, and night skies as syncopated lighting.

Jyothi Basu’s other-worldly landscapes are built of architectonic ciphers that mimic the forms of both nature (plants, animals, spores) and culture (writing, figuration, decoration). The things that most closely resemble buildings accommodate multiple pedigrees: Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian. His planet is composed of a linguistic superstructure (signs, symbols, letters and icons) that pulses with meaning and life. Taking full advantage of the graphic appeal of his native Malayalam, Jyothi Basu sprinkles letters and words throughout his galaxies. One painting from 2005, Sleeping Fear and Sleepless Ancestors, contained, in Malayalam, the words Fear, Hunger, Ecstasy, Romance, Love and Color. The word for Fire was surrounded by a ring of sages with heads aflame. Concepts are illustrated as structures for habitation, monuments are built to world-renewing rituals, syncretic traditions comfortably coalesce. Stylistically, what Jyothi Basu’s painterly language most closely resembles is the symbologies (word as picture as both pattern and icon) found in the hieroglyphs of the Aztec and Mayan cultures of Meso-America.

Something must be noted of the similarity Jyothi Basu’s art shares with that defined as Psychedelic and associated with the drug culture of the 1960s. Psychotropic substances, when ingested, sparked sensorial overloads which artists attempted to reproduce (however futile this may have been). The model for such picture-making could be found primarily within the Indian sub-continent, though the graphic schools of European Art Nouveau and Symbolism did provide some guidance. In the pictorial traditions of Hindu mythology, Tibetan Buddhism and Islamic patterning, Western artists found their starting posts from which to communicate that which their minds generated. It is certainly no coincidence that Eastern philosophies also played a major role in the era’s zeitgeist, that environmental and spiritual concerns accompanied substance and lifestyle experimentation. The expansion of possibilities characteristic of the 1960s reverberates in Jyothi Basu’s art. In some ways, his work is a homecoming of Indian artistic styles that were digested and reconfigured by Western artists, now reinterpreted by an Indian artist. Whether conscious or not, Jyothi Basu’s imagery is certainly indebted to the work of graphic artists active in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, such as Peter Max, Victor Morosco and Roger Dean (who is best known for his surreal landscapes created for the album covers of the rock band Yes). (Note: Fantastic Voyage was billed at the time of its release as the first mass-market film to exploit “psychedelic effects.” Just how did those scientists get so small, anyway? We are immediately connected to not only a long history of literary interest in psychotropic substances but also veering closely to the edge of the Occult.)

Perhaps the most apropos Rosetta Stone to apply for the interpretation of Jyothi Basu’s art comes from the Hindu mystical science of Tantra. Throughout his book Kiss of the Yogini, David Gordon White returns to the concept of kamakala. Most literally translated as “The Art of Love,” kamakala embodies multiple definitions and transforms itself to various applications. The term has also been interpreted as meaning “Love’s Lunar Digit,” “Love’s Sixteenth Potion” and “Divine Principle Desire” while the kamakala yantra (a diagram for meditation and the template for the composition of figures in erotic painting and sculpture) has been translated as “Love Images.” Another variation, the kamakalatmaka, is known as the “Triangle of Love,” to be found a bit lower than the navel.

Kamakala is a central focus of the Srividya discipline of Tantra, which can be traced to 11th Century Kashmir and migrated south where it has remained particularly prevalent in Tamil Nadu till today. As White explains, “The principal ritual practice of Srividya is meditation on the cosmogram, which stands as an abstract depiction of the interactions of the male and female forces that generate, animate, and ultimately cause to re-implode the phenomenal universe-as-consciousness.” [1] This universe is generated by a “divine outpouring of light and sound” and in Jyothi Basu’s most recent painting the cosmogram is anchored at its heart by the colossal Malayalam character of ___, which translates as TTAEY!, akin to an explosive burst at the dawn of creation. White also emphasizes the importance of a kernel of knowledge or energy: “a phosphorescing drop of sound that animates this cosmogram and the universe, and into which the mind of the person who meditates upon it is resorbed.” [2] Something similar is happening in the art of Jyothi Basu: the symbiosis of individual parts with the greater whole; a sense of both light and energy being emitted from a still image; the construction of a cosmic system that accommodates both the macro and the micro scales, both the objective and subjective viewpoints.

In the catalog published on the occasion of an exhibition of his works in the spring of 2006 in New York, Jyothi Basu is pictured seated in front of one of his paintings, eyes closed and in the yogic position of meditation. Ironic marketing image for presenting the Indian artist to the West or genuine portrayal of the seer at research? In the slippery world of international contemporary art, where the stakes are high but one should always maintain a sense of humor, it is best to play it both ways. Art objects themselves should be invested with scholarly principals and a degree of entertainment, the artist’s products and practices dove-tailed so as to achieve multiple aims. References both high and low are wholly appropriate these days, the better to insure a wide audience of admirers, while the best art renders universal paradigms in an extremely personal idiom. Something like making a long and fantastic voyage to witness nothing more than a single phosphorescent drop of sound.


[1] David Gordon White: Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts; The University of Chicago Press, 2003; page 236.

[2] Ibid. Page 237.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Nature Morte and Galerie Mirchandani and Steinrueke (2006).
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