Artists

The present set of paintings that invoke Ramana Maharishi open up a series of propositions. The primary is the manifest appearance of bhakti as an unlikely subject for the contemporary art gallery. In numerous sources, such as the calendar print, the imaging of divinity and sainthood is widely practiced as grist for the popular presses. Nevertheless, the imaging of saints in modern art has few precedents (Benodebehari’s Lives of Saints being a notable example). V Ramesh engages with a different set of artistic coda in assuming the view and the aspiration of the preceptor and the bhakta. And by extension, the image of the Maharishi invokes the idea a modern faith, one in which the practices of puja makes way for darshan, and darshan in turn becomes an instrument of self realization. Most significantly, this body of work stimulates and encourages because of what it attempts and the strategies that are deployed for that end. The crucible of modernity, anxiety is replaced by faith, the examination of city as locus makes way for the abstract potential of kshetra, (site/space) and questions around identity are completely laid bare by the redefinition of self and other.

These paintings represent the paradox of materializing worship. Ramesh anticipates and resolves this contradiction through the abstraction of mass and volume, that implicate and yet release the body. Ramana Maharishi (1879-1950) belongs among the galaxy of rishi-reformer figures whose careers cohere with Indian independence and the urgently articulated need for reform. Ramana’s chosen path was advaita or nondualism, a principle introduced by Shankaracharya, which Ramana redefined and furthered in contemporary terms, laying the onus of realization on the individual. He was born in a village in Tamil Nadu and named Venkatraman. At the age of twelve his father died and Ramana moved to his uncle’s house at Madurai. At the age of 16 he had a transcendental experience. The fear of certain death seemed to overcome him, which he scrutinized in a state resembling rigor mortis, leading him to the conviction of his oneness with the universal spirit. A few months later, in this spirit of extreme introspection, Ramana left for Tiruvannamalai and never left the small town for the rest of his life, advocating the path of self enquiry for spiritual realization.

In this body of work Ramana appears to traverse the gamut from earth to sky, holding a single staff and a kamandala in the manner of the mendicant- ascetic, the model universally recognizable in the figure of Shankaracharya. Across his body the elements themselves appear to flow onto each other, the openness of the sky reflected on the earth, and the verdure of the forests stretching in a cosmic expanse. There is also a marked introversion of the figure, as the saint appears with a halo.

The strategies deployed for this radical set of images is also substantial. Ramesh works essentially with the photograph of the maharishi, reinvoking questions around the gaze and material presence. There is also the constant realization that the locus for painted divines, saints and national leaders is in calendar art or ‘photos of the God’s, in a style close to a fabular naturalism. Ramesh in his unique position of invoking spiritual enquiry as a subject of contemporary art works against and through such propositions.

Darshan/Gaze

Central to this exhibition is the concept of darshan or the gaze, which carries within it a unique method of transaction. In the Hindu system of sanatam dharma the devotee gazes at the image of the deity which in turn gazes back, completing an act of mutual benediction. In the daily prayer of Hindus, segments such as the kavach (of Shiva, Devi etc) graphically describe the divinity as gazing back at the devotee, locating one or other of his divine forms in every part of the devotee’s body like numerous protective talismans. Thus the devotee praises the body of the deity, as for instance the eyes, and the gaze with its manifest spiritual authority. The eyes of divinity draw a number of poetic comparisons; in the case of Devi they “move like fish in the streams of beauty flowing from her face” (verse 18 Sri Lalita Sahasranam) but also as “witness of the Supreme Lord Shiva’s awesome cosmic dance at the end of the creative cycle” (verse 232 Sri Lalita Sahasranam).

How does the idea of darshan cohere with gaze theory, and its implications for a contemporary artist? Christopher Pinney analyses the place of darshan even when accorded to the printed image. He writes “darshan’s mode of interaction mobilizes vision as part of a unified human sensorium, and visual interaction can be physically transformative.” Ramesh uses as his source the corpus of photographs shot before and during the passing away of the saint, drawn from the ashram archive. The material artefact of the photograph (Wellings 1948, Life Magazine, 1949, Henri Cartier-Bresson 1950) locates the aging saint in his ashram, throngs of the devout, and the everyday life of the ashram, located and rendered selective and ‘real’ by the eye of the camera.

Ramesh draws on this corpus of images but abstracts them from their physical environs. Ramana is presented against a virtually dematerialized space wearing only a single lower garment associated with Shiva in a state of vairagya, or the great 9th century Shiva proponent, Shankaracharya. Bringing to his subject a transformative gaze, Ramesh allows the body of the saint to cohere with the landscape, its verdant manifestations becoming emblematic of nonduality, the advaita of man and his natural environs. The body of the saint also expands to approximate and rise above the mountain of Arunachala becoming a supreme benediction, of demonstrated learning. What comes to mind here is the coherence with the Vishwarupa of Vishnu or Devi with the cosmos in which the body of the godhead becomes identical with the manifest earth itself.

Nevertheless the critical component of the series of paintings lies in the power of the gaze. “I was utterly captivated when I first set my eyes on the photograph brimming with wisdom, innocence and compassion”. The agency of the photograph here allows for location in the ‘real’ and the interpretive. The fact that Ramana’s gaze once rested with such compassion on the devotees in the ashram now lingers; it carries with it the impress of an exchange, rooted in the historical moment in an act of dissemination, petrified in time, now easily retrieved so as to transfer agency to the beholder. In the paintings, the void of spectatorship in the photograph is filled and Ramana continually revivified, by the agency of the gaze. The association of the photograph with popular acts of veneration of the garlanding and applying tilak on the photograph of the deceased is also implicated in such acts of retrieval.

Body/Kshetra

If a structure is suggested herein, it may mark the natural progression of Ramesh’s own enquiry. At Baroda as an arts student Ramesh for the first time used old photographs, retrieved from a family trunk. This body of paintings ‘Posed Family Portraits’ created a locus of identity. This was his chosen way “to root myself in a specific cultural and geographical location”, a determinant perhaps against the frequent dislocations caused by his father’s transferable job. An early engagement with the landscape came in his paintings of the 1990’s of fishermen and the sea. In its expanse and continuity the sea represented the metaphor of time.

In his work of the mid 1990’s, several tendencies come together. There are quotes from Ramana Maharishi and figures that merge with the landscape, as in Woman/Landscape and Yellow Landscape (1996). In a 1991 catalogue, in which his main preoccupation was painting lives of fishermen, Ramesh wrote ‘painting becomes for me an approximation of the visible world - of “life”, creating in the process a new order of realities and contradictions which perhaps would encompass wider meanings and implications”. The compassion that he extended to the poor or the disenfranchised of his earlier work now appears to become an evocation of the kernel of divinity in the quotidian.

Ramesh’s first visit to the Ramana Maharishi ashram in 1998 led to a gradual change in his naturalistic painting. He constructed a series of paintings on acts of self realization, and the nature of dispassionate detachment drawn from the old texts available at the ashram. These works, collectively framed as the exhibition A Thousand and One Desires (New Delhi, 2004) draw on myths that articulate desire and quest, the tapasya of a spiritual enquiry as exemplified by the figure Ashtavakra, emblematic of atonement for the self and the larger world. A Thousand and One Desires is an important exhibition. Here Ramesh sets himself up as a pictorial-narrator, reenvisioning an old story of a Guru/preceptor and his disciple. This is a story that Ramesh had read at Ramana ashram, but which makes numerous artistic references to the Tuti Nama, South Indian sculpture and Buddhist lore.

In this present exhibition Ramesh moves away from the comforts and seductions of myths, its rich painterly and narrative possibilities. To pare down his subject to the saint of Arunachala, Ramesh then goes through the processes of simplifying his language even as he reworks his painterly style. The saint appears with lines and fissures on his body, that identify him with the cracks, crevices, fissures on the rock surface of Arunachala. But it also marks the return of draughtsmanship, the replacing of the solid colour masses of his earlier paintings with the line, the essence of Indian art. At the level of metaphor, there is also the Puranic precedent, in which the rivers of the holy land of India, its trees and rocks, are identified with the veins and hair of the body of the divinity (see Srimad Devi Bhagavatam). In this way the land becomes sanctified with the presence of the sacral body, and both man and mountain attain a dimension of a nonmaterial evanescence.

The landscape as kshetra has numerous states in traditional thought, most particularly in the identifying of sites as the pure and the impure.In the corpus of traditional thought the concept of holy rivers, peethas, mountains and forest groves cohered with the belief in the holy kshetra. In his work on Ramana, Ramesh successfully conflates the idea of kshetra with body and body with kshetra. As sites of pleasure, of the self or the other, these become both objective and subjective states. In principle then these become abstract states, of nondualism, of the principle of advaita as expounded by a line of saints from Shankara to Ramana. Apocryphal stories from the life of Shankaracharya for instance reveal that it is in Kashi or Srinagar in the foothills of the Himalayas as holy kshetras that his realization of advaita between social hierarchies, or between prakriti and purusha dawns. Shankara’s realization is the well known efflorescence in his text Saundarya-lahiri. The teachings of Ramana Maharishi go further in identifying all knowledge as a quest on the path of Nan-Yar, or self realization.

By allowing the body of Ramana to cohere with the body of Arunachala Ramesh posits a set of values. The emotive state of our times, of uncertainty and flux is met with the certain stability of the mountain. As a manifestation of challenge Arunachala manifests principle. Arunachala blocks the view of what lies beyond; its dominant presence completely fills the frame, rising to fill the horizon, gaining in the process an absolute presence.

Gayatri Sinha

References

[1] A Thousand and One Desires Gallery Threshold 2005

[2] V Ramesh Paintings 1990-91 sakshi Gallery

[3] Recent works by V Ramesh Pundole art Gallery 1997

[4] Srimad Devi Bhagavatam Munshiram Manoharlal Allahabad 1998

[5] Photos of the Gods Christopher Pinney Oxford London 2004

[6] Lalita Sahasranama trans R Ananthakrishna Sastry The Adyar Library and Research Centre Chenai 1999.

Originally published in the catalogue for Painted Hymns, Threshold Gallery, New Delhi 2007.

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