All visual arts are hieroglyphic and emblematic.
Marcilio Ficino, the fifteenth century Neo-Platonist commented that, to signify divine mysteries, the Egyptian priests used the whole gamut of images of visual reality, the plants, the organic world, since God’s knowledge of things is not through the set of typography invented by men. They knew that hieroglyphic signals beckon the meaning instead to abstract typography. Images take us directly to the pristine Nature created by God.
Jaya Ganguly, who has been exhibiting her works since 1984, amply testifies Ficino’s belief. Her body of visual work reveals that since existence is at every moment a tryst with the unknown, the unfamiliar and the unexpected, it is natural to react through hieroglyphic metaphors. A chronological study of the images she uses in her paintings reveals how they grew and were assimilated down the years, and how they became complex over time. The study also shows how she interiorised the images she came across vis-à-vis her physical, social and emotional experiences and how she transformed them into signifiers to develop her own visual vocabulary. Art does not simply mimic or replicate what is already there in Nature. Art endows the objective world with meanings and associations with ideas to humanise them. The existence of the objects that we see in reality is independent of subjective perception. It is the mind that ‘humanizes’ the objective reality.
Jaya graduated in art from a conventional co-educational art college in 1982. She needed a two-year cross-over respite to push up against the boundaries of the conventional pedagogy that discourages a thinking mind and hardly allows any deviation from the book. The rigor-mortis of Victorian academism that still holds sway in conservative art institutions, stifles young talents to cater to the needs of the job market. In the system, the incumbent has to be adept at copying objects with exactitude. That is one of the reasons why all art students do not become artists. Jaya, on the other hand, was not a job seeker. She was born as a girl child into an orthodox Brahmin family and grew up inhibited by social taboos at every step. As a born rebel, her personal socio-cultural experiences could not allow her to look at the world with a clinical detachment. As an artist, she was not cut out for a life that would fight shy of the challenges a person meets in the social environment. Incidentally she belongs to the first generation of Indian free-lance women artists. It is quite but natural that her primary concern could be ‘women’. Her mainstay however remains those women, who are denied their rights in an unfriendly socio-economic ambience. She grew up in the vicinity of the temple of the goddess Kali, the reigning deity of the city of Kolkata. Kali is considered as one of the primordial Devis of both creation and destruction and is revered with awe. Her temple in Kalighat also, has its Avignon around, where prostitutes in great numbers live for sustenance. Though they belong to the Devi’s sex, they are considered defiled and outcast. Even within the bhadralok society, women are considered inferior. Jaya was made aware of the fact that as a female child she is denied the rights of self-determination. But Jaya as a rebel did not become a woman-libber; she believes in human rights. Much to the family's chagrin she, with her mother's support enrolled in a co-educational art college. Thus, she symbolically stepped out of the cut and dried lifestyle handed down the generations. She denied to live the cocooned life that her mother and grandmother were forced to accept. Unpleasant nightmarish experiences and issues layered her visual experiences over the years and helped in working out and evolving her set of hieroglyphic signifiers consisting of ever expanding recurrent motifs and their intra-relationship. Her family did not approve of her profession as a free-lance artist. She faced innumerable constraints and took it all in her stride. All these consequently made her a strong-willed free person. In her life there is no room for regret or any looking back.
Initially, her style showed strong and emphatic linear arabesque in black, interspersed with luminous hatches of complementary red and green. As complementary colours heighten each other's intensity, her paintings with white against black and red against green imparted a ruptured shriek. Black, the colour of Kali became her obvious common factor to strike a style of her own. Black, by character is heavy, stubborn, affirmative and strong. Her preference for black reminds of Georgia O'Keeffe's huge emblematic flower paintings in which O'Keeffe used black as a metaphor. In 1984, Jaya painted the visage of a woman that marked the beginning of her new style. The most significant aspect of the visage was a pair of all-seeing and all-knowing piercing eyes. Her canvases become the space in which she communicates with herself, and her paintings mirror her pathos and pains, pangs and predicaments, penchants and passions. The penetrating eyes map her social standing and she uses them as inputs onto her canvases. Gradually, the two eyes became the multiple eyes and the eye-unit turned into a recurrent hieroglyph. A pair of eyes painted on the Egyptian coffins supposedly enabled the deceased to see his way in after-life. The Devi's eyes as a visual-hermeneutics are painted at the final stage to mark the completion of the icon. Kali, the Devi, displays an extra eye positioned vertically between two eyes as a mark of her supernatural power. Jaya's hieroglyphic eyes create a spectacle of images that enriched her visual repertoire. Her paintings betray the fact that the emotional power of art rests not in its illusionistic capability but in its image building propensity and in the associative placement of the images. Art does not vie with Nature. Instead of replicating nature, art reveals a spectacle in which perceived images and objects are transformed as felt images. In art the thinking mind operates and creates magic. The female body is Jaya's forte, her strong point. Female nudes played a significant role in modern art. Picasso, Matisse and DeKooning distorted the female body to transgress academism and to work out their paradigms of modernism. They carried forth the tradition of the Venus imagery even in their search for modernity. Picasso had envisaged a fully attired sailor facing the Avignon nudes. The figure was however, eliminated in the painting. They exploited the female body without any emotional coherence: They treated the female body as Cezanne's apple. They were concerned with the formal possibilities of the female form. For Jaya, the female body was more than a form, an utter necessity that compelled her to create a recluse for an obvious auto-projection. Painting, for her, means the act of releasing, liberating or freeing the self from constraints. Herdistortions, fragmentations and the macabre owe to her over-stressed emotions. Her self-projection in affirmative black with strained verdant-green and blood-red established her identity in the world. Red and green are signifiers of menstruation and fertility, which males are denied by Nature. Nature is conceived as a female-deity in all ancient myths as both woman and Nature share procreative energy. Jaya makes it clear that unlike most of her male-counterparts, she does not venture into the domain of the other sex out of curiosity. Her paintings explore the phenomenon of the outside versus the inside through a system of self-projection. For her, paintings are her means to make her thoughts and reactions visible. On her pictorial space she replays all the inputs through hieroglyphic signs. Her paintings invite the audience to partake in the human drama that generalizes the particular.
In 1985, she painted a huge lotus encased in black lines. Water and lotus are designated as primal elements from which all was created. As symbol's, they stand for womb and embryo. Myths on creation postulate the existence of a cosmic ocean with a lotus with pro-generative seeds born on it. In India, Shaktis, the spouses of the Gods are enthroned on a lotus or hold a lotus. The lotus symbol goes into the realm of metaphysics as pure essence of human nature undefiled by the filth of samsara. It also denotes Enlightenment, and has a number of open-ended connotations. Water and lotus, as co-related motifs overtly refer to Jaya's femininity. She is not a Feminist, nor an activist who fights for women's emancipation. Her paintings display her femininity as a natural consequence. Her gardens covered with flowers and creepers are also metaphors of procreation. From 1985 onwards, the images of women started showing multiple breasts as a fruit bearing tree. Women and trees became her interchangeable motifs. In 1997, she painted Kali, the femme-fatale, in a violent stance, with protruding tongue soaked in blood. Kali's iconic image wears a skirt made of severed human arms dangling like tentacles. Her garland too is made of severed human heads. Thenceforth, Jaya's images verged towards the macabre with dissected and severed limbs and multiple fingers extending and dancing like living tentacles. Multiple hands and multiple feet overlapped each other creating an ambience of phantasmagoria. The body, she painted, seemed bursting out creating a sense of disorder.
In 2005, she painted a face crowned with elements which alternatively suggested eyes, seeds and vagina. The tentacles, the seeds, the severed limbs, the distorted bodies suggested proliferation of elements erupting from the bodies, all caught in an osmotic fluid. The gaping mouth, heavy lips, multiple breasts suggested a tumultuous inner torment. The faces like masks transmitted the conflicts within. This is Jaya's world where nothing is passive and nothing is left to the decree of fate.
In 1998, she painted a couple on a charpoy whom she met at Jadugoda. This recalls another painting that she showed in 1991. The painting represented a queer fusion of two bodies as if they are Siamese twins. The right hand of the common body extended towards the dangling penis. It obliquely suggested that man and woman are one hermaphrodite mass and are inseparable. There is a woman in man, and vice versa. The couple on a charpoy, the hermaphrodite mass and recurrence of male figure in association of a female figure in her recent paintings has nothing erotic about them. The male figure, she conjures up, betrays the Jungian 'animus' concept, or the presence of a man in the unconscious of a woman. The animus, figures the underlying masculinity and the hard inexorable power in a woman that helps her to fight her way out in an unfriendly surrounding. Our society looks down upon the female as a meye-chhele or the lesser part of the male. In a deep sense of insecurity and helplessness, it is the animus within a Woman's psyche whom she emotionally needs for strengthening her will. Jaya's paintings offer the space for meeting this animus.
The more one looks at her paintings, the less they appear disorderly and illogical. Though the paintings bear the vehemence of abstraction and distortion, they speak another language. They show a state of 'reality' which masquerades the face of surreality. And Jaya unmasks that face. Words fail to fathom the depth of this reality. Hieroglyphic images are the only means that can unveil this reality. Jaya's paintings are inseparable from her life.