Artists

From the exhibition catalogue published by Bodhi Art (2005)

In the universe of Amit, forms are forever in flux. Here is an artist who is comfortable gazing wondrously at the ‘play’ of time.

Reed-legged kidis and titighodas (ants and grasshoppers), boneless tiger-heads and elephant legs; pulped up papier mâché crows, cows, deer, goat; wiggle-necked peacocks and squiggle-backed swans; fluff-filled feathers free of form - and a menagerie of men who seem to have been surgically sewn back into their skins after having had their bones peeled clean.

It is like entering the parlour of a taxidermist. Everything that resembles an insect or an animal or a human is stretched out on a pin-boar for display, impeccably framed, frozen in the surge of an endlessly incomplete movement. Pregnant with ominous potential, like that of a tiger-mask about to devour the face it adorns.

In recent years, though, one can read subtle and momentous changes convulsing this universe. With greater self-referentiality in his works now, the Golden Retriever Dusky, the granddaughter Anaya, dear friends like the late Bhupen Khakhar or the artist himself figure as full-bodied beings engaged in a tightly choreographed game of private tease. The full-bodiedness of the private moment invests it with deeper irony as it mockingly imitates the notion of the ‘divine duration’ - as the ritual convention of leela suggests. This has become Amit’s chief inspiration now - a quick illuminating peek at the fragment of time, an animated ‘duration’, which informs the whole.

The ‘itch-under-the-armpit’ variety of figuration and satirical comment, so familiar as Amit’s signature till now, seems to have leaped across media to become more dimensionally embodied in papier-mâché. It has not been easy over the past twenty-five years, to categorize or pigeonhole the artistic oeuvre of Amit Ambalal. Among the most prominent Indian artists today, Amit’s impulse and expression defies canonical description. In a conversation with me over a decade ago, he had tellingly remarked, “My problem is with notions of ‘high art’. All this pretentious intellectualism has not really given us good art. It is art without life in it. When I’m in the process of painting, by the time I reach to the seventy to eighty percent stage, I pause and ask myself: ‘is this proceeding towards high art?’ That is when I deliberately destroy the work with the ‘armpit’ kind of humour.”

This is why one can only bracket him with a few other contemporaries like Jogen Choudhury and Bhupen Khakhar whose works too - awash in wit, irony, empathy, sexual ribaldry, narrative satire and critical self-inscription - consciously engage with the existing suppleness of visual semantics which flourishes amongst our non-literate population. All these artists take inspiration from the teeming visual index and coda of the popular and edgy material of paintings from Kalighat and Nathdwara, the pecchwais, the manorath paintings, streetside oleographs and calendars, archival photographs of tiger-hunts and royal elephants.

Irony comes easy to Indian artists. It is integral to the age old traditions of frescoes and bas-reliefs, which reveled in inscribing on soft stone and granite witty comments on the life around. This can be interpreted as a common artistic inheritance. Enveloping the outer and inner prakaras of temples, these were like running celluloid tracks, which in their sequentiality, anticipate the 24-frames-per-second technology to be released to movement. It is a body of ‘popular’ material, which has seeded the imagination of many modern Indian artists.

Amit Ambalal’s disarmingly simple and inviting canvases (for the first time now, in oil) enable the complex task of amplifying time by fragmenting space. It is an approach to the canvas that affiliates it to the photographic or even the cinematographic. It is a homage to what that philosopher-photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson had called, “the next glance.” A framing of an evanescent moment in time that puts us in epistemological anticipation of what went before and what comes after. What, in the language of both music and cinema, is referred to with awe as ‘duration’. An animated ‘duration’ that enables us to be propelled out of time even as we remain tethered to it, permitting a deeper engagement with time.

The domain of ‘duration’ is the very staple of Indian discourses on the validity of the artistic or aesthetic experience as a transformative moment. Interestingly, it is also affiliated to certain modes of advaita philosophy, which do not differentiate between the ‘fragment’ and the ‘whole’. A deeply loved Indian spiritual personality of the mid-twentieth century, Ramana Maharshi, used to employ the startling simile of the image on the cinema screen is a shadow and an illusion of the real, so too the material human form is a shadow of the divine fleeting through on the screen of time. Yet it can be understood as a fragmentary manifestation of a much larger and profound picture and not divorced from the real at all. The shadow implies the substance in an essential complimentarity. They occupy a mutual echoing and converging universe. Like the arcane practice of nizhalkutthu (or shadow targeting) in South India suggests, the substance or whole can be harmed through hurting the shadow or the fragment.

Interestingly, though the fragment and the frame and the shared are relatively recent categories in modernist critical discourse, they have also not been all that unfamiliar in more conventional and didactic discourses of devotional practice. The concept of leela, for example, acknowledges the notion of an undifferentiated continuum from which any segment or section can be sufficient to speak for the cosmic whole. The idea of the darshan (the empowered glimpse) thus becomes a cornerstone of such a premise. The speeding universe of constant change and renewal forms a rich material base of the Vaishnavite cults of the ‘Krishna leelas’, which simulate the incessant making and unmaking of universes with every blink of the ‘divine eye’. It is a tradition of jhankis (sacred peeps) and sanjhis (impermanent graphic devices for divine adoration) and raas (the self in permanent rhythm with the dance of the divine) - a myriad universe of constantly shifting and merging forms, colours, imprints, traces and renewed images where the narrative is forever in the present-continuous tense, ever in process; where the image of Krishna too is painted as if in perennial whirl with the face turned front and the toes pointing back.

Nothing stands still in this quantum universe of rapid molecular transformation and endless atomic fission. In this accelerating cycle of mutations, the instant or khshana is that fortuitous bracketing when something looms into visibility in all its fullness at theanticipated,yet chancy, flash of a moment. The darshan or jhankiissomethingthat mocks the profanity of both the spectacle and of spectacularity. Meaning lies in that magic and sacred duration of the ‘glimpse’ which literally ‘opens our eyes’ to a deeper reality.

For Amit Ambalal, this is the very stuff of the creative fluids he is immersed in. being both a devotee and a historian of the ritual cults of Srinathji at Nathdwara, he is quite at ease quoting the order and internal commentary that is endowed in these images of say, the Nanda Mahotsav where the priests look hardly pious or devout in their cavorting with boys dressed up like Krishnas; or the thick sensuality of women in procession at the festival of Holi or the iconic elements of ‘Bagiche ka Utsav’ whose conscious frontality and surfaceness is what Amit too tries to achieve.

What is significant in Amit’s present range of work like ‘East Beats West’ or ‘Happy Landing’ or even ‘Barking Dog, Running Elephant’ is a clearer and more direct politics, reflected also in the effortless rhythm and symmetry within the frame. This is a departure from his earlier, more self-conscious attempts at social satire. Artistically, his works provoke a more intense reflection now. Even the sexuality is more directly stated now in works like ‘Rang-Raga-Wagh-Bhag’ or ‘Flowering Kisses’. The red lips and red testicles of the tiger seem to suggest a more psychological configuration with the red tongue of the dog Dusky and the artist himself.

It is clear that a closer contact with Bhupen Khakhar over the past decade has compelled a self-confessional turn in Amit too. The result is both moving and rich. Tenderness has replaced mockery. The outer gaze has turned inner. The ‘secret childhood’ he spent making violent mental caricatures of all those he had to meet while being groomed to inherit an industrial empire, has now mellowed into a more ‘open adulthood’. The earlier self-flagellation is still evident in his ‘Masks’. But now there is also quietude as in ‘March for the Mahatma’ - an acknowledgement of his encounters with Buddhism during travels to Burma and other parts of South East Asia.

What we see now in the oil canvasses is a conscious pairing down. Gone are the elaborate grounds of brush strokes or the loaded symbols of flowers. The attempt at zooming in on a clearer and, therefore, even more of a fragmentary moment, is evident. There are only suggestive harmonies now between say, a tiger’s tail and a peacock’s neck and the lotus stem. They also represent suggestive transitions between diverse states in a moment of grace - a visual gift for which we need to learn to keep our eyes clean.

The blue of the peacock is, after all, the blue of someone who goes by the name of Krishna. It’s all leela. Only, now in Amit Ambalal’s work, the play is more distilled and orchestrated into an epiphany of desire between the petal, the feather, the tail, the tongue, the flight and the fall - a lightness of being we experience when we encounter an animated ‘duration’.

From the exhibition catalogue published by Bodhi Art (2005).

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