Through his art, Jagannath Panda reconciles many of our most fundamental contradictions. The dichotomies of Nature/Culture, Urban/Rural, Traditional/Contemporary and Figuration/Abstraction find both expression and resolve within Panda’s paintings, sculptures and works on paper. Reconciliation restores balance and harmony among elements, yet restoration implies that such equilibrium was missing. Remarkably, the artist usually incorporates these oppositional scenarios into a single, unified whole, subtly fused by the deft handling of colours and compositions. A personal aesthetic sensibly functions at both balancing device and interrogating agent. Panda’s approach is light, he rarely over loads images into a single work while his palette is usually crisp and restrained. An equilibrium is achieved through the rather covert juxtaposition of the big themes with the pertinent details.
In several works, Panda posits the existence of stylized gods and holy men within the skyscraper apartment blocks of the burgeoning, newest India. These figures sit stoically, cut from brocade fabrics that are glued to the painted canvas, culled from the ancient palm leaf manuscripts of the artist’s ancestral Orissa. Around them swirl the concrete and steel rectilinear geometries of construction sites, an unorthodox mise en scene that Panda somehow makes to feel believable. His Realism believes in the existence of Fantasy. Architecture is the metaphor employed to speak of how one constructs a social order, personal relationships or a mature psychology. Beliefs and faiths are inherited unknowingly, so how does one construct a framework with which to hold on to them, to accommodate them into the daily life of the present? How does Tradition become accommodated within Modernity and how actively do we participate in this negotiation?
Animals play an important role in the artist’s vocabulary. Never anthropomorphic, birds and beasts represent the human condition but also a continuum of life. Panda paints and sculpts them with an innocent wonder, usually embellishing their surfaces with metallic fabrics or shimmering colours, as if to amplify their inherent magical powers. Panda’s animals function as icons, albeit those we recognize from Hindu mythology which constantly transmogrify, and as forms available in infinite variety. An inexhaustible supply of characters to help him tell any number of stories, these animals are the actors in Panda’s morality plays, his dramatic stagings of an enchanted universe on which modern rationality has only the most tenuous hold.
The use of animals and plants also enables Panda to address environmental concerns, to speak of the collision of Nature with Culture which has become so predominant in India today. How can the developmental needs of an increasingly avaricious urban society be resolved with the necessity to protect wildlife habitats and to respect the values of indigenous communities? By using animals as his protagonists, Panda alludes to a desired circularity where the reciprocal influence between the cultures of the powerful and the subordinate can be at balance. In his sculpture Family Tree the artist crafts a synthetic resolve to this paradigmatic tension. What happens at first to be a simple tree is actually a hybrid of animals, vegetable and mineral, its individual components both subtly hidden and visible, the whole is inherently ambiguous, contaminated with a plurality of elements and influences yet brought together into a unified whole. Everything is alive, every element is equal and visible.
Other works emphasize commonplace objects, bestowing on them symbolic statures. Sacks of rice can represent physical sustenance but also the slip between that which is perceived by the intellect and that which is experienced by the senses (Panda playing with the literal meanings of Bas-Mati or smell and mind). Steel I-beams can reinforce an unforgiving dedication to rational Modernity while party lights hung in night-time trees can evoke lucid escape or spirit possession. As with his use of animals, Panda’s objects reorder standard iconographies, mix metaphors, for calculated effects. In the sculpture Free Fall a cheetah jumps through a sink and becomes a lace shirt with fur collar and cuffs. As if to say that substance turns into spirit and reality becomes myth, all the while achieving a rather comfortable level of shock.
Panda’s works are astute examples o a self-conscious acknowledgement of their own artistic patrimony. The juxtaposition of diverse materials and images in a single work enables the artist to speak with multiple voices. Collage and assemblages are divorced from their Surrealist pedigree and function as both memory and mirror, storing preconceived meanings and reflecting contradictory realities. Collage and assemblage are no longer only artistic techniques. Today, these are the principles with which buildings, cities, nations and identities are constructed. Collage and assemblage retain a relevance within artistic practice only when this ubiquity is acknowledged, when they are revealed to be the nature of Reality today, not an abstract response to it.
Credit must be given to Panda for being one of the few artists of his generation who has been able to work with religious imagery without succumbing to the powerful trap of Kitsch. Much of what passes for contemporary art in India today (by Indian artists but also increasingly by foreign artists coming to India) is still beholden to portrayals of the Hindu gods and goddesses in strange and superficial stylistic amalgams of the decorative and the abstract. Along with the rise of fundamentalists, anti-liberal forces in the political arena, the effect has been to keep most Indian artists of a critical engagement far away from anything to do with their rich heritage of religious and spiritual iconographies.
The place of religious belief in contemporary life remains one of the prime concerns of Panda’s art. This he illustrates in both literal and deflected ways, in both two dimensions and three. What he pictures seems to be s total field of belief rather than codified religious practice or dogma, a syncretist in which faith in a divine power is necessarily symbiotic with the travels of human daily life and the continued health of the natural world. Does religion explain or manipulate our perceived human reality? Through his art, Panda seems to “disenchant” the religious while employing the curative powers of creation to “re-marvelize” the stories of our lives.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Gallery Chemould (2007).