I’ve recently realized that the moments that thrill me the most when I listen to music are those when the sheer effort of music making erupts into the recording. When a singer sucks in desperate air after a long note, for instance, and the whole ensemble has to break the rhythm so she has time to breathe. At such a moment we encounter again what has almost been taken from us: the rapture of art that is produced at the limit-point of the human body. The spectacular, shape-shifting digital universe in which we live is one entirely without such natural limits - and what is strikingly absent from it, therefore - no matter how hard the labour involved - is the pathos of effort.
Since her earliest days as an artist, Mona Rai has aspired to an art that can provoke what she calls “the sublime feeling that music gives.” She surely means something else by such a comparison; but her new series, Verk, strikes one as an extended record, precisely, of artistic effort. The name itself invokes the repeated hammering by which metallic foil is beaten thin for the decoration of sweets and biryanis. And every canvas is worked over with great physical toil: it is slashed, sewn, braided, pierced and intricately embellished. Surfaces shimmer with trembling mirrors; paint and fabric burst from behind metallic layers. Abstract though these works might be, they are also a figuration of the body engaged in a prolonged struggle with canvas.
What is Mona Rai’s struggle about? At one level of course this is nothing more nor less than the artist-in-life. “I am never not making my work,” she says. “Even when I’m not doing it I am doing it.” Everything will eventually become a part of my work. When I slash the canvas and I stitch it, the act is one of violence or pain that I have lived. It somehow makes me a complete person.” In this sense there is something about these works that has the intimacy of the body and of routine. The slow, careful work of cutting and pasting square after square of fabric: it is an act that is not alien to the viewer. It resembles things we might do ourselves. The materials are drawn, with deliberate fervour, from the everyday: not only mithai foil but also masonry screws, printed fabrics and dangling mirrors.
But to stop there would be to neglect the powerfully transcendental impact of these works. They shine with otherworldly light - the gold-and-scarlet Tribhuj, which draws on Rai’s experience of seeing the Egyptian pyramids, is spectacularly refulgent - and this spiritual pitch is maintained throughout this series. Not only this, but in Rai’s artistic journey the current paintings are of unprecedented scale - they are so big that they occupy as many as eight panels - and this is a development of great moment for her. “I’m not interested right now in confining myself to small work. Now I’m spreading out and trying to fly.”
Perhaps the image is apt, for there is a strong sense in many of these works of the aerial view. When we look for representation in abstract images we often face a dilemma of scale: abstraction points us simultaneously towards the cosmically large and the microscopically small. But with many of Mona Rai’s images we settle comfortably somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. The creeping squares in Chandraprabha look like city blocks as seen in satellite images, and we feel that the flux of forces hinted at in the title has taken the form of territories on a map. As with the lyrical Bageecha, the drama of the canvas is one of space: of distinct zones that are expressively interlocked but that also seem to contain the potential for mutual destruction. Is Bageecha a picture of stasis? - in which case the multi-coloured “garden” appears to be an exquisite refuge in the middle of the expanse of green. Or does it depict a moment of flux? - from which perspective the “garden” suddenly looks as if it is being compressed, forced off the canvas, annihilated. In Chandraprabha, as if to confirm the more violent of these perspectives, the smooth surface becomes heavily pitted around the interface of light and dark: we seem to be looking at a shifting border around which is strewn the debris of struggle.
It might be childish to seek such simple and literal narrative in works that play at so many levels. But the drama of space - of spatial variance and territorial conflict - is not merely a fanciful gloss on these abstract works. In fact it is fundamental to Rai’s outlook and practice. It also helps us to understand what is meant by the enormous effort of these canvases, as well as the yearning for transcendence that hey so often display.
Mona Rai is one of the minority of people in the Indian capital whose roots lie in the city itself. Delhi is, as we know, and most of its millions have arrived in the last few decades. But the origins of Mona Rai’s family are buried in the Delhi past. For a long time, her family home was a haveli in old Delhi; it was during her childhood that the family acquired the house on Babar Lane where she still lives and works.
Like other old and well-to-do families of the city, Rai is ambivalent about the immense scale and commercial importance that it has taken on in recent decades. She tries to hold on to the thread of a previous Delhi that has been passed down to her - a precious core, as we detect in many of her canvases - but it becomes more and more difficult as the city stifles everything she values under a new ethos which is roughly equivalent, for her, to pure negativity. Looking around her, she sees a city in which financial value has replaced every other kind, and she feels herself besieged by an onslaught that eats away at all sophistication and nuance.
Increasingly unable to identify in a profound way with the place from where she comes, Rai feels herself to be a kind of exile there - and this loss of connection is bitter. “Here we live with a great violence of the senses,” she says. “Mired in this mess of money, all our senses are getting totally corroded. That’s why no one creates original work here. Look at our architecture. Our architects can’t create anything at all. They can only copy what other people have done, and so badly that the result is a pure eyesore.”
Mona Rai’s paintings find their origin in this wider turbulence. They bear the imprint of some of the vast clashing forces that characterise early twenty-first century Indian society: accumulation and destruction, restraint and excess, civility and nihilism. The tension and drama of their shifting forms derives from the fact that Mona Rai herself lives in a city of shifting values and environments and she feels herself to be profoundly and perpetually embattled by it. She paints amid the ambivalence of her moment: for everything to be gained, must everything be lost? And: is there anything valuable that can be preserved from the past that willnot just crumble on contact with this harsher air? Or, as she puts it: “How will we emerge from this crisis of humanity which threatens to reduce us all to robotic existence?” all this lies behind the pursuit of transcendence that we see in Verk. The word that Mona Rai uses most frequently to describe the object of her own search is the “sublime”. Many of her paintings present visions that are so grandiose that they seem to incorporate all possibilities within themselves - and thus to hold the power of neutralizing all conflict, of superseding the travails of this lesser reality. Swarna Prabha is a vast eight panel work almost entirely of gold. A lone image of Hanuman - a rare moment of figuration - seems to hold up some of the square blocks which once again resemble architecture. Peeking out between the gold squares is a red layer within - a colour that has become, in contact with the gold, so intense that you almost have to look away. You feel that if Rai could paint in fire or molten rock, she would. This work is a vast and stunning spectacle with formal echoes of multi-panel religious visions from medieval Christendom, and textural similarities with gold lacquered sculpture from Thailand or Vietnam. The glimpses of red seem to imply that however spectacular the surface there is an inner core that glows even more ardently. Despite the scars and punctures that fleck this surface, then, this is an image of total, ecstatic plenitude.
Sometimes Rai’s vision is more intimate. Shradha 1 & 2 are smaller works that resemble totems: their primordial forms and textures provide not so much a vision of transcendence as a route or channel to the divine. As always in this series, they have a strong sense of geometry and architecture - you could squint and reduce then to Josef Albers squares - but their belaboured surfaces and impermanent tassels recall, for instance, masks and statuary from Polynesia. Pieces such as Shradha seem to connect us to times and places where art is not mere object - where it has ceremonial use. In keeping with the turbulence of Rai’s own condition, however, there is no easy access to such visions of ecstasy and transcendence. There is labour and struggle in every one of the pieces that make up Verk - this is the effort with which we began. There is immense spiritual ambition in this series but it is won at the cost of great uncertainty and striving. Mona Rai wishes to give us a glimpse of some blissful super-reality but she does not ever wish to imply that such a place can be simply accessed. Her canvases are concerned with the things of the spirit but they are never straightforward or serene. When she has uncovered heaven she must then slash it and wound it, she must stitch and cover it up again in order that it not be mere facile fancy. For her it is this conspicuous display of struggle that gives truth to work that would otherwise be mere pretty fiction.
Mona Rai’s old house has been repeatedly revamped, such that its primary ethos is now white sweeping modernism. As you walk in through the front door, however, there is a surprise: the front room is still tiled with exquisitely lush tiles from the late nineteenth century, and the floor is brilliant, floral, Persian.
She says of herself, “I am very sensitive to texture. The foil from sweets. The patterns of cloth. The colours of our festivals. The visuality of ritual. We have a very rich visual culture and I love everything that is part of it.” The shining, sparkling, shimmering textures of Verk are a touching testament to this love: Rai has shown with them what magnificence can be derived from such quotidian things. But the spiritual trouble of her works shows also how complicated it is to hold onto things that once seemed permanent. It is this overwhelming sense of effort - this sense that Rai is creating and thinking at the very limits of her own humanity - that makes the series so eloquent. Abstract though it is, Verk is nonetheless a “portrait” of a woman in dialogue with her surroundings. It is also a “landscape” of those surroundings: a sweeping vista of turbulence, conflict and beauty.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Nature Morte (2010).