A great storyteller will always be rooted in the people, primarily in a milieu of craftsmen.
- Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller,‘Illuminations’
To narrate is to evoke. As with all forms of expression that have their origin in the oral tradition, the narrative emphasizes subject-matter which it displays and speaks of, destroying distances in time in the same way as the ballad or a scriptless tribal language, where the emphasis is on continuity and a living tradition rather than something artificially resuscitated. We are able, in other words, to identify and interpret an experience in the present regardless of the ‘antiquity’ of the ballad or the story; we are able to appropriate certain experiences from them with telling reference to our own lives, as in all art that carries the great and moving element of the human condition. In this fluid perspective with regard to time the narrative telescopes distances, recording the event and enhancing the message, regenerating memory and creating new images for it. It is significant that the image used by the artist is a magnetic force in relationship both to the past and the present, in the nature of the epic, where memory - as distinct from recollection - is continuous, consecutive and linear, and where the narrative becomes a ritual attempt at capturing time, which in the painting is also catapulted into the future; with such art it also assumes, as in Benode Behari Mukherjee’s murals, the role of prophecy. Here in transforming time ritually the image is freed from a purely illusionistic or purely conceptual time-bar, being able to alternate between, both, and ultimately to fuse the two, so that to narrate is both to divest and to conjure.
It is the activity of evoking or conjuring more than what is described that is central to the experience of the narrative. Placing the protagonist against a context locates him and the emotion, and focuses on a moment in a larger sequence, where it is assumed that a certain activity or set of events has preceded it, and also that another series of happenings may follow. This allows the fluidity of true narration, where the protagonist is a participant in the painting (whether in a dominant or more passive role), a human being who acts, causes certain other actions to occur, and experiences emotions that range from, despair to exhilaration - and is, in other words, a figure who moves through a kind of story from which a moment, an incident or an action: is encapsulated in the moment of the painting, i.e. the time the painting has chosen to visually ‘still’.
Another auxiliary but equally important element in such painting would be the significant role of the ‘context’ itself, say a landscape, an interior, or a conceptually devised ‘background’ - although one hesitates to call it that - in the sense that this physical context is not informant merely to the space occupied by the protagonist, but actually carries the emotion of the story along with it (e.g. Ram Kumar’s ‘Sad Town’). We are confronted here, I think, with the notion of illusionistic descriptive devices and the more evocative, contextual device, and in the reference to the total mood of the narrative which includes both the animate and the inanimate, perhaps it is the evocative factor which will be seen to be the stronger and the more ‘communicative’, if by communication we understand it to mean the conveyance of a total, simultaneous emotion with a clear emotional connotation, one that seeks to transcend the descriptive empirical fact and give it the dimension of an imaginative stance.
That this leads us into the area of the representation of the archetypal figure is perhaps inevitable, speaking as we are of unequivocal connotation, which is in a sense central to the narrative experience. The problem is however rather more diffuse because in addition to the mythical characterization of certain figures we are confronted also with the example of the performer of the anecdote, the tale, the autobiography, the central figure or figures in other words, of a more recent past, and most significantly, the present, where a formal archetype of neither the past nor the present will unqualifiedly suffice; in other words, in order to support the actual structure of the narrative as ‘living speech’ the artist would have to create for his anecdotal chronicle a figure with a countenance that belongs to time, and connotations that may go beyond it, as in the murals of Ajanta, in painting with, a more personal community aspect, as in the work of Benodebabu and Gulam Sheikh, in painting which veers between the anecdotal and the mythical, as in the work of Jogen Chowdhury and in K.G.Subramanyan’s glass paintings, and indeed in a special way in that of Bhupen Khakhar.
The relation, of actual storytelling to the activity of craft is one that underlines the significance of the artisan-journeyman as a collector of anecdotes for diffusion through his craft-ware, the subject of a votive figure, for example, the narration, on a piece of weaving or embroidery, the design on a pot, etc.. It also highlights the place of the womenfolk of the community who through participation in all ritual initiation ceremonies, and illumining every action of an ordinary day with stories and legends, and actually making the floor and wall designs required for ceremonies sustain and nourish the fund that is already theirs. In this sense it is also a living secular phenomenon with emphasis on experience, reported or lived. The form that this folk narration takes is one of direct speech, in the manner of an art that takes a community audience for granted, one that veers between a vernacular idiom that comes from anecdotal recollection and an older myth that belongs to the preserves of epic memory. In so far as it is also a ritual and, therefore, a mnemosynic exercise, it is also evocative, and a ritual attempt at arresting time in memory in order to add a new moment to it; it is the constant example of a living narrative tradition.
The argument on the power of direct speech, the capacity of narrative art to evoke, to instill, to activate and to prophecy brings us to the question of a format and scale that can support this direct speech. It may seem inevitable that a simplistic review of a possible scale for the narrative would be the mural, an ideal spatial proposition, in which interferences of ‘frame’ or physical location do not occur. Indeed this is an ideal example and possible, even desirable. But the more challenging problem is the inclusion of this in painting, the same breaking of the frame, the same concern with simultaneous event, a similar concern with encapsulating time - and most important of all, a similar preoccupation with a subject that will form the narrative message itself.
It is Coomaraswamy’s lasting thesis that makes one optimistic on this issue and willing to expand the exercise. According toCoomaraswamy,allIndianpainting,whether miniature or manuscript-picture, is really a diminutive form of the mural, a ‘panel picture’ or a picture painted, if we may read it that way, to ‘outlast’ the frame, precisely because of its narrative content and its 'continuous’ format. Where contemporary Indian painting offers examples of this, as in the work of Gulam Sheikh, and that of Bhupen Khakhar and Nalini Malani, we have divergent methods of dealing with spatial problems, but a similar concern in treating simultaneous and recurring event, which each time it recurs, has already changed imperceptibly.
Narration, despite its purposeful focus on subject-matter is not exclusive to the tradition of realism in art, succeeding in fact from ritual wall-painting where the motif may ultimately be transformed into a diagram, to the attenuations of medieval art, to the indefatigable experience of Expressionism. Although almost all examples of Realism carry narration as an essential ingredient, the ‘freeing’ and prophetic properties of narration would appear to lie in a region rather beyond it, where the vitalizing element would be the integration of social and aesthetic concerns - so that one is inseparable from the other - and the actual form the narrative takes is in consonance with the very life-order that it seeks to sustain and illumine.