Mala Marwah essays

In the concluding article of the series, Paintings Must be Talked About, edited by Gieve Patel, Mala Marwah examines the work of Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Laxma Goud.

One stream of contemporary Indian art has focussed attention upon non-purist exercise, with emphasis on subject matter and image. This emphasis validates the art beyond mere technical enquiry and places before us a concern with event rather than speculation. We may say that in art of this kind the ‘secular’ angel operates against the older ascetic figure with awesome relatives in heaven: the moment we release the purist clasp we are propelled into a field of tension where a valid image attempts to fuse disparate ‘new’ forms with the bounty of the ‘old’, and as in the case of Early Mughal painting, a sophisticated eclectic style- which remains vital and irrevocably Indian for that reason - is not a phenomenon we can pretend to be in ignorance of. It is against this background that we may view the work of Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Laxma Goud which, while springing from a similar convention, is also distinct, and excites the argument on attitude and statement further.

Both artists are concerned with expressions of identity. Here this is not the furious preoccupation of the displaced person, nor the vicarious romance of the outsider: the exercise is not so much with ‘finding roots’ - which already exist - but with arriving at a language commensurate with an image that is part of the personality. The painting stresses the broad reference behind the narrated moment, where the biographer is the anonymous protagonist himself, and the painting is an extension of his total experience. From this position they probe an area where a chosen eclectic style grasps the image from time, and places it in a clearly contemporary context. Sheikh’s and Laxma’s early years in their villages - Sheikh grew up in Surendranagar, Saurashtra, Laxma in Nizampur, Andhra Pradesh - have conditioned their mature choice of image. Their work evokes the atmosphere of rural environs - village, small town, courtyard, forest - as in Sheikh’s descriptions of architectural detail, and Laxma’s landscapes and interiors.

Both artists’ temperamental resolve is, however, distinct. Laxma’s fierce celebration of blatant physical energy has grown in his newer work to include the psychological dimension; his earlier images of primeval character, as the bristling wild pig or goat, a barnacled mythical beast, and human figures in gestures of aggressive assault, have developed and begun to function in an area of familiar and at times even tender interaction, expressing different stages of arousal and communion. He has also done work with a decidedly dramatic content, as on stage or in a circus; and a large body of prints has the environmental detail of the rural countryside in geographical features and vegetation. In his recent work, the bold becomes subtle, the frontal receptive. We also observe a corresponding change in certain stylistic features: patches of dense hatching and grey values are lightened to a free, immensely assured line which still includes fine, concentrated detail, but more ‘opened up’ to light and space.

Working from the premise of the importance of a remembered or experienced ‘place’ Laxma often uses locale as a determinant of mood. In an etching/aquatint of 1971, this is macabre and poetic at the same time: a headless female torso poses beneath a glass-chimneyed chandelier by a curtained arch in a haveli. Flights of steps silhouette a dark figure on a tree; in the lower portion of three figures two cavort in an anti-gravitational dance, enigmatic women with loose tresses and feather-scarred arms. Evoking the old quarters of the night-city, and the grim physical delight suggested in the gestures and stance of the women and ‘torso’, we ‘read’ the whole in quick co-relation: the nearness of the images causes the eye swiftly to search each figure, arch and arabesque. The effect is one of simultaneous movement and drama. Laxma has used the device of two frames within one (as in montage, which may have several). There is something of the silent film in this etching, in the feeling of flat, painted sets with rising and diminishing architectural detail and severe, undiluted visual intensity.

Interwoven through this recent work is Laxma’s empathic version of close human interaction, perhaps best seen in his prints of ’77. Where a couple converse in a small wooded clearing, in obvious ‘domestic’ intimacy, each plant and bush is intimate too to the point of individuality, marking it as a frequented spot, near, familiar and casual, where in place of the precipitated sexual drama of his earlier work (also very powerful), an unhurried, confidential dialogue takes place. Here the context is emphasized as much as the primary action.

In his tendency towards personal legend, Laxma shares something of M.F. Husain’s preoccupation with the same theme. Just as Husain paints the human figure as a source of emotional energy, in Laxma’s work the figure becomes provocative and questioning. A familiar person, a close experience, are interpreted mythically but projected as participants in a present-day drama. Their historical reference is broadened, thereby giving their contemporary place a further dimension in time. We may say that here an archetypal figure is given particularised features and characteristics which we may recognize as being with us today, and in doing so Laxma allots an apparent legend with the unsuspected surprise of a narrative firmly grounded in the present.

In his print showing a woman rising from a bush with one wing outstretched - a seemingly ‘aesthetic’ figure - her presence and meaning change dramatically and she becomes disturbing and vulnerable, quite far from being merely decorative.

Laxma displays astounding facility in draughting; having worked concentratedly in the media of print-making and drawing he has developed a finely charged line. This is the more express in his crisp images and use of texture, a factor printmaking fully exploits. For his by now more developed motif and style, however, and his rural references, there is hardly the romantic adherence to primitivism that we may expect, in that the growth in his work from the bestial to the everyday - including the urban - evinces the very lack of mannerism and pattern that a rigid stance would demand. (Such a position, which shuns the convention of quietism as a refuge from the physical world, preferring the participant, is also an outstanding element in the work of the Bengal painter whose work, dealing with the theme of man and nature, universal and moving, has elicited such interest - Benode Behari Mukherjee. Benodebabu’s murals, paintings, watercolours and drawings of the Bengal countryside, where he has substituted the picturesque with the energy of the spirit, are hardly an analytical study of nature; here the visageof the human andnatural worldssweeps through the clutter of technical virtuosity in true attestation of the strength of image).

Co-relative to traditional Indian painting, this enlivening approach to subject frees it from time. This implies that here image, in the best tradition of the narrative, fuses memory, loci and recollection into a visual experience that evokes and elicits rather than remaining merely descriptive. Sheikh’s work may be seen as part of this narrative convention which has specific stylistic antecedents both in Akbari painting as well as painting of the Sienese school, specially in the work of Ambrogio Lorenzetti and to an extent that of Simone Martini, and in the series of paintings from the Hamza Nama - both ‘styles’ containing an eclectic finesse and energy. Sheikh captures the essence of this approach with warmth and fine clarity, seen in his tendency towards a pictorial chronicle with great attention to detail and in the brilliant colours, worked and placed next to each other to produce a burnished, lustrous effect.

These elements cohere towards a carefully constructed scene on a small stage - rather in the nature of a ‘panel miniature’, where scale and detail work together. Sheikh draws his figures posed, with slow gesture, caught at an odd, moving moment - drawn with a sure and easy line, painted in flat, and worked over in detail - as in the well-known portrait of his mother. Whereas his figures, active and recipient, seem caught in slow motion, the movement in his landscapes, or in natural detail in otherwise ‘eventful’ paintings - as the soaring tree, or birds on the wing or nesting - almost show this movement in a continuous fashion in the freedom they project. In his painting, despite the overtly lush element, there is a curious timbre, a sort of standing alone. He paints people, or an individual, with the same pensiveness, as though even in the group each person remained ruminant. Often the presence of the invisible participator is suggested.

In ‘The Wall’, where the forest rises with the tree outside, and the pages of a book flutter under a small plant before a half-open door, such a scene is enacted. The symbolic reference, in which an entire environ and the smaller area of activity within the wall is telescoped and brought into focus, is also carried in the colour, where the bright landscape contrasts with the calm enclosure within the cool, hard wall. This is also a portrait of his village home, and of his stand in relation to it; against this backdrop, as in his other paintings, of houses, narrow corridors, small arches in a quadrangle, Sheikh’s protagonist occasionally stands observant, pitching experience into the area of evocation and highlighting the incident the story is composed around.

Sheikh has sometimes worked time and action as ingredients of the moment simultaneously, freeing the singularity of the ‘frame’ - common to several traditions of a narrative persuasion as, for example, certain Pahari paintings and medieval French calendar pictures, which show the lyrical and domesticated in the daily civic life of householder and citizen. This element is informant to Sheikh’s environment, although he pares the activity down to central characters. In an instance of simultaneous occurrence, in ‘Beyond the Wall’, the author enters the door, one foot over the threshold; up in the sky the Buraq looks into the empty courtyard, huddle of bright, pointed roofs and the silence that divides them both. In this ‘collage’ of time and action, the story constructs on a level where the Buraq appears on the same scale as the human, allowing the painting to function dually where symbol and fact work together.

Sheikh has, in paintings such as ‘Man II’, made a social comment as well, just as Laxma has made a compassionate comment in his series of black and white drawings and serigraphs on the devastation of the Andhra cyclone. This element of cross-reference between the points of an apparently unsullied natural state, and a state of disturbance arising from external factors is hardly contrary; rather they function together in a set-up where strict enclosures of any kind do not operate, and the human situation is described in changing settings. Looking at the image with the informed distance of an eclectic imagination which refers both to myth and history, and using it to force the visage of contemporary experience, Laxma and Sheikh depict the standing relevance of the thing said and the style used to express in it. We may see this in continuance of the argument in favour of a less rigid, non-formalist art and its concern with evolving a living speech.

Any dual formula which integrates disparate elements is based on the ideal of the freeing of the situation, where the objective stance is operant simultaneously with the will to make the image coalesce. However, it is not objective distance we are concerned with so much in the work of these artists as the communicant element in the art itself. That this is not the exclusive privilege of realism or ‘realistic’ art is foregone, in particular, in the instance of folk art which refers to both fancy and geometricism - and which is no less the ‘living’ for its non-realistic style. Sheikh and Laxma here catch the close and cognizable, working between the states of contemplation and immediacy where dependence on mere pratyaksha, or empirical observation, would be insufficient, and ‘pure’ philosophy would have no place at all. Conceptually, it delineates a concern with a humanized image. We face in this position some of the substance of their art, in the attitude that deals with disposition, with being, and with a growing and intimate landscape.

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