Mala Marwah essays

It will be acknowledged that the expression of civic values in art is not a new concept of this century. The curious fact is however tat the perspectives of art history, and indeed social history, display an emphasis on this aspect of life in a distinct and especial manner, both in terms of the development of art itself as also outside it. In the sphere of art, the enunciation of content is part of a development away from the dazzling effects of technical virtuosity, and public life of any kind requires, among other things, an attitude more inclusive than exclusive - so that the depiction of a situation or a set of beliefs in a work of art - and the larger participation it allows - would actually seem to work towards this end. Specifically, social comment or an intense personal-social statement would appear to coincide both with a non-exclusive system of government, as also with a set of values that stresses the expression of the individual. Both, it will be seen, refer to situations of an extra-mural character, and both are contained and presented, too, in the form of art - hence although the point of departure and inspiration may stem from different areas of experience, we observe - visually - a certain correspondence in idea in the end result. [1]

Vivan Sundaram

Vivan Sundaram’s painting refers to a tangible environmental situation from where he has preceded in terms of enquiry; this zetetic approach underlines the very basis of this work. Over the last few years, one aspect of his painting has become increasingly dominant - the theme of assault, received or inflicted, eloquising upon a definite social condition. in his series of drawings (1972) based on Pablo Neruda’s poem, ‘The Heights of Macchu Picchu’, poetic symbol is used to define this condition, and in his later work his paintings have progressed to a larger and more common associational language, as in his painting, Chair 2 (1975-’76).Vivan’s desire to make a particularised comment quickened his realisation that in order to do so he would have to make the image more simple and direct. The symbol has become larger and more singular, almost idol-like, with something of a menacing visage - the plush chair on its narrow stage, invaded by a world in ingress.

Stylistically Vivan’s work after ’75 appears as a collage of elements with emphasis on subject-matter. he uses a variety of technical and stylistic elements but has attempted to subordinate this to the general statement, i.e., in Bloodbath, the slim bands of colour are used as wallpaper - in a sense they are stripes, but within the painting operate more as a field of colour than anything else; and the eye stays riveted - unwittingly - upon the sickening effect of the soft red mass in the tilted bathtub below. This in itself is ordered to employ the eye; indeed this becomes almost a prerequisite, the definitive presentation of a didactic statement (the manner we may say, towards a moral).

It will stand that this approach will ask for attention in different ways and on different levels. The painting will be reached sometimes through content, sometimes style, although presumably it is the ‘subject’ that is easier understood by a non-specialist audience. But it is of special interest to observe that in some cases the paintings serve to provoke both in terms of content as well as approach, operating on both levels with similar intensity. Chair 2 displays this - both the centrally-placed object - the smooth, dark upholstered chair, and the power it represents - and the dramatic arrangement of cellular forms that crawl inwards in an irregular pattern towards the floodlit nave. The composition arrests just as the symbolic matter confronts, and both language and thought are deployed to attract.

This last factor poses the danger between facility in one’s medium and the telling of the story itself. It will be seen that the most doctrinal statement still depends to an extent upon tools and technical finesse, and its strength lies in conscious control over one’s independent formal preoccupations. This points, then, to the necessary imbalance that is required in work of such temperament; the emphasis on content presupposes the older argument that balance, which is coeval with staticity, is weal in the aggregate and is destroyed by the emergence of content, so that in any work with a message, the form must be always evolving.

In this context, Vivan’s work is something of a helix, in the complex circularity of presenting what is often bitterly didactic in a manner that is designed to seduce. The tensions it presents are disturbing. Yet it is perhaps these very contradictions that contribute to his calibre as a painter. this contrariety is something that will always remain, as Vivan says, ‘open-ended’, and makes it more truly a human dilemma than anything else, and the paintings themselves more subjects for debate than objects of declaration. Vivan’s social comment is a personal comment as well, and underlines an approach and philosophy that is as modern as its statement is of our times.

Nalini Malani

One factor that lies inherent in almost amy man-made moral code is an overwhelming fund of psychological conflicts. These surface in relationships between people individually as also in the group, and are only one example of societal inequality and social stress. Nalini Malani deals with the condition of an individual in a similar surround, and the resultant complex emotions this provokes and elicits.

One feature that has persisted in the past in Nalini’s paintings is the form of the ravaged woman, assaulted and flayed, and has been forwarded both as symbol and as fact. Their hidden features underline the anonymity of the victims who acquire the dimension of a prototype - so that where the departure is personal the statement is general and more broad-based (e.g. Painting No. “….” 1973). These paintings are a trenchant proemial to her present work (of 1975 onwards) which carries images of children, squat and warm, and of women, both singly and together, with stress on particular psychological features that retain an intense poignancy. The shock is not so much aesthetic as emotional, although Nalini’s understanding and use of colour as a conveyor of mood is markedly developed and sensitive. She has enunciated in her painting both the vulnerable and the resilient - the first as helplessness, inevitably (as in her earlier images of women), the second as emotion (as in her images of women and the child). [2] In her paintings of the child the image is indicative of a journey, carrying the note of a pause with it, almost in the nature of a gentle passage. The violent pathos of the earlier paintings has moved towards a more positive experience, pointing to a certain communion.

It would be too simple to use the term expressionistic to describe Nalini’s metier; indeed, stylisticallythetermis specific enough as it adheres to a particular approach to form that has been recognised as part of the later Expressionist experience. The difficulty lies in allowing the style to presume on her temperament without qualification; for behind Nalini’s warm and passionate motif lies a conscious attempt at equilibrium, an endeavour to appraise her work in the context of her own experience with a sense of enquiry that is not always associated with the basic precipitation of the Expressionists.

In particular, this attitude functions with regard to the especial countenance the figures are given. She would seem to reflect cautiously and carefully upon their features, dress, the direction of the hand, the tilt of the chin, the sloping of the shoulder, the colour of the garment, the position the figure occupies on the canvas itself. (e.g., Seated woman 2. In several paintings of women the hands are twisted or turned inward, claw-like, limp and pallid, and explain a state of mind and body that is the protagonist’s especial characteristic.) These physical features speak in correspondence with the palette she chooses to employ, and the colours Nalini usesoften suggest the ‘tenor’ of the painting itself. Again, the very are in which the figures move is designed to emphasize the role they enact. The amorphous space of the earlier paintings lay in conjunction with the image; the later work inscribes and delineates part of a wall, the corner of a room, and attempts a specific des ription of physical context, so that the space becomes correctively clear.

It is not surprising that the chief protagonist in Nalini’s paintings is female. A certain kind of history has described the giving woman as a coveted thing, the same source of energy which, ironically, makes her the vulnerable and the manipulated. In this there lies a sense of forfeiture, an inherent contradiction that points to a complex emotional pattern which Nalini has chosen to depict. Here her paintings function both conceptually and on the level of personal legend. It is seen that often emotion is the merest spur to a more abundant understanding of oneself and the world at large; and in moving from the characteristic to the general, Nalini has given voice and visage to a tense and pervading fervency.

Gieve Patel

Since the early ’70’s, in what is a composite body of work, Gieve Patel has painted details of public life and its physical components with almost altruistic detachment. It is as though the fact of the matter, already a familiar feature, alters in dimension and meaning when singled out and highlighted. There is a caustic silence in his paintings - an imperceptible pause, in a way the moment of potential. In this, the narrative is strongest, assigning a special place to the most banal and occasionally most lucid detail.

In Windows, the two politician-figures stand in silhouette, Gandhi caps peaked, against a bare window frame gesture and expression being conspicuous by their absence; in Garlanding, the countenance of each man is shown mask-like and fixed; the skin as mottled parchment, one figure described with a macabre, toothless smile, as though a death’s head had been resurrected. The approach to form is straightforward and measured to be so; the treatment of the subject emerges in shape of a tense epigram. The satire becomes obvious.

In this a feature is recalled. The larger implications of satire, not least in chastising effect, is designed to provoke, and the cool, glacial statement, the dispassionate narrative, presupposes a prerequisite form of moral assault. It would seem that any form of expression preoccupied with such enquiry will forward a similarly ‘searching’ style - perhaps a kind of terse realism - but Gieve, while preferring a more clear-cut, solid structure and heavy massing, applies his brush in a ‘formal poetic’ manner - working up the surface to highly-textured visual pitch, allowing it to flow suddenly into an area of flat colour - and his painting in result poses the tonicity of double entendre with the strength of a firm and tensile composition.

In Statesmen on a Floral Rostrum, the figures and part of the platform are positioned flatly across the length of the canvas so as to emphasise repetition and symmetry in the emphatically horizontal arrangement. This same curious symmetry appears in his paintings of urban landscapes where the rectilinear facade almost assumes a character of its own. Too, Gieve’s assiduous enlivening of the surface with an often dramatic ‘light’ effect - hushed or suddenly bright - is distinctly arresting. This combine of direct statement with arranged focus is a temperamental feature of Gieve’s work.

Several paintings followed the earlier satires were succinct studies of some aspects of our hard-featured urban environment - railway platforms, landings, part of a fence, and the architectural detail as granite, steel, wood, gravel, stone - was deployed so as to highlight the puissant fabric of this surround. It does not seem strange, after seeing Gieve’s larger body of work, that the granitic countenance of this urban jungle should actually lay bare its own transient character. A recent painting, Figure in Landscape, shows a similarly treated landscape with a markedly different use of the human factor within it. A man in a red shirt stands in the foreground at some distance from an edifice which looms behind in the shape of a partly-constructed gateway. The effect is startling. Against the scabrous lucre of quarried foreground, range of hills, sky, severe-looking structure, the figure of the man in his turquoise turban, vermillion red shirt and white dhoti looks purposefully crisp and prominent. This is a different kind of person to those that have dominated Gieve’s canvases so far; both what he stands for and his relationship to his immediate space refer to another sphere of experience.

Perhaps it becomes sometimes too easy to read innuendo where factual speech is meant, and irony into very mundane detail; but in Gieve’s work this distinction lies almost obliterated. Gieve reinforces this recording of recreated fact with a sense of diligent arrangement, where percipience and presentation cohere towards a general statement that is as fine as it is strong, and as subtle as it is direct.

Bhupen Khakhar

It is of interest to observe in Bhupen Khakhar’s painting not only the vertical development within the work itself but the attitude that is informant to it. Bhupen has dealt with features of our immediate daily life, and his area of departure has moved from collage, miniatures and photographs to era life, which is transformed into a sometimes humorous, sometimes solemn observation.

Until 1969, Bhupen’s work dealt with either popular or lyrical subjects, treated in a similar stylistic language. This anticipated a distinct change in his work, which is evident in a number ofpaintingsdoneduring 1971-72. The change appeared on several levels, and was indicative of the artist’s extra-dimensional interests and reception: in moving from the earlier poetic subject-matter to a more mundane topic (e.g., Factory Strike); a gradual change in his palette (the soft haze of the earlier Residency Bungalow gave way to the light pink in Portrait of Mrs. Nilima Sheikh and to the later fund of paintings which actually ulitize a purposefully lurid, contrasting, luminous colour table, as in Barber Shop); in the dimension and meaning the human figure was accorded and the varied activities it participated in - the earlier ‘posed’ figure (e.g., Portrait of Shri Shankarbhai V. Patel near Red Fort) is now activised and shown doing a variety of things, and starting out at the onlooker with a frank awkwardness. In some instances the figure is made to dominate almost the entire canvas.

The change in style and manner has been coincidental with a similar development in the content of Bhupen’s painting. Bhupen has always in his paintings been concerned with the environment in one or another way, but this is in some cases particularised and made to cohere as a boy of work, as in the group that includes Janata Watch Repairing. In a banal occupation such as the repairing of a watch Bhupen points out this activity with freshness and an irregular sense of drama, conspicuous in the flaccid lines, the man’s receding chin and casually balanced cigarette - and he is able to transform this ordinary fact into a substantial visual experience; each detail is minutely rendered, the drawing careful, the gesture particular, the scale utilised in an almost surreal manner. The series of paintings on professions of which this is only one do not so much offer satire as contrarious depiction of an intimate adjacent environment - and the charge that these paintings possess is the outcome of a closely felt and clearly discerned situation, the construction of the kind of mood one would encounter in the columns of a diary - a sort of loud essay upon the commonest of scene observed from a street.

Bhupen’s choice of environment detail is expansive. He is seen to have painted the personal myth of a young man whose parents are about to depart on a jatra trip, a man playing cricket, tables with fruit by a stretch of water, a seller of melons, a one-man circus; a man eating jalebis, a tea-shop, the portrait of a friend, surrounded by a cameo of narrative incidents. The design in Bhupen’s work is forthright and candid; his protagonists are placed albeit with a self-conscious air, in their environs as through they had never stirred from there. Here is a clear attempt to narrate, like a professional teller of stories - the recounting of an incident with great interest in detail, the things people wear, eat, use, the place to which they belong. This is one of the most outstanding features of BHupen’s work - the branch manager, striking workers, lone man, all ‘belong’ to the surround in a manner that reiterates not only the popular belief but also the artist’s own premise, that we are perhaps strongest when expressing the personal rather than when attempting a universal idiom. Identity and a sense of association remain paramount, and the context of a set of actions is enunciated with clarity.

In several instances, as in his use of symbol or simple visual data, or some academic detail as shading or perspective, Bhupen often forwards a clear parody in his work of these examples which he purposely utilises in this manner to produce the effect of a tongue-in-cheek reinterpretation. In parody, unlike satire, there is an intimate humour, a droll but clever comment, even the ability to laugh at oneself. Satire cannot do without acidic edge, a quality not always associated with the sometimes ironic, sometimes sad-happy mood of Bhupen’s work. The mood can hardly be called naive; his characters are too well-observed for that, the accompanying detail initially too prosaic. The confident badinage survives, gregarious and levelled, a capricious dimension to a very familiar world.

There is a dwindling tendency today to think of extra-curricular comment in art as extraneous, a factor which may carry some optimism with it. The distinction between a formal exercise and the statement of deliberate content remains the ancient thin and purple line, but the premises of each are clear enough.

It will be apparent that the language of social participation in art - as elsewhere - refers to a world of immediate experience. The artist will use images, objects and sensations much more than intangible ideas. Certainly this is the most general observation, as it must be, because ‘relevant’ art, or any art that relates to human concerns, trends more to be broad-based than constricting. We may, however, underline two elements that remain common to the particularised art to which we have been referring; the first encourages specificity in enunciation of subject the second points to a style that can work in rough understanding with the desire to project this subject. It is said that as civilisation develops we become more preoccupied ith human life, and less conscious of our relation to non-human nature, concerning ourselves increasingly with human problems and conflicts. Art here performs the same functions that myth did in the past, but imbues its shape with ‘sharper lights and deeper shadows’.


[1] Bhupen Khakhar’s painting Factory Strike depicts workers carrying red flags in a factory compound. Such a subject treats clearly the theme of the classes, but it would be perhaps over-reading the sentence to ascribe to it any direct or intrinsic political reasons; it is a theme Bhupen has dealt with perhaps more out of interest in the protagonist of the situation himself, more on a personal level than as the result of overt political loyalties. On the other hand, Vivan Sundaram’s diptych Accretion of a City is only one among a body of work with a particular philosophy, yet forwards in its stark ruined compound and piles of waste a process of formal intellection in the arrangement of the composition. This painting is as atypical of Vivan’s work as Bhupen’s Factory Strike is of his, yet both represent a vital aspect of the art of each and serve to illuminate the varieties of expression that any artist with a charge for the broad human surround and experience will depict.

[2] This does not suggest that Nalini’s earlier paintings do not deal with emotion or are not ‘emotional’. The surmise is that where her earlier paintings (of 1973) depict women as receptors of a certain situation, in a way, in a ‘dormant’ emotional state, her later and more recent work deals with and refers to the ‘active’ growth and development of an emotion.
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