In a remarkably fresh and complex reading of artist Gogi Saroj Pal’s new work on view recently in the Capital, artist/ writer Anita Dube initiates ‘another method’ in critiquing, what she calls ‘a gesture of affection’, to understand why this artist with a ‘rich sociology’ has chosen to remain a ‘child of history’.
Let us start this critical text with a story of a star I call Tarani. Like all stars, this one was also formed when something precious and intractable as say, the ‘air’ between two people (what Barthes describes as the ‘air’), in a moment of its annihilation, escaped into the cool embracing sisterhood of the constellations -- to become a small shining star, permanently trembling up there with its distant whisper. Tarani -- a star which sometimes sings. And today it is singling a lori; hear:
Dheere se aaja ri akhian me
Nindiya aaja ri aaja, dheere se aaja.
I write then, under the sign of this star; a reading, a critique, a gesture of affection (can these co-exist, and within art criticism?) attempting to forge another method, another politics and morality, struggling with historical pain and consciousness, about and among other things, the enigma/dialectics of life, love, art. And because such values and knowledge are being colonised further in the spectacular kingdom of the consumerist -- capitalist enterprise in its now malignant variant.
Reflected, to give only one example, in the way the Mahabharat was depicted by B.R. Chopra for television -- as hollow spectacle, as dramatic action, and as vulgar populism. All this, deeply traps and reduces, into a perpetual precious ‘childhood’, what Milan Kundera jokingly calls “the unbearable lightness of being,” and Gogi Saroj Pal here ironically transforms into a balloon installation, diagnosing also a case of our chronic amoebiasis.
The energies of the market may here feed or fulfil empty individuals with sacrificial spectacles and pseudo pleasure, as parody, as after-life, somehow now embedded in the philosophy of the ‘commodity’, an oblivion in which absence is presence, with its particular apotheosis of the voyeur and the use of the sensation of the object, i.e. the fetish-body of the female as object, as a hallucinated field of the ‘other’.
This is not accidental. In the decisive movement away from a previous utopian socialist vision towards the so-called freedom of immense possibilities in the virtues of the market, there is a forgetting of the critical difference in the two kinds of energies released in the two visions, within the individual and within society, colouring its culture of work and production. This now requires, I believe, a critical conscience -- if we wish to understand (and to change) the reality at stake.
Sihanvalokan or Retrospection:
Then let us move towards Sihanvalokan -- Red Saryu has Eyes, an installation whose ‘punctum’ reaches me with its allegorical brilliance and a rich sociology, which is also the soil I have inherited. Then to honour its polyphonic imagination with a projected text, also critiquing it, and so I reproduce two photographs: one of the maquette as it was originally conceived, and the other of the work exhibited first in the 8th Triennale, India, and recently at the Art Today gallery in Delhi.
For, if we examine the two, we will realise that something is lost in the process of enlargement: a potency, a secret, sure synchronisation of subject and form, with a particular scale, proportion, inter-relation of components, necessary to encapsulate and move meaning.
Eye bulges out, petrified, in a kind of mute scream. This can be ascertained medically. In Sihanvalokan, this gentle pressure on the neck is accomplished by a necklace (a choker) of over a thousand golden beads wound round and round. (We remember that gold ornaments have been classic token of appeasement of women’s discontent in our society.)
This, then, a symbolic device to critique the social formation of the ‘woman as icon’: possessed, along with property, and frozen into an entity; demanded, desired, and created under patriarchal patronage in the middle and upper class structure. To then be worshipped and monumentalised as devi; not woman, not human but a monument: all-seeing, un-moving, un-reachable.
So now it is clear that the gilded frame with a clear glass sheet is the thin cutting head of this apparently androgynous creature. Two deity eyes, on either side of the glass, fixed back to back, high dead centre (gloating yet terrifyingly still) keep watch over all the directions, to fix and interlock with the viweres gaze, to accuse.
And, if this is the head, then the fireplace (now no longer attached to the wall) a surviving vestige of colonial architecture -- is the body; the shelf and crossbeam its shoulders and torso; the pillars its legs; and the covering of gold its embalming garment.
You look at ‘it’ and you see traces of the modernist figure sculpture of an early surrealist lineage. Then, between its leg -- and appropriately so as it makes the creature a woman and a bridge -- through that passage which landmarks the ‘event’ (always important in Gogi’s work) flows the river Saryu. Thus named, reminding us of the historical site of the desecration of the Babri mosque, yet being river -- the very metaphor of flow and transformation which here, by changing colour, carries night and blood together, speaking of, or more likely, singing, the elegiac poetry of mystics and bards, of the flow of time and a bloody history.
This is a courageous indictment, indeed from a position within, which is why it is so poignant. Its ruthless realism says -- the woman as goddess is a party to the ‘state’, to power, to vestiges of patriarchy, to wealth, to fate. She is both victim and victimiser as she plays the game whose rules are set elsewhere.
This identity as ‘icon’, ‘fire place’, gateway and bridge mocks her monumental splendour. She is in a prison of her own making, but she speaks of her condition without remorse.
Now let us start from a hypothesis: a beloved has gone. There has been a violent seversion of eyes and their non-meeting epiphany.
There is a kind of shajda to the ‘Eye’ here, one that recalls and invokes the eye over two hundred times -- raising them to aphoristic poems within the fan and devastating them in the flood of the river -- yet there is not one that can meet another. Then to return to that ‘moment’ when, in the beloved was mirrored what we had secretly longed for, for what was also trapped in us -- love -- dissolving all causality: in that instant when the ‘other’ had become put within the biography of Gogi Saroj Pal, the traces of which can be read within this work.
Then let us listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a leading qawwal of Pakistan, singing this poetry to somewhat taste the flavour of what is suggested. And here I quote a few lines from a song, a poem of Bullhe, to make this clear:
Ishaq dacharkhan,dukhandiyaan puriyaan
Jyon jyon lagti jawan, hor paiyaan dooriyan
Har chakhne de gede me tenu yaad kardi
Charkha mera rang rangila, ban gayi teri yaad
A receptacle on the one hand to an entire passé medieval tradition of ‘romance’ coming from Persia, and on the other becoming a response to a rising modern consciousness, a vanguard of counter-religious secular and rebellious forces burgeoning within the struggle for Independence.
We can pause to note that Urdu was the privileged medium of instruction in this whole region from United Punjab down to Awadh and up to Bengal for the generation of my grandfather at the turn of the last century even after English has been introduced. Then in the voices of the poets, and here we are not in the zone of historical data, but one in which ethos is eaten and drunk, ordering the presence of history within memory through sight, smell, taste and speech -- we hear a fruition of this synthesis: in Meer, Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz, Firaq upto Shakeel and Sahir and in the saint poets and bards like Bullhe, Farid, Dadu Dayal, Paltu, Rabia and many others.
This identity of Hindustaniat which was forged and nurtured in language, in the inter-mixture of metaphor, as an alternative to a religious identity, then an identity of a modern citizen, painful and fraught with difficulty and loaded with contradictions, but in process. It is this that the popular Bombay cinema of the 50s and 60s -- with those memorable songs penned by the leftist poets, from the same geography, who had migrated to Bombay in search of livelihood -- projected, in the populist climate of Nehruvian liberalism that captured the hearts of the newly emergent middle classes. This is an important source here within the identity of Hindustaniat in which I would like to place ishq emblematically, as am impossibly possible longing for union in love -- a synthesis between identities communalised through the struggle for Independence, and now again in this grey hour of our history. And I quote two couplets of sant Dadu Dayal 1544-1603. For you to metaphorically link them to this desired identity construct.
Aasiq masuq hue gaya, isaq kahave soi
Dadu us masuq ka, Allahi asiq hoi
Isaq Alah ki jaa hai, isaq Alah ka ang
Isaq Alah aujud hai, isaq Alah ka rang
To speak of this ishq here, I have specially used a poet like Dadu, humble and inappropriable by our new aristocratic classes: the bureaucrats, the technocrats, and the educated intelligentsia, who have begun to enjoy these traditions cynically as nostalgia. Then if someone understands this ishq, in all its pain, grandeur and flesh -- it is the incomparable Begum Akhtar -- and once again I return to her to blood, streaked to golden yellow and green, with the quality of popular printed cotton saris. If this is the river, it is in mid-course; deep, wide and still, as the succession of calm lines across its surface, without waves or ripples suggests. And in mid-course, the river is a carrier. Here carrying the severed heads of women and a school of eyes (those devastated in battle and flood) like dead gold -- and silver -- fishes floating on the surface.
These corpses then are allegories, their beauty clairvoyant and elegiac. What is Valuable is te ability of Gogi as an artist to give form to the real and, in the process, transform the fated nature of tragedy (also
A form that had rigorously structured her earlier major work Swayamvaram) revealing a fluidity and flexibility of the female in the oriental vision, a very problematic conjunction today, the politics of which we are not exploring here.
To go along then with what is implied -- as nature (as nature and character formed under tremendous pressure, invasion and humiliation) to find a way to subvert tragedy. Making it but a step, a stage and not the final form. Revealing that beyond was the life of the spirit and its capacity for transcendence, whose archetype was not the ‘holy ghost’ or the ‘prophet’ but the humble mystic, in whose search for the true form of life itself, pain was the marinating liquid.
The pain of loss, denial, inequality, injustice (always a product of social history) whether connected to love of other life-standing needs -- the pushing the seeker to change course through the one possible outlet, also a (metallic) form of rebellion, a trajectory different but at several points connected also to madness.
Again and again we have seen this phenomenon, especially in the saint poets, especially in the women. I recall Akka Mahadevi’s desire for union with Mallikarjuna -- ‘the beloved white as jasmine’ -- (in poem after poem) as a metaphor for freedom in its absolute form against all structures of constraint. Significantly this rebellion raged and was waged within the physical -- through the body as a site of struggle and release. Here, as in most other cases, fighting against suppression of sexuality and the guarding of women’s bodies: then using the potent weapon of shameless love as the vehicle through which the world and the absolute could be understood and reached.
In retrospect then, this is posited against the progressive desexualisation within the concept of ishq itself from the 17th century onwards, and therein the contradictions and crisis. Islamic dogma, the influence of Victorian morality and the reformist tendencies of the bhdralok having pushed these issues into a code of ‘honour’ and ‘property’ of man. Whence it became more concealed (remember Raja Ravi Varma?), more deeply onanistic, but all the more proliferated and profiled, to now become in the Third World the most potent weapon of neo-colonial capitalist ventures.
To this flourishing business also one must connect Gogi’s recent paintings, again Kinnaris and Naikas, what would I rather call Parivash’s or fairies, although they are exquisitely crafted gems that appear gently into the eyes, as in the lori we started with -- to ease the heart and lull it into peaceful foetal sleep.
For if we examine the two, we will realise that something is lost in the process of enlargement: a potency, a secret, sure synchronisation of subject and form, with a particular scale, proportion, inter-relation of components, necessary to encapsulate and move meaning.
Instead, in the exhibited work, it has become a spectacle of its possibilities; well-designed executed, with all the outer accoutrements and further additions, after thoughts and altered circumstances: these gaining an upper hand, draining it off, its art/life containing spirit. Here is, then a problem recurring in a lot of art-production in our time. Between the ‘idea’ the ‘concept’ and its actual ‘manifestations’ lies a irreducible materiality of the artefact. It is either able to contain and speak of thought and feeling through itself, without relinquishing its autonomy gained through historical struggle, or it suggests a failure of nerve. Then dependent, fatally, on agents and dealers intextualitytobuttress its stock and prop up its spinal column.
Here, however, between the maquette and the actual work, transpired the death of Gogi Saroj Pal’s son, Marish. To this and its aftermath, I attribute the loss, executed then by other agencies. Through the artist, in a state of chaos. It is the trajectory of the maquette that I propose to read connecting it to some of my own preoccupations.
Looking at the two photographs we can start from a simple fact: when the neck is wrung, the bridge mocks her monumental splendour. She is in a prison of her own making, but she speaks of her condition without remorse.
Now let us start from a hypothesis: a beloved has gone. There has been a violent severing of that long chain of cause and effect. In that moment the eye is fatally wounded and frozen permanently with all its pain and hunger, cut off from the love that made it human and vulnerable.
At that moment is born that visage of woman-as-icon that we have spoken of earlier. Then, say after a long time, the beloved appears accidently. But now the eyes -- those vehicles and vessels through which, and in which, love has generated and nurtured cannot meet again and will, of necessity, be forever disaligned. Let us pause and see for a moment within the installation, the obsessive process. The poems within the fan and devastating them in the flood of the river -- yet there is not one that can meet another. Then to return to that ‘moment’ when, in the beloved was mirrored what we had secretly longed for, what was also trapped in us -- love -- dissolving all causality: in that instant when the ‘other’ had become metaphorically a mirror in which we saw our self shining; we had ironically become the mirror itself with its impenetrable surface; an icon of illusion in which the gaze of the beloved was only really trapped and reflected back.
“In the darkest eyes the brightest eyes have secluded themselves” (Paul Eluard)
We can now look at it in another way. The beloved has gone. In the following state of desolation in which you hardly exist you look at yourself in the mirror. And magically the returns him/her to you. This magic occurs in those blazing centres of the universe, the constellations -- the Eyes, and the beam that radiates from them -- the gaze, with which, and through which, you always wanted to bathe, enter, hold, centre the ‘other’.
The grand illusion of the mirror, by proxy produces a magic akin to the magic of love. It returns you to yourself as the ‘other’ through the reflected gaze, completing the circuit through the reflected gaze, completing the circuit through ultimate artifice. Between your eyes and the mirror eyes a suction is set up in this state of void, and here begins the vast parade of once tangible intimate moments strung by the thread of the gaze. They return, the beloved’s eyes to haunt you. The mirror makes the impossible possible.
Then let us look at it again differently. “But he sees the beloved in all and ignores the mirror in which he is reflected. If the beloved is not seen in full grandeur in the meanest of the mean and the lowest of the low, as well as the highest and the best, then the lower has not found him.” Here we enter other traditions of love, one of the mystics and bards from the Sufi and Bhakti folds, where ishq was a form of ibaadat, a way to ‘name’ and ‘invoke’, as a kind of intoxication, the permanent inner presence and immanence of the beloved. Such is the passion and pain of this love that the two identities -- that of the lover and the beloved merge and become interchangeable; one is the other; Heer becomes Ramjha and Ranjh, Heer in many Punjabi-sufi poems. It is their condition which is similar and in which differences are obliterated -- of gender and of the sacred and profane.
Significantly it is earthy, empirical, erotic terms -- those applicable to their own women -- those loved and lost, that the poets speak of divinity or god, remembering and praising, describing the sorrow inflicted in separation, and longing for women.
What is important here, and in the context of Gogi’s work, is the language of this poetry, the common spoken dialect of the people, carrying the ambience of village and small town, where most poets were born and brought up, and from where the atmosphere of home trades, cottage industries, prevailing social customs and mythological traces, supplied them with the rhythms and metaphors for their verse. It is their poignant anxiety to convey devotional emotions directly, simply, but with beauty, intellectual rigour and intense feeling that is moving.
All this is the soil in which Sihanvalokan grows, as also Gogi’s other paintings, -- further leading us towards the oral traditions, those in which the Urdu and Punjabi poets were popularly recited and sung, at mushairas and at the dargahs of the saints -- scattered over a belt stretching from Pakistan, Punjab into the plains of Awadh. This geography and its history is our terrain, also the subliminal in poetry to somewhat taste the flavour of what is suggested. And here I quote a few lines from a song, a poem of Bullhe, to make this clear:
Ishaq da charkhan, dukhan diyaan puriyaan
Jyon jyon jawan, hor paiyaan dooriyan
Har Charkhe de gede me tenu yaad wasila
Noor akhiyan ton dil de need, me tenu yaad kardi
This brings us then to the marvellous tradition of ishq, which we will speak of later; but before, excavate Sihanvalokan further. Around the still iconic fireplace element in it are two mobile, ephemeral elements: a fan suspended from the ceiling, symbol of hawa, which in Urdu poetry is often equated with desire, possibly in connection to the rooh; and the river or flowing water, symbol of liquidity, transformation. Both are bearers of a constellation of eyes and both are cooling agents, situated as they in hot red colour fields.
An interlocking of these elements is suggested: the fan grips the head of the icon through the air and the leg-pillars grip the flowing water. A single eye, an autonomous, iconic being -- a mad creature -- is painted 112 times on the frontal lobe of the fan in the maquette, and this is important because, with Gogi, painting is a touching of body that consecrates within a lovers’ gesture both the object painted and the act of painting itself.
Sometimes large and sometimes very small, each eye is imbued with a psychic state -- a bhava. Thirteen times it is painted as the energy and light emanating sun, but as it would appear in total eclipse. If we subtract these thirteen suns from the 112 painted eyes, we get the magical archetypal number of Sufi invocation. Ninety nine times the divine, that is the eye, is named and this name recited in this khalwat or retreat. Ibn Arabi says “The universal prototype (logos) stands in the same relation to god as the pupil which is the instrument of vision to the eye.” Along with what we have said earlieraboutthegaze we should remember that in Simran or recall, all the active energy in the bosy is concentrated at the eye-centre, where through contemplation it becomes fixed, and where by invocation (here through painting) it ascends into spiritual regions.
It is significant at this hour of our history in its fight for a secular amalgamation that here, in this installation, such fusion occurs. The mistrust of the ‘image’ and the trust in th ‘word’ within religious traditions of the ‘book’ -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- is opened out and merged with the Hindu notion of ‘seeing’ as an active principle of touching.
This is again intermixed, with the popular literature in Urdu and Punjabi, influenced by Sufi thought and practices, in which toxication was a desired state which caused the subtle movement between the soul and its vision. Here the saqi was important for she served the medium -- wine (so becoming a catalyst) often through the eyes (so becoming the beloved) and the mastan or seeker was then guided through the wine of Eros to drink of knowledge.
Then let us see within the same geography that we have indicated, that battleground on which was enacted the thousand years of a difficult and interlocked relationship between the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain residents of India, and the Muslim invaders, who came as adventurers and plunderers and later made this land their home; in the sub-layers of the soil on which so much blood was shed for economic and political power, a nurturing, very slow and dialectical, of a curious socio-political identity of Hindustaniat, whose fragile historical pulse could be felt within the birth of Urdu -- that precious mixture of Farsi and Hindi (with several varieties) and Naikas, what I would rather call Parivashs’, or fairies, although they are exquisitely crafted gems that appear gently into the eyes, as in the lori we started with -- to ease the heart and lull it into peaceful foetal sleep.
For, the more a woman reproduces herself or the beloved as a variable, within the fetish body of a woman, the more ‘Man’ and the Market can enjoy iy, for then she is in tacit complicity within an uncritical titillatory aesthetics (which our commercial films have researched so well for so long and are now advertising in all its fury) and which permeates our consciousness. That the pleasure and power structures in which it operates, which is masculine is doubled, and the woman humiliated and served as an offering, she refuses to know, for she has chosen to remain a child of history.
Such then are the contradictions in Gogi Saroj Pal’s work, which we must see. Even as the small lovely gouache paintings reveal a deep and extraordinary understanding of colour -- a capturing the scent (in an animal and musical sense) of accidental and ephemeral emotions and the crafting of it into a necessity -- a life generating form; a very perceptive and visionary sense of history in the installation of Sihanvalokan; but now a progressive embalming in more and more gold, atomised as the mutilation, and structural adjustment of Swayamvaram has shown -- necessitating then a resuscitating criticism. What Roland Barthes has called “taking into my arms what is dead,” a kind of artificial respiration ; a marvellous metaphor for a project in our time.
Published in The Economic Times, 9 April, 1995