Artists: Notes on Art Making

What an artist writes about art is of necessity different from what an art critic or art historian would. Involved in the act of creation, the artist carries his intuitions orbed around himself like a special universe and whatever he says or writes about art will be cut to its measure. I am no exception to the rule, and also carry a similar universe, parts of which I can visualise and describe with clarity, portions of which I cannot. There are many things I consider funda­mental to my art activity-emotions, inspirations, the inner landscape of the heart, agonies, enthusiasms and such psychological minutiae that I do not feel comfortable talking about. This is not because I do not consider them significant but because I feel they are sullied and made smaller by analysis, because what is often a whale of a force in the waters emerges a poor little fish when pulled out.

I suspect, however, that this is not just a personal shortcoming. Creative activity has its mysteries and subconscious depths occasional confidences from artists can be quite enlightening; perhaps it will also be useful to recognise when we talk about art activity that there are things in it one can define and state clearly and others that one can only adumbrate in an indirect manner. Trying to make clear what cannot be made clear and to cloud what is, is the main reason why there is so much confusion in the field of art writing. What I can write about, therefore, is the general situation in which I work the fabric of ideas that holds together my working personality like the skin that holds my body.

I have been born into the same predicament as many fellow artists in India; into a world that has undergone a conclusive change of face in the last hundred years. Its hitherto sequestered cultures have suddenly come face to face with each other and lost their individual voices; its anthropocentric religious systems have suddenly come to pieces with the obsolescence of many notions of sanctity and mystery relating to human existence. The old myths do not hold the same influence and authority with us. The old language systems, however developed, seem quaint and inadequate to hold our new ideas. True, there are many who cling to the past with a disarming sense of loyalty, but it will not be long before they realise that what adheres to them are only the pellicles of an outworn sheath. So we are in a sense, the primitives of a new age. We have to if we want a language, to create that language.

But how do languages grow? As I under­stand it, languages grow out of the communi­cation between members of a composite working community created by people thrown together under a common sky, a common environment, common problems, common hopes and fears. The literature, ritual and art of the old communities were elaborated in this manner. But the meeting of cultures in the last hundred years has destroyed the old composite working community. And as it is paradoxically true that a man who is in meaning­ful company when he is in a small group is rather alone in a moving crowd, a world congregation of cultures as is developing does not make for the growth of such intimacies. Unfortunately, such mutual understanding is the only fertile basis for the elaboration of specialised communications like that of art. Whether we like it or not, the emergence of art as an elaborate language, replete with symbols for a widely, shared range of meanings, is becoming difficult for us. There is not much we can tell each other with overtones of meanings and memories since the felt language in each of us is largely different from those of others. Hence we are still stuck fast at the roots, thrown terribly alone with ourselves and our visual experiences, the substratum of all artistic activity. We do what we can with these. They excite us, bother us, overwhelm us, put us to the most excruciating tortures of pleasure and pain. Unable to contain ourselves we try to fashion valid images out of these experiences as precisely as we can, clear where they are clear in contour, ambiguous where they are ambiguous.

I think the question of the relative "abstraction" of our work has more to do with this situation rather than with any effort at casting out represen­tation. It is rather a single minded addiction to visual experience, through the eyes' absorption, the mind's alchemy, emotional smeltings and crystallizations and the attempt to create a living image out of these, as close and real as we can make it. This is so in my case. I am interested in things that I see around me. I am excited by the way commonplace things get together, lose their identities, find new ones, and emerge in a new image. What I start as a "still life" or "figure group" works towards such a new emergent composition. The paintings do not tell stories or document things although they often rise from a particular visual experience. They hit the receptive onlooker with a pleasant shock when he sees them and leave him with a quickened vision of things; almost like a rabbit's leap in the moonlight might make the beauty of the night more real and penetrating.

But this certainly is not all that I would like to do. If there is an elaborate language I can handle myths to share with others, communications with others through my work, I would prefer those too. An artist like Paul Klee spells out a similar wish when he writes-"sometimes I dream of a work of a really great breadth ranging through the whole region of element, object, meaning and style. This, I fear, will remain a dream, but it is a good thing even now to bear the possibility occasionally in mind. Nothing can be rushed, it must grow, it must grow of itself and if the time ever comes for that work then so much the better. But this stage has to come. It cannot be conjured up by a single artist's effort.

When a large number of our zealous country­men talk about tradition and traditional styles and consider the new developments as the perversity of individuals and advocate resuscitation of old iconographies they show a total ignorance of this situation. Iconographies carry from genera­tion to generation when there are continuities in language and purpose; they are not accretions, they are living features that grow from inside a purpose. Similar purposes can have similar features which between themselves can marry and multiply. But where there is a difference in plane, in the basic conceptual system itself, they are not interchangeable. It is a great mistake to presume that a modern Indian artist is working as he is because he is not sensitive to the values of the old works; he is on the other hand, acutely so, often more so than the avowed enthusiasts themselves. But the new situation has, of necessity, to give rise to new features in his work.

While I consider the advocacy of such thought­less revivalism by the traditionalists absurd, I consider the talk of an "internationalidiom" of a counter group equally meaningless. Works of art produced by different peoples, cultures, ages, each often completely isolated from each other, team in the present day museums. The remote origins have not prevented their being admired by people all over the world; outlandish features and obscure mythologies have never been serious impediments; often the untutored foreigner has outdone the erudite native in genuine receptivity. Different people have been able to react to them not because they have been able to understand them in their entirety but because the works are fruitful bouncing grounds for their own sensibi­lities. This is a common place fact in the field of art appreciation. To project, however, generali­sations arrived at from a study of the mechanism of art appreciation as the ethics of the creative act is an enormous mistake. A work of art is much more than what it gives at one time. It arises out of the continued interaction of an artist's psyche and his environment; the absence of definitive myths and theme complexes does not make this interaction any less particular. Art is depth communication and as such is more in the nature of a dialect than a working esperanto. Passing it initially from one part of his self to the other (from the creative to the cognitive) the artist extends the communication to others he can cast in his own image, the intimate elite who share with him the fullness of sensibilities. What makes a work of art irresistible is, I believe, this welling up of sensibilities from a specific environ­ment, carrying the salt of the soil as it were. I suspect that people who advocate the "Inter­national idiom" do not realise this important fact and lower the status of the activity. I suspect, too, that the idea itself is hatched by crafts­men-painters on the one hand and salesmen-critics on the other, who want to make out of art an object-making activity viable for a world-wide market.

In a country like ours where traditional crafts­manship is still alive such discussions are, I suppose, unavoidable. But this should not throw us out of perspective. A most revealing statement showing the relationship between tradition and the individual was made by Pandit Hazariprasad Dwivedi, the well-known Hindi writer. He cites the analogy of a gruesome Tantrik cult for the purpose. According to certain Tantrik manuals, he says the Tantrik Sadhakas practised a ritual in which the aspirant sat for meditation upon a prone cadaver; when he attained self realisation through concentrated meditation, the cadaver 'awoke' turned its head forward to him and talked to him, establishing the desired rapport. The interdependence of tradition and the individual should be considered similar says Pandit Dwivedi. Till the individual is himself alive with self aware­ness, the past is an immovable and uncommuni­cative carcass. It is only when the living fire of the creator reaches down to it that it wakes up and becomes evocative, i doubt if there can be a more telling and appropriate metaphor of such a relationship than this.

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