Keshav Malik essays

I do think, that, to go through the work of P.T. Reddy from his beginnings to now, is to become aware of the transformations of artistic sensibility in the human mind. Reddy's is virtually a case history. It would be fair to launch upon a discussion of his work with first trying to indicate a few of the major limitations of art criticism. That they are not always obvious to those who talk about art is clear from their habits. They talk about art in terms of itself, so to speak, instead of the times which produced it. Now if we are to consider art as something self-contained, something which cannot refer to other areas of human thought, we will be doing disservice as critics, for art is only one facet of the prism which we call culture. All the arts and indeed other scientific or intellectual disciplines are different dialects of the same language, all contributing towards an attitude to life. What is the thing called culture? We take this word to mean the sum at any given time, of all the efforts of man in making to interpret the world about him. Ideas from the various departments of thought cross-fertilize each other, and sometimes it is a good thing to discuss one kind of thought in terms of another. We will never of course succeed in fully defining a given culture for that would mean becoming fully conscious of it-and a culture dies when it becomes conscious of Itself.

Today all the arts seem to be differentiated from one another, but this is really an illusion born of faulty critical habits. In an earlier India the arts and sciences were intimately connected with the system of education then in vogue. Today we still recognise this underlying connection when we use the expression 'a man of his age', or 'the currents of contemporary thought.'

It is easy enough to see that even today the arts are permeated by mathematical ideas; architecture and sculpture still are close cousins to mathematical theory, while music and metre betray their relation to mathematical quantity. So it is that when you look at the art of an epoch in any of its modes you find that, taken in the round; it constitutes a world, an overall interpretation of the world we inhabit.

Now the difficulty of all criticism, of all interpretation whether of a work of art or a system of ideas is the subjective element. Human beings suffer from binocular vision; if you look at stars through a pair of strong binoculars you can only see a small part of the sky at once. The act of thinking something about it creates a field around the object observed and in order to think about the object you must neglect the whole from which the object has been separated. It is easy to see what a grave limitation this is, particularly for a critic. Everything is part of some greater whole. Everything is the sum of smaller parts. How then can we deal with, the object-in-itself?

Works of art, ideas, although they exist singularly have nevertheless, when seen collectively, the power to modify and form greater wholes in other contexts. Thus, there is no final truth and especially so about art but only provisional or approximate truth within a given context.' Great conceptual abstractions like 'beauty' have to be constantly defined, and have so been. This is not a very encouraging position for a critic to find himself in i.e., when he examines a single work of art he is artificially arresting the ongoing artistic process. Thought has its limitations. To explain a work of art takes up-too often-further from its real meaning-which the deeper sensibility will recognize as a whole, not as a series of parts. We must keep this in mind as we think as critics. All the answers of art and of the thought about that art are provisional truths.

And so with these many cautions we come to P.T. Reddy, who, it is evident, has during the course of sixty years been tossed between widely different systems of ideas, caught between body-breaking pulls, pushed in with the current, and all that in both what he has to express as much as there is no final conclusion reached yet, as with artists generally. But what is palpable is that, beginning with the sweet innocence of self-portraits, the still-life’s a la mode, the recapitulations of Ajanta, the lure of the charming miniatures, the Amrita Sher-Gill-ish self-simulations, the often genteel worlds lovingly drawn painted or naively recreated, he went on to the nudes and plaster casts of realistic emphasis as then was the vogue. But the artist thereafter turns gradually towards Expressionism; he hardens or toughens his attitudes. Slowly a parochial or provincial world or psychic environment gets to, be dominated by the painter's slashing knife. Mrs. Krishna Hutheesing (1942) is a straw in the wind. Here the painter is off his folksy motifs of women in huddles, the street scenes; here he concentrates on a more circumscribed subject, but by that very reason achieves a far more concentrated effect, as of mosaic.

The sentimental vagueness is driven out of his style and a harshness as well as crispness and a keen sharpness inform it. The contrasts are the strong contrasts of an Indian reality. The drawing becomes cleaner, more simplified, economy seems in evidence in the total composition, shades and lights suffice, much as in his Landscape (1942). Reddy retains this propensity in a number of his works for the next several years as in Mrs P.T.Reddy done in 1955 or in Artist and the Model (1957), a work classical in feel and achieves sculptural illusion. Here the measure between appearances and imaginative truth is tellingly accurate. The simplicity itself makes the work memorable: It is far from the derivative or somehow common Narayanaguda Street (1956). Reddy appears still to vacillate between a native colour boldness and an impressionism of sorts. These are different pulls. There, then appears the need in him to present and delight in a fleshy, flowery, common-sensical sensibility even as he went for another one-much more complex, more removed from the everyday, so to speak established stamp. Different cultural demands would appear to dictate different styles. There is the world, approached only in imaginative experiences and there is the world, born of day dreaming, that is, of a cultivation of simple sensuous or sensual dalliance. The first one, to my mind is certainly the robuster one, a world which cannot be blown off the globe by the touch of cold daylight. It has that power. Examine Rose Garden (1958) for instance. In this the perishable stuff of the outward eye-the subjectivity loaded ephemeral, is transmuted into objective order, to command one's deeper, disinterested attention. In works such as these the painter by bold contrastive colours of red, green, yellow and so oh creates figures as are no longer in the mortal world but as appear to have escaped the net of time. In figurative compositions like Resting Figures (1958), our complaisance or skepticism is conquered; in such works the painter follows the perennial path of art an utter tuning away of his face from the passing moment even though the initial impulse is linked to that moment. By being so absorbed in something beyond themselves these figures absorb us, without our being able to tell exactly why. Till, 1959 or thereabouts the painter goes for such, grave gaiety and nevertheless, he strangely enough also, makes a somewhat non-descript work like A Street (1959). This may well be a kind of carryover from earlier styles an atavism surely. But, normally, by this time Reddy goes for increasing abstraction as also formalist exercises, almost a mixture of Cubism.' Now is to begin the long lasting transitional phase, with works of a bewildering variety, representative, of all possible cultural worlds. But by 1962 there emerges the Beginning of Kuchipudi Dance and a harmonization of the divergence. And so we have here, art as ritual or else art as simulating the choreography of ritual; and such work is certainly dramatic, not a little bit more telling than the usual exercise of abstract colourism or abstract composition - which is minus traditional cultural overtones. By this time, too, the painter has fused in himself both modernity and reintroduced tradition, the local or ethnic obligation. Works with' bulls or horse forms, with simple outlines are almost. Minoan or Homeric; and that for a good reason. That is, the ethos that the painter has inherited is still in some senses, of the neolithic age superimposed though it is with later sophistications. But he does well to retain the native vigour even as he acquires new techniques and insights: An Impression of an Old Wall (1964) is riot really, by comparison the painter's best. Yet the 1963 works are suggestive, pensive. But essentially, the Reddy style is a rough down-to-earth style, the stamp is his own, and authentic a Kuchipudi style of folk dance, as if, of storytelling, 'Symbolical form (as in his politician series) of great, harsh power.

From 1970 onwards the new Tantrik strain appears. This is the Indian abstraction, so to say, even though other styles still continue with him, just as earlier. But this Indian geometry, which Only involves elements of human anatomy or secret formulas becomes a world other than any known; its overtones are 'Blakean', 'revelatory', while a work like A Script (1967) is excellent calligraphy and mysterious, "A Village Street Drama" is Yaksha-garja with the same 'leather colours; the dance of horror of death rules some of these works. Others are emblems, like the Inca or Maya, like vulturish politicians, all complex compositions, creations or recreations of images by superimpositions. They are self evident like ballad, like incantation. In his Lithograph (1971), the painter simplifies the same local overtones to give us a fine modernist mystery, the same also in Footprints on the Moon (1971). The last becomes the image of a place, that is, the Andhra soil. Discreet cultural additions do the conviction-carrying trick. Om (1972), with swastik, is a burning apex of Reddy's works in the symbolic genre, the Section of an Onion is similarly a sample of a fine work in the purely international modern idiom. As said at the beginning

Reddy's is a 'case in point' of the Indian cultural situation of the day - a situation in which the individual has to accommodate himself to widely divergent and rapidly changing thought currents and living conditions. These last drive him in a different direction -sometimes however driven as he is, he masters them to make an independent, self-sufficient world of values (aesthetic or moral) out of the material at hand. At other moments, the less lucky ones, he is by implication, a creative, a copier, and echo of his environment. In works in which Reddy has put the hard, rugged strident note we have an athletic success. These works have the authenticity, the bold outline of the Deccan landscape. Here - in compositions in themselves of a thematic variety - we have legend, the myth of today and of yesterday combined and so to make an epic or operatic impact. These are not simple 'short stories' but rather meanings or messages, surrealisms of a home-grown variety, rather than an imported one. Compounds, geometric ones, rather than straight narrative additions. Here the artist sets out to signal to us like an eight-armed god -the signal is at the same time of peace and war, of satire and of a world or time-transcending cult. Complex motifs as well as cartoon-based mockery goes under this genre of composition.

This, to my mind, is the true P.T.Reddy, from among his overlapping styles or selves. An artist perforce has to make many shots before he hits his target. Assorted though, it is, Reddy's work has become an idiom, it has not remained static or genteel, pursuing and polishing a limited slice of reality though, to have done only the last would have been deemed as being more catholic: Wherever both the cosmopolitan and the folk live there is bound to be clash, reconciliation or confusion. Reddy has undergone all these states, but he has surpassed the cultural dilemmas and overcome the aesthetic specialism in the works I mention. His, multiplicity of styles is, may be thought a drawback in building up and maintaining a clear-cut stylistic image. But, if we keep in mind his salient contribution, this image-clarifying flash happens instantly. This is the Reddy I remember and who cannot easily be mistaken for any other painter, though his style may apparently seem to be labouring under sundry influences.

Published in 40 years of P T Reddy’s Art, ed. A S Raman, Andhra Pradesh Council of Artists, 1982.
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