The current spurt in symbolism and myth making should not, in a sense, cause much surprise; both realistic and abstract art approaches have reached their limits of exploration. Moreover one cannot do without symbols, whether old or new. Sometimes the artist’s desire is altogether incoherent; the artist longs to escape the symbols of the day that imprison him. From the lesser truth to the bigger is the urge. From plain realism to feel behind the phenomenon, the apprehension of mysteries and sometimes more than the passing revelation. Thus to pass from prose to poetry.
Even the crudest early religious practices are attempts on the part of primitive man to give a concrete shape and a permanence to ideas, or glimpses of meaning that have come to him in his moments of deepest reflection or illumination. The symbolist artist attempts, though he too often fails, what he experiences with his senses - what he sees, what he hears and touches - into images of some reality beyond the senses. The search for new symbols and myths is therefore intense in art and so important in what is valued in the heritage of the past. It is the result of the continuing decline in the interest in naturalism of all kinds.
The reason for this return to the kind of art that conceals a metaphysical meaning behind and above what it states is surely not far to seek. As in the outside world, so in the realm of mind. The naturalism of the mind of the modern orthodox fails to satisfy by itself. Not only the machine civilization but the art which goes with it, and the analytical logical mind which supports it is questioned. The failure of the machine to fulfil its promises leads to search into the ancient mysteries including the Tantra. Abandoning the fanaticism of religion but keeping its metaphysics is the way some of the new artists travel - a mystery without the church. Life, it is felt, is more mysterious than what phenomenal explanations offer, than the text book of progress ever told and so the artist looks around for symbols that shall recreate faith within the enlarged circumstances of his new awareness. This, the moment of the true artist, his opportunity as well as the charlatan’s. For the need of a class of post-war people for symbol is great, since symbols that lead back to the rediscovery of the central meaning of ‘religion’ remains, restored through the discarding of outworn and corrupted images, and irrelevant accretion of mere fact. In the collapse of tradition, in the silence of the creative religious impulse, it is on the artist that the responsibility fails to make a world of true symbols, and to find a new myth for mankind to inhabit an art which in fact means more than it says.
The greatest artist, it could be said, have always striven to create a metaphysics, a world that shall be a symbol for the world of actual existence in its aesthetic and moral aspects. Some artists have succeeded in creating a myth for their age only, the smallest for the fashions of a few years; but the great artists who make myths that have power over us even today. Hence the still abiding art of the past here in India and elsewhere.
One does not believe it is necessary for the artist to be entirely conscious of this responsibility that lies upon him in our age, to create the symbols by which man can save himself from despair. The artist is a medium through which the needs of the age make themselves felt before they are formulated and he may be aware of them only as the result of a creative urgency. But it can be said that formulated awareness may nevertheless help stimulate what is already growing. It may of course, at the same time, encourage poorer artists to create pretentious and feeble myths but that is a small price to pay for this vision of the true artist.
And when we look around at the landscape of contemporary plastic art what really is the assurance is that there are artists who promise to fulfil this need of our time? Colour and form are the medium that can provide the spiritual food we need through which myth and symbol can live. The visions of reality that Ellora presents or that Michelangelo offered, to take two outstanding examples, are both after all among the most precious possessions of the spirit. They have in them the myth-making imagination like the great epics.
Two of our artists who come to my mind in the light of this are Tyeb Mehta and Ramachandran. Their preoccupations are intensely human, a Christian humanism, shall we say, which has been brought up to date to the demands of the day. The ‘symbolism’ here is not esoteric, upanishadic or pauranic but quite simple. It is convenient to contrast Tyeb Mehta and Ramachandran, both because they are alike, and different. Both are depictors of the mortal struggle in a tormented age; under their brushstrokes no physical or spiritual fact is a reality of the moment. By means of their facility of expression, they shout out the self inflicted degradation of mankind and the pain. Here brush is the scalpel perpetually probing into the body of man. Almost invariably both, start out from subjects charged with emotional attributes that are realistic in the broadest sense. They draw and redraw and as they work each succeeding drawing grows further and further away from visual realism. Drawing is the word in two senses, for it is as if they sucked and drew out the living and moving forces from their subjects in order finally to seize what exists behind the material surface. Normal visual appearance serves only as the springboard for their intensely personal or human vision, the metamorphosis of reality. The process of reduction to essences is joined to superimposition and even of improvisation in the case of Ramachandran, so that the entire subject matter passes through the artists’ inmost self: Local colour is replaced by expressive colour, naturalistic line is sculpted or else blurred, photographic values are eliminated or adjusted to count as harmonious pattern, and habitual spatial relationship are ruthlessly reorganised in order further to reduce or enhance the sense of the material world. This serves to emphasize the basic rhythms. In the end, there emerges a harmony of colour, line, and value in a state of quickened excitation - an individual reconceiving of life - which communicated not only the character of the mood of anguish or silent commentary symbolized by it. Thus ‘control’ might be the key word to the artists’ work. For, the slow and considered development of their subject matter is really a search for the controlling fundamentals. They translate vision idioms composed of colour relationships. For them colour is a weight in the scale of emotion. It is difficult to describe the rigidity with which Ramachandran controls his means and at the same time to give an idea of the freedom, the fluidity with which he uses them. Again he develops the linear scaffolding of his pictures thought of as rhythm, i.e. regulatedrecurrences of emphatic elements, to build up the dynamics. The dynamic balance comes from a meaningful relationship of horizontal, vertical and diagonal divisions. He reshapes the subject evolved from his countless drawings. Tyeb Mehta on the other hand wonderfully conceals the art behind the art. One finds in it that resonance of genuine spirit of empathy, which in all good art comes to one without analysis or knowledge of the technique. This is not to say that every piece of work by either is always a masterpiece, but both have acquired a mastery of emotional or intellectual values in their individual ways which answer to symbolize the age. Neither paints an ideal world, they seem only conscious of their moral responsibilities, though without being theatrical or obtrusive, with only the simplicity of truthfulness. The two seem to have declared themselves for today’s struggle for a deeper morality. But if Ramachandran has painted the ghastly struggle itself. Tyeb Mehta paints not the turmoil without, but the one within.
But the discontent goes deeper still. The tremendous specialization in science and the analytic method arouses an existential horror. We feel intuitively that not even an expert can integrate knowledge into his life. The discontent is a sign of the ambivalence at the heart of the new religion of modernism. We fear the domination of analysis in art and of technology in society. No wonder artists turn towards the seemingly esoteric. The more technology advances without the more the artist searches within, and gropes among the insights of the occult mysteries of other days. Yeats did this so as to integrate himself. But now after more than thirty years after his death, we have painters searching within the tantra symbolism and all the other systems of thought ignored or discarded by the votaries of a long rationalism. Rationalism or naturalism good enough as ideals to deal with objective natural phenomenon seem to be failures as they approach the noumenon. Here, in this realm of human spirit only prayer or meditation, or silence will avail. This at any rate is the hope. And it is for this that artists like Swaminathan, G R Santosh, Haridasan and Biren De among others have been led to explore in an uncharted realm.
It may be said at the outset that it is not easy to find a satisfactory interpretation of the meaning of their motif, the same motif may be interpreted in different ways, and the same idea embodied in different forms. The symbolic content of a given design may not always be obvious to the artist himself and the meaning does not emerge at once. Drawings although meaningless or obscure in any place may have a very definite meaning in a different context. G R Santosh for instance has come to his present style from one of pure sensation. He has come to yogic contortions. Earlier was the rarefied joy and now a return to the human figure of an exotic appeal or a guessing game. A thought out juxtaposition, it is of sensuous sensual detail. These circularities follow on the heels of what were concavities, the comicalities. His states of peace are those of the hatha yoga. All very cavernous. All straight from the abdomen, with breath held back in pranayama. He allows you little latitude to wander casually; rather he makes you direct your thoughts to the vital fluids of the body, to draw them towards the Godhead. His compositions work much as a biological machine to control the runny consciousness. He is certainly strenuous, much as the tantrics are preparing themselves to the exacting demands of inner experience. It remains to be seen however if this symbolism is really transformed into the plasma of the religio-aesthetic effect.
The last symbolic effect is certainly obtained from Swaminathan’s painting of the last two years. Painting is a practical thing. It is serious, one does the persistent thing, and then the really remarkable thing happens when something is there that was not there before. The consciousness and then the image. The good painting then is the result of conscientious experimentation - a sense of roots - one has to be true to that; then one is more likely to get a unique result. After years of work and many misses this is what happened to Swaminathan. He seems to have been perpetually willing to destroy. Good painters have that courage. Thus it is that Swaminathan arrived at his vision, that is, to the construction of new appearances, one perceived by the imagination only. Distinct visual imagery, after all, is the defining characteristic of successful painting. Swaminathan is interested in symbolic patterns and the music of colours, an Indian music to be precise. And his image is precise, accurate, a vivid rendering of the actuality in the mind’s eye. It is miles away from naturalism and the rattling noises of the ego. That then is the difference. Self-expression so understood is entirely absent from Swaminathan’s work. He has masticated the stuff of experience thoroughly, and the calm which is so much part of Indian ethos is his, in painting at least. It is not physical vision then which he offers but a symbolic vision a degree removed from mere reality. Memory and selection have intervened to raise the level of imaginative activity and the silence that comes with it; the light without heat. Clearly the painter has departed from the language of science or that language as has corrupted the language of feeling, the sign language. Tantra thus is only a cue to a path, full of signs and symbols it leads the spirit towards its perfections and attainment. So, using Tantra as a flag the painter creates a parallel ordering of colour and composition.
By contrast Biren De’s work is intense. He too has been single minded. And now he has come to the heart of the matter it is a symbol of the prime force. His is the in-sucking whirlpool of a divine furnace, the opening of the doors of perception on the fundamental stuff. Here is a different kind of sound, not a tamed one but an awe-striking one. A following on the footsteps of sakti. The signs do mechanically follow those of the tantric text. Biren De’s, on the contrary, is an art that makes one alert to the cosmos, or the cosmic force, whether in seed or the sun.
Too many artists are, however, using the paraphernalia of religion to merely decorative or fanciful purposes. Arup Das, Vaghela, Sultan Ali among others have drawn on the Hindu symbols. But interesting and appealing as they are, they have not been able to use it to the renewal of transition. In truth there is no such thing as religious art, strictly speaking. But an artist is free to use any inspiration to plastic ends. Only a few have succeeded in this deploying the riches of another age to their own times.
Art, it must be remembered as a warning is not an instrument of salvation; despite the introduction of the word icon, and the pressing need for symbol. An energetic art like Biren De’s for instance canonly be a catalyst in an area of perception, a pointer to the primal force. Art is a rejoicing in reality, and does so through a transformation of experience of the world into an order wherein all fact becomes joyous; the more terrible the material, the greater the artistic triumph. This has nothing to do with any public or cultist concern, but only an individual concern. It is a transformation that is mysterious, personal and ethical. The moral effect of art is only interesting when considered in the particular that provides the occasions and the spring of art, no less of what we see as symbolical art. It is the transcendent imagination working on the material that releases the mysterious energies which move and speak of deepest existence. It is however not a surrogate of ‘religion’. This because there never can be categorical prohibition in the spirit of art which is the spirit of real freedom.
Unfortunately, some of the artists and some of the viewers are likely to fall into this very sematic error, a fashionable one of imagining that by using the iconography of religion, even if in interesting decorative ways, religious ends are being served; it is not that meaning for some far off desired perfection of life. Symbolical art also is certainly not prompted by a pious aspiration for this beatific state. Art provides illumination not hope, unless it be the hope of illumination. Thus the ritual visual employment of myth, lock, stock and barrel, by some our painters is not always likely to make good works. A real painting is something which happens to the painter once in a given minute, and no amount of strange symbol will make it unique. And, yet, a picture is nevertheless an impossible object; it is something which happens in life not in art; some of the symbolic works are on this score the product of art, not life. Thus they only amuse. But the artist who has ‘done it’ with his whole being, like Goya, makes of myth and symbol a living thing, in artistic terms alone. If tantra could so unite an artist’s whole being to create intense art, it should certainly be adopted or adapted, but to art’s own, terms not the other way round.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1971