Artists: Notes on Art Making

The artist as philosopher, thinker and meta-physician seems to come to the fore every now and then, in contradistinction to the artists as pure painter. Which is to say that the manipulation or handling of paint in a painting qua painting becomes less important than the idea of the image. The personal voyages into the landscapes of interiority and introspection are at times certainly rewarding; but since every artist experiments on his own terms, failures are not uncommon. These are wrought about by those many strayings into bypaths. Such deflections lure the artist away from the legitimacy of the art of painting. But in recent years there has been a spurt of curiosity-impelled, but distinguished visual stimulation in the form of diagrammatic and symbolic iconography; pervasively suggesting a new vitality in forms, proportions, changes in intervals of space and colour, and a general acceptance of geometrical elements-all these included without detriment to the picture's painterly qualities. Op, pop, psyche-delic, zen, tantra or tantric art have singly and collectively, in over-lapping waves of influences helped to usher in this manifestation. In the overtones of is symbolic importance, the corpus of tantra imagery could reveal itself as a source of illumination. In other words, in the visual motifs of tantra art may be found the answer to the modern Indian painter's excogitations to find a more meaningful and relevant source of inspiration. A systematic exploration into the still largely undiscovered territories of meditation and magical of yantra and mandala could confront Le Indian painter with fresh formulations. If anything else, the discovery of tantra art, has made usually enjoy looking at diagrams and charts in the manner that modern abstract painting has helped us to savour visually the oblong carpet on the floor. The popularity of Ajit Mookerjee's writings on tantra art, especially his lavishly illustrated book is full of significance; it is indicative current thinking which, in the present-day artistic and cultural situation, reveals a general sire to make art intense return to a state of primitivist orientation. In the conscience of civilized man enquiries resound to re-gain the lost flavour of a cultural primitivism.

The Indian painter may perhaps be able to renew himself and preserve, incidentally, the spoor of national identity, by his relationship with developments arising out of a source closer and immediate to his environmental and contemplative conscious-ness. The retinal exploitation of the patterns of the various forms and motifs of the tantra style, may prove more satisfactory at achieving a norm of aesthetic efficacy sustained by the ethos of one's own culture.

Some of India's significant painters have been influenced by the symbolic iconography of tantra art; they have derived assurance and sustenance from its methods of 'metaphorical and pictorial thinking.' Artists whose work hint at such an obvious source are : J. Swarninathan, G.R. Santosh, Nirode Majumdar, K. C. S. Paniker, Bal Krishna Patel, Praful Dave, Shankar Palsikar and Prabhakar Barwe, to name a few. I shall now speak of the work of the last two.

Shankar Palsikar is now the Dean of Sir J. J. School of Art, Bombay. He has always had esoteric leanings in art. And I think it Was he who first borrowed from tantric art and brought this imagery born of magic and incantation into the repertoire of contemporary Indian painting. His work, and in particular, his attitude at arriving at the formulations of a personal aesthetic philosophy needs to be better known. and understood.. His "experiments in tantric imagery," he says, "are purely painterly". His tantric impelled images, abstractive rather than constructive, rarely contain diagrams or chart like scheme as in the case of Paniker for instance, though. they are replete with calligraphic shapes of the Devanagari alphabet, the recurring Rhim and Klim sounds of tantra are redolent of a magical world and in his paintings coherence. In an almost mystic vein he declares that in his paintings he strives to create “a kind of sound, appealing to both eye and mind”. To the word ‘sound’ Palsikar attributes a whole chain of significance. It is akin to the inaudible, or ‘unstruck music’ of which the weaver poet Kabir sings. In the “Japasutram,” or “The Science of Creative Sound” by Swami Pratyagatmananda, Justice P.B. Mukherji speaks of the startling propositions of sound, with the import of which Palsikar is in complete agreement:

“The universe is conceived in sound. It is born in sound. It grows and lives in sound. It is dissolved in sound. The universe is the result of an idea. Every idea is the result of a sound. As no creation of any kind is possible without an idea behind it, every creation is the result of a non-vibratory sound or the sphota. Sound creates air, atmosphere and climate, and then only reaches the stage of vibration, sound creates light. Light is nothing but sound of a particular frequency. In fact, every vibratory sound has colour. It is colour which assumes the quality of light. Sound creates shapes and sizes. Every vibratory sound has a shape and a size.”

It is understandable, therefore, that when Palsikar calls one of his paintings “Sound and Colour” he is alluding to the wealth of such accumulated meanings. Is not this view of sound analogous with that of Western art-critics who speak of modern paintings as aspiring to the condition of music? Is it because, as Etienne Gilson, the philosopher of art, says: “the significance of modern painting is perhaps better seen when painting is compared with other arts such as music, in which, because it is consists of sounds only, imitation is practically impossible.” It is because music is an art of time and is the most abstract and spiritual of all the arts?

Palsikar believes in the priesthood of a painterly function; and that the exorcising of form and colour can occur only in a state of contemplation and intuitive creation.

Prabhakar Barwe is a much younger man than Palsikar. He works as a designer at the Weavers’ Service Centre, Bombay. His involvement with tantra imagery is of a different range. He sustains his compositions within an architecture of symbolism, an iconic fantasy as it were, derived from what may be derived from what may be described as a curious mixture of op, pop, Indian folk painting and tantra. Some critics have hinted at Miro as a source.

Barwe reacts optically to the almost coercing visuals of city life, and the appurtenances of urban living. There is a certain flatness and garishness in his screaming colours, entirely different in effect from the carefully, calculated tonalities of the artists’ oil paint used by Palsikar, his one time teacher. Since Barwe mostly uses the housepainter’s brand of synthetic glossy enamels, he relates himself with a pertinence to the loudness and tenor of cityexistence -- the gallimaufry of postbox red, taxicar cream-and-black, traffic sign red-yellow-green and the like.

Barwe delights in the exploitation of lines and linear forms; in the strength of basic design. The nature of a diagrammatic scheme in his paintings illuminates the constant interplay of symbols and colours of an urban environment with recurring primitivist strains that essentially characterizes the tenor of modern art.

I should also mention here that in the work of a number of painters, both older and younger, there appears echoes and similarities, which are consciously or unconsciously felt, are allusions to the visuals of the various tantric styles, or of motifs and imagery built up from parallel sources like yoga, the panchanga and magic. Needless to say, that these artists also employ some of the attributes of a primitive or folk symbolism. I give a few examples: In some works of Hebbar, chiefly after his return from a trip to Mexico, the feel for diagrammatic arrangement gives his work a whole new character. Chavda assiduously showed a whole series based on the ‘serpent-power’ theme - the kundalini. Mohan Samant had deliberately graffiti in his work where symbols of sex and sex-and-animals motifs were inter-writ with hierograms.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1971
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