The inverted tree
Whilst villages still live around and within nature, urban existence too can hardly be bearable without retaining or recreating some organic links. Although littered, violated and encased in concrete, vegetation survives on its own in the tropical climate pushing wild through cracks in walls or pavements. It survives most of all in our emotions and minds, in our psychosomatic needs. We may not realise or acknowledge it, but our limbs, tissues and blood veins are made of the same matter that permeates the organic and inorganic world. Our experiences and sensations are moulded by our physicality, where we perhaps don’t differ so much from plants. So we grow little gardens, put flowers in the hair and vases, wear floral fabrics. A longing for togetherness urges us to go where we can immerse ourselves in the serenity, power and splendour of scenery, sense and be filled by the perennial pulses of growth, sustenance, decay and rebirth, to reconcile the contradictions between our roots and the artifice of civilisation, to experience the spiritual even irrespective of religion.
Art has always reflected such eternal and current connectedness. Archaic and folk imagery often sees human and divine figures as upright trees or sinuous vines of blossoming carnality, as rough boughs and hard boulders marked by vegetal and mineral pigments. Yaksha statues seem to have barely separated themselves from mighty, erect trunks, while major gods and saints are often shown with a tree behind them, the wishing creeper referring to universal organic rhythms. The archetype of the inverted tree epitomises the bond and its role. The sacred ashvattha tree, or the peepal, which sometimes metamorphoses into the banian, with its roots in the sky and branches entering the soil, bridges the divine and the human regions overcoming their division and contradictoriness, to allow interpenetration.
For contemporary artists contact with nature remains as desirable as it is difficult and complex. Since our world has turned rather denatured, a direct, academically descriptive landscape and simple still life, even their abstraction on modernist lines, may not truly grasp it. Rifts, barriers, contradictions, paradoxes and wounds imbedded in the phenomenon have to be admitted on par with a recaptured connectedness, sensuous immersion, preciousness and sheer beauty with sublime recognitions. It has to be considered both by conscious thought and visual tactility or poetry. Its conceptual scrutiny can uncover hidden trajectories of seeing, while its instinctive absorption and remoulding let us savour the same with emotive immediacy felt through the skin.
The twelve artists in this exhibition have dealt with diverse aspects of the organic body theme as central to their preoccupations. Aesthetically individualistic, they have much in common besides the area of interest. In diverse ways and foci, they oscillate between the tangible or raw and the ephemeral to reach beyond universalising words, between the idea and its rudimentary evocation. A varied degree of minimalist attuning informs many of their idioms, as does one of subtlety, although the latter may emerge from under the harshness of the subject. Their references range from religious or spiritually symbolic notions to intimate feelings or epiphanies, to questions of perception and imagination, to gender and political issues. Basing on the behaviour of the metaphor, they disclose inherent dichotomies and opposite or clashing sides of things only to establish, or at least to suggest, a dormant possibility of or a desire for bonding, of a mutually enriching permeability and harmony. In the process, the many apparently separate aspects of reality introduced here begin to reveal their deeper associations, more valid than the alien surface.
Alwar Balasubramaniam, in fact, probes into the core of these phenomena. With the profundity of a child-like, playful simplicity, the artist delves into the quintessential laws of life and our understanding of it. Conceptually triggered and formed in a minimalist mode, thanks to their sheer visuality sensuously as well as elusively embodied in the substance, his images-objects yield an aura of rudimentary processes in the occurring with a poetic immediacy pregnant with philosophical intuitions. His materials may be contemporary and concrete commonplace but their evocativeness becomes filtered through the artist’s and the viewer’s bodily sensations to bear on the organic, the inanimate, the sublime and the cosmic, the latter being induced by the pared down, cool aesthetics. He uses the enigma of contrary binaries to reveal them as complementary in the ever mutating cycle of life. Conjuring illusions against ordinary logic, he goads us to examine and contemplate the same as well as one’s own subjectivity to reconcile them on a higher plane. The central motif in many metamorphoses around the visible and the unknown is the object and its contradiction, ephemeral character or negative imprint, whether of opposite colour on the flat or concave in plasticity. Sometimes his body cast forms part of the artwork subjected to mysterious divisions or dissolution amid deceptively solid areas, thus stimulating involvement and identification in the spectator. Sometimes it is his thumb prints. He plays with white on white, with shadow and illumination or combines organic-like and metallic surfaces. Of burn marks and pigment he recreates and bonds the elemental acts of fire and water or air. Of plastic straws and translucent acrylic he builds a honeycomb and secretive, amorphous plants or sea creatures, their milky blur inducing a carnal feel. A slim twig of golden thorns lets one think of natural beauty and of perils dormant in materialism. An ultimate marriage of the physical and the spiritual comes in the work contrasting and binding a rough banian branch and its impression. Alluding to the inverted tree archetype, the actual reflects-contains the transcendent.
Against that refined balance, Mrinalini Mukherjee’s sculptures might look ornate. This exuberant intricacy, however, holds the core of the natural artifice underlying ancient temples where anthropomorphic statuaries accommodate and abstract the profusion of plant-life, and where the plaint meanders of vegetal scrolls cover carved walls and pillars. Even though recalling the precise sensuality in elaborate stone carvings whose sheen often approach a metallic impact, these bronzes embrace the entire story of the divine icon going back to its beginnings in the organic world and the human body, when there was no separation felt between categories and when all life participated in the sacred. The artist blends here the immediacy of the physically tangible with the historical distance, one which is nevertheless
treated conveyed through utterly material and visual means potent with metaphoric poetry. The shapes at the same time possess a quality of breathing plants, stirring, growing and opening out into flowers and of their fossilised, grand rigidity. The sense of dead matter exudes both fragility, even pain and serious preciousness, the title of “Natural History” suggesting that the world itself has preserved it with due respect. The viewer can intuit that archaic art has treated it similarly, incorporating and immortalising vegetal forces in sacral images inextricably bound with the human body. Under the sculptor’s fingers plant-like curlicues reverberate of generative water ripples as well as transform into swellings of erotic skin acquiring nearly phallic associations. The current bronzes contain also the memory of her hemp icons and of the ceramic goddesses-blossoms.
Valsan Koorma Kolleri immerses himself in the physicality of the raw, fractured and decayed to experience things organic from within and to retrieve them in an intimate, pervasively composite universe of fragmentary vegetal and animal shapes coexisting with stone, metal and wood, also with the fruits of craft. Indeed, he works as though he were a tree or a primordial force of healing. His stone-age and bronze-age excavation-sculptures are reborn of the discarded. Erupting in a corroded, splitting ampleness, they are charred and patinaed, yet sap-full effervescences of dynamic potential and mutual linkages. Simultaneously gnarled roots and wounded limbs astir, they regain unity with potent earth and vegetation re-establishing the ancient connection to carved architectural ornaments, grinding stones, to ritual and cooking vessels. Their armature is the skeleton and the sculpture. The coarse trails of rift and welding mark both the path of the resuscitating hand and the inherent revival. Respecting plants as sculptures – natural and divine - and their place in the perennial cycle, he built a monument to a dried up tree by wrapping it in organic ointments and leaving it to rot and re-enter the soil of its birth. His performance in installations around landscapes, rivers and rocks holds his identification. More recently, tangled wires of shiny copper or rusty iron thread feeble residues of blood veins and dying roots in almost human images of a painfully sensuous life returning to earth, which he approaches with harsh tenderness by drilling ‘drainage’ corridors into its womb, the illumination on its raw walls merging with moonlight.
Immersion in the environment’s matter becomes a personal, meditational encounter for Jayashree Chakravarty, the tangible with its atmosphere being wholly absorbed within her but filtered through the sights kept and moulded by memory. Thus shapes, presences, their details oscillate on the verge of clarity and slow dissolution into mystery. There is always a sense of the immediate immersed in the vaster scheme of things. The surface of endless earth, cloudy sky, water, vegetation and architecture in multi-perspective, which partly sharpens to instantly dilute into near abstraction, vibrates with a mildly overbearing force over multitudes of motifs, slashes, dabs and amorphous smudges repeated in variations and sweeping directional vectors with rhythms of radiance. Sometimes among larger, linear forms pervaded by small ones human silhouettes entangle to incorporate everything in awe as well as impose some order. Emotions register over nervous, as if encephalographic, notations and flights of scribbling. The micro plane is always felt in a macro projection, their osmosis occurring through the modulated thickness of pigment, layered and rough, stuck in the ground, yet rising to nearly lift off or evaporate. All parts of these paintings metamorphose, trees blending with cumuli, old buildings turning organic and sinking into a telluric softness. The wrapping sensation received through her body leads the artist to install ‘personal spaces’ of painted paper rising like labyrinthine mountains of earth and memory to enclose her.
There is certain femininity at the source of Suhasini Kejriwal’s imagery focused intimately close on one flower and leaf chosen from a density. She translates it onto an acutely, even conceptually, formulated but gently evoked aura of a hybrid, pan-organic world felt through the pores of her body. Otherwise, from teeming arrangements of blossoms and foliage fragments she threads a lush universe. The composite aesthetic method mirrors and incorporates the subject-object behaviour. Her earlier work evolved from photographing plant-life and alluded to embroidery and mehndi designs, while the mood bridged intricate lucidity with residues of the popular pretty to touch on naïve tenderness. Presently, this has been subdued beneath a relative distance and a kind of restraint within the profusion which reveals nuance. In the two dimensions of a painting she accommodates a light mass of clearly contoured individual motifs transformed from photographic sources, from botanical and book illustrations, textile patterns and cut-outs of diverse cultural provenance, from her own drawing studies of live plants and their camera shots. The intricate laces are held by the composite outline that appears to be for ever continuing and expanding. The images generate and ever metamorphose their own fluid movement in space over wisps of wash and texture between intangible opacity and sensuous translucence, their delicacy sporadically evaporating onto a void which remains tangible, always near concrete yet unfamiliar, interconnected despite the contrariness. If their flatness contains a tinge of plasticity, the artist lets it surface, from two-dimensional petals with nets of graphic veins constructing an ethereally grand volume of an open flower – refined and brittle but eerie in a voluptuous manner.
For Surekha the female body, through the metaphor and literal incorporation of clothes and handiwork, becomes land as the site of organic unity and of feelings. There is always a multilateral, shifting layering and identification between the live body wearing clothes, merged with them, one painted, moulded or photographed in a performative enactment of the state, and the fabrics or detached, raw threads and clusters of material – amorphous as well as shaped into floral motifs. Sensual and ravaged, the body-landscape with its often blood-red veins, streams and hair stands witness to labour, pain, desire, fertility and exuberance within suppression. The stitched, sometimes pierced skin of paper is raw tissue and dry, cracked parchment of mourning, the poetry of the erotic too. Using traditional block prints with floral, foliage and symbolic motifs, she goads their stylised contours to imbibe the corporeal and root in soil again. The heavy, tangled twines or hair strands cover the face dripping of ache into the flesh but also speak of pleasure. Her white jasmine buds of cotton exude innocence and beauty, but threaded into bridal braids become like spinal bones, translucent in mute suffering. The body may wear a costume appropriating the organic textile motifs projected on it, whereas a hollow costume lit from inside may contain the body of exhaustion and aspiration. The stretch of a sari reaffirms the natural sources of its design, while the video documents-evokes an old village woman’s compensation for childlessness found in growing hundreds of trees.
Shukla Sawant receives and examines everything, from art to organic and inanimate objects with their functions, to ideas and memories of personal and multicultural origins – archaic as well as contemporary - the body and the content of what she is and we are in this many layered world existing in a tentative but intense and eventually elemental osmosis that nourishes. The body is not restricted by gender here and absorbs the natural almost equally with the technological. Perhaps because she does not make it obvious, the wooden boxes holding her images suggest such larger, corporeal containment. The sense of a general reaching out among diverse and apparently alien phenomena and their mutually vitalising behaviour is inherent to her aesthetic method. Acting somewhat installation-like between sculpture and printmaking, she lays out differing images to superimpose them in contrast and in their similarity underneath. Eventually, she marries the tactility of three-dimensional, natural or bodily sensuousness in paper pulp with elements of graphic subtlety in line and texture over computer manipulated prints from photography, and with specifically painterly effects. The glass in her boxes on which images are screen-printed brings a distance that enables both clarity and a fluid merger. Thus, her position and her person become, as reflected by the title of her present work, a ‘zone of contact’. Here the contact is seen in the instinct and pleasure of tasting to probe and to ingest, the human lips, tongues and teeth licking, biting and sucking just like roots and plants do, while the intimate moment of intense experience participates in the timeless processes also of the mind. The tangibly voluptuous photography interchanges with the graphic strokes of the vegetation, furthered by the rocking motion suggested through the container.
If that saturation clarifies partly into a reductionist precision, Prabhavathi Meppayil refines its essence in ephemeral, incomplete figures whose delicate minimalist linearity retains and hones the preciousness of our longing for a loving connectedness to life, which comes also through a connectedness to art. Her beautiful and frail but delicately sensual women are nude in the elemental manner of things natural as well as of human tenderness under which the artist’s own yearning can be intuited. There is a sense of openness in their bodies – vulnerable but serenely joyful and even accepting the splendour of pain. Painted or rather drawn in mineral pigments on-into the muted physicality of the gesso surface which resembles one of frescos, they are hesitantly and yet strongly eager to find a place amid the silent vastness of the unframed boards that seem to extend onto the wall and beyond. With a tinge of the classic Indian stylisation this femininity belongs to its past and to the immediacy of its organic surroundings, whereas the latter is acquiring the subtlety of a goldsmith’s chisel and metal, as the curls of a creeper cascade from and around a figure as though embracing it. It meanders on the uncertain line between real plant life, its presence in traditional painting, textile patterns and jewellery, in the human heart and its amorous stories. Comforting and hurtful, the desire for togetherness is reciprocal, the woman cherishing and grasping for the proximity of foliage or flowers, and the vegetal motifs leaning towards her frame and the objects close for her. Sometimes roots and stems fill her transforming into her veins and nerves in a tenderly grave intimacy resonating of the pulses of vastness.
The nude figure in Nicola Durvasula’s drawings too mediates a contemporary minimalist line by adopting the sensuous pliancy of Indian miniature contours, one that imbues and nearly identifies the human body with the lush sinuosity of organic profusion. The connection comes all the stronger that the imagery here is largely erotic, the flesh of its indulgencies sometimes compared with penetrated flowers or smooth arching snails. Inherently blending into it as well as juxtaposing a note of subtle realism, she stimulates a multi-cultural confrontation within the realm of mutual perception – reinterpreted, misunderstood and eventually approximating to similarity. A Westerner but very much a woman with a direct experience of this country and many others including Japan, the artist as an intimate observer conjures witty and conceptually allusive situations of desire, clash, paradoxes and hostilities or indifference between genders to bring them to the verge of a warm, even tender resolution in the process of which a layered, never defined and fluid mingling of moods and emotions arises, also by turning the image into its contradiction or blurring its shape with others. Reality with its social and gender circumstances echo as her emotions seep in. She does this by understated suggestion on the edge between the image, the idea, an absurdity introduced within it and the clever title. The tentative merger about to dissolve and return to itself comes over an unfinished contouring line that pitches to soft and incision-sharp detail only to thin out in traces and vanish to be completed or guessed in the viewer‘s sensation and the feelings of the figures. The hardly visible line aided by the wash may consist of several layers and hues.
For N.S. Harsha the human figure and the plant have been the fundamental elements around which he builds his gentle and empathic, yet moralistic and panoramic vision of life. Through those he retains a bond with the past, with its intimately rather than ideologically spiritual tradition as well as with the present. Used either separately or together, both enable him to unfold and reveal the story and the quintessence of existential processes and phenomena, of values and vices with all their shades and manifestations. A lyrical blend of humour, tenderness and gravity comes through a deliberately somewhat naïve figural signage, formulated by a line whose deliberate school bookish sketchiness absorbs what has survived of the classic in real people – imperfect but still innocent and belonging to the larger scheme of things. Naivety, roughness, awkwardness, even robustness coexist with warm grace, strength and unassuming dignity. Similarly, his organic forms create a composite but intrinsically pervasive whole where shades of botanical drawings and realistic renderings become abstracted subtly as well as dramatically to hold a sense of the flow of birth, growth, transformation and death which renews. The artist may steer his stroke to softly touch the raw earth when it curls in vegetal patterns on a rustic plough in a self-performance. He may build of it the solid body as the boat, thorny twigs finding there a delicately substantial reverberation in rippling water which
underlies all living matter. In an extension into the political sphere he may, however, keep only a single sapling of paddy in the hand of the indigo-dark Indian farmer to let it become the redeeming focus in an ominously comical scene where his black suited, global co-citizens splash him with fancy bright dyes. The lines of natural dynamism bind the whole oscillating from vegetal suppleness breathing of water to the new showmanship lustration.
Ramesh Kalkur treats his own body as landscape and as a tree, while his tree images acquire corporeal qualities. Constantly shifting from one to the other perspective as well as superimposing-identifying both, he incarnates the scenery of ravaged vegetation in urban circumstances. His photographic montages project on his nude back disfigured, old trunks transposed into spinal columns which merge into the flesh under an eerily murky, golden glow that brings out the rough surface and receding, expanding spaces. The tree inside his torso, overhung with used tyres or marked in sacred powders, becomes the body of mundane chaos but also of archaic rites celebrating nature. In his often enormous paintings, the naked, headless back – almost flat yet tactile over the textures, upright and stretching out symmetrically with painful patience - is a field of tissue and nerves mapping earth’s blood channels and its parched, cleaving crust. Human and utterly physical, it nevertheless contains a grand manifestation of the cosmic man, as rugged and vulnerable as this reality would permit. His recent works position figures seen from the back and frontally to confront one another. The layering here comes from advertising and commerce and is collaged digitally from vegetal patterns on textiles and synthetic materials. The rectangular structure of the planes hints at its artificiality and self-limitation. The plasticity of the human backs wearing floral clothes enters into a disturbingly enchanting animation against the even ground. We are urged to face the predicament, as the painter introduces graceful characters from Indian miniatures with their organic attributes, contemporary beauties enticing the public to buy dubiously ecological cosmetics and quotes old European masters’ motif of the voluptuous woman with a mirror.
The human tree finds a full-fleshed as well as lyrically metaphorical form in Karl Antao’s sculptures. His often life-size figures breathe through the teak. Under the smooth softness of human limbs and faces, the thin veneer of pigment enhances both the sensation of live skin and the flow of organic grain which become a reconciled, quietly animated entity. Areas of roughly scooped out rhythms return to the raw. It is a whole as it is composite, joined of loose images clinging to the tighter core figure which may sprout multiple heads of its diverse psychological aspects, conjuring an impression of emergence and fluidity among comparatively direct representations bearing emotional meaning or pregnant with values, symbols of ideas and signs evoking those as well as expressions imbued with delicately suggested or enigmatic moods. Among the signifiers-evokers there may be animals and birds, plants and flowers or a large, radiant inner eye. Although the artist may sometimes ironically refer to political issues, and although he may speak about torment and suffering, his heart is with the unassuming innocence of simple people captured in insignificant gestures and stances that reveal more than words. He portrays them not as individuals but as familiar sensations about humanity seen with light,
nearly playful warmth and attuning. Their eyes always closed, they appear slightly tense reaching within for a meditative calm that extends into unity with everything else. The goodness of well nourished thoughts and feelings comes to him in the image of seeds of the mind germinating into plants astir somewhat in the manner of human bodies by whose five senses they can be savoured and grown.
If Alwar Balasubramnaiam starts from the abstractness of scriptural imagery to identify its incarnation in the concrete organic, Mrinalini Mukherjee and Karl Antao, as though in contradiction, find metaphoric lyricism through the physicality of the hybrid human figure, the three meet capturing the underlying connectedness and pervasiveness of things. In-between the two extremes, the other artists unfold a rich and varied cluster of manifestations that human coexistence with nature assumes in more specific regions and under many aspects. Throughout, there flows an intuition and a realisation of our vital togetherness. Whether it occurs peacefully or becomes disturbed, we cannot do without it.