The first time that I saw the works of Viraj Naik, was at Gallery Nvya in New Delhi, at the start of the millennium. The recent solo exhibition titled ‘Ordinary Superheroes’ curated by Leandre D’ Souza, was the Goan artist’s first showing after a hiatus of fifteen years, and was hosted at Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts, by its patrons Dipti and Dattaraj Salgaoncar. The collection of ninety-five ink drawings, etchings and sculptural works on display, was a continuum of his fascination for the anthropomorphic forms of animal-man, which follows a primeval tradition.
|pen, ink and graphite, 20cm x 29cm, 2018|
In the modern world, he is preceded by Picasso, who not only painted the ‘Minotaur’ or ‘Bull of Minos’ (conceived by Minos's wife when impregnated by a bull), but is said to have identified with the human and animal principles of the creature that donned the head of a bull on the body of a man. However, ancient man was also familiar with such human hybrids, depictions of which were present in antediluvian lore, appearing in cave paintings as early as the Late Stone Age, approximately 10,000 to 50,000 years ago. Ethnologists conjecture that these portrayals - of beings with human and animal features were not necessarily physical representations of mythical hybrids, but were most likely attempts to depict shamans in the process of acquiring the mental and spiritual attributes of various beasts or ‘power animals’. Of reaching altered states of consciousness, in order to perceive and interact with the realm of spirit, channelling these transcendental energies into the physically manifest world.
|enkindle, Etching, 10cm x 8cm, 2016|
Remains of mythological hybrids have also been found in prehistoric burial sites, where skeletons of horse-cows, sheep-cows, and a six-legged sheep had been formed by joining together body parts from carcasses of different species. A practice that is believed to have been an offering to ancient gods.
|pen, ink and graphite, 20cm x 29cm, 2018|
In the midst of viewing this exhibition, we were celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi across Goa, with much faith, fervour and colour. Known as Ganapati, Vinayaka, or by numerous other names, this elephant-headed god of wisdom, knowledge and new beginnings is one of the best-known and worshipped deities of the Hindu pantheon, especially in Maharashtra and Goa. A short while later, I was in Delhi celebrating Diwali which in North India is a celebration of Rama’s return to Ayodhya. In the epic Ramayana, the simian god Hanuman is credited for aiding his victory over the demon Ravana and safe return of Rama’s consort Sita. Both Ganesh and Hanuman are part animal, part human. Animals or their anthropomorphic forms are an integral part of the Hindu pantheon as either god's in themselves or vahanas or vehicles of god's. Many of Vishnu's avatars are also part human and part animal - Matsya, sometimes portrayed with a human head and torso with a fish body below waist, saves Manu the son of god from the great deluge. Kurma appears in the form of a tortoise or turtle to support the foundation for the cosmos and the cosmic churning stick (Mount Mandara) for the Samudra Manthan. Others, are Varaha (with a boar's head) and Narasimha (with lion's head). In addition, the mythical cow, Kamadhenu, who is considered the mother of all other cattle, is often portrayed as a cow with human head, peacock tail and bird wings. There are many such examples where much of this culture and worship is said to have arisen from a policy to protect animals.
|pen, ink and graphite, 20cm x 15cm, 2019|
While Naik concedes his fascination with the study of mythological gods with animal-like figurines - be it Hindu, Greek or Roman, he also says that it is his perceived relationship between human and animals that emerge in his hybridisation, bringing out the animal instincts that he feels all humans possess. “For instance, if I feel a person is aggressive like a tiger I would depict him with a head of a tiger" says Naik. Adding a simplistic, contemporary angle to the mythological ‘untamed lion man’ ‘Urmahlullu’ who was, contrarily, a guardian spirit in Mesopotamian mythology, where its image was used to ward off destructive demons, including the ogre of death. He is also found in seals of the Indus Valley, evolving into a lion-centaur goddess wearing a head-dress with a long pendant whose body merges with that of the tiger. An image that has similarities to what later became associated with Durga, the goddess of war.
Despite the antiquity that precedes his anthropomorphic renditions, Viraj Naik is not deifying his forms. Nor is he enacting some shamanistic ritual to connect with any power animals. Some of his depictions are socio-political statements about the animal nature of the contemporary human race, including quirks that materialize through his imagined beings. Societies are populated by all kinds of people. Some, aware of their socially undesirable behavioural patterns, manage to project a carefully cultivated but false personality. Presenting his etchings and drawings as a mirror to detect deceitful, fearful, foolish, conceited or angry animal traits within the homo sapiens frame, Naik could also be suggesting that, like animals we too possess the ability to sense or ‘sniff out’ such untruth.
However, his ‘Super Heroes’ are not necessary pleasant to behold. If you allow yourself the indulgence to get squeamish, it’s like beholding creatures that somehow got mixed up in the creative process. You wonder if the forces of life are experimenting, if Naik is using his own artistic ingenuity to consider what kind of species he would like to inhabit the universe. Speculating, why these perversions would find any value in a world where men and women have devised ways to perfect any perceived imperfections in their bodies and, where animals that presently pervade the planet, do not remotely resemble the organisms that Viraj envisages.
|pen, ink and graphite, |
20cm x 15cm, 2018.
What can one make of a fish-face with humanoid teeth, wearing a necktie – or it could have been a fin protruding from inside the buttoned-up white shirt and black suit-coat, of the monochromatic interpretation. Imagine being a gill-bearing aquatic craniate who swims freely in the vast Arabian Sea, and you force yourself to wear a necktie and suit. But without the biceps and triceps of the human arms, empty sleeves of the jacket hang listlessly. Whether the fish-man had legs or tail is left to conjecture as the drawing focusses only on the torso. While the image generates a sense of the absurd and even as the implied vision of a slippery creature caught within the confines of a corporate suit, does percolate through, it doesn’t really seem odd because the proverbial world of commerce is rife with such characters, isn’t it?
Not all the animal features were as easily identifiable. There was one face wearing a cap too small for his head. This, in turn, was too large for its quadruped body, which was part animal with fur and paws in the forelegs and two sturdy and stocky hind limbs with their feet shod with socks and shoes. His profile displayed a smallish eye, pointed nose and a smile that seemed a bit too cheesy. He was surrounded by trees and shrubbery and I had the distinct impression that he had just stepped out for a game of golf or some such, when the artist transformed his body thus. And, the man remained smiling or unaware, or plain simple didn’t care what he looked like or was seen as. He seemed blissfully absorbed in the machinations of his own extra-large head to care what anyone thought, or notice if anyone else even existed.
|pen, ink and graphite, 29cm x 20cm, 2019|
For most part however, Naik focussed only on presenting the face, with no body to distinguish the kind of animal he intended. The eyes in one or two such portraits were definitely shifty. One face donned an adaptation of a fez cap, clenching his teeth, and the other had short horns on his head – actually the horned face didn’t look nearly as shifty as the other, more like the furtive glance of someone scared. If this wasn’t enough to intrigue, you were confronted by a the otherwise menacing apparition of a boar with an unusually docile, subjugated expression. It had an alligator or crocodile’s body that was stood upon by a diminutive elephant and an oversized parrot with relatively shortened horse legs and hooves, but nonetheless, gleefully towering above the dwarfed tusker, who glowered.
What kind of world is this? What's the necessity of contemplating such unlikely forms that colonize Naik's creative biosphere. If it weren't for Viraj's perfect drawing skills, these images would merely intrigue on an intellectually superficial plane. But precisely because his technique was so marvellous, one got up close and peered at lines, crossing, hatching and layering to create form and shade and superlative textures. His marks were masterful and this ensured that the viewer didn’t leave the gallery space horrified, disgusted or plain bored. It was through the process of observing, of examining those lines and their gradations that one became less conscious of the oddness of these anthropomorphic and zoomorphic creatures, to maybe find empathy, parity and perhaps some insight, whilst acknowledging the artist’s prowess to draw you into his weird-weird world.
The inventive presentations may look unnatural, which is perhaps an effective tool to get your attention and nudge you cogitate. The images are such that, once you get involved with their characters, you cannot ignore them. Although the artist suggested we find ourselves in these forms, I for one, was unable to locate myself through the visualised hybrids, partly because, barring a few obvious associations, it was unclear what exact animal and its propensities he was expressing through them. The forms were not evocative of organisms or traits that one could easily relate to. However, if some viewers did spot a measure of resemblance, it would not be in their outer manifestations but in their sense of self or as perceived by others.
|pen, ink and graphite, 20cm x 15cm, 2019|
While employing the elemental modus of human portraiture, the artist caricatured the traditional features with animal physiognomies, which were not always jarring but sometimes even amusing. If we are indeed so, can we not see the humour in our warped-ness? After all, which one of us doesn’t carry some kind of dysfunctional baggage and subconsciously play this out to disastrous or embarrassing consequences. Within his philosophical renderings and pondering upon human-animistic inclinations Naik reminds, that biologically, humans are animals too. And like these quadrupeds, we too commit acts which are an inherent aspect of our natural disposition. But it is the moral code that he proposed, questioning whether our inborn tendencies are acceptable, simply because they are intrinsic to our nature, is where I felt more than a trifle miffed.
For, surely it was with the wisdom of understanding that it is only through acceptance of how we are, that we can hope to control the unnatural expression of human reactions that, an ancient treatise on the arts, such as the Natya Shastra (compiled between 200 BCE and 200 CE) listed eight bhavas (emotions or sentiments) with eight corresponding rasas (aesthetic flavour evoking emotion or feeling) where, love and laughter are depicted alongside anger, disgust, terror and sorrow. There was apparently no censoring or shaming for any expressive response in those times. Therefore one imagines a limited degree of suppression and consequential hyperbolic emotive outbursts.
But Viraj Naik is not alone in voicing such ideas. There appears to be a growing trend in contemporary society, to advocate suppressing rather than expressing the uncomfortable-to-deal-with feelings, like anger and sorrow. It is this, more than anything else, which creates the overstatement of passions which then manifest as ugly or unmanageable. For instance, anger as a response is not abhorrent in itself. It is a very useful feeling that reveals what appeals and what doesn’t, which aids in setting personal boundaries. This emotive response only becomes disruptive when, unacknowledged and repressed, it finds articulation as vitriolic rage.
While it was drawings and etchings that formed the major corpus on view, one small gallery was dedicated to digitally worked pictographs. I found these fascinating. And, their dark auras didn’t require much analysing or scrutiny. Spaces and mythologies were superimposed and probably came from varying eras of civilization and across cultures, but the specifics seemed secondary to the atmosphere which enveloped you within the gallery space that was occupied by these pictographs.
|Raurava, pictograph, 25cm x 28cm, 2019.|
Drawings and etchings require a laborious and mostly meditative process of execution - where thoughts and feelings come and go as the hand continues with its work. The correlation of hand and mind at work where the procedure is relatively mechanical, as in these imaginative drawings - of a technique perfected over years of accomplishment and experimentation, is recognised across spectra of hand-crafting to be a process that aids the sublimation of one’s emotions. In contrast to the pictographic compositions these renderings seemed too finessed, merely skirting the fringes of a much deeper hypothesis. A premise which was disclosed effectively through the dramatic tones of the digitized images. Viewing their dark and foreboding vistas, which exaggerated rather than reduced the intensity of sentiment, the ominous tonality and ghostly apparitions became an inevitable encounter with the menacing aspects of mankind. In effect, the pictographs brought to the fore, the kind of indigence that could befall our world, if humans with untrammelled tendencies are allowed to dominate the planet.