Saturday, 1 December 2007

In Conversation [ Essay] Bridging the divide between Art and Design

The Tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka by Amrita Das
Art making is no longer just about paint and canvas or watercolours. It encompasses variety of media from canvas to steel, glass and photographs to digital art, pottery, textiles and jewellery. The whole gamut of human experience, invention and endeavour is a medium of expression for the artists of this millennium.

This diversity may compound the viewing process, but ideals of art keep the gaze affixed, generating greater interest among the business community, than ever before. Today, art is a viable instrument of investment. It no longer has much esoteric value, yet its intangible, deviant voice is complex to decipher.

How does one look at works of art; unravel their complexities? For me the question is not about art for art's sake but, about understanding art from the point of view of the human being that created it. Fundamentally, art making is just another form of human expression. Then logically, understanding and appreciating art is quite simply about recognizing the human state that creates it. Can you truly divorce the human being from his art?

When I interviewed the artist Satish Gujral, I went with a million questions and some reservations. There were many incongruities in his work, which I could not reconcile. To understand its diversity and contradictions, it is not art history that one turns to but one’s humanity. It was in meeting the man, rather than the artist, that I found some answers.

We see a young and emotional Gujral in the brutal, anguished strokes that define his harrowing portraits of Partition. He concedes the story of Partition was evocative of personal anguish; that the horror and violence he portrayed, exorcised some of the disbelief and horror of losing his hearing at the age of eight. The stark reality of this enforced silence was “terrible” and subsequently shaped his whole being. Painting became a means to substantiate his existence, for he says, “What proof you have, when you cannot hear the sounds around you that you really exist?”

Gujral has worked in many media from painting on canvas and paper
collages to some outstanding work in wood and an architectural masterpiece, in The Belgian Embassy in New Delhi. Each phase of work is complete in itself, not an adjunct to other media. This is disconcerting if looked at from a narrow, orthodox perspective. However, seeing it from this artist’s viewpoint of being inside a train in transition, where the constant changes allowed him to ‘break’ the otherwise stifling silence; one realizes that we take much for granted in our stereotyped expectations of artists and their creative endeavour, losing track of the human being. How, when, where and why do we separate the artist from the man?

Sandeep Singh
Photography is no different to a painting when it comes to seeing, for it reveals as much or as little as you are able to see. Sandeep Singh’s photographs draw you into their silence. He achieves this by the sheer starkness of imagery that precludes any kind of human life or suggestion thereof, beyond what we can imagine or ferret from memory. You find a large playing field with a football in the foreground, but not a player in sight. There are empty benches and spaces made for human living but not a soul around. It is positively eerie to see endless empty roads; a market devoid of any human activity; or Terminal 4 at Heathrow, one of the busiest airports in the world, with not a sign of human life. You think life on earth abandoned, and ask why?  Why has this neat, orderly, technologically progressive world been abandoned by the beings that created it?

Sandeep Singh
The photographer intentionally seeks to separate man from his grounds, presenting modern design without its encumbrance. It is his attempt to find silence in these urban-scapes, away from the “pandemonium of post-modernity”. Singh believes that the basic premise of the post-modern world, built upon questions deconstructing existing paradigms of myth and reality; creates extreme anxiety in the human mind, causing us to run away from ourselves, fragmenting the wholeness of being.

Lines, contours, geometric patterns, vertical and horizontal lines, constitute the many elements that form each picture. There is no singular point of interest but the scape is stark nonetheless, because of the elimination of human forms. When I first saw the images, it was like a breath of fresh air - a haven away from the crowded, cacophonic spaces in India. The more I looked, the more the stillness spoke through its depths,  of a  silence not always restful, but tormenting; not empty but bursting to tell its story – your story and mine; for isn’t reality  a question of perception?

Satish Gujral with Alpana Gujral for Vistaar
Art is inseparable from the man, his emotions and quests. Satish Gujral further authenticates this when he says, “artists are not men of ideas; they are men of feeling”. Their responses to the world, governed by feelings of joy, inadequacy, pain and more is what they express as they paint, sculpt or design. Gujral recently worked with his daughter Alpana to design precious jewellery. Painter Thota Vaikuntam, joined hands with Hyderabad based designer Suhani Pittie to create unique necklaces - adornment for the body, as opposed to walls; while yet another painter, Bose Krishnamachari collaborated with Ezma to create a woven shawl masterpiece in Cashmere. These and the work of many other artists were on display at Vistaar, a recent exhibition of collaborative art held in New Delhi.

The emergence of new media, including a renewed interest in the old, poses a challenge to painters of canvas. In addition, Design and craft are gaining considerable significance as modes of creative expression, making the ‘variety’ awesome and seductive but the painter Mona Rai is not enamoured. She works stoically on the conventional canvas. While her choice of materials does not necessarily define her as a paints’ painter, you cannot question her use of canvas or materials she employs on this. Fabric plays an important role in Mona’s vocabulary, as do its processes and techniques.  She ‘dyes’ the fabric. She sews it.  She uses glitter, beads, buttons, mirrors and threads, but works essentially as a painter and not as a  Fiber Artist.

She does not revel in the making and use of fabric and its fibre, as the latter would, however she uses particularly, the same kind of materials to express specifically, her transition from conventional painting on canvas towards this newer dimension. Rai is a collector of the mundane and the useless. In her studio, she has accumulated a variety of bottle caps, coins, cutters, pencils and discarded washers, along with mud and sand as well as sequins, beads, glitter, powder colour and much more. Although inspired by materials associated with the world of textiles, fabric is merely the medium, not the essence of her expression. This allows a certain irreverence in the handling of the material that makes the eventual ‘canvas’ visceral, violent and macabre, imbuing it with a sense of repulsion which is often what attracts Mona’s attention to many aspects of life.

Madhubani Painting
At the other end of the spectrum of artistic expression, is Folk art. Largely identified with rural life, this is both a personal and cultural statement of expression. Anyone in the community is entitled to and able to create. It is an art form based on close observations of Indian life, precluding any reference to Western Art. Within an extraordinary mix of the ancient with the modern, folk artists record everyday events of family and community life. Using colour and lyrical elements of line, they express through a visual language that employs simplified form, ignoring perspective and proportion.

Much written about, the work of artist Madhavi Parekh cites her art as vital to reconciling the expressions of rural India with that of modern, urban India. Being a first generation migrant to urbanization, enables her to draw upon images, events, sounds and scapes etched in her memories of village life. Untrained in the formal mode of Art education she uses a kind of naïve, ‘folk’ narrative to tell her stories. 

Madhavi Parekh
 Modern, urban India, divested of the romance of an ethnic identity is keen to reclaim its heritage by iterating the importance of an infusion of folk elements in the Contemporary Art vocabulary. However, for the rural artists, whose folk idiom is not merely a memory, but a living discipline they naturally work within, categorizing their work as ‘folk’ is derogatory. This dichotomy intrigues and questions the positioning of our folk heritage vis-à-vis contemporary painting, because we do not regard the work of these rural artists in the same way as that of the modern-urbanized painter. Their brilliance seems eclipsed by the recognition accorded to artists such as Parekh for an innovative stance afforded by her changed environment. The fundamental reality of evaluating creativity in terms of visibility and therefore recognition, poses questions about deemed appropriate values. Yet the co-existence speaks of the vibrancy of a culture, lending equal voice to the other

Manisha Bhattacharya
Drawing from the depths of tradition, beyond the realm of folk iconography are studio potters like Manisha Bhattacharya, who transcend restrictive qualities of pottery. She does not define herself merely as a potter, nor does she see herself as a designer; but considers her work  more in the realm  as that of an artist-craftsman. Although not bound by pottery conventions even though her work does not necessarily break free of them either, she is a self-confessed ‘addict’ of working on the wheel. The vessel forms the basis of most of the objects she creates, but the surface of each vessel is akin to canvas. Working primarily in black and white, she manipulates the smoke on her pots, as a painter wields his brush, using the Raku technique of glazing.

At one level, a potter is a potter, so what sets Manisha Bhattacharya apart from the local kumhar? Is it her education? Is it her world exposure? Is it the challenge of our times? Can Manisha and other contemporary potters really provide an alternative to the local kumhar or has the indigenous tradition of pottery making undergone such a sea of change that we cannot turn the wheel to recast that mould? 
Is it just the tradition of pottery recast to deem a plate more than a mere platter to eat from, or is it an evolution of the aesthetics of contemporary society? With the growing interest in collaborative ventures between art and design and diversity in media of expression, we seem to aspire towards a life that celebrates each dimension of living, imbuing the functionality of the mundane with the expansiveness of the spirit. Art in ancient India was not a profession or an activity divorced from other spheres of living. It was a way of life that nourished the man “corpus anima et spiritus” The advent of machines has challenged this concept, but the aesthetic ideals of contemporary art seem to re-direct us towards this  holistic tradition.

Manisha Bhattacharya