Friday, 6 March 2009

A Journey Into Personal Engagement - Samar Jodha Review [Phaneng]

Savouring the adventure of travelling on the hitherto closed road from China into India in 2004; Samar Singh Jodha encountered a hamlet in the remote eastern reaches of Upper Assam, nestled between the Patkai rain forests and the Terap River near Ledo, which inexplicably drew him to undertake a journey of another kind. “Stunned by the natural beauty of Phaneng and mesmerized by the unique culture of its people” he could not remain a mere spectator to the plight of this diminishing community, so decided to use his “skills” to try and bring about change to “improve the chances of survival of the Tai Phakes of Phaneng.”

As you enter the darkened space of the ‘Religare art i gallery’, designed to evoke an atmosphere of coal and the ghostliness of a diminishing tribe; the near total lack of light perturbs but the scale of portraits is nonetheless compelling. Realistically captured on 72” x 60” canvas of photographic fine art prints, the facial details appear skilfully presented but viewing these portraits requires more than such obvious observation and the habitual city-dwellers glance, of moving hurriedly from one image to the next. It needs an engagement which is easily missed because the location, the language and culture are barely visible. Although curious about this facet, my initial reaction was that they resembled portraits of Tibetans drawn on silk which I recollect seeing on the Mall Road in Shimla in the 1970’s, so what was the point? However, the images haunted in a strange sort of way so I returned and through my conversation with Samar discovered nuances many others may have missed as well.

Today we are swamped by imagery that provokes and it’s become onerous upon the artist to grab your attention. Samar Singh Jodha desists for he is unable to make an emphatic statement. His engagement is filled with dilemmas and creates an air of simplicity which is deceptive. There are some artists whose work is meant to be looked at while some are meant to be felt and submitted to. The purity of an isolated emotion, its starkness, can be dramatic enough to evoke feeling in an objective viewer. However, when you speak of a people embroiled in the politics of coal, which you seek to help them with and return to the city where you consume the electricity that fuels the very politics you want to address, how does any honest human being even pretend to isolate the conflicting emotions?

The portraits have no titles. It’s almost as if unable to find a unilateral involvement, Jodha distances himself and us, implicit with a sense of guilt and unworthiness to know them personally. Using lighting techniques, Samar Jodha deliberately eliminates all details from the frame except for the facial features which are then dramatically highlighted. He asks you thus to make your own acquaintance with them. It is complex ideas such as these which engage, drawing us into those beady eyes that speak of enduring so much that nothing matters anymore. Each experience is etched in the sinews around the penetrating lens looking out at you and the marks on the forehead that ripple like a turbulent river. He looks straight at you without challenging you to change the world. He is not afraid and there is no sense of blame. It is the forthright acceptance of knowing that the world is a complex place of conflicting interests and that peace lies in reconciling the inevitable paradoxes. He indulges the photographer; enjoys the attention but without desire or rancour. He is an enlightened soul.

A photographer of international repute, Samar’s experience in the field of visual communication includes education and apprenticeship with renowned schools and studios as well as editorial and social communication projects of acclaim; that range from fashion to advertising, a United Nations sponsored presentation on ‘Ageing in India’ and an award winning book: ‘Jaipur – The Last Destination’. His involvement in Phaneng has included an education project, a monastery, and a unique eco-tourism venture that has built local capacity as well as raised incomes. Samar’s proximity to the Tai Phake tribals, their trust in him, evolving over the years spent documenting facets of their life, led him to this project of portraiture where the eyes speak and fleshed lines convey with exquisite subtlety the complexity of his participation.

Her wrinkles are a painting in themselves. Who is she? Is she married to the enlightened one? We don’t know. Does it matter? In our chaotic lives are we likely to meet her? Perhaps not; but somewhere, somehow, we all know someone like her. The quintessential kindness of a nurturing bosom radiates from the eyes of a woman who has given birth many times; saddened by the shadow of infertility that looms because the mining of coal is polluting the water this community drinks. Can we change this reality? Will we consume less electricity to keep alive procreation in a community that is dying out? Why should Samar tell us who she is? Can we be more than the occasional, socially motivated voyeur?

By virtue of the nature of his profession, a photographer would essentially be seen as an observer, but digital technologies have facilitated the camera being more than a mere documentary witness. The world of art has expanded considerably to include much more than painting in its canvas. Today, we see manipulated photographic images that speak more as an excoriation of an artist’s inner reality, than the subtlety of putting forward visages as perceived through patient observation of the external world, which evoke the inner dimension. The distinction between artist and photographer is slowly diminishing, with photography becoming a tool for expression in much the same way as water-colour, installation or video. Images such as these portraits from Phaneng veer away from the dramatization of much that is being seen in art galleries, requiring an informed perspective to evaluate. These photographs emerge through interactions that have progressed gradually where the “gaze is mutual.” The scale of work and its positioning ensure the viewer engages with the eyes of the portrait head-on. Can you look away? Many did.

The angry youth, radiating a deep sense of dejection, the young child, astonished by the blaze of a powerful flash, all have a story to tell. If we had silence in our souls, if we could momentarily eliminate the sights and sounds of a frenetic city life, we may have heard the music of the insects at night; we would have empathy with the disillusioned knowing of their elders, the rebellious gaze of this defiant North-Eastern woman who does not challenge or provoke but simply is. Ironically the coal that is being mined in upper Assam, fuels our eccentrically electrified lives without uplifting theirs, for the locals do not work in the mines, immigrants do. So what does the photographer want us to see? What is his intent of sharing without overtly revealing?

The pace of their lives, contrasted with that which Samar Singh Jodha shares with us, is the essence of what is unfolded. In that environment his stride is different. He brings this to our notice by using the old-fashioned 4” x 5” format camera which he inconveniently lugged across unfriendly terrain, against many odds to record this silent tread that is without rush of purpose or anxiety. The format he uses is tedious, but in his mind it is reflective of the world they inhabit more so than the digital camera. The process of photographing them was in itself an experience. The format does not permit multiple frames and therefore the level of trust, the camaraderie between the community and him is expressed via such sophisticated subtleties that Jodha employs. He brings in the totality of his experience of being a part of this community, accepted by virtue of his involvement and yet never belonging. He faces complex dilemmas and guilt of his complicity with the paradoxical engagement to uplift not because he believes he can change the world, but in slowing his pace, living in their time reveals other dimensions of being that the city has robbed him of and us.

Is there a prayer that reverberates as we look into that middle-aged woman’s face? Did you notice the drawn lines that shield those lips which once readily smiled at the light? Wide eyes startled by an electric flash, lips fulsome with hope, what is the future this child inherits? Are the issues under view relevant to just a distant hamlet in upper Assam; don’t they need to belong in our world with as much engagement as Samar Singh Jodha has ventured into theirs?

In reviewing the nuances etched by the refined details of these black and white portraits one feels chided, for the photographer reminds that viewing is not about being seduced by colour, emotion and digital manipulation. He does not impose his views but prods you to question his reticence and once you touch the core, another whole world is uncovered. Its perspective of time and material so alien to ours, that in not connecting with the initial glance we almost let its beauty pass us by. Samar’s diffidence in the words that accompany the exhibition does not facilitate easy access into the sanctum of his engagement. Is this a telling comment on our viewing facility? Have we have lost the ability to assess the visual dimension which is traditionally equated with a value greater than that of a thousand words? Somehow, it seems evident that no matter how consummate the visual art, we need clarity of thought revealing the artists intent or dilemma. In our hectic over-crowded lives, a worthy vision may well be overlooked without this.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

A Philosophical Fantasy - [Seema Kohli Essay, Mumbai]

In deep seas Fish don’t need their fins; to soar in the sky, I need my Eagle wings…
“Tu shaheen hai, basera kar paharon ki chattano par
ke shaheen ke liye zillat hai, kaare ashian bandi”[i]
- Dr. Iqbal

Travelling through an imagined world created by Seema Kohli, you undertake a journey into many realms of life. Her presentations are multi-layered in meaning. Through them Seema explores ideas she grew up with and then studied as a student of philosophy. The ‘Vedas’ and ‘Bhagavad Gita’ form an essential part of her oeuvre. Her forms are simple. She says they are a kind of rebellion; where reprimanded as a child for these unconventional representations of nature, she now asserts them wilfully. Her fish have no fins. Her cows are clearly masculine and Krishna effeminate by comparison. Traditionally in this ‘avataar’, he has no mythological steed or ‘vahana’ but in these paintings he rides the cow-bull and peacock too. Her birds and butterflies do not have much bearing with natural facets. Her figures are disproportionate; her ‘Gandharvas’ have wings and trees grow on the sun wherein a maiden rides the moon with eagle-winged angels pulling her crescent sledge. All these ideas beg to be questioned. Filled with extraordinary detail that could easily be mistaken for ornamentation, each canvas is a complex tapestry of a highly imaginative mind that playfully investigates deep philosophical realities of life.

Somewhere, a lush but mono-chromatic tree spreads itself covering the whole span of an eye’s view. Women are flying, walking around or sitting on its richly coloured orange branches. Unclothed, they move uninhibitedly, liberated from social conventions. Leaves, roots, clouds and waves create a continuous unending pattern signifying a seamless continuity of life. Nestled deep among its roots the golden womb or ‘Hiryanyagarbha’[ii] has been drawn. Representing the ultimate dimension of consciousness which encompasses the whole universe, this cosmic womb signifies the fruit of a life well-lived. It is this that the woman aspires for in ‘Her Quest’, as she falls gracefully from the sky. Her descent enshrined in an inverted pyramid suggesting a possible inversion or representation of hitherto perceived ideals. She gently wafts down from the higher reaches of heaven; dreamy spaces of cotton-wool clouds that cushion rather than daunt or hinder. Etched in spartan sepia hues exuding a tentative sensuality, she extends an arm, reaching out to Krishna the eternal lover; a simple gesture cognizant of need. He is surrounded by dancing nymphs exulting in his flute-song, separated yet, by the womb of consciousness they have not penetrated. Can she reach him? Has she evolved to enter the realm wherein he resides? Before she can converse with him, she must tackle the tree of life, descend through its branches and unravel the roots of her existence. This is the essence of Seema Kohli’s canvasses. She explores philosophy through the exotic colour she gives form, through her drawings of pen and ink on canvas, carefully layered with acrylic paint.

Her technique is unusual. She layers the canvas with thin coats of acrylic, sometimes as many as twelve, to get just the right shade and richness of the medium. This process is often emotionally liberating as she stands on the roof-top of her studio, splashing or throwing the colour onto the canvas, while maintaining the consistency of paint on the surface. This methodology is in direct contrast to the details she draws on this surface. Using a fine ‘Rotring’ pen Seema Kohli works on the prepared canvas, drawing the plan. The forms are rarely filled evenly with pigment. Making jagged, scratch-like marks Seema fills in coloured ink with pen, employing a deliberate unevenness that allows the multi-layered base to add its own hue. This could also be seen as being evocative of a restless spirit hungering for liberation from within these forms. The characters whether figures meditating, trees or clouds, are usually repeated. This could be mistaken for mindless repetition or doodling, but for the artist it is a visual chant, akin to repeating a mantra.

The present exhibition draws upon ideas postulated in the ‘Yajur Veda’, pertaining to the ‘Hirayangarbha’ or cosmic womb and the fifteenth Chapter of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ which explores the concept of the Tree of Life or Eternal Asvattha[iii], outlining consequence of action or fruits of labour as being the basis of the life we live today. The link between the two may seem obscure until you delve deep into the curious but profound connection the artist makes between the cosmic womb as being representative of that ultimate state of consciousness which contains the whole universe; and the knower of the Vedas as one who has understood the foundation of existence by pondering the boughs and roots of the ‘Asvattha’ tree.

This eternal tree of life is invoked in almost all of Seema Kohli’s paintings as a kind leit-motif that spreads its pattern of seamless branches and roots to represent clothing, skin or the backdrop of the whole visual plan. It is the foundation for contemplation on the purpose and deeds that delineate the pattern of our daily lives. This enduring tree of life which finds mention in scriptures all over the world, including the Bible, is a representation of the human body and mind. In a book on anatomy, turn the chart of the human nervous system upside down and it is possible to discern that the human form has similarity to an inverted tree, a trunk with many branches. If this chart is turned right-end up, the nervous system looks like an inverted tree with hair, brain and spine above; and numerous branches of nerves below. “As trees spring out of the soil beneath them, the human tree of thought, life force, and nerves grow invertedly downward from the ‘soil’ or ground of cosmic consciousness.”[iv] Our thoughts form the fertile ground from which our hands and feet execute the actions that define our lives, through which we grow to perceive the deeper implication of these, towards an emancipation of mind that finally opens up to encapsulate the secrets of the universe: the ‘Hiranyagarbha’.

In our contemporary high-rising world, the windows of perception are conversely narrowing. Confined mostly to everyday routines pertaining to the needs of a shrinking nucleus family or solitary existence, we rarely have the opportunity to contemplate the mysteries of life and what it is that keeps us going as we mechanically strive for this that or the other, whichever is the agenda of the day. Seema Kolhi’s canvasses give us a glimpse into ideas that form the core of Indian spiritual thought and ideology. Philosophy uplifts life from the mundane and petty giving it a renewed purpose and sanctity. Seema says that the life of Krishna, as a child or as the charioteer who guided Arjuna through the battle of life ennobles us for his actions sanctify ours. When sibling battle, they are judged harshly for being unable to perpetuate love, but when Krishna tells Arjuna it is his ‘dharma’, the right action for a misdeed; he gives him the wisdom to find moral courage, absolving him of his dilemmas to kill his kin. It is ideas such as these that the artist ponders upon as she paints.

In ‘Krishna, Krishna, Krishna –a prayer’, Seema depicts the playful element of Krishna, as he exults in the natural splendour of being, simultaneously atop a cow and riding a peacock within the cosmic womb. Here the cosmos appears in intertwining layers, each a kind of womb that leads to the other. Often, thinkers focus intermittently upon philosophical ideas and their roots in the physicality of existence. Logically, the ‘Hiranyagarbha’ can only be attained if the ‘Asvattha’ has been explored, not the other way around, but for a sincere seeker, focus on the larger dimensions of knowing also bring them to the mundane-ness of being which in effect exalts the mind towards cognition of the hymns of the ‘Vedas’; represented in the mythological ‘Asvattha’ tree as its leaves, symbolizing sensitivity and vitality. The rustling of the leaves denote whispering of knowledge and the green colour is evocative of the life-force flowing through living beings.

An avid observer of nature, Seema often watches the plants sway in the breeze and imagines what their life must be. She attributes each thing animate or inanimate with a particular rhythm that governs its life. A wooden table was once a tree. It continues to live but with a different rhythm. In watching the fish swim in the deep sea, Kohli notes that they find their way without really knowing how or where they must go. It does not seem to matter if there is a purpose to their existence. She envies them, fantasizes and extends these ideas to draw them without fins. Deep seas become a metaphor for human despair, when in total surrender to the forces of life the being is carried effortlessly towards destinations unforeseen. In such a context ‘Fish’ do not need their fins but paradoxically, in her paintings the ‘Gandharvas’ are often given eagle wings.

Angels of positive energy, the ‘Gandharva’ have their roots in many ancient Indian texts and scriptures. Traditionally they do not have wings and exist unseen in the atmosphere aiding human beings to their goals. She paints eagle wings on these angels, inspired by a verse by Dr.Iqbal, invoking this free spirit residing high in the mountain peaks; for whom the poet states, it would be a travesty to nest. The correlation between the fish and eagle is an unusual one, yet is a simple but profound metaphor for evolution of the human mind; presenting the Gandharva as an angel evolved from fish that once swam in the deep seas. This spirit, liberated through trials and tribulations that evoked a total surrender to the forces of life, epitomizes the essence of the energy which governs us. In the painting ‘I couldn’t fly without these Eagle wings’, Kohli implies that the wings are a garb, not a natural attribute. The angel seems to be clothed in a highly patterned but transparent costume that fits the body like skin, onto which the wings are awkwardly sewn, implying that an angel that needs these wings, is unaware of her powers to soar high in the sky.

‘The Magician’ conjures fantastic imagery. Chinese cloud forms, angels riding peacocks, Krishna riding alongside them, but isolated in separation by his elevated consciousness depicted by his containment within the cosmic womb. Through this the artist suggests that the difference is merely a state of mind. Be it Gandharava, Gopi, Krishna or artist, what separates is the level of evolution of the mind’s perception; for the physicality of the world and its environs remain the same. The female magician, arms outstretched seems to hold the cosmic womb in them but that is just an illusion. Look closer and it’s not yet within her reach. Dressed in a gaily patterned, flowing robe, with garlands in each hand she yearns to, but is grounded in another reality where ducks, stiff like wooden artefacts, create a dense atmosphere of obstacles for mermaids to swim through these waters, below which lies the Asvattha tree. Is the magician dancing in the physical plane that we know of? Has she transcended some, but not enough? What place is this where trees grow below water, where mermaids swim among wooden ducks? Is it just imaginary or did it really exist in the realm of the Vedas? Has Seema Kohli uncovered a world the ancients knew?

Thus the artist extols the viewer to question the veracity of her landscape, delve into its philosophical depths to uncover the mysteries of life that keep her fascinated with each day. Seema reveals that she awakens with a smile, looking forward to the challenges that will uncover yet another facet of being, taking her closer to her ‘Krishna’ waiting in the cosmic womb. She is separated yet by virtue of an incomplete knowing of the hymns of the Vedas, which can only be explored through the mundane realm of living on the physical plane. This is a powerful message. It reveals as it fascinates and through extraordinary imagery that compels us question, Seema Kolhi takes us on a dream-like journey of hope, re-colouring the dimensions of the mundane, exalting it by connecting lofty philosophical ideals with the everydayness of being.

Gopika NathJanuary 2009
[i] You are an eagle, go live high on those mountain peaks.
It would be a travesty indeed, to build yourself a nest.
[ii] om! hiranya garbha samvartaghraha bhutasya jata patirakeaseet, sadadhara prithveem dyamuttem kasmayee devayahavishavidhema
Yajurveda 13. 4[source: the artist]

[iii] Sribhagavan uvaca
Urdhvmulam adhahsakham ashvattham prahur auyayam
Chandamsi yasya parnani yas tam veda sa vedavit.

Bhagavad Gita XV.1
[The blessed lord said: they (the wise) speak of an eternal asvattha tree, with roots above and boughs beneath, whose leaves are Vedic Hymns. He who understands this tree of life is a Veda-knower.] from
God talks with Arjuna, The Bhagavad Gita by Sri Sri Pramahansa Yogananda, Vol. II published by Self Realization Fellowship 1999.

[iv] God talks with Arjuna, The Bhagavad Gita by Sri Sri Pramahansa Yogananda, Vol. II published by Self Realization Fellowship 1999 page 929.