Friday, 5 February 2010

A Mythical Universe, the Art of Jayashree Burman [Book Review]

Title: A Mythical Universe
Publisher: Art Alive Gallery, New Delhi
Year of Publication: 2010
Essays by: Ina Puri, Ashok Vajpayee and others
Price: Not mentioned
ISBN: 978-9\81-906463-0-7

Is the contemporary Indian woman really freed from the rituals and traditional values that are deeply etched in our psyche? Does she even want to be, is the question Jayshree’s water colours present.

To visually locate Burman’s lush but carelessly decorated watercolours in a milieu that is preoccupied with material things, concept art, installations and digital media, is virtually impossible for it has no recognizable icons that can. The randomly painted watercolour base and restless scratching of the ‘Rotring’ pen on a vibrantly coloured surface are indicative of the influence of the frenzy that has gripped the contemporary temperament but her art-making seems to afford a comfortable escape into another universe; where the artist does not have to acknowledge the chaos of today, but inhabits a world of memories.

The book that accompanied her exhibition at Lalit Kala Academy, ‘A Mythical Universe’, published by Art Alive Gallery has essays by Partha Mitter, Ina Puri, Ashok Vajpayi and Pritish Nandy. It is a lush publication with numerous images of Burman’s artistic oeuvre from the 1980’s to present and lends an opportunity to see her evolution as an artist. Contrary to what we encounter in her present work which draws heavily from a nostalgic world of traditional lore and icons of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, her earlier work is rooted in a modern, almost abstract idiom, where she works rather loosely with form. The present ideas started making their mark around 1997-98 and from 2002 they have formed the definitive style that is easily associated with Jayashree Burman.

Jayashree Burman’s lushly decorative imagery of Gods and goddesses do not really explore the contemporary physical world enough and therefore her painted visages appear as distant realities. She does acknowledge this environment but rather perfunctorily. Burman thus appears to be out of sync with the aesthetics that govern our everyday living, positioning her work as nostalgic exotica; holding onto a past that has long gone, virtually ignoring the fact that the tapestry of our world and its culture has changed and that she could examine these nuances more than she does.

The various writers have tried to eulogize and justify the traditional rooting without really contextualizing it in the present day context, which is disappointing. Ina Puri has presented Jayashree Burman, the woman behind the artist as a rather endearing picture of a Bengali woman evoking perhaps the much loved Banalata Sen, who has been immortalized through verse and Burman too has painted her in lush tones of green. Puri’s engagement with Burman the ‘Bengali bhadralok’ and the woman as mother, wife and divorcee, bring out personal details that help us engage with the subtler dialogue underlying the visual panorama. This is perhaps the richest essay in this large volume. Professor Partha Mitter has traced the beginnings of her “na├»ve decorative style” with that of the assertion of pioneering nationalist painters to protest the “naturalist academic”style disseminated by colonial art schools, citing her as a worthy successor to Abanindranath Tagore. Pritish Nandy on the other hand rather simplistically states that what makes Jayashree Burman’s art so special is that “she occupies a space she has created and patented as her own” which he defines as “her narration of popular mythologies in a secular idiom that’s achingly beautiful”. He reminds us that her art is not just about our past, our traditions, our mythologies, but also about today. However he does not explain this facet which is the core of Burman’s dialogue with herself - an attempt to reconcile the diverse worlds that frame her life today.