Thursday, 11 April 2013

A Misplaced Universe [ Review - Jayashree Burman, Gallery Art Alive]

Vibrant colours, exotic detail and a folk-art-like frontal faces whose large white flattened eyes looked directly at me, was how I encountered Jayashree Burman’s mythical universe at Lalit Kala Academy, presented by Art Alive Gallery. I decided to view the exhibition from top to bottom and was able to see her earlier work first, which allowed me to reflect on the extent to which Jayshree has explored the more western oriented ideas of modern art, towards a manifestation of her Bengali antecedents; searching for an idiom which will nuance her own peculiar identity within this. Ina Puri’s essay reveals that given the background she came from, Jayshree has led a rather unconventional life and in her own way is quietly spirited rather than meekly accepting the traditional ideals her family’s culture espoused.
Women in India’s metropolises may consider themselves emancipated for their assertion in breaking the glass ceiling in the corporate world, but is the Indian woman really freed from the rituals and tradition that are deeply etched in our psyche? Does she even want to be, is the question Jayshree’s water colours present.

She draws in situ while travelling; never takes photographs, confessing that she does not know how to. In her studio she then translates the people she has seen around her and drawn. They are people like you and me, her maid, the dhobi and panwalla or anyone else she encounters who become integral to her mythical universe, where she presents her everyday world, seen though the perspective of senses moulded through traditional lore and its iconography. I found this interesting for even if externally we have adopted the sensibilities of a western world through their steel and glass high rises, malls and a culture that is reminiscent of an industrial and a digital civilization, we have lived with these inherited God and Goddesses far longer than the brutal icons of our modern world - a reminder that those centuries of ritual are not that easy to erase.

However, the physical indicators of the contemporary world are missing. We do not see anything that immediately locates the work in this present era. If you look deeper you will see the relative freedom with which Burman interprets the Gods and Goddesses because she does not start out to paint one. The starting point could well have been a sister-in-law or a friend, but while working, the form becomes infused with notions that emerge from deep within her reservoir of memory and habit, evoking ideas reminiscent of idols and images that she grew up with. These are then presented through a visual language and technique that she has evolved and is comforted by. The loosely painted background is worked intricately, but again loosely with pen and ink and does not speak of the discipline or power and accomplishments of the inherited gods and goddesses that she represents. Here Jayashree is perhaps questioning this world versus ours where we pray to them as stone idols as opposed to respecting each other as manifestations of this spirit.

To visually locate Burman’s heavily decorated watercolours in an art milieu that is preoccupied with a material world, concept art, installations and digital media is virtually impossible. But scratch the surface and there are subtle resonances of this in the way she

 works. The randomly painted watercolour base and restless scratching of the ‘Rotring’ pen on the painted surface are indicative of the influence of a frenzy that has gripped us all. This leads to a perception that her art is an escape into a mythical universe where she does not have to acknowledge this, but can inhabit the world of memories, healing old wounds and reconciling with the enormous changes that have been forced upon us in a bid to compete with a world that does not have cognizance of this deeper spiritual connect.

The problem that I have with this imagery is that it is really not exploring the outer world enough and therefore is distanced from its realities, both physical and emotional. While she does acknowledge this rather perfunctorily, she appears to be out of sync with the aesthetics that govern our everyday living and inhabits a world of imagination almost as if it’s too much for her to bear. It is a personal choice, but one which positions her work more in terms of nostalgia for the exotic, a past that has long gone, rather than a tapestry of the exciting contemporary world. The culture and physical dimensions of life today have changed so much; does she not wish to explore these nuances at all?

Guy de Maupassant in commenting upon the imposing presence of the newly built Eiffel tower in Paris said that the best way to escape it was to get inside it. If she takes a leaf out of Maupassant’s book and plunges right into this teeming universe, throbbing with its own peculiar rhythm and dissonant harmonies, Jayanshree Burman may well find that the presently intimidating, rapidly transforming contemporary world is as vibrant and engaging as the nostalgic one she inhabits; discovering and revealing yet more facets of her spirited herself.