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ROBUST COMPASSION

Visual Arts

Retrospectives of senior artists provide good opportunities to get acquainted with their oeuvres ó from the first forays to the masterís splendour, right up to frugal late outpourings ó one sees them all. Rabin Mondalís recent retrospective at the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, however, showed that even at 83, Mondal is passionately reinventing himself. Of course, the old anger at human callousness and corruption is there. The anguish of the 1940sí famines and riots and the artistís struggle with despair, isolation and human decrepitude are still the forces behind his works. This is why he has added to his 1980sí Orgy series ó tableaux of castrated hopes and defunct human relationships.

But in the other works from the 2000s there seems to be a subtle shift, a mellowing if you will, but one that makes for more depth and beauty. According to the artist, Protest (a largish oil) has links with the nude protest march by Manipuri women. But instead of wild anger we sense the womenís pride, cold and steady like a blue flame. Perhaps itís the blue-green colour used by the artist or the sardonic smile on the womenís faces that puts this in mind. And because this is a protest at many levels, the women are beautiful, strong, robust and confident as they stand linked to one another like a phalanx.

In the past, Mondal has often presented women as primitive deities, iconic nudes of ancient cults, bestial and often ferocious. Like his male figures, they have appeared in painting after painting as dehumanized forms ó distorted, gnarled and furrowed vessels of human suffering. At times they took on animal characteristics ó as with the frog-like Old Empress I (1978) whose squat ugliness and unbearably crafty smile made her corruption personified.

The small oil, Queen I, done in 2007, however is different. Here too is a primitive figure with a prominent pudenda but the look on the face, the long pleated drape round her shoulders are all dealt with compassion. The Deity of 2011 is a smiling one, wrapped in shimmery white. It is as if the artist is now ready to treat them as individuals. In Envious Soul (2008, picture), the clothed figure seems to represent the eternal human anguish for more. The red ribbon-like line in the background and the barely visible crown on her head are clues to her envy. One is left wondering whether the crown is something she dreams of or something only recently erased.

The mood differs in Victim of Gambling, Composition with three women and a bird, and Templescape, with its dream of religious tolerance. The combination of colours and textures in the new paintings also seemed richer and more varied.