Mirages become indistinguishable from reality in Indrapramit Roy’s current exhibition of watercolours, Liminal Zone (up to December 15), at Galerie 88. Roy, who is Baroda-based, is originally from this city and is holding an exhibition here after 18 years. His paintings depict urban spaces where not a soul is visible but where human presence is apparent in the built environment as well as in the artificial lighting, some, of the decorative kind. There is something quite theatrical about Roy’s current body of work although what he depicts, from streets just before twilight darkens into evening, a mall, a sea set against a city skyline, the roof of a huge factory lit with rows of light, a garden seen through a venetian blind and myriad fairy lights blinking like glow worms, to dawn breaking over a desert town could not have been more familiar to most city-bred people.
When something as deceptively familiar as one’s own room looks ever-so-slightly different, it can have an unsettling effect. That can be caused in part by a dramatic change in lighting, and also in one’s point of view, as in the paintings of the American artist, Edward Hopper. The surreal strangeness of defamiliarized reality is at the core of Roy’s work. Roy, who studied printmaking at Visva-Bharati and painting at M.S. University in Baroda, was most surely influenced by Gaganendranath Tagore as well. Rabindranath’s nephew had experimented with cubism in his watercolours in which the interplay of light, shadows and darkness adds to their fascination.
Roy shows a similar interest in the layout of the desert town, which follows a severe geometric template accentuated by the cold light of dawn. Structural design comes to the fore in the looming, angular mass of the mall, the jalousied window through which a tree is visible, the play with rectangles in the views of the gallery, and the splintered image of the studio and its multiple reflections on glass surfaces.
It is light that gives an illusory quality to Roy’s paintings. At first glance, two of his paintings look like straightforward copies of photographs, some of them slightly out of focus like those video shots in which the background is reduced to myriad blobs as the camera ogles at a particular object. Roy’s image in its entirety is dotted with blobs and amorphous dots of light like a host of fireflies against a dark backdrop that carries suggestions of the branches of trees. There is an element of uncertainty in these two paintings which photographs do not possess as there is a feeling that the focus may sharpen any moment and the dancing lights will turn into tiny electric lamps, instantly shattering the illusion. Or, the view may become more diffused and turn into a blur. The artist seems to have stolen a few fleeting moments from infinity and frozen them. The paintings exist in a twilight zone between the real and the imagined.
This feeling is even more apparent in the picture of street lights coming up as darkness gathers and the sky becomes red. The grey apartment blocks and the circle of dark trees at the centre of the composition are defined by the street lamps that come to life as the shadows swallow the entire scene save for the lights. In El Paso, the distant lights of a Mexican border town are observed through the fronds of cacti like dark green flames reaching out to the indigo sky. Here too there is a strong feeling of reality thinning out and dissipating any moment. It is this quality of instability that makes Roy’s work so different from photographs.
Light in its various intensities does this trick. The factory roof with lights hanging from it could be a runway standing on its head. The angular façade of the mall is in semi-darkness while a string of bulbs holds the branches of a tree in its serpentine embrace. In the grey dawn, the desert town is alive with a thousand flickering lights glowing in that grey moment between day and night. In the morning light, the same scene is dominated by jagged edges — the walls of innumerable dwellings. This could be straight out of a scene painted by Gaganendranath Tagore.
The shifting planes of warm light, darkness, shadows and reflections, illusion and reality, come into full play in Roy’s various depictions of the gallery at night and the studio by day, where each plane leaks into the other. The line that separates mirage from reality dissolves in Roy’s work.