The magical is never without a vein of riveting darkness. Everything impossible in the practical, everyday world, whether divine or diabolical, may ignite the fevered imagination; lurk as imminent, as palpable, in its subterranean recesses. Which is why the creative impulse it generates thrives Between Darkness and Magic. That is what CIMA’s current exhibition, on till January 5, is called, with a tag line that explains it all: Examining the Kerala Metaphor. Because it features works by 35 Kerala artists representing, as the catalogue reminds us, four generations, beginning with K.C.S. Paniker (1911-1977).
It does seem that Kerala’s geography — the long coastline that invited overseas trade rather than invasion and led to cultural plurality, the backwaters and the lush landscape, and its distance from the Aryan heartland — conspired to preserve a distinct identity of the region. That could be why, looking at this art, the viewer may sense a disorienting, yet exhilarating strangeness at times that can refresh the eye jaded by an overload of déjà vu.
The show starts with the redoubtable Paniker, represented here by two digital prints of oils from his mature phase with unformed scrawls, gauche lines and enigmatic marks that recall ritual motifs. And he is quite at home among contemporary artists. As is another stalwart, K.G. Subramanyan, with whom the Calcutta cognoscenti are more familiar.
But the eye is irresistibly drawn to Ajaykumar’s imposing work, the magic and darkness of which come as much from its arch allusions as from the teasing strangeness of its imagery. He calls it, after Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, once the bible of laissez-faire economy, but places Ramkinkar Baij’s iconic Santhal Family in an unnaturally bright sea. The suggestion of a doomed migration for the deprived during a boom is inescapable, even as the labyrinthine architecture of scrambled planes and perspectives on the harbour insinuates disintegration. Displacement and migration are the story in K. Sudheesh’s paradise (picture) of sentient fecundity too, which seems to have a toxic underbelly that subverts the deceptive idyll as you see a line of living beings, human and animal, moving in one direction with their loads, migrating, uprooted...
As unsettling is Bhagyanath C.’s mix of magic and menace in Trespassers will be Prosecuted. The foreground terrain of dark, unfathomed depths, interspersed with a somewhat fetid lushness, is a surreal haunt. But the human activity beyond, the construction of buildings and the beckoning line of ships and smoke stacks appear seductively unreal too, steeped in a subconscious spell. Bahulyan C.B. goes one step further with a chilling image of apocalyptic holocaust where thick, festering moss spreads like a gangrenous infection over a vast, devastated land and mutilated machinery.
The devastation in Sanam C.N.’s landscape is more sinister because less apparent, as its shrunken trees, enigmatic devices and a red gash across a hillside evoke a fascinatingly ominous miasma. If Sunil Ashokapuram’s scaly, bleeding branches are an environmental indictment, Shruti E.V.’s acrylic of stark contrasts and bare-bones simplification conveys a tense alarm. And, with a dense weave of dots, cross-hatches, fine strokes and scribbles in black ink and watercolour that leave sinuous slivers of white, Bara Bhaskaran calls up a mesmeric world of dark, wild, tangles of shoots, vines and tree trunks, the insidious eroticism of which deepens the mystery.
Manu Binny George’s serene, captivating fantasy is jolted by visual asides of grim import. Two more naturescapes are poised at the dialectical crossroads of the magical and the menacing. One, by Ponmani Thomas, is a seductive maze of vertical divisions, illusory depths, cascades of stippling and layered colours. The other, by A.S. Sajith, echoes Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, only to turn it on its head with frantic, horizontal, subtly inflected strokes that make the scene disturbingly infernal. And Shijo Jacob’s Alone is as striking in its depiction of a road clogged with grey vehicles as in its tone of squinting irony.
But Babu Xavier’s landscape of heady variations, playful perspectives and improbable colours, Atmaja Manidas’ delicate brushwork and muted palette, and Madhu V.’s quaint basket of what are, apparently, cocoons, promise delight. Kerala’s tradition of story illustrations and cartoons is represented by Vasudevan Namboodiri’s spry, wry sketches, K. Shereef’s treatment of themes and Abdul Saleem’s distortions. Manoj Vyloor’s craft and cinematic composition, Rimzon’s childlike vision, Sumedh Rajendran’s stainless steel sculpture, sooty at the edges, and Gigi Scaria’s video are works to watch out for. But what could be deemed something of a show-stealer is P.S. Jalaja’s intriguing watercolour with its mammoth crowd simmering with visceral anger. Anticipating the nation’s mood, perhaps?