Samuel Davis (1760-1819) isn’t as well known as the Daniells or Hodges or Zoffany. But this adventurer of many talents was “a pioneer in the field of Himalayan landscape painting”, according to the curator’s note that the Victoria Memorial printed when it recently hosted, from its own collection of 88 works, a show of 32 watercolours most of which could be labelled landscapes.
Like numerous Europeans of his day, Davis, arriving in 1780, sought his fortune in the centrifugal churning of 18th-century India. His career of 26 years here as a soldier, surveyor, administrator, justice of the peace and, eventually, a director of the East India Company on his return to London reminds one of the crazy rise of Clive. It reveals how the disintegration of the Mughal system triggered endless conflicts that facilitated European intervention to fill the political vacuum and help Company servants become “nabobs”.
Lack of infrastructure laid travels open to risks, particularly in hilly tracts like Bhutan where Davis went with a Company team that aimed to access Tibet commercially, and which demanded a pioneering spirit in the members. Davis did not get permission to enter Tibet. But Bhutan inspired many of the skilled amateur’s watercolours. The work to cite is View of the Castle of Poonaka, which was the summer residence of the Raja of Bhutan. You see a dzong, dwarfed by the majestic heights, nestling in a river valley that, says the note, is on the Bhutan-Tibet border. Its atmosphere of unchanging calm, touched by a vulnerable desolation that both draws and daunts the viewer.
A delicate brush and muted tones record scenes with photographic fidelity. Many of them are, not surprisingly, of pre-Partition Bengal — which included Bihar and Orissa — while UP and places in south India figure in his gallery also. Most are untitled, which suggests that Davis possibly fancied himself neither as a creator of memorable art nor as a chronicler with pretensions to immortality but as an ambitious man willing to use his gift for both work and pleasure.
Dramatic rock faces and waterfalls (View of a Balistick Rock, Mootee Jhurna, picture); Islamic architecture, like an imposing darwaza (A Tomb in Ruins) or the curvilinear shikara of a temple (Principal Pagoda at Eastern Indian Temple); the stately Government House possibly in Madras, perched atop an incline in splendid isolation with sepoys stationed below among thatched huts or a street scene in Chandernagore where a local holds an umbrella over a sahib’s head evoke the placid — even idyllic — rhythm of days long gone. And that lends nostalgic charm to the paintings.
But, of course, the idyllic was more apparent than real. Certainly, as history tells us, all wasn’t what it seemed in pictures then. And now? When even the apparent isn’t okay and won’t delude you into imagining it is? Which naturally bothers contemporary youth as it does sculptor and video artist Suman Kabiraj. But what could he mean by calling his recent show at Gallery K2 All is Not What it Seems when things indeed seem as bad as they are? Perhaps there’s still his youthful naďveté that hopes people couldn’t be so cynical as to see what’s ugly and not do anything about it.
So he wishes to throw the ugly at you to make you see it. Not surprisingly, therefore, the dominant image was of two coarse, heavy pugilistic fibreglass figures — latterday “apeneck Sweeneys” perhaps? — confronting each other, poised to attack. This figure surfaced in his pen sketches as well. Several of them hunched like frogs, long tongue shooting out to pluck people from a queue — for aren’t people insects to exploiters? — or grappling with each other rather slothfully.
That it’s more angst than anger that motivates Kabiraj is seen in the way he repeatedly quoted images from Guernica. Yet when pressure cooker emotions roil, they hiss out acid, not despair. But then, ordinary people must contend with a pressure cooker existence or turn into garbage to be trampled upon, he seemed to say. A recurring motif of pincers reminded you of the ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’ dilemmas people face all the time here, particularly during elections.
Kabiraj’s facility for line drawing allowed a play of tangled symbols of power and authority — like armed but faceless soldiers, flaming or speech-spitting mouths, flags, chairs, and so forth — to scream out a youthful critique of society which seemed to be summarized by an obscene street gesture. But, yawn, could anybody still be shocked? So many years after Dada? And daily media reports?