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AS SEDUCTIVE AS DARK CHOCOLATE

Any initiative to “promote excellence in (the) creative arts in India and South East Asia” as Matrix International Centre of Excellence promises, is certainly welcome. The problem with excellence, however, is its elusive parameters, growing fuzzier by the day, as art itself is being redefined. But then hyperbole, perhaps, is quite becoming in its new zeal, and asks to be indulged. And so, Mice’s start-up, Galleria M, opened recently with a show of 16 contemporary artists called, well, Existential Explorations. But the visitor who simply explored the works on view instead of fretting over their existential ruminations found much to enjoy and engage with, in spite of the overcrowding.

To begin with Ushmita Sahu. Her acrylic and graphite on paper works came from a series called Columns of Light, Homage to Louis Kahn (picture). The name indicated how her language has been shaped to an extent by architecture, particularly by the way Kahn counterpointed circular hollows with rectangular solids. Sahu was described in the exhibition brochure as a “metaphysical cartographer”. Despite its jargonistic ring, you could see that she wished to investigate the nature of space. To anchor its vertiginous elusiveness with lines, measure its impossible lightness with floating impasto colour masses, balance stillness with movement.

Dharitri Boro’s existential explorations resulted in a work titled Monologue. Its wooden boxes had lids sporting self-assertions in sentences beginning with “I”: I believe, I feel, I desire and so forth. That simple artifice shrank all human perception into the solipsistic confines of individual minds which called into question the basis of objective reality. But Sankha Banerjee’s Dark Chocolate Democracy Book was as seductive as dark chocolate and as rumbustious as Indian democracy. Its potpourri of inputs — cut-outs, pop-up figures, spry watercolour and ink sketches, digital prints, Battala images, tracing paper, script — set off a cunning tangle of references that ranged from the adult sense of political rhetoric to the sublime nonsense of children’s fantasy. What spiked it with fun was the headily chaotic layout that didn’t allow a pattern to set in.

But the artist at the other end of the spectrum was Surajit Biswas with his abstraction. He preferred just one medium — pen and ink — and one pattern — tiny, interlinked chains. And with that he wove topographies of dense mesh with a painstaking, focused, Zen concentration. Their subtle variations evoked geological maps, movement and a churning of erratic little surges. And, in one drawing, thumb prints. A final-year student with this kind of mature reticence needs to be watched.

If Jayshree Basak’s lively vocabulary was crafted with a mix of etching, viscosity and kantha stitches, Mahjabin Majumdar seemed too emotionally charged in Slow Lament in which the private identity of the individual was seen as trapped in its agony within the identity imposed by society: that of a woman. On the other hand, Pampa Panwar combined sand with acrylic to affirm the importance of texture and the participation of Nature in her landscape. Its dark shades, spare geometry and row of boats — used as a metaphor for the last journey — brought to it a thoughtful poise. While Nature’s self-renewal was celebrated by Nobina Gupta in Anant I, Chandra Bhattacharjee’s photographic brushwork was wasted on a sucrose image. But Amitesh Shrivastava’s ink drawings were striking as much for their intriguing blend of the organic and the mechanical as for their bare-bones gauntness.

Moutushi Chakraborty and Arpan Mukherjee exploited a versatile medium — photography — to tease out atmospheric nuances. Chakraborty’s screen printing technique muted outlines and definition to achieve a period fragility. Mukherjee was more adventurous in his ambrotype, composing frames of eloquent details.

Sculptor Debajit Chakraborty went from smirks in Fountain to a wryly grim depiction of Mahakal as a dark bust with bloodied lips possibly ready to swallow finite life. By contrast, Pradeep Patra got too carried away by the given theme, and chose imagery of overwrought human suffering. Suffering was handled quite differently by Prasanta Sahu in his elaborate Homage to an Unknown Soldier. Its suggestions of power structures, violence and political gamesmanship in which pawns are sacrificed was symbolized by the prosthetic limb and treated with an aloof, surgical tone, drained of sentimentalism. And Pankaj Panwar’s bronze sculpture picked out with an ironic banter what’s both an everyday scene and an advertisement ideal for the family yet to move up the consumerist scale to a car. While the headlight of Hamara Bajaj Chetak lit the path to a bright future, what trailed behind were toxic fumes. The fine print of the development narrative, perhaps?