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Om is where the art is

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The Telegraph Online   |   Published 20.06.04, 12:00 AM

From early recognition to instant oblivion to artistic hibernation to a cutting-edge landing — Anil Revri is a portrait of an artist as a devotee. To his isht devi who appears and disappears, giving him visions of beauty and realisation while he feverishly documents his inner journey on paper with the meticulousness of a scientist.

The intensely contemplative work draws you in, the eye travelling to deeper spaces created with mathematical precision into another reality. He is being called a “transmodern” painter, someone who combines today’s fixation with material and science with spiritualism. Someone whose art is new and in time to reflect the cultural changes evident in the 21st century. Someone who has gone beyond the art world’s self-referential mode to explore the cosmic order.

A tall order? Not for a man who seems sure of himself even in his earliest memories. He begins with the bindu or dot and soon it starts connecting spaces and lines, on paper and in his mind. The Gayatri Mantra plays constantly as Revri goes into a trance-like state and “at that moment, introspection occurs”. It is nothing more than trying to mirror ‘Om’ or the universal sound, he says. “Each piece is a Tantric journey. It is on the edge of sanity and insanity,” he says easily, expecting others to grasp his reality with the same fluidity.

Many viewers, struck by his work, feel they are being pulled magnetically into the paintings, as it were, and later to their own inner spaces. “This reality doesn’t stop, only the duration of our attention does. This is new,” declares J.W. Mahoney, a respected art critic and independent curator.

Consequently, Revri finds himself in the midst of some serious attention. American attention. Finally. After two decades of trying to create and survive in the American art world, a world known to be decidedly difficult even for the domestic crop, leave alone foreign implants, he is being recognised.

“Anil Revri’s elegant and subtle geometric abstractions are visual poems that induce contemplation. At once sensual and serene, they resonate in the inner and outer worlds of the viewers,” says Eric Denker, the curator of prints and drawings at the Corcoran, where Revri’s solo show opened this month. It is the first one-man show of an Indian artist by a major American museum, a triumph that took long years to make. Revri doesn’t want to “bitch and moan” about the hard times when he felt his creative juices scorched by gallery owners who politely declined to show his work because he didn’t fit a ready slot.

So when last week the beautiful and the powerful glided across the historic lobby of Washington’s oldest art museum to celebrate the opening of his solo exhibition, Revri had reason to smile. A pianist played on the side, women in short black dresses dotted the crowd and wine sparkled along with the diamonds. The Corcoran Museum was buzzing with the smart set, including some well-heeled, art-collecting NRIs who had all come for ‘Search of Self: Paintings and Drawings by Anil Revri’.

Sundaram Tagore, executive director of New York’s Sundaram Tagore Gallery, came to mark the occasion as did Natwar Bhavsar, the only other Indian artist to be recognised by mainstream America. “Anil’s work is powerful and it straddles both realities — his Indian ethnicity and American identity. His work is very relevant because he is creating a dialogue between people,” Tagore said.

The collection of nearly 40 works was created between 1996 and 2004, a period when Revri perfected his style and overcame his inhibition to speak frankly about what fires his artistic spirit. “Now I am emboldened to say that Tantric philosophy inspires me,” something he couldn’t say a decade ago and be taken seriously. It would be dismissed as eastern mumbo jumbo, or worse, he would be dismissed as some exotic peddler of ancient wisdom designed for the California crowd.

Talking of Tantric journeys mixed with a healthy dose of Pink Floyd and yes, Carlos Castaneda and Jungian analysis of the subconscious comes easily to the 48-year-old Revri. He is fascinated by psychotherapy. It is the spiritual overlay in Revri’s work that is being called transmodern, the new “ism” coined for the new century.

In short, transmodernism is a synthesis of the personal into the social and political and it integrates the values of traditionalism and modernism, combining the noisy, incoherent and fragmented reality of contemporary life with the whole. It means a connection with nature, with others and with the philosophies of the East and West. Transmodernism is supposed to give hope because in fragmentation lies despair for many.

The great merging doesn’t mean that Revri’s work is any less Indian. As art historian William Kloss says, the artist’s “taproots” remain in India and he “draws primary inspiration from that remembered and often revisited landscape. The vivid cultural particularities of India are of great importance to him.”

Revri’s vocabulary says it all. He calls each painting a “meditation,“ which helps him achieve calm. He tries to portray the “interplay of cosmic sexuality” working with the bindu (the male principle) and the mandala of the canvas (the female receptacle). He thinks he has seen his deity, felt her presence. “The deity is at the centre and I acknowledge her omnipotence,” he says. But there are no outward signs of worship in his apartment.

He rises at dawn to work and aided by cigarettes and coffee, continues for several hours. “I have been a loner all my life but whatever I did I wanted to reach the pinnacle,” he says sitting in his surprisingly clean studio apartment. No twisted tubes of paint, no dirty rags on the floor, only a neat stack of metallic pens and pencils. Books and CDs are carefully arranged along the wall. Order is key to the execution of Revri’s art. He desires a perfect pitch, a specific sur for each painting, he says. In his series Cultural Crossings, which took him more than three years to complete, he explores that same order in six major religions, capturing the essence through symbolism and actual text.

Described as “gripping” and “dangerously exquisite work”, each religion comes across as equally important and equally valid as a means to an end. The delicate detail rendered in gold and silver pigment is comparable to the finest miniature artists of the past. The paintings invited much comment when they were first exhibited in December 2001, a few months after the 9/11 attacks.

Some saw the message of inclusion as a desperately needed balm against the demonisation of Muslims, others saw a celebration of shared history. Revri’s partner is Nuzhat Sultan, a Pakistani American, whom he calls a “miraculous friend”.

In Veiled Doorways, an oil on canvas, the lines create entrances to more spaces through a weaving of diagonal lines. They converge and then diverge through the centre holding within them possibilities of infinity. He calls his paintings “variations of the same raga” bearing a certain psychological rhythm. The rhythms were apparent early when he instinctively knew he couldn’t live without painting.

Revri grew up in a family of artists and musicians, surrounded by old Lahoris who found themselves in Delhi after the Partition. His mother Rekha Revri was a Bharatnatyam dancer and his grandfather played the tabla. The home of his stepfather, journalist Inder Malhotra, was filled with eminent artists and thinkers. He remembers being around Indrani Rehman, Satish Gujral, Krishna Khanna, Amar Nath Sehgal and Mohan Rakesh — a bonfire of inspiration. He went to the J.J. School of Art but dropped out in the final year to return later. Already restless and thirsting to prove himself, he showed his slides to the Jehangir Art Gallery and won his first one-man show at the age of 20. He lit the scene with his abstract landscapes created with an “oil drip” technique he developed. The Times of India critic, Gyaneshwar Nadkarni, said Revri began where Gaitonde had left off. He was called “a painter’s painter”.

Heady stuff for a young man. By the age of 26, he had many solo shows in India, the Netherlands and France and was making a living from art — a rare claim those days. “There was no place to go after that. I was a big fish in the Indian pond but the challenge was to be a non-entity in a very, very large world,” he says flatly, a statement that may seem arrogant or merely factual depending on one’s perspective.

So he landed in New York in 1982 with $500 in his pocket after the dean of the Parsons School of Design invited him. Revri soon discovered there was no financial aid. Polite rejections followed. “It wasn’t anything personal against me. That’s how it was,” he says.

He did every kind of design — graphic, textile, set — to make ends meet. There was a failed marriage to an American, a daughter he tried to bring up. The absence of painting seemed to exhaust him even further. In the turmoil, he went back to India simply to paint and participated in the 1985 Festival of India show in SoHo.

The next few years were sparse. Some wondered if he had squandered his early intensity by being away from India and all that excited him. By now he had spent an entire decade in America with little success. He decided to move to Washington in 1992 but discovered that the oil drip technique wasn’t working in the humid climate. What was baked in a day in the Indian sun refused to get hard, robbing him of his texture. He had to reinvent himself. He began using overlapping opaque enamel colours to create the texture. He reconnected with the art community and participated in group shows. This time it worked.

Soon a critic was comparing him to Mark Rothko, one of the founders of abstract expressionist art. Today Revri’s success is being celebrated as yet another invaluable contribution to American society by the Indian diaspora. He may have taken a long detour but he re-anchored himself — on the cutting edge.

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