Monday, 30th October 2017

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By Somak Ghoshal
  • Published 13.12.08

The problem of art and its afterlife is endlessly fascinating. At a basic level, all that it involves is, simply, the chance of living on beyond the mortal creator. But more intriguing than this enduring quality is another destiny, which befalls the work of art as soon it is completed — as in the final lines of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, when Lily Briscoe, the painter, realizes that she has had her “vision”. The creator may justly have the last word, but still the ownership of the work remains notional, never absolute. Once completed, demands of exclusive ownership must be relinquished; it is then time to let go and release the work into the world.

The latest exhibition at CIMA gallery reflects on the visual destiny of five seminal works of modern art (ReVIEW, till January 24). The gallery, which turns 15 this year, has invited 15 artists to respond to these iconic pieces (four of them by Indians and one by an European) that have redefined the history of the eye in the 20th century. Chronologically, these are: Abanindranath Tagore’s Bharatmata (1905), Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), Ramkinkar Baij’s The Santhal Family (1938), Maqbool Fida Husain’s Zameen (1955) and Bhupen Khakhar’s Man with a Bouquet of Plastic Flowers (1976). Each respondent is rooted in distinctive styles, sensibilities, academic training and cultural traditions. At least four of them have been to M.S. University, Baroda, five to Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan, and two have imbibed the best of both these worlds. Paresh Maity and Jogen Chowdhury are two notable exceptions, as are Mayank Kumar Shyam and Swarna Chitrakar, coming out of rural, indigenous folk traditions.

Despite their profoundly quirky responses, it is evident that all the artists have shared affinities — of varying emotional intensity — with their chosen images. In Chowdhury’s inspired revisiting of Guernica, in his drawings entitled, The Song of the Night of Lost Sleep, there is an affective kinship with Picasso’s vision of the pity of war, whereas Sumitro Basak’s take on Bharatmata is more cerebral, sparkling with the glint of a sharp humour.

Bhupen Khakhar’s enigmatic figure with the plastic flowers brings out the most sophisticated responses. Instead of staying with the modulated orange-yellow, Partha Pratim Deb has chosen intense red as his base colour. The icy gaze and the stiffened lips of Khakhar’s protagonist dissolve into a coy refusal to meet the eye of the viewers and the hint of a smile in Deb’s trouser-clad character. If Khakhar’s man is tautly holding something back, Deb’s counterpart is a bashfully photogenic dandy posing languorously for a shoot. The curling lines in the backdrop look like curtains rolled up behind a stage. This lends to Deb’s interpretation a theatricality that exceeds the everyday drama of the original. There is a scripted elegance in Deb’s work that smoothens the rough edges, the graceful imperfections of Khakhar’s world.

Abir Karmakar’s ingenious self-portrait holding a bouquet captures the brooding irony of Khakhar’s homoerotic montages (picture, below). In Farhad Hussain’s brilliant colours, the subdued and solemn aura of Plastic Flowers erupts into pure carnivalesque, with a frolicking elf, impish women, a flying dog and a grinning goat. Mithu Sen breaks the down the sequential tableaux vivants Khakhar adapted from Lorenzetti and Brueghel. Her series shows wilting flowers, blossoming phalluses and a one-legged superhero.

Guernica has inspired the most ambitious works. Paresh Maity reinvents this classic from Picasso’s grey period in shimmering yellow. The sense of things falling apart pervades the diptych by Samit Das. But the most magnificent and forceful response comes from Jogen Chowdhury, who starts off with the menacing minotaurs and the contorted Daliesque faces from Picasso, focusing on each vignette from the original, frame by frame, before bursting out with a set of 21 detailed portraits that look like grotesque death-masks. This macabre display becomes a kind of self-assessment for Chowdhury, an artist’s reflection on Picasso’s pervasive, almost effortless, presence in his body of work.

Husain’s mural, Zameen, is the source of an extraordinary image, Mayank Kumar Shyam’s pen-and-ink drawing in the Gondi style from Madhya Pradesh (picture, above). If Husain strikes a delicate balance between local and global idioms, then Shyam’s response is unapologetically, movingly, native. Santosh More, in Detroped Dividers, intersperses clips from Do Bigha Zameen with robotic moving images in a laboured manner. Just as Alok Bal’s allegory, after Shyam’s touching candour, appears to be a bit affected.

Debraj Goswami puts a tractor in his reworking of Ramkinkar’s migrating santhal family to suggest the relation between land and migration. Interesting as it may be, the idea is quite obvious. There is a frenzy in Kingshuk Sarkar’s exploration of uprootedness, true to the pathos of Baij’s original. Rashmi Bagchi Sarkar’s Bharatmata is a woman wading through a sea of flames. In Swarna Chitrakar’s pat, she is a goddess of fertility and a national emblem. Sumitro Basak provides a sly counterpoint to this glowing sentimentality in the kitschy calendar of Bharatmata Variety Stores. With self-deprecating humour, he draws a cartoon of himself on December 12, marking it out as Sumitro Jayanti.