Shades of copper in the darkness

High up from a first floor balcony of the Victoria Memorial there cascades down a long, voluminous column of cloth: a soiled white that turns the red of fresh blood at the two ends. Those looking for symbolism would see purity defiled and bleeding. An ironical dimension unfolds in the context of Bengal, the region of goddess-worshippers: the fabric recalls the red-bordered white sari Hindu women wear when performing rituals. There's another plunging, 60 ft x 30 ft white and red drapery inside, speckled as though with blood, a hand struggling out from under its ripples and folds.

Red and white are the theme colours that the Swiss artist, Franziska Greber, drenches you in as she gives a wrenchingly, achingly, despairingly intense visual articulation to Voices of Courage and Sorrow when Women in the Dark Speak Out, in a show of three installations organized by the women's help group, Swayam, and Victoria Memorial.

Who are these women in the dark? Those anonymous bravehearts who refused to remain pawns of patriarchy. As birth and death are stark realities of life so are different forms of violence against women, says one of them. They use four languages - Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and English - but, in fact, speak with the same tongue: of defiance in the face of social pressure as they turn around from the brink to tear away the dark veil of subservience and secrecy that allows abuse to thrive.

Their testament is written in red or maroon on 216 white dupattas stitched into one giant screen fixed to a wooden structure. Commanding the hall from one end to the other, it surges up like a towering tsunami, its hood arching forward as though about to crash and destroy a social order hoisted on entrenched power hierarchies. Water, both purifying and punishing, is Greber's insistent, inspired metaphor. What's weightless on your palm turns into a killer force in full spate. A lone whimper is scorned, ignored, throttled; but when all of womankind joins in, the decibel can swell to an earth-shattering bang.

From Greber's emotive red to Ashok Bhowmik's primordial blacks and umbrae of greys at the Academy of Fine Arts is a shift in parameters. As you confront largish canvases lined up like broad panels along three walls, there's a disorienting sense of trespassing into the uncharted depths of the artist's collective unconscious as it were, with its palimpsest of inherited memories leaving unfathomed residues to dredge.

That, perhaps, is why the show is titled Embodied Black: dense black does take on impenetrable body, saturated with atavistic myths and mysteries about birth, death, dreams, space. Bhowmik's scribbly lines of raw, haywire, vibrating energy and urgency and the gaunt, garbled, skeletal forms in his imagery often echo parietal art. Besides, a butterfly here, skulls and bones there, reduced to fleshless brittleness, approximate fossil remains.

There's also a large, tensely poised horse, its forelegs missing, which makes you wonder whether the artist isn't slyly referring to Beuys as well. Because, elsewhere, an ontological play is on, prodding strange creatures to mutate into mechanical structures. Is there also, then, a hint of macabre wit here? That, too, would be black. Quite deadpan black.

The third show under review also takes you back in time: Biblical content, presented in a captivating brew of mannered, medieval figuration in epic Brueghel settings, pickled by a surrealist imagination, and bathed in tones of burnished copper. There's thus a distinctly European - and sumptuously period - flavour to Milburn Cherian's art. Heaving multitudes, countless rivetting details, strange architectural structures and the subtle weave of space are handled with bravura finesse. And that now demands more: contemporary themes, corrosive comments.


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