Feature by Barnali Nandy
The human form has been the ‘most’ enduring theme throughout the history of art. It has continued to be the recurrent focus of an artist's expression. We have travelled a long journey since man had first drawn human forms on rock faces and cave walls. Their depictions of human figure in its most simplistic and schematic way tell us the story of man’s thoughts behind the complexity of survival. Evidence suggests that they were not only drawn to communicate and express but also as a blue-print for the continuous struggle of their existence. From the pre-historic times and nomadic ways of living man has gradually evolved and adopted a more advanced system of livelihood. Hence the portrayal of human forms has undergone changes in the developments which made it the most enduring subject through the course of history.
We have witnessed in Indian art history, human figures represent ideology, philosophy and also its own greatness. In retrospect when we look back into the pages of the past, India’s first civilization – The Indus Valley Civilization - we find the powerful depictions of human form in the work of art. Their existence, culture and structure of society have in every way been reflected in the artifacts excavated. The expression of thoughts and beliefs were portrayed through the human forms for instance a masculine horn headed male figure with a fierce facial expression engraved on a seal, feminine beauty of a ‘Dancing Girl’ from Mohenjo-Daro, ‘Mother Goddess’ symbolizing fertility, bust of a ‘Priest-King’, a ‘male torso’ and many more. In addition to the reflection of socio-economic status of that time, adornment of human forms in context to its period has also played a significant role in the works of art. However, there are many things yet to be deciphered. Time has passed by and people have migrated from other parts of the world to India and made it their home. The culture and heritage brought along with them have merged with the existent like sugar mixed in milk.
Down the ages the dynasties were built and when overpowered by another, changed the political, social and economical condition of India and its people. The ‘post’ of an era has always opened a new way of seeing human body in the work of art. The amalgamation of the new and the existent was manifested through the physical beauty of the human forms. Post of a period art was applied to establish the political and cultural supremacy. The characterization of human figures was based on close observation of their provincial, colloquial and the local traits. The representation of human figure thus underwent a drastic transformation into a more innovative and contemporary adaption. In spite of encounter and counter of a time, an artist again and again painted the human figure with its inner and outer sensations.
At all times, corroborative presence of human figures in the work of art has been embodied with dreams, reality, fantasy, allegory, reasoning enquiry, passion, emotion, imagination, storytelling, visual representation and many more facets along with linguistic and arbitrary expression. In this debut exhibition of Crossway Art titled, ‘Human Forms: Most, Post & Beyond’, it is our endeavour to present the varied expressions of the artists, revolving around the human and his being through the journey of time and space. The pictorial language of human body, its thoughts, sensations and beliefs are the reflection of its environment which can be prominently seen through the changing perspective of old masters to the young. Needless to say, that the dissonance and harmony have always been an integral part in the art scenario.
Artists are always fascinated by images of women and represented the same as a metaphor of aesthetic beauty, persona, virtues, power, energy, source of creativity and freedom. Old master Abani Sen’s (1905-1972) portrayal of woman in her daily life was part of his many subjects. Sen’s journey through the period of Indian pre and post independence had been marked by his contribution to art in bringing out a change and break away from colonial academic thought process. He revived the vital elements of Indian tradition and developed his individualistic form of expression. Abani Sen was a member of ‘Calcutta Group’ but never bounded himself to any school of art. The eclectic articulation of female forms has been very prominent in the ‘Bather Series’ of 60s.
Mrinal Kanti Bardhan (1930–2010) in his series of ‘Untitled’ works depicted the female forms through tender lines and malleable colours in ambiguous surroundings. Bardhan’s selection of female body in soft pastel was a deliberate choice as he has said, “A woman I think has the ability to express the most complex and yet tender emotions with remarkable sincerity”. M K Bardhan was also known for his engagement in various art forms like illustrations, graphic design, mural paintings and designing of commemorative stamps commissioned by the government of India.
In the course of time, the image of female forms has been portrayed by the artists to emphasize gender politics, debating her social existence and co relating her inner and outer self. Anupam Sud’s valiant image of female body without any embellishment and attire is a representation of dialogues between the internal and external vibrations of her existence. Sud’s work titled ‘Loose Wires’ painted on canvas is one of her many expressions which shows the body with mass in an ambiguous background engrossed in her being. Sonia Rodrigue Sabharwal’s female forms are laid bare in much more complex layer of fragmented and overlapping images. Jai Zharotia’s works reveal the sexuality of a woman and the metaphoric representation of a flowering tree. The female body in a bold posture has been structured with textural surfaces and x-ray images in the ‘Untitled’ work of Zharotia.
A human narrating a story of human carries various modalities, his present environment, tradition, mythology and history. Almost all of us have foundness for telling and listening to stories and also seeing them. The very old oral tradition of storytelling has been continued through the narratives of jatakas tales, panchatantra stories, miniature paintings, folk and tribal art. The delineation of the sensory images in these forms of art was based on imagination, visual facts and visual selections. In the same way artists of present day make their pictorial language of narrating a story based on his perspectives and self orientation. Jai Zharotia in the ‘Untitled’ work has allegorically narrated a folk lore of woman transforming into a tree and man into an animal. The characterization of mythological figures in human form has been an inseparable component of narrative history. This intermingling modality of celestial being in form of human within nature is profoundly represented in the work of Jagadish Dey titled ‘Cosmic Symphony‘. Mimi Radhakrishnan in her works has interlaced the disposition of her parallel focus in writing and painting of stories. Her continuous process of playing with fantasy, memory, time and space has resulted in structured human forms within a descriptive background in a manner that it cultivates another world of reality. The constant shifts of a human between the world of dream and reality are palpably demonstrated in the ‘Untitled’ works of Sonia Rodrigues Sabharwal. Picturesque in a small format, the scattered and interwoven thoughts with static human expression stimulate a narrative of fused and fragmented images.
Painting of portraits is an imperative part of artistic expression. From earlier times portraits have been a source for immortality, whether portraits patronized by dynasties or royal court or portrait of a common man. The retinal correspondence of a person interlaced with his emotions, personality and even changing moods reflected through facial expression. Such characteristics are very prominent in the two portraits of Abani Sen made in the year 1945 and 1952 where he had completely surrendered himself to the response of the environment. Jagadish Dey in his works titled ‘Lady with Mask’ and portrait of ‘Couple’ strives for the intangible and concealed expression of the people. A portrait is also a human’s close view of itself. Pratul Dash in his series of small size works titled Has it anything to do with “Portraits“? has painted the self with trivial objects whose presence in today’s circumstances cannot be ignored. The incorporation of pigments and other materials on surface of paper have a contextual presence of cultural juxtaposition. Pratul’s selections of conscious imagery with its subconscious promptings are omnifarious and metropolitan in character.
Metamorphosis of human forms
The metamorphosis of pictorial depiction of human figure has somewhat evolved as an influence of cultural diversification. Our journey of survival has continued to be the main focus even in the contemporary scenario where we are constantly negotiating with the changes. The tension of our retinal correspondence, emotions, beliefs and needs of the society are influencing and manifesting a complex mixture in the process of existence. Advanced technology has flooded the information from all over the world to us by just a single press of a button. Our constant oscillation from one extreme to another has brought distortion in the pictorial depiction of human forms. As a result of urbanization, we are continuously dealing with the alienation and isolation. T M Azis’s two “Untitled” works are reflections of his search of identity. By applying layers of pigments on paper Azis develops the blurred and undefined images of a crowd where the identity of an individual is of no significance and remains covered. Avishek Sen’s work from a series titled ‘Honeymoon in the mountains alone series’ delineates another visual of isolation through the inter relationship between fruits, body parts, animal and sexuality. The human thoughts behind the continuous struggle for survival has prevailed since pre-historic times but in today’s world of identity crisis, idiosyncrasy and solitude drive the artist’s consciousness and concern to express socio-political message through his work of art. Murali Cheeroth’s ‘Untitled’ oil on canvas pictorially defines the hybrid of an animal and similarly in the bird with just a hint of human presence visible behind the window. In another ‘Untitled’ work, Murali without depicting distinct forms of human has made an apparent presence of its being through the image of a cosmopolitan city with towering buildings on a piece of land suspended in the space.
To conclude we can say that the making of human forms by a human being has given us an inimitable reflection of the array of time, place and perception through the work of art. Standing in the twenty first century with a vast and varied history of India and of the world, we have become more conscious of our existence in the milieu of globalisation. Needless to say, artists have relentlessly communicated their deep experience of being not only to state to the world but also to express his or her very intimate sensitivity. Subsequently, the contextual evidence in the work of an artist is the result of his personal orientation and indication of a period. This multifarious representation of human body by the artists from past to present reveals the pattern and reinterpretation with time & its journey ‘beyond’.
(This essay appeared in the catalogue for Crossway Art’s exhibition titled Human Forms: Most, Post & Beyond curated by Barnali Nandy. The exhibition was held at Arpana Art Gallery, Academy of Fine Arts & Literature, New Delhi between November 2-9, 2012)