By Susie Tharu
In My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk’s novel about Persian miniature painting, a courier carrying a new copy of a famous illustrated manuscript is attacked by bandits. A page with a painting of a tree falls out of the packet. Anxious that without its housing it may be mis-taken, the painting pleads with its finder to ask: “Were you perhaps meant to provide shade for Mejnun disguised as a shepherd as he visited Leyla in her tent? Or were you meant to fade into the night, representing the darkness in the soul of a wretched and hopeless man?” The section closes with an account of a conversation between two connoisseurs strolling in a meadow, discussing art. A forest comes into view before them. One of them says to the other:
Painting in the new [European] style demands such talent that if you depicted one of the trees in this forest, a man who looked at that painting could come here and, if he so desired, select that tree among others.
Our tree’s response alerts us to the poverty of a realism that overlooks the significance of its artifice.
I thank Allah, that I, the humble tree before you, have not been drawn with such intent. And not because I fear that if I had been thus depicted all the dogs in Istanbul would assume I was a real tree and piss on me: I don’t want to be a tree; I want to be the meaning of a tree.
The frames in this new set of Laxman Aelay’s paintings are also abuzz with conversations about art languages, the meaning of images, and the worlds in which an image circulates and finds life. Large—and in one striking instance perhaps life-size—images of a single figure occupy the frame in the manner of a Nineteenth Century ethnographic sketch. A true to life architecture of bone, muscle, hair, grain of skin and fold of fabric, is recreated with a mastery that delights in detail and is proud of its keen eye for the play of light. This is realism writ-large, a hyper-realism, that draws attention to its craft, which is in turn made visible and celebrated as artifice.
An elderly man in a red shirt and white muslin dhoti steps away into the background. His back is turned to the viewer and his arms locked behind him in a gesture of closure. His stance signals the confidence of one who knows what needs to be known—even if we do not care to recognize it. We note that he has this artist’s regard. Streaming across the back of his shirt—or is it a T shirt?—and framed by arms that now seem to hold and protect the images—are a herd of multi-hued, humped bulls charging to confront two galloping horses. A battle line is clearly delineated. An excited bird hovers above. Two isolated trees in the background echo the idea of division. The horses and humped bulls are from the painted scrolls used by the mandahechulu in performances—patapradarshana—that use song, story and illustrated scrolls, to present the history/purana of this shepherd (golla) castes. The performing artists are called ‘those who increase the size of a herd or flock.’ The man in this picture is walking away into the distance, but instead of the pictorial depth or the horizon our eyes have been trained to expect, we encounter a backdrop patterned with pink and grey flowering vines from a kalamkari fabric. Two archers have strayed, bows drawn, into the design of the cloth.
In another work a satisfied baby sleeps, head heavy and rested in the crook of a young mother’s beautiful neck. Her back is turned to the viewer. Here too the close-up of mother and child with its careful account of light and shadow appears even closer to the viewer because it is set against a flat backdrop of lively red on which totemic tigers of the kunapuli caste stalk between sturdy flower motifs. The kunapuli are the mendicant perfomers of the larger padmashali group of castes. Their performances draw on the Bhavana Rishi or Markandeya puranams to recount the origin of kunapuli and the lineage of the padmashali. They re-appear, these tigers, in other works in this show, notably in the peeling black and white mural on the outer wall of a house. On the ledge in front of it a woman lies beside her sleeping child, listening to the music from the mobile phone beside her. Tacked onto a corner of the wall is a poster of the iconic Osmania University Arts College, famed centre of learning, now also centre of the battle for a Telangana state. The letters O and U (which now also stands for Osmania Uddam) inscribed in Telugu script.
Playfully yet insistently, and through a series of different moves, Laxman Aelay mixes art languages and conceptual worlds that have hitherto been kept separate. The result is an alchemy that produces unexpected reactions, a few of which we can explore here.
Most striking, and key to the propositions being made by these works, is his use of “background.” Laxman eschews the painted backdrop or realist props used in the ethnographic records and draws on the extraordinarily rich art practices and traditions of this region to elaborate a setting for his figures in these vernaculars. In effect he lifts these ethnographically formed figures out of one art world and its historical accretions, and places them in another. The new world is a lively and sometimes unruly one, contemporary, actively in formation, and using a genre-bending mix of picture, story, and song. In these backdrops there are citations from caste puranas recounted in the Nakashi scrolls, the leather shadow puppets used by tholubommalaata troupes, the paitani weavers around Aurungabad, kalamkari fabric artists. The marginalised musical traditions of the nomadic tribes and their instruments are another theme. Modern Telangana art is not overlooked. Excerpts from one of Laxman’s own best known works, “Metamorphosis” fill in the ground in other works. Many a time these forms stray mischievously into the foreground and can be seen, for example, lurking in a turban or disguised as the print of a sari or a shirt. Denied of the depth-effect that realist representation requires, and set amidst these lively vernacular forms, the documentary image takes on new meanings. At the same time, art practices frozen in art criticism as well as in the mainstream imagination as into the all encompassing category, “folk,” spring into historical life.
Realistically executed figures first make an appearance as illustrative record in colonial ethnography, a ‘science’ that served ruler-administrators taking stock of human resources. Painters, trained in the Western style to depictlight and shadow, were able to suggest volume and recreate the look and feel of flesh or material. The frame of authority and officialdom was obscured when what looked real was declared ‘true.’ Art historians today point out that this massive colonial archive represents the first serious attention paid by ‘official’ art to the people of India and their communities. Aelay acknowledges the formal and political importance of this lineage and indeed lays claim to it. He consciously cites it, foregrounds it, and then initiates moves that disarticulate those images from the limited terms of the ethnographic exchange in which they are situated and makes new cultural and political propositions about these castes.
The enumerative-administrative relationship between the figure and the painter orviewer, for example, is transformed in close-ups that repositionall three in an intimate space. The figure is caught in familiar everyday life gestures. Viewers are invited into a community and find ourselves inside a room where a woman is doing her hair; sitting or standing behind a young mother, in a crowd or a queue, or maybe in a bus; pausing on the street to look at and listen to a musician walking by; standing behind a woman in a crowd, watching an elder walk away. It is a tender familiarity, this, and one that cherishes a world, its people, a set of common meanings. In many works the frontal ‘head and bust’ cut of documentary portraiture and the subject’s willing surrender to the ethnographic gaze is deconstructed by frames that are focused on arm, shoulder, midriff or palm. In one striking view of a woman’s back, focused at waist-level, a confident, labour-sculpted hand rests on an insouciant hip.
Unlike the ethnographer’s subjects, who surrender willingly to his gaze, and pose as individuals or in small groups, these people turn their backs on the viewer and are engrossed in what they are doing. Eyes focused on her target, elbows extended in a dynamic diagonal, a woman stands, ritual coconut held in practiced hand, poised to hurl and break it open. The face of the musician recedes, and it is his tambura which moves into the foreground and demands our attention. Backdrop for the woman tying her hair into a knot is a pattern of flaming red velvety blossoms of the Modhugupoolu (Flame of the Forest). Desire, tenderness, regard, involvement and sometimes awe, rework the formal ethnographic relationship with the subject into a lively, moving engagement with a modern community, steeped in their enjoyment of design, story, colour and music.
Do not miss the fact that these figures are not ‘primitive folk’, ensconced in tradition, waiting in virtual time, to be absorbed into the modern or national mode. They are our contemporaries in an industrialized, globalizing world. Saris and turbans are polyester; music from a cell phone lulls a child to sleep. Women and their work are central. Migrants, plastic bags crammed with the implements of their lives, make their anxious way into a grey city. A flyover sweeps past over them.
Through the hyper-realist, photographic, style that flaunts its technique, Aelay draws our attention to the craft of realism. This is done in other ways also. In many frames the full palette of acrylic paint abruptly gives way to parts that recall black and white documentary photography or film. Attention is shifted from the reality effect to the medium and technique of the realist image. Again, even in the sections painted in the realist mode, colour is symbolic; detail cited from other art languages. The energetic red flower blooming on a woman’s polyester kongu is a motif based on local flowers. Red and blue are pervasive colours, while touches of pink, green and orange—on a blouse or the decorative embellishment to a musical instrument—invoke strands in current politics. Together these make for the altogether original palette of this collection. It is a palette—and, more broadly, a language—that I, for one, enjoyed learning to enjoy! The creation of a modern State in which these people are agentive, these works seem to assert, is as much a task for aesthetics as it is of politics.
Laxman Aelay’s own lineage is part of this story. He belongs to the padmashali caste. His father was a weaver and Laxman grew up alert to texture, colour, motif and design. Their small village in Nalgonda district only had a single teacher school. Later he walked the six kilometers to Chada, for high school, and sat for his tenth exams from Bhongir. His formal political education begins while studying for his Intermediate in Ramannapet where he joined the Student Federation of India (SFI). In the 1980s Laxman moved to Hyderabad and enrolled for graduate studies at the Osmania Arts and Science College. To support himself he worked in the Ranigunj area of Secunderabad as a signboard painter. “In the village,” he says with a smile, “signboard painters were known as artists.” His first salaried ‘job’ was with the mass circulation newspaper, Eenadu where he worked for six years as a cut and paste artist. “Those were pre-computer days,” he observes. He resigned from Eenadu in 1990 and enrolled in the fine arts school of JNTU for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He is currently studying the Nakashi Painting and Dalit bahujan performative art forms for a Ph.D in EFLU. As an artist he considers himself largely self taught.
Referring to the subjects of these paintings he says “in my artistic journey, these people are my fellow travellers.”
(Courtesy: The artist and the writer)
The essay was written for the catalogue accompanying Laxman Aelay's solo exhibition Fellow Traveller’s from November 19 to 25, 2013, at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai.