May 15, 2012


DakshinaChitra in association with Apparao Galleries and Pundole Art Gallery will be showcasing renowned artist Sakti Burman’ retrospective, The Wonder of It All, from May 18-July 30, 2012 at Ambur House Art Gallery, DakshinaChitra, (Chengalpet District) in Tamil Nadu. The retrospective opened in New Delhi and has traveled to Kolkata and Mumbai. MOA reproduces eminent art historian, B.N. Goswamy’s catalogue essay for the show.

In Federico Fellini’s great film, Roma, there is a brilliant passage in which hosts of workers are seen, pneumatic drills in hand, cutting and digging their way under the streets, day and night, for laying what are apparently giant new pipes that the burgeoning city needs. Suddenly, deep under the ground, far at the subterranean level,they come upon the remains of an old Roman villa: walls more or less intact, water cisterns still in place, great frescoes filling one panel after another. There theyare, those frescoes, colours of the paintingsa shade faded but features of the figures still discernible:stern patricians, seductive-looking, elegant women, wide-eyed children, all peering down. But even as the workers begin to look in utter amazement at what they have unearthed, the frescoes all start fading, disappearing as it were, figure after figure, detail after beautiful detail. For something – the sudden exposure to the air that rushes in from outside,perhaps, or noxious chemical vapours – begins to eat into everything at demonic speed: colours, lines, patterns. All of a sudden, a face crumbles and then the body; flowers wilt and droop; landscapes get reduced to dust. Within a trice, everything is gone. All that is left is traces, smudges.

Somewhere in his mind – it seems to me – Sakti Burman is aware of the speed at which everything can vanish: memories, images, dreams, impressions. And in his paintings he wants to preserve them, keep them safe as it were, even as everything around is beginning to decay, like fading frescoes. Sakti is right, for truly within him there is much that needs to be preserved, hung on to: vignettes of childhood, memories of growing up, faqirs playing upon harmoniums on sidewalks, pierrots with grave faces dancing about, lovers in the shadow of the Sacre Coeur, Sumerian goats standing on their hind legs for reaching out to lone leaves on a bush, Hanuman taking in the sights of the earth even as he flies through the air, the Three Graces shedding grace, painters painting, children clambering, harpies sprouting more wings than they can handle. There is a legend in Himachal Pradesh according to which, once upon a time, when the sage Jamadagni was carrying images of eighteen gods in his karadu – a wicker basket strapped to the back –, a strong wind suddenly rose and blew all the gods away, scattering them in different directions to places where their temples still stand. Sakti, it would appear, is trying to assemble and bring together everything that was in his karaduonce.

Consider a painting like Celebration (2000). Against a speckled, and intensely colourful,dappled background, which is like a stamp – lakshana, if one so likes – of his work, nearly at the heart of it sits the Buddha – or is it a Jaina tirthankara? – meditating, cross-legged, hands resting in the lap, gaze inwardly turned; in the top right hand corner, Krishna, blue and youthful and crowned, plays upon his flute held only in one hand; above, close to the top border, Shiva, rendered as a small ash-besmeared figure, but clearly with a snake adorning his neck, sits, left hand slightly raised, but gazing at a reptilian figure with a female head who, in turn, is gazing at another figure, four-headed, a heap of flowers glowing like a crown, seated on an elephant; from the top left a lithe female figure comes flying in, floating in the air as it were; all this while, a young devotee-like figure sits very close to the Buddha/Tirthankara, playing quietly on a double-headed drum. For a moment you might think this is a self-contained ensemble of figures familiar for the most part from myths, Pauranic stories, icons in a sacred context. But then a contemporary young woman appears, wearing a loose chemise-like garment, reclining with torso more or less erect but the lower part of the body half-stretched, weight resting on the right arm; close to her but occupying a corner of the same large carpet on which the first figure rests is another young woman, in dishabille, looking vaguely outside the frame of the painting; most of this carpet is occupied by the figure of a woman lying in fullstretch, while a child sleeps next to her; close to the bottom edge of the work a young couple stands, the man dressed in European clothes gazing into the eyes of the woman who is carrying a small child in the crook of her arm; at the extreme left, another young man, dressed in European jacket and trousers stands, hands held in a vague gesture while by his side a young boy walks, one hand raised wonderingly to the mouth. And strewn in between appear other figures from the world of fauna and make-believe: a parakeet, a pair of rabbits, a chimera-like leopard turning his head to look behind, a crowned boy riding a galloping cow or goat. What is all this then, this curious, almost surrealistic, assortment of figures? Things seen in a dream? States of mind expressed through different figures? Memories that have stealthily entered the painter’s head at the time of painting?Where does reality end and fantasy begin; or, again, what part of memory is filtered out and what part survives? These are real questions. In an interview, Sakti once said: “One day our relative (in his old Bengal village) took all of us on a motor launch for a trip up the river. I don’t remember thename of the river. Maybe it was the Meghna or the Padma. But still vivid in my memory is the beautiful sound of the waves dashing against the speeding launch.”

One knows that Sakti has travelled a great deal; is perhaps always travelling in his mind. From his little village to the studios of a far-off School of Fine Arts, from Durga Puja pandals in Bengal to the lanes in Kolkata where patua-sused to sit painting Kalighat pats; from the Taj Mahal to Montmartre; from Ajanta to Mahabalipuram; from Manet’s paintings to those of Chagall, from Matisse’s studio to that of Bonnard. The question however is not what he has seen or experienced but what he wants us to see and experience.

Consider in this context another painting of his: Sadhu singing in a French village (2005). Impeccably drawn as his figures always are, Sakti brings in the Sadhu – bearded and with long unkempt locks, body bare but for a hardly discernible piece of cloth round his loins – in almost the centre of the work, sitting, eyes closed, playing on a small harmonium, right hand on keys, left moving the bellows. Almost touching the brief rug on which he perches is the much larger rug of another person: a seductive young woman dressed in a bikini, legs stretched ahead and uncommonly long arms resting lightly on her knees; next to her a man most casually dressed in a short and brief, stippled, shorts sleeps, body turned to one side, eyes tightly closed, one hand supporting the head, the other draped around it; far in the distance, small houses with gabled roofs rise and a tall structure stands in the background. But there are other figures too in the painting: two children, the older one a girl, nearly skip or jump playfully; a young woman, back turned towards the seated sadhu completely unmindful of him, walks away to the left with a purposeful step; a young man, wearing a t-shirt and shorts sits on a chair at extreme right, hands clasped in the lap, gazing vaguely at nothing in particular. So, what do these seven figures have in common? That they were observed once by Sakti, at different times but in the same small village, and brought together here? Or that they kept appearing in his dreams, asking that they be shared with others, and he obliged? A sense of mystery – light, not dark; not impenetrable, nor full of foreboding – hangs in the air. Is Sakti stating something here? One notices that no one meets another person’s eyes, is perhaps not even aware of the other person’s existence. Is he then stating that we only share a physical space but continue to be wrapped in our own selves? Something like an Urdu poet said once: jamghataatanhaaiyonkakhokhla meezaan hai? That a crowd is only an empty aggregate number, made up of lonelinesses?

I sometimes get the feeling that Sakti fills his works with what appears to be a miscellany of figures and situations, with a clear intent. And that intent is to ask the viewer to fill the spaces between his figures with his/her own thoughts; make connections if possible, or read states of mind, bringing his/her own baggage and repertoire of images and then bending it to that task. Why do some figures, or motifs, keep coming back in his work: the mother lying with her child on a carpet on the floor, the young European-looking couple, the reclining Titian-like nude almost unaware of her surroundings, the frisky boy wearing a crown who keeps changing his mount from elephant to horse to cow to goat? And so on. Evidently, there is a narrative associated with each, but can the viewer weave his/her own narrative around them, he seems to be asking? Do these raise thoughts in the mind, bring back associations? Quite clearly, as he wants his viewer to do, Sakti keeps examining himself all the time, too, and making sense of what he is painting: those paintings within paintings, with himself as the painter, which hold the key

Sakti’s head seems to be brimming with ideas and images; however they do not come from a single source, or one given culture. The biblical ark interests him, and intrigues him, as much as Shiva and Parvati – the ‘Great God’ and his spouse –do, as they keep moving about like pilgrims, riding a simple bull through winding lanes; the Three Graces of Greek mythology – Agleia, Euphrosyne and Thalia, representing joy, charm and beauty – draw him to themselves as powerfully as the Goddess Durga, who is the very embodiment of all these qualities, these virtues; he is as close to Shahjahan and Mumtaz Mahal as he is to harlequins and gun-toting aggressors; motherhood, whether in the west or, nearer him, in the east, he views with equal tenderness; the female nude he finds attractive in all attitudes even though he looks at her with shy reticence.Blind sarangi players and men fending off attacking beasts and models with flaccid breasts and eager centaurs embracing women, are all part of his world.

One should remind oneself, at the same time, that it is not all a matter of wide-eyed stares and wistful glances. There is open fun and much playfulness, too. Wittily, he mocks himself in his work; here boys and girls skip around, mothers try and restrain children from running away with balloons, young men jump on to the back of unlikely looking animals, lovers keep wooing and breaking into dance, painters turn into harpies, peacocks grow impossibly long tails. And all those pierrots, those figures which seem to have escaped from some travelling circus and keep showing up in his paintings, may look grave at times but there is joy in their step and a sense of the celebration of life.

There is all this and more in his work. Interestingly, however, Sakti seems to be able to distance himself too from all that he paints, looking at life as if from above, somewhere up in the air. A couplet of Ghalib, the great Urdu poet, comes to mind:

Baazeecha-e itfaal hai duniya merey aagey;
hota hai shab-o roz tamaasha merey aagey

[Like children’s play, a fancy, is this world in front of my eyes;
Day and night, I keep watching it, this engaging spectacle.]

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if one could somehow cast all Sakti’s work into the same format, join one segment to the next, and turn it into one long, unending scroll. And then spread it out, and see it: his floating world. I think one would sense a lyrical stream running through it: of poetry, of tenderness, above all of vismaya, that elevating sense of wonder that our texts speak of .

Courtesy: B.N. Goswamy, Apparao Galleries and Pundole Art Gallery