Looking glass telescope

One rainy Saturday, I went to catch the exhibit, S.H. Raza: Traversing Terrains, hosted at the Piramal Museum of Art, Mumbai.

Before I tell you about it, I feel the need to declare an ostentatious disclaimer. I am not someone who can glide the high language of art galleries or the art they showcase. I find it difficult to unravel the vague concept notes that complement the walled artworks. I think galleries can sometimes be stuffy, hauntingly quiet and remind one of the isolation camps. Having said that, why I would want to explore galleries is because I love how works of art make me feel stuff. Or being a graphic designer renders me more visually sensitive to art. On the other hand, I will religiously avoid a hi-def 4K-retina explosion at a movie hall to instead, stare mindlessly at a radiating dot on a canvas.

I find it daunting to stare into a mirror at times and works of art that behave like mirrors, can catch you at your worst. In a gallery, you are alone…by yourself. There are no distractions and to fully uncover the art, you have to lightly converse with yourself. That is a road to madness because you have spent hours looking at your phone and may have forgotten how to exchange pleasantries with yourself without spiralling into unknown territories. The other problem of being alone with artworks are the hawkish security guards, who are sometimes threatened by my presence. They tail me like I am a hostile witness. They carry a sombre, bored look that turns to alarmed when I take a meek step closer to the works. Their concern is cute, but I don’t think I could ever be the lawless hostility, especially at venues of art and feelings.

The exhibit began with Raza’s oeuvre from when he was a student at the illustrious JJ School of Art. These were multiple water-colour paintings of the picturesque Banares and like many other expert landscape artists, Raza solved the problem of visualizing details — just dab blobs of colour on the canvas till they look like spots of effortless deliberation.

I am yet to figure out what is it about landscapes that landscape artists love. There is, of course, beauty in the rigid forms and silhouettes of architecture. One may also enjoy a less myopic, more broad view of a subject — be it a street, a forest or a city. A man on a bicycle — in the middle of a lush, winding forest road. When a view of a landscape is framed, the collective subject matter is experienced rather than individual actions or characters. And the whole, in Raza’s case, is much bigger than the sum of its parts. The ‘whole’ was important to Raza — it was the core of a view’s expression.

When I was in my cab inching towards the museum, I couldn’t help but notice the dystopian landscape of Mumbai that day. It’s a beautiful city, yes but it can paint a picture of death, especially on a rainy, hazy day. I saw the silhouettes of tall, ghostly buildings from the Bandra-Worli sea link. In the foreground was a capsized boat, precariously tilted on one side, while about three-fourths of it were sunk. I saw the dirty, whorish waves of the sea launching themselves towards the bridge. On the way to sea-link, I saw the rise and fall of flyovers peppered with street-lamps, high and short. There were buildings being built and one by one, the wooden supports were scaling invisible heights. There was a rhythm in the rises and troughs of cement and logs. Now, I had no idea that Raza was training early on to be a landscape artist and in fact, this part of his career will be the starting point of his self-discovery. But if I could feel so many things just witnessing a city from a constricted car window, I am sure Raza was in constant awe of the landscapes he saw — that needn’t speak, nor sing but which were artful and ends to themselves.

Bombay 44, Lane

Bombay 44, Lane
This painting reminded me of Van Gogh’s streetlights. Alanguid dance of colour and form. The paintbrush was breathing, alive and kicking and was unhindered in its approach to space and its expression. The artist inhabits his paintbrush. And the paintbrush is programmed to follow the commands of the artist. I assume this is what AI will achieve in some time?

After or during his stint at JJ, Raza joined the Bombay Progressives — an art group formed post-Independence. The group believed in rejecting academically-inclined art schools and focusing on self-expression. Reading from preserved flyers of their erstwhile exhibits, the group wanted to ‘lynch art from the hands of these people’. That phrase stuck out and I was a bit disturbed by it. Accepting the darkness and the anarchy that was implied in the words, it was clear that this was a new step forward into India’s post-Independence modernity.

What really blew me away was the time Raza spent in France for his residency at École des Beaux-Arts, Paris and the works that resulted from his study there. I agreed with the exhibition notes that it was in Paris that Raza inched closer to finding his voice, his medium. This is also where I truly appreciate the curators who made the artist’s paraphernalia accessible. The odd letter, the class photograph, the signed postcard…such objects make the experience impactful, like back-story comic books that inexorably elevate a superhero movie. There were letters, in French, between Raza and his residency facilitators, from places he would take trips in France.

Based on one of these trips, he created a painting which, for me, was the show-stopper — Eglise et Calvaire Breton, 1956. The painting revealed forceful smudges of acrylic ochre distinguishing a sordid black cross against the sky. There was a melody of mystery in the air and I just couldn’t take my eyes off.

Scanning the paintings over a 20-year period since Raza migrated to France, you could see that the work had gained a natural vocabulary of its own. It was a language apart from his Indian counterparts. What struck me was that, in Raza’s abstracted hues, the same daub of colour was a house, a shadow, a woman, a river or a night. These daubs were meaningful parts of a whole sum — of a collective experience. The strokes were less obsessed with physical dimensions or object-space relationships but were cluing the viewer into undeniably strong emotions. This aspect of Raza’s work is expounded in the impressionist paintings he based on his trips to Rajasthan and Gujarat. They were an ode to the textures, sounds and colours of the vibrant landscapes he witnessed. Again, the syntax points to the collective — you can study the behaviour of the brush and see for yourself — the energy imbibed in these paintings is suggestive of the ‘whole’, and not illustrative of a particular place or character or textile.

The last leg of the exhibit leads one to the central point of the space, where we see the renowned ‘Bindu’ and ‘Surya Namaskar’. These works have been much talked about and are a result of Raza’s fascination with Indian aesthetics. He wished to rebuild his relationship with the motherland after having been away for so long. These works are extremely hypnotic, able to induce both concentration and chaos in ones’ mind. They put up a bench in front of these works for this precise reason…you will need to sit down to prevent overexposure to awesomeness.

I can’t assuredly say this because it undermines his journey before this, but ‘Bindu’ seems to be a natural culmination of Raza’s journey of understanding the ‘whole’. His interest in landscape was perhaps a step towards capturing it and led through his journey through the abstract and end with the infinite dot that contains everything and nothing. I am lucky to witness this pursuit withing my lifetime and perhaps apply it to my own practice. The never-ending, infinite, evolving, germinating, living, stirring pursuit of a complete truth, no matter where it exists.

I would like to congratulate the curators, Vaishnavi Ramanathan and Ashvin E Rajagopalan for putting up a comprehensive show. The exhibit is open till 28th October 2018. It’s definitely worth 2/24th of your Saturday.

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Art. History. Books.

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Rohina Thapar

Rohina Thapar

Art. History. Books.

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