One hundred years of pulchritude

Posted on January 22, 2012

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Artists from around the country gather to create new works and commemorate a great Indian painter.

At the far end of the lobby of Vivanta by Taj – Fisherman’s Cove, Akkitham Narayanan is stooped over a canvas, trowel in hand, smoothing out the cobalt blues and the reddish browns and the whites that make up a geometric painting that, as yet, bears no name. To the documentary crew filming him, he says, “We have all the abstract forms, provided we remove the religious attachments.” This appears to be an answer to a question asked before my arrival. He adds, “I am very fond of colours.” The documentary crew leaves but he continues to work, soaking a checkered handkerchief in turpentine and rubbing the canvas in slow, small, deliberate circles, like a mother massaging her infant, to strip away extra colour. I wonder if this is difficult for him, creating art before a public, not just members of the media filming him and writing about him but also white-skinned tourists from cold countries who stop and stare at this curious display on their way to a ridiculously blue pool. “You shouldn’t think of the public,” he says, “but it is difficult. You lose concentration and make mistakes, though you can always correct them later.”

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He hums to himself as he works. Perhaps this is something he always does, even in his studio, alone, watched only by his muse. Or perhaps it’s the dash of performance that descends upon solitary artists when they know they are under scrutiny. Beyond him, in a veranda partly flooded by sunlight, stand a number of easels, some bearing canvases, the others forlorn, like waiters with empty trays. It is about 10:30 a.m. and a mere handful of artists are at work – the rest are still gathering. Some of them call this a camp, others call it a workshop, but the name on everyone’s lips is KCS Paniker, the giant of contemporary Indian art whose birth centenary is being celebrated by all this art being created. Amitabh Sengupta turns from his painting – a yolk-yellow background graffitied with Paniker-like calligraphy from Brahmi and Pali as well as scripts that Sengupta made up, alongside dots drawn from traditional pictorial representations like the kolam – and remarks that Paniker was a huge figure of south Indian art who later inspired all of India.

The calligraphic style of Paniker, Sengupta says, is most significant because he was looking for a different idiom, something that looked away from the western idiom of art. He looked at Indian manuscripts and rearranged their scripts in a pictorial fashion. About Sengupta’s own version of calligraphy, he is silent. He has been working on this canvas, the latest painting in his series titled Inscriptions, for three days and he doesn’t know if it is anywhere near completion. Two easels away, V Viswanadhan has been cornered by the documentary crew. He doesn’t appear to have started yet – there’s just an upright canvas by his side, smeared thickly and unevenly with white paint. He is showing his interviewer pictures from an iPad, and the difference in size between the embryonic canvas and the art inside the computer’s screen is unsettling, like the skewed-perspective pictures people take of the sun or the Taj Mahal squashed between forefinger and thumb. The interview shows no signs of ending, and I stroll over, past a canvas covered almost entirely in an angry crimson and another where a woman’s face emerges from a kaleidoscopic cloud, offering proof of Akkitham Narayanan’s philosophy that painting is an art where the process is dirty but the result is beautiful.

Chattrapati Dutta, who has begun to daub the angry-crimson canvas with pustules of yellow, says that these workshops allow him to interact with other artists, even if the performative nature of the exercise leaves him unsure about doing his best. “But,” he says, “it could also turn out to be something good.” He feels that he will “mess about” a bit here, in the open, and then retire to his room and continue working, like some of the senior artists in the floors above who are creating their works of art far from curious eyes.  Sunil Das has set up his canvas in the nook between the bathroom and the aisle leading to his bed. The painting is that of a bull, his trademark, a soot-black creature erupting from inky dust, its solitary eye wide open in cartoon-animal surprise. Das says that Paniker and Husain made a platform for “us contemporary artists.” He extends a hand as I make a motion to leave and I take it reluctantly, proffering the weakest of handshakes with an eye on the black paint that has smudged his fingers and seeped into the crescent cups of his nails.

He says he chose to work in his room because he has a “leg problem” that doesn’t allow him to stand for long, and at home, his studio has an adjustable easel that dispels this discomfort. In the room next door, Prakash Karmakar, grunting heavily every few breaths, is outlining pebbly shapes with a sketch pen, as if imagining a gravelly beach. His canvas is on a table that he had specially brought into the room, and in order not to smudge the canvas he works with the pad of his palm on a rectangular piece of paper that looks like the backside of a greeting card. Two other artists in the room discuss newspaper circulation figures. He too says that his health isn’t good. His neighbour, Subroto Gangopadhyay, is hurrying to catch a deadline in a room soaked in cigarette smoke. His contribution to the Paniker commemoration, the girl in a swirl of kaleidoscopic colours, has returned from its display at the veranda and is propped against the wall. He is now attending to a black-and-white illustration for a children’s book of fiction. Art is art, he seems to be saying, but in the meantime bills have to be paid.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Arts: Indian