Group painting exhibition at Kalakendra Art Gallery

Presented by Art World-Sarala’s Art Centre and Bharat Nivas

Until March 18 2022

            Unity in Diversity is a spacious idea, and therefore one well suited to Auroville and its artists. Wandering through Kalakendra’s latest and aptly titled new exhibit, I found myself wondering- what other verbal umbrella could fit all these perspectives under it?
Upon walking in, I was immediately confronted by a series of visions almost as large as myself, angular visions bathed in a warm, diffused light. 

            Tapas Ghosal’s work here conveys a Chagall-ian touch, childlike yet gaunt. But the spirit of Chagall was a Slavic one, deeply rooted in the soil of his homeland of Belarus and his own identity as an Eastern European Jew; in his cerulean portrayals of Jewish weddings, the taut communal energy seems to be the only thing keeping the paint from floating cheerily off the canvas. Ghosal’s work here has no national or communal spirit in such a sense. The architecture of the houses and huts blends with that of nature; there are no people, whether walking, talking, sleeping or flying. In one, a light blue sky hangs over a light blue village; in another, a stony settlement- reddened by sunlight, blood, or pure will plus paint- fragments piecemeal into a calm ocean of dark blue. There is an eeriness here that can only stem from natural beauty or its recognition, a melding of the human urge to create with nature’s tendency towards deconstruction. The combination of such polar elements creates a tension that gives the entrance of the exhibition more than its fair share of impact.

            Bodhiselvam’s series of portraits of Gautama Buddha are striking in their similarity- with the repeated lowered gaze and right side of the faces dissolving, the viewer is drawn to the chaotic tangle of the left, in his hair smudged and piled high; the hidden sides of his face thus resemble a mirrored visage (partially obscured by angle) in one, a tree trunk in a darkened wood in another, shifting tectonic plates in another… The effect could be said to be deconstructive, as the subject seems to be progressively melting or shattering. Taken in a Buddhist context of course, the elements take on a redemptive quality- parts of a whole, continually shifting and breaking apart, the better to come back together. This aspect of Eastern thought and the unique way in which it influences the arts is brought to the fore in Bodhiselvam’s centerpiece, a one-canvas compilation of a quasi-generic shape-shifting Eastern deity in 60 different poses or angles, Warhol-Monroe style. But if Warhol succeeded in mythologizing Monroe in deadpan Pop fashion, the effect is somewhat the opposite with a work such as this, taking a spiritual figure such as the Buddha and humanizing him, albeit with an ethereal and violent palette. The artist’s dense, mandala-style ink works pale when compared side-by-side with these creations.

            Nele Martens’ contributions are a ray of pure energy, an even more direct injection into the proceedings; her paintings refuse to be subsumed into their surroundings, instead blooming hurriedly in bright, skylit shades of blue and yellow. Calligraphic fragments drift over- giving the impression of eye floaters on a cloudless day- with all the careless intent of good calligraphy. The breadth and impact of her palette, while only sticking to two principal colours and refusing to blend shades in any attempt at impressionism, is unusual to find in any contemporary artist of the avant-garde- still more so is the blitheness with which it is presented. In a world brimful of artists who might be said to take themselves too seriously, contemporary art such as this is a constant, and constantly needed, form of cultural redemption.

            Sajal Sarkar’s contributions also seem to deal with the mythological figure, but this is a great deal more generalized; he transfigures the body itself into something holy, a grail of life and death. Indeed, there is in the presented works something (also androgynous) that carries simultaneous elements of both- in the dense cross-hatching and scribbling which fill the outlines of some of his bodies, or the intensely divided palette he utilizes in another canvas, or the cave-drawing miniature men on the middle panel of his triptych that so resemble birds. An all-acrylic canvas, of a body obliquely divided by a line that appears to define night and day- the former feminine, latter masculine- here in midst of a pose that brings to mind Matisse’s circle dancers, confirms Sarkar’s subject of choice, but the power and abruptness of the painting invites introspection more than overt excitement.

            At first glance, Pramathes Chandra’s work seems to be of close kin to Sarkar’s; their recurring interest in the basic mould of the human body and earthy colour palettes, when viewed quite literally side by side, is striking, to say the least. Yet Chandra’s figures occupy a more cerebral space, a more neutral space; the body is now treated fully as an object of study against an abstracted background – the ‘doubled’, time-lapse effect of one of the canvasses recalls Da Vinci’s studies before it does any of Duchamp’s nude women or sad young men, although the latter seems to be whispering in the wings, composition-wise.

            The relief work of Ashwameda by Emmanuele is sublime, taking on an ancient appearance that is impressively unforced. The images blend into their material, the mark of all the best 3D art. The other two contributions are somewhat weighed down by a tendency toward opaque symbolism.

            Kirti Chandak’s work, while also veering occasionally toward insular and colloquially Indian postmodernism, is enchanting in two multimedia works (if one includes a piece painted on cloth), one of a woman who appears to be asleep, the other of a featureless boy staring up at the moon with a dog at his heel and a sack full of rubbish (or treasure) slung over his shoulder. The image is prophetically striking; the type of thing that could probably be interpreted and reinterpreted for years to come if the Real Critics ever got their hands on it. All I can say is that it possesses a profound sense of both joy and sadness, with each amplifying each other, as they should, in all the best things. The sleeping woman is uncommon in the texture of its muted palette against the blue-grey linen. She is cut in three as well, with a ‘blank’ woven section between head and shoulders, torso, and lower legs, the cloth covering where her body would be. The sense of peace this work exudes is quietly foreboding, as if the subject is beckoning the onlooker into a much more permanent slumber.

            Unity in Diversity, being the steepest of all challenges, is a tall order and a hard title to live up to- yet Kalakendra’s exhibit boasts enough shining lights to squeeze the mantle.

By Dhani Muniz