New Directions- Neeti Khanna and Panchanan Samal Have Something To Say


Indian art is a fascinating world to enter without expectation. You find yourself being gripped by things for reasons unbeknownst to you, which can be a frightful fish-out-of-water experience for the newcomer accustomed to the postmodernist labyrinths of theory and rhetoric normally found in contemporary Western exhibitions and galleries. At a recent Aurodhan exhibition in Pondicherry, I found myself in this exact predicament (a wonderful one, I might add), and so I set out to discover the source of my confusion. 

Neeti Khanna and Panchanan Samal were the two artists on display when I visited the gallery, Neeti being an Aurovilian and Samal having come from Orissa to show his work. I first gravitated toward a collection of Khanna’s previous work, shown in the form of postcard-sized prints on a desk. It was very much like walking into a museum; I could make out several distinct individuals in her previous work. There were abstracts that looked like they could’ve been painted by a pre-1946 Jackson Pollock, minus the Stetson and with a sunnier disposition- free-flowing lines, vortices of color, a Zen-like preoccupation with using variations on a theme to fill up space. In these early abstract works, there is a sense of communication, a need to communicate abstract ideas to the viewer in a way that has all but disappeared from contemporary Western art. Mixed in with these works however, were some telling older works- figure studies of women reminiscent of Modigliani’s voluptuous two-dimensional studies;  dreamlike apparitions on a purple polka-dotted background that evoke Chagall at his brightest; swirling overtures to Van Gogh; blue and grey cubist studies; monolithic suns and moons rising and setting over deep blue mountains and an ochre sky (this was my favorite of the works not on display); even a beautifully surreal canvas that immediately reminded me of author Henry Miller’s beloved watercolor paintings. Seeing all this past work next to her more recent output enforced her versatility more than anything else, the gulf between each canvas just as wide as the next. The major difference between her previous work and what is presently on display lies in subject matter. Her drawings and ink work still smack of her past- nudes, flowerpots with flowers, surreal evocation of space, all tied together with an eye for Op-Art patterns that let the actual representative imagery float about in negative space. This is a highly potent mix, and her inks gave the exhibition the second face it required.

For this is what fascinated me about Khanna’s work. She is emblematic of the postmodern artist, in that she borrows/has borrowed from everyone and everywhere, yet in her best work this relation goes to pieces, overwhelmed by the immediacy of her composition and brushwork. It’s not that she moves from influence to influence, but her style seems to have grown subliminally…like dough, as if she’s constantly kneaded old ideas into new and unrecognizable forms. Her inks created a very effective balance with her acrylic canvases, works which could be described as a middle road straddling the influence (overt or otherwise) of Hans Hoffmann, Ellsworth Kelly and Willem DeKooning. In these canvases, she has abandoned likenesses altogether, reaching perhaps for a purer, more emotional style of composition. With Hoffman and Kelly she shares the love of the square and the circle- in general, the love of two-dimensional space as the ultimate expression of visual truth. If she had stopped here, however, her recent work would not have interested me nearly as much as it did. It is her colors that bring her abstracts to life, bypassing Hoffmann’s drawn-out theories as well as Kelly and the rest of the Post-Painterly Abstractionists’ love of flat colors, and instead relying on color as the primary medium of spontaneity. Her strokes are anything but flat and neat. DeKooning’s love of multilayered and scratched pigment is updated to fit in these stricter compositions, and her results are often ethereal- a chaotic alchemy of color seeping out of a strict adherence to abstract form. In her hands a yellow circle may be tinged with magenta and light browns, a straight white line may be overlaid with green or blue, and in each case the effect amounts to the same; the illusion of transparency- indeed, almost of three-dimensionality- created by an exceptionally vivid layering of paint. This gives her work an unprecedented immediacy that separates it from the lion’s share of contemporary abstract art- colors and movements seem to reach through the frame to grab the viewer’s attention, instead of lying back laconically, waiting to be interpreted. In today’s so-called “democratized” art world, where concept often means more than the actual product, Neeti Khanna’s restless imagination is a joyful and multifaceted reminder that great art exists for its own sake and absolutely nothing else.

Also on display at Aurodhan was Oriya artist and educator Panchanan Samal, whose large acrylic canvasses loomed over me as I got to the top of the spiral staircase. I have always enjoyed veiled symbolism in art, expressed in color as much as form. From this perspective, three artists immediately came to mind when confronted with a roomful of Samal’s colors- William Blake, Joan Miro, and Rabindranath Tagore. There is something ancient about Samal’s colors that put Tagore and Blake immediately in mind… a particular species of violence, a sort of naked truth. He blends his pigments into kaleidoscopic evolutions of brown and cuts through them with curtains of brighter color, sometimes translucent layers. Highly expressionistic, he often lets color run down the canvas in rivulets, creating a peculiarly fresh yet bloody atmosphere. One feels as if his palette is firmly embedded in nature, the surfaces of his paintings appearing impenetrable as only nature can usually appear. The spirits of Blake and Tagore are manifested both in the magnetic darkness of these fields of color and in their childlike arrogance. The list of Indian painters who have used the symbolism of their culture as their primary tool while still being able to isolate it from its traditional context is still very small, no doubt owing to the incredibly close relationship between religion and everyday life. Samal seems to have succeeded in this task, partially by way of reduction- his use of the bull as his symbol of choice reflects a desire to cover as much ground as possible, employing it as a definitive symbol of both his mother country and the interrelationship between life and death. Some of his “Untitled” canvasses are enormously powerful owing to his incandescent balance of archaic symbol and modern theory. I stared at one- a stark depiction of a cow topped by horizontal rays of sunlight broken up into a prism of individual unblended pastels with which he also painted the sides of the unframed canvas- for a full ten or twelve minutes. It seemed to glow with its own personal light, as objects in nature often seem to do.

This Aurodhan exhibition provided me with an unprecedented amount of hope in the Indian arts scene. What seemed to once be an unchanging pattern of idyllic and stereotypical motifs are maturing into something else entirely, something the country and its culture actually needs- not so much a single nationalist school of painting as a vast umbrella of styles all marked by a subtle yet unmistakable flavor- the flavor of discovering, then transcending, history.