Locations of Embedded Narratives:
The Possibilities of Alternative Narratives in the Visual Culture of Today
Regardless of the way one sees it, visual art forms that we see in our daily lives have an inherent narrative structure embedded within them; they may be frozen frames selected out of situations preferred by the artists who have done these works but their frozen forms melt when the onlooker turns the heat of his power of observation onto them. Narrative structures or structural narratives are an integral part of visual art. Having said that, it does not mean that all visual art forms tell a story, a narrative with a beginning, middle and an end or some form of a visual text with a logical pattern. Visual narratives are pointers to a collective memory and collective unconsciousness. Narrative forms inform the viewer of his own capacity to engage with the cultural make up of his own self. The act of viewing invites the viewer to enter into a socio-political and cultural zone that the artist has created using certain images strategically placed within a pictorial frame.
From a historical perspective, narration in visual arts or narrative forms of visual art has always been a part of the Indian tradition. Whether it is the walls of the Palaeolithic caves like Bhimbedka in Madhya Pradesh to the Ajanta-Ellora caves in Maharashtra, or the murals of Mattanchery Palace in Kerala, one can see how artists have rendered life, history and mythology onto these walls. Here, I am referring to murals mainly because it was on walls that primitive man first expressed his visual impressions as he had access to no other surface. Primitive man had this intention to create visual forms that narrated not only their lives and surroundings but also the secret powers that they believed to have existed in nature. They were 'natural' people and they believed in the secrets of nature, and it became imperative for them to use their visual expressions as condensed codes of a ritual that would help them to negotiate with the powers that lay beyond them.
We see this narration evolving over a period of time and when it comes to the Buddhist and Jain periods, the narratives become so illustrative that they become part and parcel of the philosophical make up of the very society within which such arts are practiced. The religious connotation of narrative art takes a different turn with the flourishing of the Mughals in India. The Mughal miniature tradition has a more sophisticated narrative technique as the artists narrated the great lives of their kings and emperors within the same pictorial plane, using various layers and tiers of frames and dimensions. They also narrated the lives of mythical characters and interestingly the artists of those times found the narrative techniques more conducive to their purpose because they could present the contemporary lives in various disguised forms. So the images and metaphors that we see in Mughal miniature art not only depict the motifs from the central narrative but also skilfully incorporate the narratives of contemporary lives. One can visualize the landscapes around them as also the weapons they were handling and even the kind of carpets and furniture they were using.
All the Indian miniature traditions have this tendency to narrate life not only materialistically but also philosophically. And as the classical forms of visual art make inroads into the popular cultures through various interpolations and re-articulations, we can see them evolving from outside the patrons' courts. Various folk traditions adopt these systems of the narrative into their indigenous narrative techniques and become an integral part in their communicative fields both within the public and private aesthetic domains. For example, the Pichwai paintings of Rajasthan and the Pata Chitra traditions of Bengal show how ethnic visual expressions get mixed with the classical traditions and give birth to a new narrative technique. The Patuas or the Pata Chitra painters make long scrolls as if they were the rolled up versions of large scale murals and with the help of a lamp showing on the images, they narrate the story that is depicted on these scrolls. So what we see here is the interface of the visual and verbal narratives. In this tradition, the visual and the textual become one and the same and it imparts a new textuality to the visual art form.
In the modern period that is predominantly defined within the 20th century, we see the artists revisiting the narrative traditions of India. During the 1980s, artists like K.G.Subramanyan, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar were interested in the narrative visual techniques employed by both the classical and the local visual artists. This was not about reviving the bygone traditions but on the contrary these artists envisioned a new future by rearticulating the existing traditions and using the contemporary visual motifs. As K.G.Subramanyan argues in his several observations on visual culture and aesthetics, is that tradition is something that passes through the present and goes into the future. This means the narrative forms of visual art has an evergreen presence within any cultural context. The artists look into and around their lives and find motifs and evolve a new narrative technique so that the traditions of the past can re-emerge in the present in a guise and pass on to the future as visual art forms with ever-renewing relevance and presence.
The six artists featured in this show in more ways than one re-articulate these visual narrative traditions with an involved philosophical engagement made possible not only by the opulence of visual materials but also by technology. These artists in fact, enjoy a vantage position mainly because they live in a world where the narratives are abundant and the possibilities are immense. But technically speaking, the abundance of visuals as well as the over saturation of it naturally lead the artists to a dead-end regarding choice. However, the aesthetic merit of these artists should be assessed based on their technical agility, aesthetic alertness and refined discernment in choosing and representing images and developing their own narrative techniques to present their aesthetics and philosophy.
Nayanaa Kanodia, Durga Kainthola, Sohan Jakhar, Farhad Hussain, Bonny Hazuria and Ketna Patel are the artists featured in this show. As an un-acknowledged collective, they belong to a contemporary narrative movement that has not yet become a 'school.' As the narrative techniques used by these artists are different from each other and have the facility to represent different kinds of lives, it has the qualities of a 'movement' which is not jaded by familiarity and saturation. Each artist in this show is well versed in his or her own narrative styles and has proved before the cultural world that they have a statement to make of their own about contemporary life and society. At the same time, as they invoke a feeling of narrative traditions, they also function as the torch bearers of a grand tradition while upholding the contemporary values. As Mathew Arnold, T.S.Eliot and K.G.Subramanyan together would argue, artists are those people who carry forward the essence of a past through the present and towards the future.
In Nayanaa Kanodia's works one can see the interface between the Western and the Eastern ways of life; or more importantly their outlook on life. There is a continuous osmotic process between the two different world views. While the Western outlook is typically aggressive and predominant through the deliberate making of histories and putting it across the world as 'the history,' the Eastern outlook remains a bit softer, accommodative and carries out things at a slower pace which is conducive to the philosophy of the Eastern hemisphere. However, one should not feel that Nayanaa represents a stereotypical world in her paintings. She carefully analyses how the meeting of the Western and Eastern cultures happen within the public and private realms. She is also conscious of how far it is permissive and how far it is not. Besides, she is aware of the fact that most of our lives are subconsciously governed by the 'culture' generated by a colonial past. So in Nayanaa's works the presence of the Western culture comes as a pointer, as a reference and also as a marker of the construction of a peculiar cultural milieu.
"We are always under two influences," observes Nayanaa Kanodia. In her paintings these two influences are analysed in an aesthetically clinical way. Apparently anyone would say that Nayana's works are painted in a naive fashion. However in my view, Nayanaa's naive aesthetical style is the result of a deliberate study. One can see that Nayanaa understands popular visual culture extremely well. Her works formally absorb the quality of the calendars made popular by Raja Ravi Varma and the Kalighat folk painters. A mixture of this popular visual culture informed by the Modern western and academically accepted visual tradition enhances the aesthetic power of Nayanaa's works. Nayanaa loves to paint a domestic situation or a situation in which domestic bonding is emphasised. At the same time, a closer look would reveal that these domestic realms that have a strong 'Indian' quality are invaded by the presence of a 'culture' that has helped us form our contemporaenity. Through framed photographs or paintings of the western masters or the images masquerading as western masters' works, Nayana makes a clear contrast to the main image of a man and woman within the social bonding. At times, the artist even deliberately evokes the western modern art parameters like an odalisque in a semi-satiric form complete with an Indian man servant holding out refreshments for the memsahib.
Shekhavati murals, one of the cultural prides of Rajasthan, is the main point of reference for Sohan Jakhar when he articulates the contemporary world through his paintings. The focal point of the Shekhavati murals and the patterns that one can find in the havelis and buildings in the region, as far as Sohan is concerned, is not just about his interest in the ethnic appeal of these entities. But as an artist, Sohan finds that it is imperative to re-live, re-generate, re-introduce and re-articulate such patterns in his contemporary works mainly because he understands the ways in which these patterns are fast disappearing from the cultural discourse as well as visual discourse thanks to neglect and vandalism. In order to run a narrative thread between the contemporary images that he treats in his paintings and the backdrop patterns that he chooses from the Shekhavati murals, he uses a special technique of juxtaposition. In Sohan's works, we see two time frames; the eternal one and the temporal one. The eternal time frame is expressed through the carefully painted backdrops and the temporal frame is done through the meticulous selection of images from the artist's immediate surroundings.
Sohan enjoys the local life and its connectivity with the external world through a different type of economics. The artist continuously photographs people, roadside vendors, auto rickshaw drivers, fruit sellers, pani-puri wallas and so on. It is interesting to notice that Sohan, even though he is living in a town which is famous for its tourist attractions, does not indulge in the tourist images of his own city, Shekhavati. Instead, he looks at the local life as if it were the only connecting thread with the past. These in my view, are the frozen narratives of a city. The city has a different economy with its own power structures, architecture, streets, affluent people, tourists and so on. But Sohan's interest is in the people who address the city from the pavements. This is a special view as far as the sociological discourses are concerned. Pavement is a location from where the people articulate the city. It is a sort of counter articulation as the pavement not only serves the purpose of a footpath but it also provides space and shelter for innumerable people including the vendors, wanderers, destitute and the dispossessed. Sohan uses the contemporary technology of photoshop to manipulate the images before he renders them manually on the canvas.
While Sohan articulates the contemporary life and its aesthetics and economics by taking the pavement as a metaphor, Farhad Hussain explores the life today by making inroads into the domestic interiors of the middle and upper middle class homes. And as an artist, Farhad likes the 'tableau vivant' format in which one sees a group of people in a congenial and convivial space where they seem to be celebrating their lives or even acting out their lives for themselves as well as for the imagined spectators. Each painting of Farhad narrates a life that is real and unreal at the same time. Even within the congeniality and conviviality of the space and the actors within that, there is some sort of artificiality in all their acts. The protagonists in these paintings are almost like actors who are acting out a role rather than living one. But at the same time, Farhad takes special care to make the viewer feel that even in the masquerading of these characters there is a sense of irony that makes them so involved in their acts that they themselves fail to understand the demarcating line between their 'acting' and 'living.'
Farhad's narrative is, as we have seen in Nayana Kanodia's works, naive in nature but one is sure that the naive approach is a deliberate one. There is a tremendous amount of scepticism from the artist about the kind of life that he depicts. He almost spells out that contemporary life is all about artificial make up and wearing of masks or even posing before an audience. Life has become something that should be 'performed' in a certain sense before the world. The performance in itself becomes a narrative in Farhad's paintings, a very conceptual one in that sense. He could be an artist who employs the formalities of cynical realism in Indian context. Farhad is not an outright critique of Indian politics as in the case of the Cynical Realists from China. However, through his articulation of the middle and upper middle class vagaries and avarice, Farhad attempts a critique of the political system that has facilitated globalization and the resultant new style of life. I would call Farhad's works as 'narratives culled out of malls' and they represent the slow transformation of the domestic areas into 'display arenas' where the inhabitants themselves become display items in a showcase meant to be watched, seen and appreciated.
Mao, Che, Gandhi and Hussain dominate the pictorial space of Durga Kainthola. She has a special affinity for these powerful world cultural and political icons because she finds in them the capacity to carry out an artistic vision irrespective of the artist's geographical location or political affiliation. It is always said that when a person is known by a single name without qualification of surnames or degrees, that person has become a celebrity and a star. Stars need not necessarily need explanations. This is a key to the narrative capacity of the personalities. Through their singular and unique names they could represent a culture, a political ideology, a genre of art or science or sports or anything that they excel in. In that case when we say Mao, we come to understand the Cultural Revolution carried out by him in China and the ensuing political changes in the body politic of China and the world. This is the same thing with Che Guevara, Mahatma Gandhi or M. F. Hussain. Durga Kainthola takes them as a point of reference to emphasize that these icons still hold their capacity to articulate several narratives, both political and cultural.
When we think about these icons, we cannot forget Andy Warhol who had popularised most of these icons through his multiple serigraphy prints within the modern art context. Durga is an ardent admirer of Warhol. Considering faces or the iconic faces as a point of reference came to Durga a long time ago when she took interest in painting her own face. "This led me to further study the works of Andy Warhol, Picasso, Jamini Roy and so on. All of them have used faces to different effects," says Durga. Through my critical eyes, Durga's paintings, which are mainly acrylic on canvas with serigraphy prints as and when needed to transfer an image, belong to the tradition of popular ideological narratives as spread through the oleographs and calendars. As calendar images impart the idea of good life, disciplined life, nationalistic life and beautiful life and so on, Durga inverses this idea through repeatedly painting these iconic images in an attempt to stress on the ideas represented by these personalities. This could be one way of sharing the heartfelt desire for a global change with people who would like to take some time to look at works of art.
How could one use juxtaposition, displacement and overlapping of images to create a new narrative? When photography itself is an artistic technique meant to create innumerable frozen narratives, how could one artist achieve further effects by manipulating them? Bonny Hazuria's works could be the answer to this question. As a successful photography artist, Bonny likes to 'play' with her photographs. Liminal spaces, for the artist become areas with narrative potential. Liminal spaces are such left out places whose stories are not articulated by anybody. There are innumerable people and places in both the urban and rural areas. When we think of an urban space, corners of the streets, joints of huge pillars, local vendors' vehicles, cycle rickshaws and so on become liminal spaces and objects. Within the urban context even those people who are devoid of a voice of their own also could be liminal people waiting to be articulated. These areas become strong points of potential narratives for Bonny Hazuria. Though she emphasises in her statement that she would like to treat these works as 'play,' in fact through these plays, she articulates the untold realities of these spaces, evidently through a stylistically modified format of her own aesthetical outlook.
Definitely one could talk about the kitsch nature that seen quite predominant in some of the works of Bonny Hazuria. However, these kitsch elements are deliberately incorporated as an additional skin to the larger narrative lying as an undercurrent in her works. The narratives of these so-far unarticulated become all the more important as she makes juxtaposition of layers and colours. The play of the artist is akin to providing additional skins to the body of the works that she creates through her photographic interventions. Bonny as an artist is interested in the 'everyday life in Indian cities' and she also likes to highlight the 'happy contradictions' that exist within the urban centres. Joviality is one of the dominant characteristics of Bonny's works and she uses this as a veil to hoodwink certain disturbing realities. The haziness that she imparts to the works through layering and skin 'grafting' is an artistic ploy that could help the viewer to approach the work through a kind of interpretational grid. For example, if you take the work in which a local music 'band' vehicle is parked near an old building, one could see all what I have been citing as the important features of her works. The loudspeakers as objects are in fact silent entities unless they are connected to the sound transmitting systems. The corner it stands in total isolation is emphasized by the presence of an old building, which too is mute. While juxtaposing two mute entities, the artist brings out a new voice, the voice of interpretation which becomes eloquent while speaking of the untold stories embedded in them.
Cultures and sub-cultures, mainstream cultures and alternative cultures, framed cultures and imposed cultures, displaced cultures and sceptical cultures - there could be an endless list of cultures that defines the existence of human beings in the contemporary world. If you replace the word 'culture' with the word 'identity,' you could suddenly get a different idea about contemporary existence. On the one hand we speak about the identity of the contemporary human being as a world citizen thanks to the dissipation of boundaries due to the flow of global economy and information technology and on the other hand we talk about people who are trapped in their ethnic identities even within the global context of displacement, dispossession and political disownment. Ketna Patel approaches the issue of culture and identity by taking the very vehicle that is the images that are operational within the popular domain, as cultural and identity references, through a sort of contemplative juxtaposition. Ketna personally feels that identity of a human being in the present day is one of the greatest problems that a creative person could address in his or her works.
According to Ketna, the Asian identity is an issue that has to be contested at different levels. However, the narratives of Asian identities end up in the Oriental readings and tourist takes. Often, Asia gets articulated by the hegemonic powers while the Asian voices remain a cry in the wilderness within the discourses on Asia. Hence, Ketna through her popular works raises this question: what is an Asian identity? Where could one find an Asian? And what defines him or her as an Asian? Through her works Ketna tries to give the answer and this answer emphasises that Asian identity is a narrative that is stunted by the intervention of the colonial narratives. There are several hidden possibilities of re-articulating the Asian identity and she believes that this Asian identity is not one but many; and in its manifold itself the Asian identity shows affinities with other component cultures and identities.
Articulating these multitudes of identities and the images with embedded cultural, political, sociological and economic codes needs a special narrative technique. Ketna prefers to be an eclectic collector of images and codes when she works with her aesthetic objects, paintings and collages. These codes look apparently familiar to everyone who is familiar with the tourist articulations of/on Asia. But when Ketna employs them within the structure of her collages, each of these images gains a special status, questioning the acts of appropriation by the hegemonic hands and underlining their right to be unique and individualistic. Interestingly, these images are already there in the public sphere and when Ketna arranges them within a special narrative, they become linguistic codes of this new narrative. They leave their role as signs of something intended and assume the nature of the active agents they are party to the act of signification, connoting to a new possibility. This linguistic tendency is visible and even palpable in other objects based works of Ketna Patel.
Before I conclude, I would like to say that these six artists do not share a single and manipulated narrative structure or style. However, in their own ways they travel and arrive at a narrative platform, which almost like an Indian street or a generic Asian public place, is unique, interesting and could hold the public attention for long time. All of them in their own right generate a discourse on narrative as well as a discourse on the urban visual culture during the times of globalization. Globalization becomes a point of departure as we see even the liminal corners in the non-descript places in the rural areas are interpolated and inscribed with certain codes of this aggressive global images. These six artists adequately and skilfully capture this aggression aesthetically, contain it, debate it and elaborate in their own unique styles and present them for the public engagement.