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Moushumi Kandali
Date of Publish: 2015-07-30

Art & Artists:

(This section on Art -Discourse features noted artists of the north- eastern region with art historical significance. The focus of the section is to critically review their artistic endeavors and their contribution to the production and intellectual development of art to create a definitive contour.)

 Moushumi Kandali, Editor, Visual Art & Culture Section, nezine.com

       When Vishnu gazes at you with a macabre smirk and two hollow eyes, you behold in this subversive humanization of the classical iconography an overlapping montage. Picasso juxtaposed with a traditional Vaishnavite mask, surreal intersected with the minimal. Neelpawan Baruah’s artistic endeavor unfolds a plane of intersecting forces, polyvalent vision, ranging a multi-stylistic approach --- the figurative / abstract / cubist / expressionistic / surrealistic. Recurring supersession and conflicts - three dimensional forms vs. flat ones, the cubist vs. pure linear, the apparent monochromatic vs. the variety and intensity of color, realism vs. abstraction and the descriptive vs. allegorical -  all anticipating an eclecticism in the pictorial language. The ideological and conceptual groundings may differ, but artist Neelpawan Baruah seems to share the idiomatic quest of the “Early Moderns” ….(“we paint with absolute freedom of content and technique, almost anarchic, save that we are governed by one or two sound elemental and eternal laws, of aesthetic order, plastic coordination and colour combination ….our art has evolved over the years of it’s own volition, out of our own balls and brains….. our common denominator being significant form…..” )

He also seems to inherit the similar legacy, an urgent need to liberate oneself from the prevailing confusion and conformity of the local scenario. Of course, unlike the Early Moderns or the Progressive Group Artists he would never reject the very own basis of  Indianness, the innate yearning to locate oneself to one’s authentic cultural environ, one rootedness to the tradition (even if the tradition is imagined or constructed at times). But he signified a similar dichotomy of the contemporary art realities and the simultaneous urge to critically transcend the locale and the universal, the oriental and occidental.

Over the past four decades Neelpawan Baruah has been engaged in conceptualizing, experimenting and executing ways for blending the traditional/ folk/ indigenous elements with those of the modern western. With simplification and distortion derived both from the local folk culture and the stylistics of the international formalism of the Modern Western Art, he has been experimenting on various indigenous material – papier mache objects, masks made of wicker, pith and clay (he has made an exhaustive study of the traditional Assamese art of mask making.) -  to create an extensive array of art works. Neelpawan Baruah’s mediumistic exploration includes his innovative artwork on cigarette packs, match boxes, cards and his two thousand calligraphic figurations on old news print, reminiscent of Franz Klive (he has published a compilation of these under the title BASUNDHARA). Although one doubts if these have any politically reflexive agenda a’ la Hussein’s ‘Splash Front Page’ (1991) but this experiment is indeed significant in itself.  These innovative attempts in the match boxes , cigarettes packets and news papers  speaks about the vehement search for the  immense  possibilities of forms and designs, speak in volume about  an endeavor surcharged with an endless inquisitiveness for something novel and to transform it to an object d’ art. They are reminiscent of the recurrent meditative gesture of a Buddhist monk seeking different meanings and truths in multiple tonal variations in the same incantation. He is that individualist who weaves up his own artistic idiom and vocabulary complemented by a rich range of images and pictorial signs layering the empirical, aesthetic and the socio-political, underneath the formalist concerns. In the process he seems to investigate and exploit the relationship between his emotions and the medium of communication that he employs. While he may at times disfigure human or animal forms or mutilate the landscape, he replaces them with subtle shades of emotive experience that are significant in themselves and relate to our aesthetic sensibility. Certain restlessness or fastidiousness marks his vision, but that does not necessarily amount to a lack of artistic confidence , but rather  speaks of an innate urge to search--. “A –search- for- the- significant-form..”

An artist of qualitative delineation, Neelpawan’s forms are sculpturesque at times. His expressionistic rendering of the Human – Animal – Bird forms, the natural objects and the gestural expressions are also reminiscent of a child’s art tinged with primitivist splendor. At a first glance he might appear to be working in the line of surrealist automatism, but his impulsive surrender to spontaneity and the liberating forces of a free creative order brings him closer to the abstract expressionists. Though never close to the stylistics of gestural paintings, his treatment, at times, is reminiscent of Paul Klee and Andre Mason.  Neelpawan Baruah’s artistic oeuvre,  oscillating between the realm of pure abstraction and figurative –narration spring up as certain  psychological forms surcharged with immense pent up energies and emotive forces of raw passion ingrained in his sensitive creative impulse, which structures perception and determines the  stylistic expression. The playfulness - wit and humor apparent in some of his artworks like the Sun with an umbrella also point to his interest in the myth, folklore and legends of the local culture. A careful decoding also unveils a subtle socio – political reflexivity hidden underneath the layered complexities of his allegorical renderings. For instance his ‘Majuli’ – the metaphorical island of thousand birds screaming and fluttering in an existential vortex invokes the terror of erosion – of land – life / value – ethnic culture – identity, along with the nostalgia of something lost through various motifs like the broken canoe, a moored engine, a deserted, or an imagery of a skeletal doorframe cut  against the surreal blue space. Neelpawan Baruah’s lyrical renderings attain poetic culmination in his surrealist patch works. Perhaps the best of his oeuvre is a range of human forms rendered in the cubist manner synthesizing elements from the traditional Assamese masks, Bhaona (devotional folk theatre), puppetry, folk toys etc.  Blending of tradition and modernity both at the conceptual and stylistic level marks these experiments. At times the artist has attempted to adopt a subversive strategy by transforming the traditional iconography into a modern one to evoke the perennial dilemma and conflicts of human mind as seen in his humanized Vishnu.  The distortion of this traditional iconography becomes a pointer to the distortions at various levels – the psychic, social, cultural, the political and so forth, in the contemporary life-state.

He has almost led a life of alienation away from the buzz and hum drum of the world, in a place which in turn teeters to the periphery of the imagination of the nation, a pocket tethered to the margins of the “mainstream” away from the glitter of the art world of the metros with its’ galleries, cognoscenti and media glare. Present day cyber connectivity is a new toy for him which he is hesitant to use. Since his return from Santineketan to Guwahati in Assam, his native place, in the end of the nineteen sixties, he has devoted each day of his life for two most significant things in his life, nurturing his paralyzed wife, noted singer Deepali Barthakur  like a mother single-handedly and painting religiously in between the daily chores. He has been churning a sea of residues  in those paintings and other works of art in any medium that he has come across such as the newspapers, match boxes, the cigarette packets, anything on earth--- the residues  that had  gathered in his stream of consciousness—the modernist reflections of art, the patches of red earth spreading around Santineketan, the root sculptures done by a man from his childhood, the masks of the Assamese medieval Vaishnavite theatre or the Brindabony Bastra , the legendary tapestry  woven by the  medieval artists of Assam, the poems of his poet father, the “Dhwani Kavi” of Assam,  Sri Binanda Chandra Baruah, and many such currents and crosscurrents in his life, the  known and  the unknowns…. It is indeed striking and surprising to see that even amidst such alienated, tethered way of life, he could establish the “Assam Fine Arts and Crafts Society” (1971) the first art organization in the state, or open a tea shop under a tree in the premise of the State Museum, where artists could gather for some intellectual tete a tete with a cup of tea in the mid seventies! He could always steal some time to teach art to the neighborhood children in his lush green courtyard or pen down three books in Assamese. Such is his lust-for-life! With an intimate association with the artist for more than one decade in  the personal level one can say, art perhaps for him is  no longer a  mere garb  but a being in itself, his catharsis, his ultimate meditative stance.. the Nirvana….

Picasso was the cubist and Dali the surrealist. But their overwhelming spontaneity and passion made them romantics at heart because their libidinal energies overshadowed their cerebral; their impulse overrode their reason. Their adventurous mind subverted the mundane in to the ethereal; the material into the metaphysical. That way Neelpawan Baruah is the Romantic we have in this part of the country, a self absorbed romantic weaving his own loom to design some “significant forms”…

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