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Moushumi Kandali
Date of Publish: 2015-11-08

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

 

THE   PAINTER OF “DEATH”

 

(I)

 

It was a close up portrait of a red-letter box fixed on a tree that the boy chose to draw for a competition. For a child of his age, it was a rather unusual theme. His originality of perception, rich imagination and craftsmanship made him stand out from the rest and win the competition. A time would come when all these will be his distinctive traits. The rhythmic patches of overwhelming greens and passionate blues of the hills and the mighty river amidst which he grew up would later be infused with warm hues of yellows and reds of the rocky land of Birbhum to form a rich palette. But it is from his existential predicament within a queer form of split modernity that he would draw his sustenance, the quintessence of his art. With a fine blending of poetic sensibility and intellectual insight he would mediate his immediate existential terrain and transport it to an aesthetic order. In doing so he would have to grapple with the dilemma of being/non-being; of belonging/non-belonging, like any other artist of his generation. Because he would belong to that generation of Indian artists who were to be haunted by the conflicts of tradition and modernity, the questions of an authentic identity and the dilemma of universale and locale. He would observe the world around him with a holistic awareness about the socio-political, historic-cultural crosscurrents. While At times he would be cold and satirical, at other moments, instead of weaving a cocoon of alienated aestheticism, he would chose to be an empathetic insider. He would map his thermodynamic universe with his art praxis with a stylistic idiom of own and carve a niche for himself. One day he would be an artist, artist Benu Mishra that he was aspired to be. He would be one of the leading artists of the  sixties and seventies to usher in a new momentum in the art scene of Assam and be the founder of Gauhati Artist Guild, the leading art organization of the entire north east India established in the early seventies.

(II)

In the multifarious range of Benu Mishra’s artistic oeuvre (oil, water colour, collage, sketches, cartoons, cover designs and illustrations etc.), perhaps the most significant renderings are a set of oil paintings where compositional balance is achieved in and through harmonious blending of colour and forms rendered in bold, free flowing   delineations. It is interesting to note two different yet parallel realms of spatio-temporal realities in his oeuvre - one of them, intentional and cerebral, the terrain of his immediate historical realities. The other realm is libidinal and spontaneous that snapshots certain psychic moods or upsurges of emotions in a rhythmic whirlpool of spectacular colour and form. Here colour is not restrained, rather the splendor of hues define the form. One of such compositions “Rain Over Brickfields” is a pictorial delight. It is a prelude to the deluge over an expanse of half baked bricks, the steam intermingled with the sooty smoke from the chimney is blanketed by the streaming shower; a vortex of imposing tones of red and yellow. Pent up energies throb to unfold a mysterious drama. Passion merges with the “Grand” “sublime” manifestations of nature to evoke an equanimity and primal unity of man with nature. It reminds one of the “Picturesque” paintings by artists like Turner and Whistler. Like Jaya Appaswamy’s lyrical landscapes dipped soft hues and Van Gogh’s passionate strokes in “Starry Nights”, Benu Mishra’s “Forrest of Yellow Blossoms in Autumn” evokes a tranquil serenity.

Benu Mishra in his other realm constructs a set of narratives marked by an acute sense of political consciousness and critical reflexivity. In such figurative – narrative constructs it is the form that dominates the colour. “Death”, one of such significant renderings is a layered visual narrative filled with a multiplicity of tensions pervading the social climate. The two figures masquerading as angels evoke a hidden mute violence and fraudulence, and the one exiting a sense of escapism. The deified woman / humanized deity adds an element of surrealism / magic realism. A glimmer of Michelangelo’s “Pieta” (Mother Mary holding the dead Jesus) peeks through. The visual experience transforms itself into an allegory of death not only of the physical but of the metaphysical as well. Compositionally and conceptually his latest painting “Cityscape” seems to be a sequel. The message here is clear and direct – it speaks in volumes of the terror and aggressive nihilism of the present urban times. The metaphorical suggestivity takes a subversive strategy. The essence of an urban vista is expressed mystically in a naturalistic setting.  He infuses minimalist approach with a surrealistic expression. In “The News” the sole protagonist reads a newspaper standing on a skull. The background is vague, as if the figure on the skull is hanging in a void, emphasizing the vacuum. The newspaper tinged with patches of yellow is the signifier of the decaying times. Though the central protagonist has an iconic presence in the visual rendering, it is in fact Death, which has the gripping iconic presence in the guise of the skull. Taken together they form a trilogy depicting three facets of death. “Last Supper” another significant work re-appropriates the Christian mythology to a modern myth. In this allegory of the modern times, the villain masquerades as the savior. With his folk loric imagination, the artist has subverted the role of Jesus who forms a band of apostles with crooks and swindlers. Here a parallel can be drawn with Kishen Khanna’s “Last Supper where both the Jesus plays the game of deceiving. While Kishen Khanna’s Jesus plays the game for love, Benu Mishra’s the game for lust. If Kishen advocates humanism in direct terms, Benu Mishra says it in a circuitous and subtle way.

(III)

 Modernity / modernism – the hydra headed offspring of colonialism had sprang up in India in a pure Dumontesque manner with its queer and hybrid forms. Unlike the west it had sprang by assimilation of induced values that had not grown naturally. In its hydra headedness specters of modernist aporias unfolded, one of which was a splitting of modernity itself. An insurmountable divide between the subjects of modernity, space for two different and opposing sets of modernist experiences. The discrepant experiences within the terrain of political and economic modernity contribute to the splitting of power based on the accessibility of knowledge and information industries. One belonging to the first set is a self - questioning or critically reflexive modernist self who tries to confront modernity with ironic auto-criticism about its mediation and who takes delight in it and finally engages oneself to the dialectics of learning from it.  The other set is dis-privileged of powers invested to the first set.  A victim of modernity whose predicament is of being trapped within the limited boundaries or narrowness of one’s own existential being that reflects a cowering contraction when confronted by the aggression of modernity.  It is not exactly the ‘other’ of modernity, but more of a split produced by modernity itself that tries to evade mediating modernity, but at the same time cannot resist it. The paradoxical character of this split modernity displays a mental malady in the subjectivity. One can no longer follow the traditional value in toto nor can surmount the nostalgia of it. Bipolar tension between the aspiration for modernization and the passion to be in the mainstream of the universal modern, and the evocation of the nostalgia and tradition (the urge to reconcile with the enigmatic past) provoke a mixed feeling, delirium and antithetical hermeneutics with a specific culture.  The nostalgia for past, (often imagined and constructed) trigger off an urge to establish one’s authenticity and ‘original’ identity or to reclaim/reserve one’s pristine ethnic culture but the infiltrations, inflows of outer elements and intercultural dynamics in the context of a post-colonial globalised world transverse the specificities of cultures, languages, regions to certain extents further complicating the situation. Benu Mishra the child of such hybrid modernity reacts and tries to mediate this predicament. Furthermore he was born in Assam, which apart from being subject to all these aporias, was also sidelined from the mainstream due to economic laggardness, political instability, identity crisis, social turmoil and lack of art consciousness. Significant art works of Benu Mishra are a series of reflexive gestures with which he confronts the innate nihilism of the entire situation.   Hence in order to delve deep into his art works it is necessary to understand   these foregoing contexts. No wonder  why death in its multiple form becomes a recurrent theme in his art !

Moushumi Kandali

 

 

 

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