About Nostalgic Dragonflies and Homes in the Bags: Sculptural Snapshots from the North-East
by Moushumi Kandali
It is an intermingling dyad of two predominating strands --- the trend of a pure formalist international modern, and the trend of amalgamating of the local technique, material and themes driven by the indigenizing spree. Taken further, it is a dyad of two categories of material-usage, one that of the ready-made/found-object/junk material and the other, the conventional mediumistic/materialistic exploration. If urbane ethos and contemporary concerns infuses one trend, the other yearns for nostalgia, a refuge in the realm of innocence, universal, eternal, the natural … This is how one would describe the state-of-affair in the sculptural manifestations of the contemporary/ modern art scene in the geographic space that we are talking about. An interesting observation in this regard is-- whereas paintings in this region are highly politically reflexive capturing the socio-political realities, the genre of sculpture seems more metaphysically oriented seeking ontological/ epistemological /existential truths of life-world! If the relationship between man/ woman/nature finds a centre-stage and the mythical continues to evoke inspiration (Read- the subject “Deity” rendered by many artists like Dipika Saha, Atul Baruah, Krishna Goswami, Ruma B Sharma and others), the questions of selfhood expanding to the politics of Identity (the likes of Shiv Prashad Marar of Adivasi/ “Tea tribe” community, or Sanchita Gogoi's rendering of feminist/ feminine in the gender identity) makes up for that another strand in the dyad. This is how one would like to map the sculptural developments in the contemporary/modern art scene of the “North-East” in India. The “North-East” a loaded expression for many a people carries in itself the burden of homogenisation of an uneven trajectory of multiple cultures, multiple histories and multiple narratives. The process of deduction /reduction adhering to the principle of uniformity is a slimy process. However, as a place of people with multi-lingual, multicultural, multi-racial, poly-ethnic diversity, the North-East also shares a commonality in the context of their vibrant plastic traditions or visual arts with specific reference to sculpture making.
Among the artists who paved way for this modernist/ postmodernist/ contemporary development in the sculptural realm in this region, a few have been also able to contribute in a broader way with greater implications to the pan-Indian scenario with their innovative deviations and variations. As Shivaji K Panikkar mentions in his Introduction to the book Twentiethcentury Indian Sculptures (Marg, 2000), Prithpal Singh Ladi, an artist from Meghalaya, and one of such highly competent artists from the North-East, along with others like Dhruv Mistry, G Ravinder Reddy and Pushpamala N, revealed “a frontal rejection of the sacrosanct modernist values of the pedestal-oriented quasi-abstraction that was in vogue till date in the late seventies and eighties.” With his penchant for the eccentric and the bizarre, his works manifests subtle autobiographical tinge. Through intricately detailed dragonflies with thin delicate wings and frog torsos, mechanical devices like an antique typewriter, animals made of old battery cells joined together and limp human figures, Ladi imbibes morbid humour and wry satire in his works. Fine, intricate and rich in materialist experimentations in glass, gemstones and metal, Ladi's world is vibrant with memory, dream, fantasy and nostalgia about his childhood days in Shillong. As shards of whiskey bottles, broken tube-lights, fused bulbs, old chandeliers and scraps of old trophies find their ways into his works, they spring up as signifiers of layered suggestions to capture the realities lying underneath the surface. He seems to weave certain narratives about the subconscious/ unconscious realm, in a definite idiom through these every-day materials, which speak volumes about a creative impulse charged with innovations and relentless exploration. There are many artists in this region who are working ceaselessly in spite of many socio-political and infrastructural hurdles in a place which teeters on the periphery of the imagination of the nation, in pockets 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. One such artist is Shobha Brahma, whose sculptures in wood are fine expressions of the eternal relation between man and nature or the formal and symbolic parallelism of nature and the feminine, and other cosmological/ universal meanings in life. His masterly handling of wood and skilful play with the forms speaks in volume about the deep understanding of the medium. Another artist (presently a Santiniketan -based eminent sculptor who hails from Assam), Jhanak Jhankar Narzary too delves into the similar realms of nature/ cosmos and of human conditions, thereby evoking an element of monumentality and vastness. The Metaphysical and the Natural play a great part in the parallel quest for the existential meanings in life and the cosmos. These artists who were trained in art centres like Baroda or Santiniketan paved ways for the successive generations to go for further development both at the conceptual and the lingual level.
Talking about the artists of the successive generations, two artists of calibre draw our attention. Of the two artists, Banamali Sharma is based at Imphal in Manipur, and the other, Ganesh Gohain hailing from Assam is presently based at Baroda. Banamali Sharma of Manipur belongs to that category of sculptors who go for the indigenizing trend by using indigenous material, themes and techniques. A pointer to this approach is his Maya Series. He seems to be spiritually and ontologically inclined as evident in this series of Sculptural installation. An eclectic ontological quest charged by existentialist phenomenology and Vedanta epistemology seem to be manifested in these works. At times his works convey messages of the Heideggerean Being and Time, and at other, uphold the principle of cosmic illusion of the Vedantic Maya. This entire dialectics of Physicality/Metaphysicality or the Masculinity/Femininity (a take-on of Purusha-Prakrity of Sankhya?) of the world /time-space is translated into certain signifiers and motifs like a bamboo mattress, entwined ropes, bamboo poles, hand woven textile etc -- all take-offs from indigenous material and cultural rites. Interpolation of material as metaphor is the strategy here. This ontological/existential quest of Banamali as seen in his translation into sculptural experimentation is also about the condition of being in betwixt and between. Taking recourse to cultural signifier/symbolisms and transposing them to broader avenues of life to further their universal meaning seems to be the artistic strategy of Banamali Sharma.
Sculptor Ganesh Gohain shares a similar metaphysical quest but manifests a finer lingual sophistication and innovation. Be it the Baul-like mystique of mind or Buddhist monk-like incantations of certain typological series with recurrent metaphors and signifiers evolving into a conceptual language of art, this sculptor-painter's discourse seems to be philosophically contemplative. With professional training in centres like Fine arts faculty of MSU, Baroda, Glasgow school of art, or Berllandery sculpture workshop, Wales, UK, Ecole Superieure Des Beaux Arts, Le Mans, France and the initial study in the college of Arts and Crafts, Guwahati, Assam; Ganesh Gohain, who emerged in the Indian art scene during the mid nineteen-nineties, has been fervently mastering the fine skills of the sculptural hands. Whenever we see his works we see in them a triadic relation of the spiritual, cultural and the personal. The interplay of physical/metaphysical, real/surreal in his renderings speaks about a covert transcendentalist. Certain recurrent motifs a foot, eggs, trees in their web-like formations, a solemn meditative face, door frames, chair, etc. springing up as some personal iconography gathered in the process of the lived-experiences can be seen in his artistic oeuvre. At times we see the re-location and re-collection of your past/previous works as in The Table or Letter to Father. His works like “The seed becomes Mountain” seem to contemplate on the dual identity of any being or object. It is indeed an interesting contemplation as to how multiple or dual realities co-exist within the deep recess of human self/psyche, and how identity emerges as a complex formation of transformation/ transmutation and various reductions / deductions. From Homer to Ulysses, Sartre to Tarkovsky, the concept of “Home” as a phenomenological, intra-psychic, multi-dimensional experience has been a much speculated subject. In some of his works such as “In my bag”, we see a similar kind of speculation. The work signifies the urge to carry on ones “Homes” in the bags, the cultural and geo-political baggage that we carry in our shoulders and the eternal quest for the home in the process of migration and the trans-migration of human race. At times it also acts like the mirror of the Self, a complex terrain of multiple implications and possibilities in the existential predicaments. Ganesh Gohain also seems to adhere to the notion of “Material-as-Metaphor” or this belief that sculptural material has/ ought to have a metaphysical meaning of its own. Therefore for him, the stone is the painted polyester resin. Mapping his artistic transition from the “Nine Pots”, “White Coffee Blue pillows” to “Letters to Father' or the “The Road Which I Passed Through” one can observe a lingual inclination to a minimalist/ conceptual/ abstractionist mode of expression. One can also see an inherent link between the various simplistic/ minimalist/ abstractionist kind of traditional sculptures, the iconographies, the simple, un ornate architecture, or various cultural forms of his native place Assam and his gamut of lingual expression. The central place of worship in the inner precinct of the Kamakhya temple where we find no idol but a dark sacred pool of water called the Yoni of the Goddess or the Shiva Linga of the Shivdoul of Shivsagar are for us some of the finest examples of such abstractionist imagination. For artist Ganesh Gohain, past, present and future seems a continuum of being , be it in the historical/ cultural level, socio-political level (“Torso from Vadodara”) or in the personal and collective sphere.
It might sound like a cliché and a direct take-off from those glossy tourist handbills, but one is undoubtedly overwhelmed by the richness and diversity of the traditional sculptural rendering of the “Folk/ Tribal Craftsmen” of the different indigenous people and culture groups of the North-Eastern region. One can really get wonderstruck by their usage of material, the deft handling of the medium, its fine execution and their imaginative splendour. Compared to the realm of traditional manuscript painting which grew under the patronage of royal courts and religious institutions like Vaishnavite monasteries called Satra, sculptural rendering was more expansive and predominating in the public space. But surprisingly, when it comes to the “Modern” art scenario, one can see a predominance of the painting over sculpture with comparatively fewer artists opting for the latter. Historically speaking, it was perhaps at the seventies only when a few sculptors of significance emerged on the scene bringing in a new mode of expression. Artists like Shobha Brahma, Sonaram Nath, Pranabendu Bikash Dhar, Atul Chandra Baruah, Saleha Ahmed, Dipika Saha and others who were mostly trained in Santineketan or Baroda and came back to the region to continue their pursuits, ushered in the trend of the formalist international modern in terms of both figurative and abstract expression. As decades passed by, newer experimentations with regards to the technique, material and themes could be seen with the emergence of successive generations of sculptors like Krishna Goswami, Naorem Labango Maiti, Ruma B Sharma, Joychandra Sharma, L Raman Singh, Wairokpam, Naorem Rajesh Singh, Ratul Chandra Gogoi, Gautam Goswami, Sanchita Gogoi, Shiv Prashad Marar, Ejanbemo Yoanthan, Kumar Thankiew, Indrani Konwar, Mohan Bhuyan, Keshav Narzary, Krishna Basumatary, Srikanta Sinha, Nutun Mazumder, Asha Debbarma, Niboto, Lano, Onen, Ato Loren, Cavilzo Nikha and others. The demise of Bhupen Barman, a Baroda-based young sculptor from Assam was an unfortunate ending of a potential possibility… Nevertheless the show is going on and seems to be heading for vibrancy and experimental innovation.