Art News & Views

Deccan Odyssey

On the serrated Road by Kesav Rao -
Previewed at Kalakriti Art Gallery, Hyderabad and
at Amdavad ni Gufa - January 20th to 24th, 2010
at Gujarat Vidyapeeth - January 25th to 28th, 2010
at Sabarmati Ashram - January 30th to February 4th, 2010 - from 11 a.m to 7 p.m
at Lalit Kala Akademi February 24th to 3rd March 2010 from 11 am to 7pm
At Lalit Kala Akademi, Regional Centre Chennai, March 22nd to 28th 2010 Time: 11 a.m to 7pm

The Artist
Kesav Rao, born on 22nd June 1954, studied fine art at JNTU, Hyderabad in 1974. He went to Baroda for a post graduate diploma in Graphics in 1980. Other than painting and print making Kesav is a specialist in natural dyeing and hand block printing. He is Founder trustee of Creative Bee Foundation. His first solo exhibition was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in January 2005.

In his most recent works titled 'On the serrated road'; Kesav expresses the journey of Bapu on the turbulent path of freedom. His concentration in portraying the Mahatma emerges from an instinctive urge to remove the veneer of ambiguity that exists in this context. Most of the works have been rendered in black and white; some introduce tones of earthy yellow and brown. Sensing the need for a pictorial understanding of every inch of Bapu's face, the artist studied numerous photographic references true to the perspective of each work.

For Kesav, the techniques are relevant as far as they incorporate the image of Gandhi in a style appropriate to the contexts emerging in the series. His endeavour to represent him in the bigger canvas is essentially in terms of historian attempt to create greater attention to the environment that wrought the persona. The narration infused into each image contributes in making the portraits heavy with significance.

His extensive reading on the life of Bapu propelled him on this journey. He elucidates how the series emerged from his own need to take a closer look at Bapu's personality and draw out a clear contour embedded with details of his deeds. Choosing to speak in the expressionist's language, he clearly defines the series as not being the outcome of any educational impetus. Rather, the images constructed with force and sensitivity underline Gandhi's strength to transform his environment. The works delve into the diverse facets of Gandhi's activities and experiences his need to create strategies to face opposing forces resulting from the Tribal wars in South Africa; his journey along the rough roads of Satyagraha, with reference to the round table conference. Almost in anticipation of every subtle question regarding Gandhi, Kesav provides an answer in this series.

The compositions create an interesting segregation of the past and the future in the dramatic distribution of black, white and mid tones. In the absence of individual titles, anyone in search of a narration needs to look at the body of work in its entirety. The incidents, quotations and texts from Gandhi's life give insight and body to the metaphors.

There is subtle overlapping with his previous series of 2008 not only in terms of colour palette but also in the use of forceful line sweeps indicating tumultuous movement. As the conjunction of line and colour take place, the familiar figure of Bapu emerges. The introduction of a few lighter tones further enhances the depth of his images. Kesav ascribes the reason behind working with a limited colour palette as his emotional inability to afford a bigger palette range. In his words, “Constantly my outlook in this series was to have a simple approach. Too many colours bring in too many complexities and I did not want to lose the objective intensity.”

The body of work visualises Gandhi over a timeline and though every work has Gandhi as the core image, they are not suggestive prototypes. The portraiture and rendering vary for the many facial representations of the Mahatma, with every portrait different from the previous one. The perspectives change as different moments in Gandhi's life are touched. Simultaneously, Kesav has consciously merged the narrative with the imagery, and his pictorial eloquence heightens the effortlessness in upholding the relevance to the context.

The series reveals the flow of events in Mahatma's life. In the Round table conference, the man of the soil appears to be more of a moving exhibit. Dressed in his simple attire in the cold weather of Europe is a reflection of his mental strength. In contrast, the artist has rendered faceless people around the Mahatma as lacking in warmth for the cause he espoused.

The charcoal and colour pastel image of Gandhi collecting salt is an abstract, where the minimal details accentuate the immensity of the historical event. “The white cloth is never white. It gathers dust and soil,” says Kesav. It is in this particular image that he also brings the hand woven cloth so cherished by Gandhi into focus. The mass activity of the yarn being spun into cloth, of being touched a million times, reflects the identity of the Indian soil in its colour and flavour. An aspect that is poignantly highlighted in the selection of the colour palette.

The black and white image conveys Gandhi's frequent confinement in prison. The impressive play of light and dark the spectacles illuminated by the hope of a bright future even in the darkness of prison demonstrate the artist's understanding of Gandhi, his perception of the determined persona.

In one of the early works from the series, Gandhi is depicted in the stark whiteness of light against a backdrop of faces rendered in depth. The sole intention of Kesav in presenting Gandhi against such a background is to draw attention to the crowd that followed him. The artist's familiarity with Gandhi came to fruition because of his intensive reading on the subject. Thus it is understandable when he comments, “To me he appeared to look exhausted as he continued the effort to convince people, the sleepless nights of reconciling the varying groups”. In the painting, Gandhi stands out in contrast to the backdrop. Adding depth to the work, the faces not only give prominence to the image in the technical sense, but their presentation with wave-like strokes allegorically establishes the words of Kesav“When Gandhi moved, the wind moved with him”. The image wordlessly conveys how the platform and Gandhi were inseparable; being a part of the stage is cleverly conveyed in the infusion of the feet with the stage. Contemplating the image raises innumerable questions as one interrogates the time, intention and environment during that period.

The postures of Gandhi in the images, the construction of his physicality, make the series come alive. Graphic in terms of image text, the personalised rendering of the expressionistic language conveys the artist's emotional responses to the subjective nature of the series.

Gandhi is expressed in changing shades of light and dark tones decided by the artist's creative response to each composition. The tonal gradation is presented with a gentle sheen. Articulation of the image and its context matter to the artist. In spite of the darkness that the country plunged into during his time, Gandhi could envision the brilliance of India's future a perception inherent in the composition as a metaphor. The distribution of black and white is often dramatic and overpowering; the artist's mastery and control of the twin medium of charcoal and pastel is conspicuous in the varied tonal range and the well distributed white paper area kept pristine from the flying dark charcoal particles.

The conventional urge to be expressive and simultaneously select a medium for the same need not be deprived from being conceptual. The hero, the history, the adoration, the recollection, the beholding are all contemporary experiences. Context is not about appropriation of notions; the artist arrives at his own context. The works are not born from an immediate perception but constructed on intricate intuitive arrangements, impressions and cerebral images transcribed through metaphors.

Depicting historical momentsa range of dimensions of the Mahatma's life and his convictions the images stimulate dialogue. A portrait of Gandhi during his stay in South Africa broaches issues of how he fashioned his own ideas for self help and community living, later implementing the same values in India. Gandhi's principles did not gain ground overnight. The concept of self help observed in India had been initiated from his South Africa days. The three quarter frontal image of a younger Gandhi in South Africa brings Tolstoy Farm into focus. Of his commuting on foot between the city and the farm, his use of the walking stick, and his conscious decision to adopt an attire that was related to his way of life.

Though one comes across many portraits of Gandhi, each one is noticeably different from the other as they refer to different incidents spanning across time. It is important for Kesav that reference to a particular aspect of an event has decisive predominance. Essentially rediscovering Gandhi as a sensibility, Kesav presents images in some of the works with fewer strokes in order to maintain the essence of spontaneity. Some images are adapted to make an impact; certain features are exaggerated more as a spontaneous emotional response. The narrative too moves holding onto objects instinctively. The spinning wheel, the yarn, and the flames emanating from a burning suit jacket all have a contextual coherence in calling to discussion the Satyagraha “the most powerful weapon against all conventional weapons invented by mankind” to quote Kesav.

The whiteness in one of the canvas spreads like a mist submerging the black soil. Active and volatile from the sky to the ground, the painting represents the artist's impression of Gandhi emerging as an onlooker from the clouds. The placement is crucial as Gandhi was witness to the two tribal wars fought between the British Empire and the Orange Free State and the South African Republic in 1880-81 and 1889-1902.

This incident made Gandhi seriously contemplate the possibility of future fights with the British in the Indian context. Participating with like-minded Indians in assisting the wounded, he reflected upon the brutalities of war. The prowess of the British with their ammunitions fighting against the tribes with their spears and shields projected a very wretched outcome with the conversion of Boer Republics into British colonies. The war that lasted three years played a very crucial role in Gandhi's transformation. Introspecting about war in the Indian context, he mulled over effective strategies for winning.

The works invoke imagery of a persona who could transform the environment, but who no one could change. Travelling around the country, he wanted to know about the life of the common masses, to be familiar with their struggle, to experience how it was in rural India. The knowledge he garnered was behind his decision to give up layered clothing and adopt the simplistic attire worn in the villages. Different facets of a personality that the artist represents in his portrayal of Gandhi.

Kesav's treatment of the surface is intriguing with the blitz, the sky, the ground and the elements dominating the entire canvas. Cannon balls, rounded and voluminous, lie strewn on the foreground as an impending context. The yarn, the wheel and the women are integral for taking part in every movement in the struggle for freedom. Together they all weave a fine fabric for the musing artist.

Koeli Mukherjee Ghose




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