Evoking Symbol and Redefining Space
by Sritama Halder
A printmaker's engagement with his work begins with the medium and the process of printmaking. Often they define the message that the final print is going to impart. Printmaking requires the artist to be rigorously involved, deciding on the role of the plate, tools, acid, ink and their relationships long before the actual art is produced. Pinaki Barua and Ajit Seal, two artists from the Department of Printmaking, Kala Bhavan, work with etching and lithography respectively. Their long engagement with their mediums has taught them that articulating a composition can never be independent of the medium's possibilities, unique and particular, which heavily influence the final outcome.
Born in 1958, Ajit Seal did his Diploma in painting from Guwahati College of Art in 1979. After that he joined the Garhi Studio in Delhi and worked there from 1981 to 1983. During this period he learnt the techniques of printmaking. From this early period he concentrated on lithography and this became a lifelong fascination.
After Garhi Studio, Seal did his Post-Diploma from the Department of Printmaking in Kala Bhavan in 1983 and joined the Government College of Art and Craft in Assam as a lecturer. He is currently teaching in the Department of Printmaking in Kala Bhavan. Here he has introduced platography, a medium previously unexplored by the artists and students working at Santiniketan. In the platography process the lithographic stone is replaced by an aluminium plate.
Seal's initial training as a painter has always played a great role in asserting his role as a printmaker. His concept first comes as a painted vision which he later converts into a print. Lithography demands a rigorous physical involvement from the artist and it compels the artist to revisit his conception in a different medium and space. Seal's works combine these two different worlds of painting and printmaking to create a new vision. Animal and human forms are recurring motifs in the artist's works. He began exploring the possibilities of these forms while his stay in the Garhi Studio but their fullest potential was realized when he started taking interest in Assamese mythology when he was teaching in the Government College of Art and Craft in Assam. Beasts and humans started populating his works. Their worlds merge and often their space is further shared by gods or god-like mythical creatures with wings, multiple heads and arms. The tortoise is another motif that repeatedly appears in his works. To the artist this motif bridges disparate worlds as it represents longevity in the transient world of humans and it also represents the god Vishnu. Myths, the unreal and the real, simultaneously exist on his pictorial space to create another existence beyond the everyday reality. This vision is created not only because of the coexistence of different worlds in the same time and space but also the way the artist treats his forms. The human and animal figures are flattened, distorted and twisted. The background is often an explosion of bright colours against which vividly coloured forms walk, fly, sleep or dance. The forever exploding and distorting colours and forms lend the works a sense of chaos and madness.
The works done in Assam are sometimes ambiguous in terms of their subject matters. Ajit Seal's interest in mythology compels the viewer to read these works as mythological stories. Forms serve as iconographic symbols to decipher and thus a man with a cow might be seen as representing Krishna or a man with a tortoise as representing Vishnu. But the sense of doubt begins when the figure of the man is replaced by a female figure. In one work the grotesqueness of the dancing male figure and the cow, the feeling of tension and disquiet sensed in these works denies the hopefulness and the sense of order that the mythological stories of a divine saviour tend to generate. This is probably why most of his works are without titles. The viewer is expected to react to these works instinctively rather than being dictated by the artist.
In some of Seal's works the body is treated as an important motif. The face of the white, twisted female figure with her arms folded under her head is left incomplete and there is just a hint of her left eye and lips. It floats down to the bottom of the composition through a landscape along with some abstract forms in a misty space while a tortoise floats down to her. In this dreamscape where the known becomes unknown, the slumbering figure floats helplessly without any active agency. With the distortions and the passivity of the subject the sanctity and power of a human body is denied. By underplaying the erotic in these works the body plays a vital part in bringing out the potential of sensuality of a composition.
In 2009 Seal did a series on a trapeze artist and this series is entirely opposite of what he has done in his previous works in terms of approach and language. In this he has used a photograph of a ballet dancer published in a newspaper which he has transferred on an aluminium plate with benzene. As against the manually drawn and painted imaginary human figures, the man in the photograph belongs to a real world with an identity. He is not a passive motif that can be distorted and denied. His body functions as his personal language, a medium of expressing oneself and whatever distortion happens to it is a conscious distortion from the part of the owner, the dancer himself. The five works of this series consist of different moments of a continuous performance. By placing these figures against black and greyish backgrounds different from each other Seal has broken the apparent continuity of the movements. The abstract background is either coming down on the trapeze artist or enveloping him - as disturbing as looking at a human body twisted and frozen for eternity. In this series Seal brings out the inherent anxiety of real people in the real world.
Born in 1954 Pinaki Barua joined in Kala Bhavan as a student in 1973. He specialized in printmaking and finished his Masters in 1980. Right now he is teaching in the same department.
His early prints were more about his experiences, visual and sensory; later he moved towards a close exploration of the medium's formal possibilities. Objects and figurative elements were given less importance and the artist's engagement was directed more towards a non-figurative approach by juxtaposing different shapes and tonal variations of black and white. Absence of objects and figures in a vast, empty pictorial surface was compensated by the use of texture which often created an effect of tonal variation. The negative space, in the process, ceases to be just an empty space but is instead transformed into a tangible entity. This practice of using textures, tones and creating a sense of tactile space marks all his later works.
Barua's early works deal with the arid landscape of Santiniketan. In his works nature is not representational. Motifs are chosen and rearranged over the surface and reinterpreted. Objects in silhouette emphasise the negative/empty space which is often shown as patches or blotches of pitch black with just minimal use of white. Objects rendered in white arrest the viewer's eyes and the dark background stops them from gazing afar.
In 1984, Barua, along with a group of friends that included Suranjan Basu, Pulak Dutta, Sushanta Guha, Rati Basu, Nirmalendu Das, Prabir Kumar Biswas, Amit Mukherjee, Indrani Barua and a few others, formed a group called the Realists. These artists attempted to create works that depicted the reality and hardship of everyday life. Most of the works produced by them reflect a consciousness about their immediate social and political realities. Working in the Realist group brought a major transformation in Pinaki Barua's language as he shifted to figurative works from his earlier non-figurative ones. His previous experiments with abstract shapes, textures and tonal variations were not completely abandoned but they were employed to create the background and the tension of the dark ambience that surrounded the new works.
Works of this period, which continued well into the 2000s, convey a strong political message or are about politically motivated incidents or lonely men and women trapped within claustrophobic spaces. These works have a mild theatrical character. Homage to Guha-Neogi, an undated work, is about the assassination of Shankar Guha-Neogi, a naxalite leader who later worked for the uplift of the mine workers in Chattisgarh and was shot dead while asleep in 1991. For the artist this was an incident that demonstrated the dominance of power and capitalism. The composition has a stage-like setting. All the characters occupy the foreground. On the right the dark face with its eyes closed is turned towards the viewer and on the left the people for whom Guha-Neogi worked look at the crumpled body on the cot. Three walls with a broken window and a ceiling fan suggest an interior which houses the situation. Different shades of grey produced by aquatint demarcate various planes of the room. Space in this work is never empty. A network of lines - the vertical lines of the standing figures, the horizontal and vertical lines of the wall, the horizontal line of the bed and the diagonal lines of the head - are interwoven over the space. Behind the cluster of the people and outside the window the viewer's eyes are abruptly blocked by a thickly applied black blotch. Inside the room a column of smoke thickens the atmosphere. The greyish shade of the white wall, the scribbling on the walls and most of all, the large figures within a comparatively small space, create a sense of claustrophobia.
In the works of this phase the characters do not interact with the viewer or with each other. Works like Parting Lovers (1984) or Perplexed Man (1985) show lonely individuals sitting silently while the impenetrable darkness around them closes in. In Perplexed Man the only visible movement concentrates on the fingers. This figure is almost entirely enveloped with textures, scratches and shades. The shoulder, the lower part of the face and a small strip behind it is covered with a layer of bubbles that is created by a mild acid coming in contact with kerosene applied over the etching plate.
Barua's current works have shifted entirely towards abstraction. They are about geometric shapes, textures, tones of black, white and red etc, lines of various thicknesses, scratches and scribbling. They almost always occupy a two-dimensional space. There is no hint of an all-enveloping, tactile space. These works are not about those carefully arranged compositions of earlier phases. These are more about the artist's immediate reaction to his chosen medium in a particular mood at a given point of time.