Reclaiming an artist of true calibre
When Vishnu gazes at you with a macabre smirk and two hollow eyes, you behold in this subversive humanisation of the classical iconography, an overlapping montage. Picasso juxtaposed with a traditional Vaishnavite mask, surreal intersected with the minimal. We are talking about Neelpawan Baruah, one of the senior most artists of Assam, the founder of the Assam Fine Arts & Crafts Society (1971), the first art organisation of the state and mentor to many young artists. Since his return from Santineketan to Guwahati in Assam, his native place, in the end of the 1960s, he has devoted his entire life to art, and has almost led a life of alienation far from the hum-drum of life in a place 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. Though his works were exhibited in places like Kolkata, Bhubaneswar etc, it was for the first time that his works had been taken out to western India through a curated show. Held in the Exhibition Hall, Fine Arts Faculty of M S University of Baroda ( 5th-9th Oct 2010) and later on in the gallery of the Strand Art Room in Mumbai (16th-28th Oct 2010) the exhibition was sponsored by Dharmesh Panchal and presented by the Black &White Art Foundation of Vadodara. The Curator of the exhibition was artist Ganesh Gohain, a well-known Baroda-based sculptor-painter and the text of the catalogue was contributed by Prof Deepak Kannal and Moushumi Kandali. For Prof Deepak Kannal, Neel Pawan Baruah has been “a relentless Nizora (the spring in Assamese) of Inventive Verve” and for Moushumi Kandali “a Romantic in search of a Significant Form”. The exhibition in both the places earned rave accolades from the art cognoscenti including stalwarts like KG Subramanyum, Jyoti Bhatt, Mahendra Pandya, Prabhakar Kolte Peter Bevan, (HOD, Glassgow university), Dr Deepak Kannal, Amitabha Das, Vibhu Kapoor, and many others highly appreciated the true calibre of Neel Pawan Baruah, specially his performative and experimental works in cigarette packets and matchboxes along with the paintings. Many others such as Santana Gohain, Sheetal Panchal, Kiomi Taulilkar, Moushumi Kandali were also present in the event. The exhibition paved a long way in showcasing the modern art tradition of the North-Eastern region through the works of one of its senior artists such as “Neelda”. The exhibition had been entitled as 'Hieroglyphs'. As for Ganesh Gohain “Whenever I see his drawings on the matchboxes and the cigarette packets, it reminds me of something about meditation, something contemplative. It is like alphabets, perhaps more like hieroglyphs and has a repetitive mode like chanting.” In his curatorial note Ganesh Gonain, expressed the objective and need to bring out such true calibre to the outside world:
"The desire of showing his work outside of Assam, the thought of which germinated in my mind long ago, perhaps years back when I was involved in one of his earlier solo shows organized by a pharmacist friend of Neel Da in the state art gallery of Assam. In those days of my early career as a freelance artist in Assam, I was closely associated with him and his art educational involvements. There are a lot of young students coming from various regional backgrounds to Baroda and Mumbai among us. For the benefit of these younger colleagues, it is important and at the same time interesting to look at the unusual process of his art practices and to look at the diverse involvements of an individual (He has an impressively diverse range of interests and experiences....) He has great attachment to the kind of materials he chooses, more to know his physical involvement with it than to get influenced by his own process and use of materials. The Exhibition attempts to get a much wider viewership. Personally the artist here is more with the dedication of a yogi....an ascetic who does not bear high ambitions to get a big name, but ambitious enough to carry on (a life time) for a creative pursuit.
Neelpawan Baruah's artistic endeavour unfolds a plane of intersecting forces, polyvalent vision, ranging a multi-stylistic approach the figurative / abstract / cubist / expressionistic / surrealistic. Recurring supersessions and conflicts three dimensional forms vs. flat ones, the cubist vs. pure linear, the apparent monochromatic vs. the variety and intensity of colour, realism vs. abstraction and the descriptive vs. allegorical all anticipating an eclecticism in the pictorial language. Over the past four decades Neelpawan Baruah has been engaged in conceptualising, 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 M.F. Hussein's 'Splash Front Page' (1991), but this experiment is indeed significant in itself. These innovative attempts in the match boxes, cigarettes packets and newspapers speak about the painstaking search for the immense possibilities of forms and designs, speak volumes about an endeavour surcharged with an endless quest for something which can be transformed to an altogether novel object d' art. These 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 various strands of his own artistic idiom and vocabulary with 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 indicate a lack of artistic confidence, but rather speaks of an innate urge to search.
Carrying on the legacy
If senior artist like Neel Pawan Baruah's artistic calibre drew attention of critics in the art circles in the “mainstream” India, Aditi Chakravarty, a young artist hailing from this region, was selected to showcase her works outside the country in an exhibition curated by painter-sculptor Rabindra Verma. The exhibition was held at Centro Culturale Altinate / San Gaetano, Italy, from 4th to 29th September 2010. Flavio Zanonato, Mayor of Padua, who also was the sponsor, inaugurated the exhibition. Works of 30 Indian artists (170 works in total) comprising both veterans and upcoming ones were included in the show. Some of the participating artists were Vilas Shinde, K Damodaran, Paramjeet Singh, Jin Sook Shinde and others. Aditi, who has been working in different media like graphics, digital art and painting in various lingual expressions for the last few years, rendered some abstractionist mode of works in the exhibition. These abstractionist renderings delved into the natural/ psychological/metaphysical realms through various shades of colour and tonal gradation in the pictorial space.