Art News & Views

The Almanac of Debian Delight

Rajesh Deb explores multi-layered associations in his woodcuts

by Nanak Ganguly

The present is continually undercut by a future which can never quite arrive, partly because in some sense it is already here, partly because it will arrive only under the sign of its own instant negation. How do we describe the practice of Rajesh Deb? Is he a painter or a printmaker who makes single woodcut prints? His spirited and agile interlocution of a lost world of 19th century Calcutta is ageless and tells us engraved stories of a cultural space as we read them again and again: bristling with drama, thick with dialogue, vividly rendered and studded with astringent apercus, submerged to the present tropes of our times. He takes the print of an image from the raised surface of a plywood block, from which the blank areas of the design have been cut away, and transfers that to a canvas. Wood and acrylics are the materials he most frequently uses. I asked him privately why he didn't use enamel, and he smiled and said "later". Texture is an important attribute in these big-sized monoprints, and that is achieved through intricate dividing and layering of the ground. The patterning of separate areas sets off these spaces giving each its own depth and providing body to the visual text.

The eclectic visuality of the prints that he registers on canvas leads up to the piling of some images from diverse visual sources on one visual plane, brought to effect in an ambivalent language of collage and citation facilitating juxtaposition of Indian and Western, traditional and modern, national and subaltern, sacred and erotic elements, between the mythical and colonial, between celestial and terrestrial, shifting the locales and characters, transferring from one time, place and genre to another, on a single receptor surface and later into a mode of articulation. It is an anti-colonial allegorical and metaphorical infrastructure put in place for the politics and social life of colonial and post colonial Calcutta. Deb's body of work testifies of how the production of Bengali cultic, social and mythological imagery underwent a major aesthetic and conceptual transformation during the 19th century. It shows how an eclectic range of imagery from almanacs produced in the 19th century, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century's changing world of colonial India, became instrumental in evolving a visual language of collage and citation that acted as a vehicle of cultural force, creating interstices between the sacred, the erotic, the political and colonial modern. In some of these collages, imported prints of European landscapes or scenery painted by artists from Garanhata or Chitpore (which often mimicked the 'art-deco' colonial mansions of their nouveaux rich patrons) are used as a background over which religious or nationalist figures are superimposed. To tactically reconfigure the images and meanings, (for example the erotic and promiscuous 'play' of Krishna or Shiv/Kali, often staged against the backdrop of idealized colonial estates of wealthy merchant families) - allegorically sanctifies these as spaces of divine power where the imagery can be consecrated as Vaishnava or Shakti images. The social commentary by the Kalighat artists affronting the colonial school's pedagogy of perspective and realism endowed the idealized traditional imagery with a more tangible and sensual presence.

Rajesh Deb's engravings are like masterful chiaroscuro, at once dense and nimble, urgent and orderly, light-hearted and dark; about experiences profound and timeless. They are like a live wire that crackles from start to finish on the page. The figures inhabit dream-like settings that suddenly appear: as landscapes that abruptly open up to reveal different landscapes, as boundaries that are abolished, and even as the familiar subjected to interrogation. Deb's work begins to take on the aspect of a mythic stand against that which is not definable. His protagonists luminesce through earth. Silhouetted shadow or a patch of light touches their hair and live precisely in its recesses creating a spatial paradox, almost sensuously. One sees the impending darkness like a swirl; a slow sonorous muffle blowing across the night. The brooding images shuffle across the painted screen. They seem to offer an increasingly diminished possibility of pat interpretation which gives the work its haunting edge.

Deb's fascination with the human form in various settings depict not only a reality but also what an artist chooses to look at, and his strong and subliminal feelings about it as metaphorical and emotional richness; a more focused and self-referential depiction that he forges with an unlikely coupling of intimism and expressionism. Many antecedents range as far diverse as patriarchy, subjugation and gender. But the artist's unconscious seems responsible for some of the subtler and pleasurable elements in his carefully modulated carvings. His Barthesian touches are merely teases. He seduces the ominous, but delivers the fantastical in turns and the manipulated universe/text of this into a very familiar delightful terrain. He stifles us with all conscience, a blackness that can go by labels like superstition, avarice, bigotry, among so many other blinding compulsions. It lays bare impossible vulnerabilities, opens out crazed landscapes of abuse and love. Where has it all come from?

The works embody a strong sense of theatre. For the most part scenes are depicted from a low vantage point, so that the figures loom over the viewer, mythic in stature. On occasion, the viewer cannot help feeling that the proscenium has broken down, not to let the viewer enter, but to permit an entry from the wings. The diagram that joins the matrices is never an optical effect, which appears as chance, accident or the involvement of figures that are isolated despite the subtlety of their combinations. The important fact is that they do not consign the figure to immobility but on the contrary, render sensible a kind of progression. Despite the dark underpinning of some of Deb's images, there is a fluid, ochre-infused optimism. Where do such images come from, we ask ourselves, what is the porosity of such limits? And how do they necessarily exclude, downgrade, deprecate, demonize, or dehumanize the “other”.

The painted spaces are zany and visionary as if the artist was suddenly possessed with ideas and just had to get them drawn. Deb masses an enormous amount of content on a tiny act as he tries to encompass the phenomenological implications of his concerns and beliefs. The diagrams are complex and somewhat look impenetrable like they may collapse under their own weight. The printmaker loves tangents, starkness, incompletion and reversals that intrigue. He invents thoughts, turns it inside out, takes unexpected turns and juxtaposes different ideas in order to create new perceptions of the world. He layers information the way other artists layer materials. He takes us on an amazing journey that is lucid if not brilliant keeping in mind that the key to any successful conceptually based art is to be able to ingrain thought in material. Otherwise everything's just a dream.

Rajesh Deb's larger works are both more ambitious and more complete. Here subtle eroticism in unlike the knowing voyeurism of Balthus, or any aggressive sexuality, his protagonists are always seemingly unaware of the sensuality they radiate. The characters themselves are stiff by comparison, strangely static, despite their contorted postures. The application of colour also reveals distinct purposes, where paint produces a kind of textual differentiation enumerating various forms and corresponding traditions. Deb plots a definite silhouette which encompasses formal structures, with the thick paint body seeming less important than tone and shadow set against deeper shadow. Marking points where their forms reflect, intersect or overlap, the frame within the frame diverges instead of converging. An eerie atmosphere outweighs specific meaning. Trailing floral or absurd Blake-like veins that intrude from the edge of the picture undermine any sense of crude naturalism, forcing the viewer to recognize in the work a world of symbols and subjects. The intensity with which Deb forms the small and enticing objects in the paintings (prints!) further emphasizes the metaphor in them.

Deb employs with a clinical detachment of a subjective apparatus not as a passive spectator but as a critical insider who controls the 'plot' through the media of realism. As in previous works, he peppers the grounds with smudges and smears of paint on the wood block that he engraves, conveying the pebbled structure of a coastal flat at low tide.

Deb's readings and contemplations are surely brought into his works surreptitiously. They are not mere studies or drawings but concentrated expressions of a precocious talent. His works are never cataclysmic and for the most part there is predictability and containment in the form of his core images. They coax frenzy that is held within carefully balanced compositions, expressing a transcendental emotivity, a struggle so grand and precious that makes the soul tremble before the pulsating drama. Ideas arise from darkness but never give away any external signs. They are rich in privacy and inwardness. His practice is an act of his mind where the memory mode plays a vital part. His ability to conjure up experience and bring back the images of our metropolis through colour and through the shape and weight of the line and rhythm of composition are eloquent. One senses a working out of pictorial conventions, of attitudes and of free associations that swivel between dream and reality. Rajesh Deb's works have a exuberant narrative quality, as figures, both wraith-like and robust, take on metaphorical weight as they get filtered through swells and flows of translucent colour. Because we have experienced art only in the margins, we find ourselves not only alienated, but alienated from our own alienation; without doubt we speak in a feeble tongue. The critique of coloniality and the modern results in meaningful discourse. These images are replete with images retrieved from the times and spaces Deb has navigated inwardly and intensely. His oeuvre expresses in elliptical terms the wavering between transcendence and materiality, joy and somberness, solipsism and an inner spirituality that escapes the confines of everyday reality. The colours of the intermediate zone do not suggest the etherealized ambience of ecstatic release; they are imbued with an almost material weight and beauty of a colonial past.

His application of the paint across the surface of the plywood board reinforces, or counterpoints, the rhythms set up by the distribution of figures and the grouping dark and light masses. One relates to narrative elements and still enjoys the paintings as brilliant compositions. Deb is no longer the recluse printmaker but a theatre director carrying with him the concept of the whole thing. The theatrical, dramatic use of the light in these works emphasizes a narrative and the abstract chiaroscuro of luminosity and darkness of modeling, but there is also a use of light-accents to pick out sequences of movement. His performers are all shackled on stage, with torture instruments visible in the wings. The act of transferring makes multiple entries into his work and exits to leaf through the layers of the printed surface. Deb meditates upon the surface to arrive at a response that lends a sort of primordial energy to the work: a shifting weave of memory, where the gaze is intimate and incisive.

The text the artist nearly always uses renders figures tattooed with signs that are signs of emerging talents. Their truth is known only because of a set of catastrophes. There is no more reality that meets the eye, but an exchange identifiable in the dialogue to keep the record of these invisible events. Only in the dissolution of the subject do we know that consciousness is the ecstatic discovery of human destiny: not an originator or proprietor, but a fissure, an opening where you would like to grasp your timeless substance, encounter only a slipping, only the poorly coordinated play of your perishable elements. It is associated with living, living more ascertaining to life up to the point of death than act. In these entire works, one can see eroticism as means of revolt, not as an exercise of power but a tumultuous upheaval of limitation which may be called 'sovereignty'. They depict a meaningless loss, transcending the development of means, an escape in the artist's antiquated world of 19th century almanacs and street literature. However, this escape is toward the impossible world whose extreme limit assumes laughter, irony, ecstasy, and terrified approach towards the end - a fluidity assuming one form, another illuminating areas as vivid streaks of lighting descending into a light drizzle. A closer look at Deb's work reveals that in spite of their strong allegiance to traditional concepts and style, they have adapted with a lot of flexibility. These works lean inexorably forward. His approach is much more visual in its address than being merely polemical.

We sense that, even after prolonged viewing, we'll never learn more about the immortal stories that appear in these compositions. As with the Barthesian pleasures of the text, our hungry eyes get a tangible pleasure, and the narrative is almost beside the point.'

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