‘Forest Mark’ an exhibition of paintings by K. Nataraj is rooted in a symbolism that is popular and personal
Communicating through art calls for balance. The artist must choose a symbol that immediately strikes a chord with the viewer, but do it in such a way that he or she does not give rise to a cliché. Often there is a tale behind a painting and the viewer needs to talk to the artist to get the whole story out. This is especially the case with political art and symbolism. A recent exhibition of paintings by K. Nataraj was an example of art that could elevate you to a different level of experience while still leaving enough mystery to make you curious about the deeper shades of meaning.
Bred in the Chennai school, Nataraj’s art gives voice to the marginalised and is rooted in a symbolism that is popular and personal: the forest, forest dwellers, horse, Ekalaiva and so on.
On entering the gallery itself, the viewer is enveloped in purple-blue-green forest colours and transported to a world of secrets and slow time. But the reference to the forest is not just skin deep. In every painting, layer after translucent layer reveals the forest, and many stories of exultation, pain, deprivation, discovery and mystery unfold on examination.
‘Forest Mark’ is a solo exhibition of 20 paintings by Nataraj at Art House gallery — a testament to his deftness in handling the subject of histories of the marginalised. Even earlier, Nataraj’s work has had a connection to the village and culture of his memory, and in some ways he is unable to shake off the resemblance to his earlier show, in terms of colours and style. But at a more conscious level, he moves away from the intensely personal theme of his previous show to depict the life and travails of forest dwellers.
Four paintings centre on the lives of the Irulas. “There was an Irula settlement close to my home during my childhood. These people used to go into the forest and collect forest products and sell them to make a living. With the destruction of the shrubs and leasing of the forest land, their livelihood was shattered. Many of them moved to the city to find employment, but they continue to be marginalised,” Nataraj recalls. In Ancient Darkness, he depicts an Irula woman with symbols of the forest subtly worked into the skin. A hood-like shape over her head forms part of the background, signifying enlightenment. “They are the descendants of our most ancient people,” he says, adding that the resemblance to a village deity was deliberate.
The other three paintings in this sequence are of a girl, Dark Scimitar; a boy trying to ride a horse into the forest, Forest Twilight; and a scene of hanging an Irula man, Hanging Tree. In Forest Twilight, over the silhouette of the horse is drawn an outline of a winged horse. “The boy is trying to get familiar with the secrets of the forest,” he explains. Dark figures of elephants and lions dominate the background of this painting, and one is led into the mystique of the forest. One can see the painter trying to depict the leap of faith, but the winged horse does not meld with the background to give just that effect. Rather it looks like it was woven in almost as an afterthought.
On a different wall and a different note is the painting, Body Bird; it seemed to me a perfectly painted portrait of the passions, the longing and the latent capacity of the human body. The layers of this painting call out in harmony and the painter’s command over his technique is clear.
The most abstract of all the paintings, Secret, needs a mention — a triangular dark patch at the centre of a swirling abstraction of colours. “When you approach the forest it reveals many things to you, but in its heart there are secrets, and you know when you try to unravel these that you are stepping on an invisible line. You need to step back with that awareness. If you persist, in trying to open it out, the condition itself self-destructs. That whole entity collapses.” Now, one wonders, is he talking about quantum physics or contemporary art? Maybe a meeting point of the two…