Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

SIGNS : January 14, 2001

Symbolic realities

Ranjit Hoskot

"Sour Grapes" by Atul Dodiya, 1997, Acrylic on canvas.

The reclining Vishnu who forms the central image of Atul Dodiya's painting "Sour Grapes" is a visual quote taken from a South Indian oleograph that the artist found in a Bombay street-vendor's display. Dodiya enters the canvas by portraying himself through a mock-Cubist self-portrait, impersonating the lotus-borne demiurge Brahma emerging from Vishnu's navel. This painting acts as an allegory of the creative process and registers the artist's fascination with the activity of dreaming as a mode of creativity. Its vivid images fuse the phenomenon of sleep with that of conception. The painting is constructed like a puzzle crowded with detail, allusion and sub-plot: ablaze with intense blues, yellows, greens and pinks, it teases comedy from the mythology of creation even as it attests to the complexity of a jigsaw reality.

This issue is dedicated to the collective processes of imagination by which a society dramatises its aspirations and discontents and to the manifold systems of symbol and gesture that are its expressive culture. A society's expressive culture is not confined to the productions of its artists in their studios, theatres and galleries, or to the objects of heritage value that it treasures in its archives and museums. It is, rather, a public relay of signs that operates at a variety of levels, ranging from the načve to the sophisticated, the direct to the allusive, the archetypal to the ephemeral. It includes the mass-scale signage of advertising, the intuitive graffiti of the pavement-dweller and the subway artist, the swiftly-scrawled slogans of the crowd in the arena, the lampoons and lampisteries of the political agitator.

It is through the rich variety of expressive culture that a society constructs and conveys its symbolic realities: the realities of mind and spirit that move behind, around, through and against the material realities that offer themselves to the unaided eye of empirical reason. These symbolic realities are arranged across a wide spectrum of experience and cultural practice. At one end of this spectrum is the metropolitan language of High Art, which borrows confidently both from antique sculpture and cybernetics; at the other is the rhetoric of modernity that makes a modest tailoring establishment in a potter's village in Rajasthan style itself as "New Bombay Tailors". If one kind of symbolic reality in India is enacted through the development of corporate identities through logos and advertising campaigns, quite another forces itself on the public attention through the pictorial mythologies of historic wrong and redemptive vengeance set in motion by political parties.

Ashim Ghosh/Fotomedia

The construction of ethnic identity, the mediation of social or national aspirations through the narratives of fashion and popular cinema, the contestation of public space through graffiti and posters, are all crucial fields of attention for the interpreter of symbolic realities. For it is here that we find encoded the vital signs of the times, to adopt a Carlylean phrase: signs that point up the struggle between the mutabilities of public consciousness and the certitudes of official history, between the dissenting view and the establishment version.

In the play of signs, we watch as individuals and groups are sought to be manipulated by hidden and not-so-hidden persuaders, whether transnational corporations or beleaguered governments, local pressure groups or the mediatic structures of global capital. We see, also, how the persistence of myth influences contemporary life, and how the chaos of collective behaviour falls finally into a pattern of archetypal order. The sign, in its various avatars, bears visible testimony to the larger transactions and upheavals going on behind the scenes known as society, economy, polity and culture.

The sign might occur as the briefest, most intense of revelations: the profile of a black-marble Vishnu glimpsed in the lamp-lit darkness of a temple sanctum in South India, enshrined in Arun Khopkar's meditation on light and looking, in which he indicates the recovery of a deep experience of vision from before the epoch when artificial illumination dispelled the mystery of the dark.

M. Anand
A roadside toffee seller, Madurai.

Or then, the sign might be the object of public, widely diffused display: the thousands of Ganesha idols that are established in Mumbai and Pune during the annual Ganeshotsava. Such is the testimony offered in Ranjit Hoskote's account of the festival, in which he savours the experiential textures of a popular religiosity in which the wonderment of faith is combined with political fervour.

The sign may be as febrile a token of mass emotion as the Mexican wave that seizes a crowd of cricket or soccer fans in a moaning undulation of bodies, and the clutch of posters that professional characters hold up in stadia for alert TV cameramen to catch. Sharda Ugra reflects on the transformation of the sports experience, with the camera staging the crowd as an integral part of the spectacle.

Or the sign could be as pensive as the century-old album of photographs, its figures and settings manifestly visible, but their true inwardness shielded from our gaze by an enigmatic silence. Vivek Narayanan dwells on the elegiac nature of the photograph and its relationship with time and memory, tracing the uneven evolution of photography from a medium of entertainment to a medium for art.

The sign can function as an index of change in taste. The jostling of popular against classical music for ear-space in homes, streets and music shops is a graphic sign of such change, as Jayant Deshpande records in his essay on the dialogue between the music of the salons and the music of the streets, showing how the classical/popular binary has always been more fluid than rigid.

The sign is also, pre-eminently, the badge of the defiant self that individuates itself against the norms and codes of society. Vidya Kamat links the emergence of body performance art with the tattoos worn by teenagers or rock musicians to affirm membership in a dissident subculture, plugging punk Gothic back into a history of the mind/body relationship that begins with shamanistic ritual.

Manoj K. Jain
The have-nots ministering to the haves? Street-scene, anywhere.

The sign can deliver itself as the flamboyant engine of emotion that is the Indian movie, driving and driven by the fantasies of its audiences. Maithili Rao addresses herself to the enduring myths of the Indian cinema, showing how they arise from its reflection of post-colonial Indian social history: the cinematic image and the popular reality are looped together in a continuous cycle.

But the sign can also concentrate its talisman-like power in the sly wit of a sculpture-installation, which decoys the unwary viewer into a game that turns out to be an apocalypse. Nancy Adajania focuses on the intimate, if also tense relationship between Indian art and its ambient society, demonstrating how the form of the Indian art-work has changed radically in recent years, in response to social and political shifts.

In each case, we see at work a fascinating interplay between the archival and the contemporary, between the perennial need for anchorage in self-definition and the quick-change exigencies of the present. The sign carries within it the distant impulses of the past, but it also bears the spores of futurity: it signifies continuity and permanence, even as it prefigures disruption and mutation. A cunning, protean and ambivalent guide, the sign teaches us how to see, even as it tells us what to see when we approach the phenomenon of expressive culture.

One Way Out

Part of what I am is in the road,
In travelling past the dusty names.
In the grimed towns that flash
Past the car-window.

Past the creased, tired maps I read.
In the red spots I see
A place in the mind
Where a teeming insect world exists -

Words that claw and tease and bite.
Pour out in sudden welts and allergies
In a final emptying exit
From below the skin, from below.

Gavin Barrett

Dinesh Khanna/Fotomedia

Light would not be as yellow
If shadows were not as black.

Cat walks between
The sun and his shadow.

At night yellow recedes into
Fireplaces and cats' eyes.

Yellow can cut through black
With blinding sight.

At night, shadows unite
To mask the sun.

Black always dreams yellow;
Yellow never sleeps until

The sun implodes into a blackhole;
Homecoming of all shadows.

H. Masud Taj

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