‘For Sakti the basic gesture of life is dance’

Over the years : The 250 works showcased is representative of the Sakti Burman’s dynamic practice and takes the viewer through his mind  

Dressed in red pants and black coat and wearing his signature, bulky, silver neck piece that looks like a taveez, 82-year-old Sakti Burman has arrived at noon for a 2 p.m. interview. Polite and warm as ever, Burman, though physically weaker now is bursting with excitement. “I am very happy and excited about my retrospective,” says Burman looking at his paintings being installed on the walls of the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai.

Known for his dream-like paintings, created using the marbling technique, Burman’s fresco-like works easily stand out for their vivid colours, imaginary figures, small details and the drama and tension that unfolds on canvas. An art graduate from Government College of Arts and Crafts in Kolkata and later from École Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris, Burman borrows from reality, mythology, his travels, family life, religion and architecture to create a variety of works from water colours, oils, lithographs, sculptures to sketches.

Eight stories

The 250 works showcased in, In the Presence of Another Sky: Sakti Burman, A Retrospective, supported by Art Musings and the Ministry of Culture, is representative of his dynamic practice. They walk the viewer through the artist’s mind, his process of creation, ideas and influences. The show’s curator Ranjit Hoskote likes to call it an introspective, inspired by English artist Richard Hamilton’s interesting way to look at works. “What interests me in the oeuvre of any artist’s career is the different dimensions and hence for me the way of approaching the show is through different narratives and episodes and not chronologically,” says the cultural theorist and curator. The show is divided into eight parts or stories, which shows Burman’s different inspirations. In one section viewers can look at the work he did as a struggler and in another witness some of the objects that artist surrounds himself with, in his studio.

“For me the most important aspect about Burman is the idea he represents, which is the ideal of the cosmopolitan and imagination,” says Hoskote. It’s an imagination that embraces the diversity of religious experiments. So, you have a Durga, Buddha, Biblical narratives and Mahatma Gandhi in his paintings.“It is this confluence or sangam or coming together of things that is very, very crucial,” says Hoskote.

Showcasing Indian heritage

People often say that Burman’s works are a blend of India and France. The fact is that he really became aware of India’s heritage through the eyes of his French wife Maite Delteil. After they were married, the couple came to India in 1964 -65 and visited Konark, Jagnnath Puri, Khajuraho, Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta. This is when the Indian artistic heritage became real and meaningful for Burman. His early works inspired from Buddhist iconography like Buddha’s mother Maya’s dreams are representative of those early years of his career.

A later work, ‘The Last Supper’ is engagingly done as a set of table napkins. In the pre-renaissance period paintings on the subject, you see people in a ring on the floor. Leonardo Da Vinci showed the frontal view and here Burman has the Apostolates engaged as napkins. “A very central theme is portrayed in a wonderfully informal way. This is when Burman was looking at Arte Informale of the mid-1940s and 50s,” says Hoskote. Another interesting aspect of the octogenarian’s works is the choreography depicted in his paintings. “For Sakti the basic gesture of life is dance. So, there is the dance of the cosmos and the different choreography of deities, semi-divine figures and his family all coming together in his works,” says Hoskote.

The artistic family

“My family is very important to me and hence I guess they automatically find a way in my paintings,” says Burman. “I remember when Ganapaty, my daughter Maya’s son was born, he was in so many of my works. He was the first baby in my family and hence very special.” Similarly, many of his other works feature his daughter, his granddaughter and himself amidst animals and fantasy figures.

Among the works, which have never been shown before is a series of landscapes Burman and Maite created in the sea town of Antila near Malaga, in France. “It’s interesting to see how two artists that happen to be a couple, sitting side by side and looking at the same thing represent it in the paintings,” says Hoskote. “Curatorially, it’s a tribute to a couple that has been together for decades and it’s not just about art making, but about being together and love and warmth and sharing and sustenance of artistic life.”

Also included in the retrospective are sketches from Burman’s travels to Spain, Italy, France and India. The pictures of terracotta talisman and pop calendar shows what the artist sees everyday while working. On display are also a few patterns, which Burman created for the Parisian textile house the Lizzie Derriey Design Studio as a struggling artist. Hoskote has made sure to include illustrations Burman has done for books, one of them being a representation of Ravindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. “Burman was reticent about showing many of these, as for him these are not part of his formal practice, but just something that he did to survive,” says Hoskote. “But they are in no way isolated labour. They all make it to his paintings.”

On that note we walk out of the gallery to see an ecstatic Burman look at the vertical banner of his show unfurl from the top of the NGMA building. “This is brilliant, but I hope this show also travels to other cities of the country,” he says.

In the Presence of Another Sky: Sakti Burman, A Retrospective is ongoing at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Fort until November 26

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 10:11:36 AM |

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