When paintings silently draw themselves

An ongoing retrospective of artist Laxman Shreshtha’s oeuvre personifies abstraction.

August 31, 2016 08:40 am | Updated 08:40 am IST

In an untitled work from 1975, patches of inky black hues are punctuated by white, prism-like spaces that cleave the canvas in a meandering zigzag course, evocative of a moonlit firmament. The viewer cannot help but question whether the white spaces have been deliberately left unfinished by the artist, or whether it was a spur-of-the-moment decision.

This painting is part of the ongoing show, Laxman Shreshtha: The Infinite Project , curated by Ranjit Hoskote. The exhibition is being held in two phases quite fittingly at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF) as Jehangir Nicholson was Shreshtha’s close friend. The repository at the JNAF’s collection comprises 49 of the 77-year-old abstractionist’s works. The earliest dates back to 1963 and the latest as recent as 2008, all religiously gathered by the collector. Phase one will feature 30 works of art and the second phase will include the remaining, primarily the ones Shreshtha created from 1988.

The exhibition is a visual chronicle of Shreshtha’s development and transformation as an artist. The scenography of the works reveals how Shreshtha’s creative process altered through a practice spanning over 50 years. The figurative paintings of the 1960s metamorphose from abstract works comprising earthy tones interspersed with bouts of colour through the 1970s into gradually emerging geometric forms and bevels softly sloping away to form mountain-like shapes in the 1980s.

In abstracto

In his curatorial essay, The Infinite Project: Tracing Laxman Shreshtha’s Trajectory , Hoskote writes, “...abstraction confronts, in a full-bodied manner, the question of how we articulate, in symbolic form, some of our deepest experiences of belonging, alienation, curiosity, wonderment, love and panoramic sense-expansion.”

Shreshtha says one can never envisage what one wants to paint. “I am rather restless, as an artist,” she says. “While creating a painting, I struggle for a few days in the beginning. The structure [of the work] appears gradually, and I again wrestle with it for four to five days. Doubt is extremely necessary; I have always doubted myself, even once a painting is finished. It is the painting that tells me what to do; the painting dictates, it gestures. Thereafter, even if I put a little dot on the canvas, it may destroy the work.”

Born in Siraha in Nepal, Shreshtha grew up in Darbhanga, northern Bihar, and studied at Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art in Mumbai, before heading to Paris to train at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts; The Académie de la Grande Chaumière; and Atelier 17. “It was in Paris that my yearning for art became more intense,” says Shreshtha. “The ‘real’ education, however, lay in the streets: painting the typical street scenes and visiting museums.” Speaking of his rather peripatetic existence, Shreshtha says, “In the 1960s, I would constantly flit between Paris and New York, and was in Bombay only for a few weeks. I was then nicknamed jet-set by my friends.”

However, he soon left France for Bombay. “In Paris, the art scene was extremely competitive, with a focus on the results rather than the process or the journey of creating a painting. Bombay, on the other hand, had an unhurried pace to it back then; bonhomie among artists went beyond just meeting at exhibitions or gallery soirees.” His fellow artists would often discuss the depth and intensity of each another’s works, irrespective of their style. Shreshtha’s maiden solo exhibition was held at prestigious Taj Art Gallery in 1963.

Hoskote first met Shreshtha in the early 1990s and has since then penned the catalogue essays of several of the artist’s exhibitions through the years. The most significant dialogue emerged with The Cartographer’s Apprentice, an important expedition, and Shreshtha’s only collaborative one. “Ranjit used to share some of his poems with me, and I would willingly read them, mostly in the outhouse of my garden, which I otherwise use only to make watercolour paintings,” Shreshtha says.

“This exchange continued for about a year-and-a-half. I responded to his poetry though a series of black-and-white drawings; eventually realised in the form of The Cartographer’s Apprentice . This wasn’t deliberate; merely extempore, and we didn’t even have the idea of a publication or an exhibition in mind then. It was Dadiba Pundole [of Pundole Art Gallery] who suggested the idea of a book, and then went on to publish it [in 2000].”

Sounds of silence

While sauntering into Shreshtha’s exhibition, the abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky’s words come to mind. The Russian artist saw an unavoidable link between music and colour. He once said, “The sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.”

For Shreshtha, the spells of silence have always been associated with literary or musical affinities that have preoccupied him at those points. “An artist is constantly on the edge. The search for answers to certain questions is always on,” he says.

“In the 1960s-70s, I read the works of most of the Western philosophers. From the 1980s, I was drawn towards the Upanishads and Vedanta philosophy. I often listen to the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century while working; it has a meditative effect on me,” he says.

“Silence is important, to inhale life into the painting. Your search takes you to silence; when you are silent, it is time to reap.”

The author is a Mumbai-based freelance writer

Laxman Shreshtha: The Infinite Project, at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, CSMVS.

Part I: on till October 3; Part II: from October 14 to December 31.

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