A cut above

Alternative narrativesRajesh Debspecial arrangement

Alternative narrativesRajesh Debspecial arrangement  

Meet the politically aware artist Rajesh Deb whose woodcuts tell an incisive story of our times

Rajesh Deb’s artworks pull our attention instantly and takes us into the dark ravines and dungeons of the barbaric Middle Ages and connect to some prevailing socio-political issues of our times. A chronicler of the Kafkaesque tragedy, through his woodcuts, sculptures, paintings, poetry, little magazines and handmade books, Rajesh says, “We are stuck now in a ‘tragedy of errors’, an endless cycle of repetition. Marx had written that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. We are caught in the endless cycle of a tragic farce, when men are transformed into insects or bugs, or are entangled by law without reasons and pressed for answer when they don’t know the questions.” Some of his works capture the tragedy of Partition that reflected in Manto’s writings.

Of possibilities and optimism

Through woodcuts of Hafiz, Kabir, Baba Farid, Chaitanya, Mirabai and Tukaram, he aims at bringing together alternative narratives of tolerance, hope and mutual understanding into the contemporary space. Among others, the series features contemporary figures who connect us to these humanistic traditions. One finds Mohd. Iqbal dreaming of Guru Nanak and Moinuddin Chishti and the American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King in dialogue with Vietnamese folk hero Nguyen Van Troi. These images seek to open up a dialogue of possibilities and vision.

In addition to woodcuts and sculptures, Deb’s watercolours and books are also showcased. Politics, literature and art all come together in these books, where he deploys popular and comic idioms to narrate the human condition. His watercolours comprise cinema panels of an imaginary film featuring Manto and Ritwik Ghatak and others. For the artist, woodcuts or paintings or visual art as a whole are tools to communicate his way of seeing the world more effectively and they are, of course, intended to jolt us.

Though his paintings, he focuses on the possibilities contained in another age. According to Deb, “The Testimony of Tolerance” series was done in reaction to the killings of Mohammad Akhlaq, M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare and dare ask why those old good traditions faded away. “The trouble today is that religion and culture are being made to seem equivalent. But they are not the same and have never been so,” said the artist.

One of the oldest methods of making prints from a relief surface, woodcuts have been used in China to decorate textiles since the 5th Century. It was later adopted by the German artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), French painter Paul Gauguin ( 1848-1903) and Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Having played an important role in the history of Japanese art, because of the changing aesthetics in painting it was revived in the late 1970s and 80s. Art has the power to transform, to illuminate, to educate to inspire and to motivate. Deb’s woodcuts essentially owe to the 19th Century print culture in Battala in Calcutta as well as Kalighat pat paintings in making politico-social commentary, often through irony and satire.

About the process of his woodcuts art, he says, that actually it is plywood cuts or xylography art for which he uses 4 mm ply sheets and cutting, chiselling and sharpening are done with 'Elison' (Japanese) and William Mitchell (British) tools with direct composition without any layout or tracing. He owes his technique to veteran artists Chittoprasad, Somnath Hore, Harendas , Keath Kolowitz, Nandlal Bose and Ottodix. His next project is on the Kashmiri expatriate poet Agha Shahid Ali and his book “The Country without a Post Office”.

(“Testimony of Tolerance” will continue till April 15 at The Art Heritage Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi)

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