FRIDAY REVIEW

Old images, new images

GAYATRI SINHA

A STATEMENT OF OLD TIMES Rabin Mondal's work depicts a spectral quality and a claustrophobic intent.

A STATEMENT OF OLD TIMES Rabin Mondal's work depicts a spectral quality and a claustrophobic intent.  

There is a standard saying that whatever is reported in the press is news; whatever is not reported has not happened. One of the critical roles being played by the art entrepreneur in present day India is that of history maker. The museum's role, of acquiring a substantial body of an artist's work, documenting and cataloguing it and bringing it into the public domain has been appropriated by the private gallerist. In this way, the making of an Indian canon of modern art practice is emerging like a tentative jigsaw puzzle, with all its gaps. The most striking instance of this in recent weeks is the large retrospective of Rabin Mondal mounted by the Delhi Art Gallery. With this single showing, Mondal's work over five decades has been historicised in the context of his own environment. A founder member of the Calcutta Painters (1963), Mondal (born 1929) is a quintessential Calcutta artist, who has dedicated his work to a city at the crossroads of cultural and economic paradox. As a boy Mondal would have witnessed Calcutta's steady decline as a centre of economic and political power in the 1940s. Two decades after the Bengal famine and the partition of Bengal, the city continued to sag and bear the brunt of spiralling poverty. The Naxalite movement of the late 1960's was perhaps the political apotheosis of those tendencies. Mondal is like Somnath Hore in that most of his oeuvre has an unrelenting engagement with the dark aspects of human existence. Like his other Calcutta colleagues Bikash Bhattacharjee and Ganesh Pyne, who use different emotive strategies, Mondal is finally influenced by the city of Calcutta. As the crucible of his experiences, it provides the grist for the outward movement into a universal statement on human existence.

Old images, new images

From the 1960s till the `90s, there is a serial engagement in his work with certain metaphoric images of power and control. The brothel, the sufferings of Christ, the deep vicissitudes of power embodied by the king and the queen figures and animals, or figures entrapped in intimate relationships. The context is invariably the brooding theatre of human existence. Mondal renders these with a spectral quality, drawing on post cubist forms to structure distorted bodies and beasts, prominent features and a heavy dark palette that broods behind and around his figures with claustrophobic intent. It is interesting in fact to compare his work with that of Jehangir Sabavala, the other Indian artist who is committed to the use of cubist fragmentation and forms. While Sabavala uses planar divisions to contain and entrap light, Mondal in his Brothel series of paintings splits and fragments his figures to absorb and smother light, like the dark forms of a nether world.

Old images, new images

Alexis Kersey's body of large format paintings The Mutiny, described as New Company School Paintings has been on view at the Visual Art Gallery through the fortnight. Kersey's central figures combine the postures of yoga with a punk hairstyle, tattoo marks, junk jewellery and coloured eye lenses, like a latter day Yogini. The image of a globalising Indian woman who retains some of the markers of tradition is entertaining only up to a point, before it descends into humdrum repetition. Kersey is much more inventive in his mimicry of text book illustrations or painted hoardings, where the irony in the figures is intrinsic rather than suggested through a series of extraneous devices.

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