Abstract images of life

Discipline, order and depth... they are the hallmark of Manjula Padmanabhan's etchings, which are meant to disturb and challenge. A review.

WHEN ALMOST everything in Nature is finally simulated and replicated, what is the function of art? What will there be left for the human mind to create? J. Krishnamurthi insistently asked questions like these, and the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem has conjured up some answers and gone into their implications in "The Cyberiad". Philosopher and sci-fi writer both seemed to be at my elbow as I looked at Manjula Padmanabhan's recent exhibition of etchings at Sundar Mahal.

Meant to disturb and challenge, her work teems with immediately recognisable images. She zeroes in on the mind's ceaselessly churning visions, achieving a steady focussing a dispassion that is both restful and satisfying. Above all, there is a dogged thoroughness. Because she relentlessly follows the logic of the line just as she does the logic of the concept she wishes to communicate. There is discipline, order and depth in her work. Supposing a future robot were to find himself suddenly faced with a vision of Earth as it used to be, and a fleeting image of a simple earthly creature - say, a fish. How would he describe it to fellow robots who don't understand anything but metal and machines?

This denizen of a distant place and time, who belongs to a civilisation which has moved beyond human control, and also beyond human memory, tries to reconstruct in his brain-machine the idea of a fish, with all its structure and functions, but cannot grasp its living essence. This sense of loss is almost palpable in the startling etching of a fish constructed entirely of wires and cables, plates and screws, and all manner of ingenious but necessarily grotesque attempts to create - not merely construct — life. It catapults you to a future in which Nature, as we know it, has been transformed into a synthetic experience. This fish is as far from being a real fish as... an image of god is from `godness'.

Abstract images of life

Manjula seems to have fashioned her `ugly' fish on purpose to show the human urge to communicate experience, which will, in all probability, persist as the breath of life even in our robot descendants. But `ugliness' is not a fetish with her. On the other hand, she diligently grooms her exuberance of concept to achieve not only pleasing symmetries, but also some exciting dissonances.

If her etchings of grass have captured the dazzling delicacy of the simplest plant life on planet Earth, her depiction of the Flute-Player turned Peacock, executed in loving and fearless detail, is a fresh and original offering to a god who has never lacked a sense of humour. Going further, she has fashioned a duck with tail-feathers shaped like toes, and an elephant with legs like fingers to parody the irresistible desire to shape all of the world in the human image.

Humans just cannot imagine the world without imprinting themselves on it, and Manjula's work is a tender and whimsical celebration of this absurd tendency. Other more straightforwardly funny pictures include "Ladies' Lunch", in which a gaggle of well-heeled, sumptuously dressed behenjis and mamis are gabbling and gobbling away. "Smoker" is an artist's eye MRI (Magnetic Resonance Image) of a head and torso with swollen, tangled-up tubes and pipes inside. Inside this `dharmakshetra' of the body, a war is going on between Oxygen and Nicotine, with smoke issuing in billowing waves from the back of the head.

Abstract images of life

Prints of a bullish drawing room Lothario and a tigerish femme fatale coolly interpret the body language of lust, without arousing disgust. However, the same thing cannot be said of the series entitled Spring, Summer and Autumn. A lanky male figure trailing puzzling draperies seems to be doing an ungraceful cat-walk/cum striptease.

Manjula's devotion to detail gives some of her creations an opulently decorative feel, as in `Blue Birds' and `Red Birds'. It has also resulted in the cameo of a tea-boy in "Chai". The stunted adolescent's large feet and gnarled hands, his skinny shanks in the outsize shirt and shorts, and his baby face with the dark impassive eyes seem to answer Krishnamurthi's question. Art will always find something to do about the human condition, which virtual realism cannot achieve. Where does art come from? She attempts to answer in four etchings of a human brain, crisscrossed with myriads of fanciful fibres, whorls and curlicues. The silhouette of the head, with the vulnerable long neck, the ears childishly sticking out was profoundly touching. One of the heads is painstakingly studded with tiny black nails. Apparently, an artist suffers the pain of experience twice over, if she is serious about relating to her viewers. And Manjula certainly is.


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