SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Approaches to the pictorial surface

ART

RANJIT HOSKOTE

CHALLENGING CONVENTIONAL ASSUMPTIONS: Vidya Chitre

CHALLENGING CONVENTIONAL ASSUMPTIONS: Vidya Chitre  

DRAWING is still widely regarded in the Indian art world as a subordinate idiom; however complex or powerful a drawing may be, very few viewers are disposed to accord it an autonomous position. They view it, at best, as preparatory work towards a painting; at worst, as a diversion from the demanding course of painterly accomplishment. Vidya Chitre and Madhao Imartey, in their joint exhibition held recently at the Museum Gallery, Mumbai, demonstrate the fatuity of these limiting definitions. They invite us, through their very different approaches to the pictorial surface, to question many of our conventional assumptions about the relationship between drawing and painting.

Madhao Imartey have enabled an autonomous position for the drawing.

Madhao Imartey have enabled an autonomous position for the drawing.  

Chitre meets the challenge of scale head-on in her recent oil-based charcoal works on paper. She tunes up the drawing to the scale of the painting, developing both the exuberant and menacing symbolic possibilities of her motifs. Pushing the drawing to near-mural scale, Chitre investigates a figure informed both by archetype and political experience. In her handling, the intimate codes of the flesh become anthems of endurance.

Imartey adopts the opposite approach, compassing the painting within the scale of the drawing, deploying various combinations and intensities of graphite, watercolour and Chinese ink in his recent works on paper. In these revisions of the still life, he addresses himself to the latencies that everyday objects hold, patiently brings to light the secret lives that their workaday physiognomies disguise. The versatile oval form that can act as eye or boat, vulva or leaf, is a favoured motif with Chitre, especially in a set of drawings that I would describe as caprices. Through the understated hallucination of these visions, she explores the transformation of vegetal forms into infernal machines or devices of transcendence: the eyelid closes on a leaf; hooked thorns turn into claws or meat-hooks; a spiky creeper, looping around itself, shows itself to be barbed wire enclosing an eye that is also the mouth of a tunnel.

In this suite of works, Chitre deploys an archetypal giant female figure, robustly sculpted and labour-ready in the Mexican muralist's sense. We find, here, a girl in a boat that rests on mountain peaks, the sky its sea; a towering cloud-shaper with her foot on a peak, splendidly large, like a female version of Goya's Saturn or the Vishvarupa.

The tunnel that leads elsewhere, the bore that probes depths: these images bear a special significance for Chitre. In the large triptych that dominates her contribution to this exhibition, she confronts us with a gigantic water pipe, curved to embrace our viewing position: its openings are shown on the wing panels while its dark cylindrical bulk occupies the central panel. The painting offers us three moments of encounter. The first panel is dominated by a powerful female figure, standing in the sludge that pours from the pipe, looking into it, holding out against its pressure. The second and central panel is an abstract passage; here, the tension between flat surface and represented curvature is broken by the mottled dark colouring, to yield a paradoxical depth. In the third panel, the other end of the pipe yawns opens; but its left-to-right curve is countered by an aperture inside it, a sun at vanishing-point position, firing a perspective line at us from the right.

Approaches to the pictorial surface

There is, quite literally, no end in sight in this triptych, which memorialises a quintessential Mumbai predicament. It references the lives of migrants, escaping to the metropolis from famine-hollowed villages and landscapes withered by cash-crop plantations, who lack housing and must subsist in unused water pipes. Metaphorically, this could be a tunnel into another world, an escape route; or perhaps the birth-passage, the unasked-for route of entry into the implacable world of strife, combat and survival.

Imartey pursues his decade-long fascination with mapping the inwardness concealed within the objects of everyday life. He attends, in particular, to the machines that underwrite our everyday existence, that make transport, communication, cooking, housing and clothing, among other existential necessities, possible.

Imartey's forms are notational and allusive. They retain the tactical flexibility to change direction in mid-stride, eluding the fossilisation of a fixed identity even while they disclose themselves in glimpses. Imartey delights in the quirky line, the subtle tonality of the wash, and the manner in which a quill or a brush can catch the grain of French paper or a knot in handmade Poona paper. His palette is a wealth of undertones: burnt sienna settles over one of his mechanical devices like a skin; traces of pink punctuate grey-blue washes; apricot and rusty yellow bracket the jet black trajectories of his linear pursuits.

By imperceptible degrees, we recognise Imartey's machines as bodies: their meltdowns and breakdowns, their fumblings and raptures are our own. These are unquiet presences, artefacts that assume the nature of living things. The tempi of decay, languor, anxiety and transfiguration overtake them, just as they do us. The typewriter explodes; the fax machine evaporates; a genie seems to gather itself up in a vaporous costume and departs from a glue-bottle. Is that a sewing machine with its smooth-turning wheel, or a horse flicking its tail? The stove melts, but not before going into a paroxysm of activity, jerking up and down in a dance of death or of sexual ecstasy. Imartey's superseded machines incarnate specific moments of emotional resonance, enacted in a domain that is no less significant for being as small and isolated as the studio.

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