SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Figures out from darkness

ART

"Untitled" ... the figure has been central to Jani's elaborations.

"Untitled" ... the figure has been central to Jani's elaborations.  

JEHANGIR JANI has extended his artistic practice in a variety of directions during the last decade. He has experimented with sculpture and assemblage, investigating the expressive possibilities of ceramic, sheet metal and steel; he has committed himself to installation, performance and inter-media works; he has developed figurative suites in watercolour. In each of these, he has alternated between declarative candour and oblique allusion, involving his viewers in an unfolding drama of the narrative self: a self that performs its conflicts and irresolutions through symbolic gestures, half-veiled self-portraits, asides. A protean artist, Jani is dedicated to the exploration of expressive strategies rather than motivated by the desire to master a single style. Diverse as they may appear, however, Jani's formal departures are elaborated around a central concern: the male figure cast, not as the defiant hero who overcomes the conspiracies of circumstance, but as the survivor who endures the wounds of choice as well as the stigmata imposed by society.

If Jani's works have been veined by a certain romanticism, it is one that marks the isolation of the reluctant martyr, not a decadent flamboyance.

Significantly, the only medium that Jani renounced during his decade of experimentation was the one with which he began his career: oil painting. Perhaps he felt impelled to break out of its historical constraints, to escape the weight of the medium's formal necessities and improvise, instead, with informal, heterodox and playable materials. Jani's current exhibition at Mumbai's Guild Art Gallery marks a return to his starting point after a hiatus of 11 years. His concerns with the figure, with the body and self it incarnates, have deepened; he has acquired a flexibility of approach through his treatment of diverse material resources; he has acquired a sensitivity to the social semiotics of the image, by reading art-works in their theoretical and institutional contexts. As such, we view Jani's oils on the far side of a period of intensive experiment: they display that paradoxical combination of nervous vitality and confident repose characteristic of such a moment.

Since the figure has always been central to Jani's elaborations — in painting, sculpture, installation and performance — he has studied its strengths and vulnerabilities, examined how it resists and survives its conditions, how it disintegrates. In these recent oils, he employs a black acrylic field as his stage, with a portrait or group of figures set dramatically against it; or, in an alternative reading, emerging from it. Jani's protagonists include both humans and animals: the head of a bull, a group of deer heads, and male torsos that approximate to self-portraiture. Indeed, whether human or animal, many of these portraits function at some level as self-portraits, mythic surrogates for the self. As in his sculptures, Jani's painted figures are powerfully contoured; the strokes of the palette knife are emphatically impasto, and the palette is uniform, consisting of ochre, burnt sienna, Naples yellow, and whites of varying intensity. With the artist, we dwell on loci of specific sensuous delight: the light on a shoulder blade, the flick-away gesture of an antler, the blunt curve of a bull's horn. He has shaped this suite of paintings with self-assured movements that wax in energy; and yet there is an apprehension, here, of bodily changes and the insidious operation of time, of ageing and waning.

At first glance, Jani's images seem spare, austere, cut away from all but the most ancient shamanic contexts; on closer examination, though, they yield up several lineages of reference. Some of them allude to the artist's own stylised combinations of deity and totemic animal, which echo the slyly votive popular iconography of Kalighat; others rhyme with Joseph Beuys' early neo-shamanic animal drawings and watercolours, distinctively rendered in ferric chloride. Following these clues, we find ourselves inquiring further into the implied histories of the images that Jani conjures before us, the resonances they carry. The logic of these paintings commits them to retracing the male image at the intersection of several aesthetic and political trajectories, including formalism, idealisation, masculinity and a gay identity. Jani's exemplars here include the refined priest-king of Mohenjo Daro and the elegant Bodhisattvas of Ajanta. The present works also constitute an act of homage to the radiant, otherworldly personae of Akbar Padamsee's stately "Prophets" series of the 1960s.

Such references may well impart a deceptive simplicity of ambition to this suite of works. To the casual eye, it might appear that Jani desires little more than a nostalgic recovery of the monumental, even iconic single image of modernist figuration. That course of action would merely have led the artist back to the formalist, universalist and transcendentalist aesthetic that has been substantially abandoned by several generations of Indian artists, from the 1960s onward, including its early proponents. It is true that Jani's figures are not especially anchored in particularities here; and yet, neither do they float in a comfortably vague darkness. The background is no incidental backcloth for the staging of the figure's magnificence. Instead, its darkness interpenetrates the figure; their contest is fought out through brushy, blurred and sharp lines, and through the quiet waves of energy rippling along the velvet, planed-down blackness. In revisiting earlier concerns, Jani invites us to undertake a journey of retrieval with him, trusting to our knowledge that he has steered his figurative course by postmodern maps of insight, interrogating the figure even as he celebrates it.

To the extent that Jani's human figures in this suite are of an androgynous nature, we find in them a hint of the gay politics of representation with which the artist engaged during the 1990s; he now recognises it as a possible dead end. Yet, even as he steps beyond the potentially self-defeating defensive sectarianism of a minority (in this case, a sexual minority), the artist braces it in the mode of inquiry. This duality of attitude is symptomatic of the liminal space, the betweenness that Jani's figures occupy: while proposing a portraiture of the self, they also point to the permanent Otherness implicit in that self.

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