POETRY OF THE BANAL
Thinking around the paintings of G Mahesh
When I taught for a year in CAVA (The Chamajendra Academy of Visual Arts) in Mysore around 1990 (Mahesh joined much later) it was a new school where the students were given a stipend of a hundred rupees a month to attract them to join the art school. They mainly came from small villages and towns in Karnataka, from humble backgrounds usually artisanal: children of signboard painters, owners of small advertising companies, or traditional sculptors, whose introduction to contemporary art was usually from an enthusiastic school art teacher and from magazine illustrations. When I told my students to spend some time in the library everyday and look at art – they were shocked – they said won’t we be influenced if we look at other artists’ works? It was amusing that in spite of a complete lack of exposure to the actual modern art scene in the country, there was still, strongly pervasive in the popular imagination, the romantic modernist myth of the artist as original genius with artistic inspiration coming from the deep recesses of the psyche, universal and untouched by history.
If we take a look beyond the recent sensationalist writing about the “art market”, most contemporary artists in India have come traditionally from humble backgrounds and “mofussil” areas; art becomes a free zone in a way where you can be recognized for your talent and hard work and can rise above social limitations to form your own community. As an artist, you live in a state of heightened self-awareness, looking inwards at your subjective states as well as investigating the world outside, and trying to find solutions to the painful dilemmas and contradictions of life. The first step on the journey becomes the art school itself, with its sudden opening out to a world of sophisticated thought and unbelievable images. For most, it is also the difficult task of learning English, as most art books are in large part available in English.
In a canvas titled Edge of Desire Mahesh paints a black-skinned boy lying bare-bodied on the floor in the foreground, reading the catalogue of an international Indian art show of the same name. Behind him, outside, black skinned labourers scurry about on multi-storied buildings carrying building materials. The whole painting is framed by a wooden stretcher, which usually exists behind the painting, making it a sort of “behind-the- scenes” view. In his MA dissertation that he gave me to read, Mahesh writes of his growing up in a small village near Mysore and his passion for art and the passage to the art school and his influences there. People in his village call him “Black” (and in India as we know, being black complexioned is considered inferior, ugly) and his feeling of being a “black outsider” seems to pervade his work. Mahesh’s work is in a way, simple, literal, seemingly the naïve expression of a village boy taking in the tumultuous life around him. The work is marked by not a little irony, however, which is immediately obvious by the text and titles he uses. The gentrified black boy able to read the English catalogue foregrounds the labour of the construction workers who are incessantly building the monstrous cities of India. The title of the catalogue plays upon the desires of both, each on either side of the invisible glass ceiling that divides the literate and the non-literate. The exposed stretcher brings to public gaze the actual support of the painting and acts as an alienating device, distancing both the reading boy and the illiterate workers from the spectator, while putting them both in the same space.
One of the Mahesh’s constant preoccupations is with the confusion and angst of being an artist today; he repeatedly pictures himself grappling with the materials and tools of his practice, all the while trying to painfully locate himself and his role in the world around him. There is a whole succession of paintings of the artist at work. In the painting Let Me Paint Him… the artist, clad in T shirt and jeans, holds up a glass palette with paints squeezed on it, which reflects in coloured spots on the body of an old man dressed in a rustic dhoti sleeping on the pavement, resting his head on a pair of rubber chappals. Behind him there is a large white canvas leaning on a wall, and the name of a recent “superhit” Kannada film Duniya (The World) painted on the wall as graffiti. The painting works like a montage of text and image, looking at class, trade, artistic creativity and their place in society. Sometimes, the paintings are obviously tongue-in-cheek – where he is laughing at himself but also anxious of his identity. One called The Professional Painter shows a house painter precariously balanced on a scaffolding of bamboo poles, painting the exterior of a building. At other times, they can be celebratory, as in the water colour of a supine young man lying on the water like the god of creation, Vishnu, touching a lotus springing out of his navel.
The artist appears again and again, usually in recognizable self-portraits, but sometimes as an anonymous figure. He is always an outsider, not only in an urban setting but also in pictures of village scenes. Though he writes in detail about the rituals and flow of village life as being important to his work, when he appears in the rural scenes he is obviously an alienated urbanized figure who does not quite fit. In a large canvas titled Just for a Few Minutes of Light , he paints his mother lighting Deepavali fireworks – it is night and the figure of the artist peeps from behind a green wall, looking in, but not being part of the revelry. Cascading sparks from the bursting flowerpot create a halo around him, but also disfigure his face with spots. When painting urban scenes, he identifies himself with people who are “different’ – just as he sees himself as “black” there is an old couple, “white’ with leucoderma, standing against a background of workers laying and tarring a road, normal activities of a growing city.
Unlike my early Mysore art school students who were terrified of being “influenced”, Mahesh writes analytically of his interest in the works of Breughel, Akbari miniatures, Munch and Bhupen Khakhar. One can see certain compositional elements and subject matter from their work in his paintings. His works are narrative, drawn in a naïve style reminiscent of Bhupen Khakhar’s work, painted as frontal tableaux or with objects and figures distributed all over on a white ground. Animals act as rambunctious and unselfconscious counterpoints to the awkward human dramas that are played out, usually gangs of street dogs that are shown copulating, being fed, chasing or being chased. Sometimes the artist shrinks into an intensely inward state, as in the painting Fear, alone, shrunken and radiating anxiety, very reminiscent of Munch’s painting of The Scream. Popular elements appear in the form of film posters and street life to make a sly comment. In one painting, a multi-armed street vendor with a cap sells the books of Derrida along with torches, key chains and flasks.
I have an extraordinary painting of Mahesh’s at home titled Thandege Thakka Maga (Son Worthy of the Father) named after a recent Kannada movie. Figures are roughly drawn on a white ground with oil paint- there is a man dressed as the god Rama with a blue face sitting on a stone bench on the road, being handed a glass of tea by a boy in a Hanuman costume. A poster of the film showing a heavily moustachioed father and son is stuck on the wall behind. In the background you see the hind side of a cow. While it could possibly be a literal street scene one could come across in a small town, it is in fact a complex montage of different images that gives other comic or enigmatic meanings. Mahesh plays with all these possibilities in his paintings, working his way in a rather self-deprecating but sharply ironical way though the labyrinth of contemporary life.
Bangalore, January 2008