Colours of reality

Print edition : June 04, 2010

Indus Valley in Ladakh, 2009, oil on canvas, 60 x 36 inches.-PICTURES: COURTESY SHIV LAL SAROHA

THE Indian landscape has infinite variety. Like Shakespeare's Cleopatra, neither age nor time can make it stale. The major beauty of Indian art lies in the fact that no landscape is devoid of human presence, which gives it constant motion and an element of narrative. At the same time, the landscape reflects the artist's world view as it represents, evokes and expresses relationships beyond the iconic image. How Indian art transforms a landscape is evident in the Descent of the Ganga, the famous relief at Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram). It begins as a broad landscape and ends up as the Penance of Arjuna, a powerful narrative from the Mahabharata. When one looks at the Indian landscape, the distinction between naturalist and narrative art disappears.

In contemporary art, another distinction, that between the observed and the expressed, also disappears as every landscape is a unique blend of geographical features and what the artist chooses among them as an instrument of his or her expression. So the distinction between the inner and outer worlds also dissolves.

Creature in red and blue, 2009, oil on canvas, 60 x 36 inches.-

Finally, in contemporary art, there is no distinction between the abstract and the figurative. This is why the noted artist V.S. Gaitonde stated that his art was non-figurative but not abstract. A similar element of the non-figurative enters the cityscapes of F.N. Souza, the metascapes of Akbar Padamsee, and the non-figurative landscapes of Ram Kumar. For a while, it seemed as if there was nothing left to do in landscape art any more, and artists continued to tread the paths already mapped out by others. Gaitonde, in fact, stopped painting for years. True, there has been some development in the evolution of narrative art in the works of Bhupen Khakar, Ghulam and Neelima Sheikh, who have drawn on the traditions of Indian folk and miniature art, but the landscape art proper seemed to have entered a phase where only innovation seemed possible.

But a new artist has emerged Shiv Lal Saroha. Born in 1972 in Delhi, he got the first prize in painting at the College of Art there in 1998. In 2006, he participated in the National Exhibition of the Lalit Kala Akademi. He has spent the last three years concentrating on his work, which has won him the respect of galleries such as the Art Heritage and Art Pilgrim, which are known for their support of art that is devoid of gimmickry.

Crying goat and men, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches.-

One has only to look at his oil on canvas Creature in red and blue (2009) to see that his colour sense and painterly brushstrokes are reminiscent of Souza and Padamsee, while his figures are drawn from different artists of quality. But he makes them his own, as in his oil on canvas Black and white creature and crucified man (2009). It has a crucified man, the victim-hero, and the bull of the bullfight, or the image of Mahishasura, with a powerful impasto figure in front. One can relate these figures to Souza, Picasso and Tyeb Mehta, but his treatment of colour and narrative is unique. This narrative of the victim and the oppressor had as its starting point the attacks on Indian students in Australia. And it is interesting to see how these racial attacks are communicated through a chain of images.

Black fish in Dal Lake (Kashmir), 2008, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches.-

A part of Shiv Lal's originality lies in the process through which he develops each work. Often, he starts out like the impressionists from a particular location at a particular time, as the breaking of daylight over Shankaracharya Hill in the acrylic on canvas Black fish in Dal Lake (2008) or the oil on canvas The Indus Valley in Ladakh (2009). His treatment of light and colour in both these paintings gives them authenticity and realistic moorings.

Black and white creature and crucified man, 2009, oil on canvas, 60 x 36 inches.-

The important thing to note in this context is that he does not restrict himself to the inner reality as being the only one. External reality as observed by him sets the contours within which he works out a narrative imagery that the landscape sets to work in him. In his latest series, it is the mountains of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh that have provided him with inspiration. The outer world becomes the context it flourishes in.

Tabo Monastery in Spiti (Himachal Pradesh), 2008, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches.-

The narrative that evolves in his works may reflect a contemporary event such as the attacks in Australia or philosophical truths such as Asoka's transition to Buddhism after the experience of the Kalinga war. In the painting Walking Monk on Mud Mountain and Creatures, one can see lions and people in a melee, evolving towards the solution wherein the lions submit to the rules of the dharma-chakra, represented here by a river in human form, criss-crossed by a series of bridges that could be points in time. Among other images, there is the severed head of a goat, the first sacrificial victim, which was offered to the gods as a proxy for a human sacrifice; a man with a flower (Gandhigiri?); another with his arm upraised (a prophet?); and a series of creatures, which are basically abstract conglomerations of concrete parts, rather like the images of Ganesha and Narasimha in Indian iconic art.

Walking monk on mud mountain and creatures. This painting is part of a triptych.-

Unique visual journey

Beyond this, one enters the sphere of Gaitonde, Padamsee and Ram Kumar: the non-figurative landscape. Here, Shiv Lal avoids the Euro-American drift towards the minimal and symbolic abstract. He chooses instead a complexity that evolves out of the juxtaposition of the truth of light and colour of a concrete space, the figurative and composite forms it evokes in the artist who enters this space, and the interplay of textures and colours that catch the eye, and train it into a unique visual journey that becomes a narrative that goes past the immediate perception and enters the arena of the truth as perceived aesthetically by the artist. This process allows him to communicate both outer and inner realities as well as figurative and non-figurative expressions directly to the viewer. But without Shiv Lal's capacity to do it in a painterly manner, the works would never have had the same impact. His sense of colour, powerful drawing and expressive brushwork give his paintings a very different look.

Owl sitting onman's head and ochre mountain in Ladakh, 2008, oil on canvas, 60 x 36 inches.-

This approach to reaching the artist's perception of the concrete lure of the Himalayas passing through fields of colour and texture, images of sacrifice from Hindu, Buddhist and biblical lore, to the sense of what makes a human being climb the heights, risking both life and limb, to reach a level of profound satisfaction and humility in the realm of the clouds has remarkable directness. Indeed, an artist may go to the mountains because they are there. But once he sizes them up, he too, is on another plane of being. This is what these landscape paintings communicate most powerfully. Their context is Indian but their message is universal. That is what Indian contemporary art is all about.

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