A politician and a painter

Print edition : November 27, 1999

An exhibition in Delhi reveals another facet of former Prime Minister V. P. Singh.

THE exhibition of the drawings, paintings and graphics of former Prime Minister V. P. Singh at the Arpana Gallery of the Academy of Literature and Fine Art in Delhi, to be followed by another in Mumbai's Jehangir Art Gallery, is an important event. Its i mportance does not lie in the fact that a former Prime Minister paints or writes poetry. There are many examples of it in recent history. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used to paint. Chairman Mao of China wrote poetry. Thailand's King Bhumibol is a composer.

What is important, however, is the fact that V. P. Singh's paintings reflect the importance of a politician being cultured at a time when specialisation has reached a level where a human being is reduced to a mere instrument of the overpowering might of bankers. Their might is expressed as the globalisation of capital flows without any parallel let-up on the immigration of people in direct contrast to this. Money is free whereas people are constrained. And slaves are not creative except in their struggl e for liberation. Creativity reflects the degree of freedom a people exercise in making choices about things concerning their lives. And this is very important, at least in the subcontinent today.

It is as a challenge to this constraint of a totalitarian and monopolistic capitalism wanting everyone to fit neatly into a specialised slot that we can see the importance of V. P. Singh's works. They reawaken the Renaissance concept of a person accompl ished in various fields. And this reawakening necessarily involves changes in an artist's attitude to the life around him as well.

Animal Head, water-colour on paper.-

These changes show up in V.P. Singhs works too. Whereas in the beginning his tendency was to appropriate a moment in time, an object or an animal and render it in a drawing, a graphic or a painting in keeping with the colonial artistic tradition, his lat er works show just the reverse. His art is no longer acquisitive. It is an expression that goes out to the world today and in the future, reflecting not only the growing stature of artists in India and the recognition of the fact by a former Prime Minist er.

This is borne out by the influence of a number of our artists in his work. There is the crow of Anjolie Ela Menon, the abstract landscapes of Bimal Das Gupta, the flowing line of Bendre and the superimposed planes of water colour of Subroto Kundu and Par esh Maity. He has known many of these artists and has learnt techniques from some of them; but his expression is his own.

Street Scene, water-colour on paper.-

This comes out most strongly in his imagery. It is the expression of his experience and cannot be influenced so directly. There is his image of a small man casting two large shadows on a wall. The image communicates how, no matter how grand and varied th e accomplishments of any human being, the reality is only as large as the body is. This essential concern with the material comes out in other images too, for in art all spirituality hangs from a material peg, an object. Objects, both amounts of pigment or images, then express the artist's reality, just as handcarts lined up like cannons in one of V.P. Singh's more powerful works open up our eyes to both the organised character as well as the militancy of the working class.

In one of his graphics, a screen-print of ants coming together, we can see the collective power of small things in a big world, a theme that keeps recurring in his work. But the vision that overpowers his expression is the coming together of opposites in a single space, the very essence of motion not only in the dialectical process in thought, but also in life. When an artist is able to express this naturally and unselfconsciously, he can be said to have come into his own.

Untitled, ink on paper.-

In this process too, however, the artist exercises a conscious choice. He may work either to highlight or harmonise opposites. And the artist does both at will. The best exercise at harmonising opposites is in his water-colour of an animal head, where th e opposing sockets of the eyes and nostrils are held together by the form of the skull. The confrontational element is evident in his canvas of two shadows arguing against a wall.

The artist may do so spontaneously on the basis of aesthetic demands or on the spur of the moment. But once such works enter the world as finished products, they cannot just be treated as "pretty things". They have a close relation not only to productive processes, but also to society and the artist's perception of trends within it. An artist may not be fully aware of this. He or she may definitely "think" only with his or her hands. But even that thought is conditioned by individual experience of both society and the political attitudes in it.

Shadows, oil on canvas.-

In our age, anti-colonial, pro-poor and iconoclastic trends predominate. V.P. Singh reflects all of these. The handcarts arrayed like cannons; the street-corner worker being splashed by a passing taxi; the sacrificial goat; and the ill-omened crow, are a ll part of his repertoire. A particularly striking image is the "divided self", a small figure by a wall casting two large shadows or a dancer with one hand and one wing. It speaks volumes about the contradictory processes unleashed by man, whose creator and victim he is at the same time.

THE connection between V. P. Singh's politics and art may not be a direct translation from one to the other; but it definitely is transcreation. One can see in this exhibition a complex being, looking askance at the sharp dualism of wealth and poverty, b ackwardness and modernity, beauty and ugliness and trying to come to terms with it. We can see in the artist the man who some 30 years ago built a school in Koraon, carrying mud and bricks on his head or built a road to his family seat of Manda, doing vo luntary labour alongside the local peasantry.The artist in him tries to draw as many strands together as he can. But then the politician in him takes a stand as in a drawing of hand-carts arrayed like cannons on a battle-field. Indeed his best work is th at which is not just something to see but also gives one something to think about.

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