Bose  Pacia  Kolkata
In collaboration with The Guild, Mumbai.
  27 February - 15 March, 2009


Re-Imagining nation through popular grids of geopi-ety/ ty

“If you feel no shame for your country you cannot be a nationalist”- Benedict Anderson*

“Patriotism in modernity requires peculiarly novel technologies of persuasion. Maps of national territory are among the most intriguing and compelling of these”

Sumathi Ramaswamy, Visualising India’s geo-body. 

If the state’s disenchanted cartographic imperative is surveillance through an abstraction Balaji re-imagines the maps like the patriot who aimed to weave a structure of sentiment around the nation’s geo-body during the colonial times. He follows the same patriotic “modern” sense of cartography where the geo body is available as a framed whole, as a picture*. But it also follows that the enchanted patriotic sensibility invested in these maps as pictures by him, brings to fore the contemporary crisis surrounding the idea of nation. My attempt in this piece is to read the works of Balaji as reflecting the fragile nature of “geo bodies” which is ephemeral and shows the tensions involved in maintaining its materiality. By comparing with the popular cartographic anxiety of the colonial times I would try to see how his works also deals with such a popular anxiety to interpret the nation’s map/ nationalism in the contemporary times.

Historically the “cartographic anxiety” both of the state and the patriot had always been in a constant tension in its production of meanings. Balaji adds “the sense of pity” to what Yi- Fu Tuan has charecterised as “geo piety”. He uses specific visual devices which might be called post modern in the formal level but they inherently also have the popular signage. The use of grids, frames, photography, text, repetitive compositions and attempts at subversion can be read as the post modern tools of visual articulations. His usage of soot serves both as a formal aesthetic device and a definitive signifier. It is used sometimes to close thereby to open up the hidden histories and realities behind.

If we have to dwell a little deeper his works are basically “textual”. We can read the textual here as also referring to the verbal utterance. I would prefer to read his visuality as subservient to the textual (verbal). Though the visuality dominates with attractive and consumable images, it’s the text which is the source of the imagery. To put in other words the visual derives itself from the quotes and statements which he utters. It is here that Balaji’s earlier engagement with the popular sign boards and vehicle paintings come to the fore. As an artist who had been practicing these popular representations, his usage of the text is closer to the sign boards and popular signs than the high art practices lately. If one is familiar with the popular sign boards particularly in the south one could grasp the context of these texts. The texts in those popular signs have a particular style of functioning both as texts and visuals. The texts are rendered in such a way that the texts themselves speak or represent the idea/ name they stand for.  Also the texts are primary in their function of signifying and the visuals work along to give an impact and its presence is mostly formulaic for its visual attraction alone. So if we take these texts as “textual-bodies” in his works, i.e. texts themselves standing for the idea of nation it would be apt to charactersie his usage.  The texts in his paintings are themselves the titles of the paintings. The texts are often related directly to the visuals but they often bring in contradiction/oppositions within the paintings. The texts act more as a pun than just statements in many cases. Significantly the pun which comes along though looks simple points again towards the popular mode of articulating opinions for and against the state polity by the masses. The pun is supported by the visuality where the texts are erased or opened up for the play by using the smoke soot. The texts like “mera Bharath mahan”, “India is my country” are the popular utopic texts in circulation through the entire stretch of the country in almost all the vehicles and popular signs. These patriotic texts are at once contradicted with its double and adversaries which bring the dystopic reality of the nation today.

Another interesting aspect is that though his work resembles some of the patriotic maps of the colonial period his maps are without the feminine “bharath matha” but textually refer to her always. Grids and frames are the devices which structure his paintings and hold them in an order.  His usage of grids might serve more the aesthetic viewing than the symbolic one since he draws those grids over the image and not as a ground/base/tool to build up his image. Even this use of frames in most of the paintings is another aspect which is closer to the popular signs where the “border” acts as a significant element in the overall composition and function of the boards. In the painting “India is my country” the frames are people themselves holding the banner “but I don’t own an inch of land…” Arranged like a border they occupy the position of the internal others of the central text of nation which is written in smoke emitting from the flying planes. The rituals of national day parades where the acrobatic planes perform their skills in writing such texts are downplayed by the popular banner of protest of the people. Interestingly the ephemeral smoke of patriotic text is bound to vanish in thin air and the relatively permanent banner is to stay until the people are made to witness at the corners. The paintings portraying the nationalist leaders resemble the patriotic images in circulation during the colonial times. But the significant difference is that the colonial portraits of these leaders were used for urging the nation/ people to die for the motherland. The leaders in his paintings though show a similar nerve of sacrifice and remind the nation also lament their struggle. The painting where the portraits of the national leaders are shown as match sticks flickering out is about the present where these leaders and their struggles are forgotten. It resembles the text book curriculum where the texts of the life struggles are drilled in the minds of the pupils. What is also interesting is the range of national leaders who have been selected. You have portraits of Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Rani Laxmi bhai, Sarojini Naidu, Sarvarkar, Tilak, Azad, Patel, Bhagat singh …etc. The ideologically antagonistic positions taken by these leaders are nullified in his paintings like Ambedkar sharing the same plane with Savarkar or Bhagat Singh sharing with Gandhi etc... As the text book curriculum nullify the caste, class difference in the national struggle for independence so does the uniform plane of Balajis paintings flatten the different caste/ class positions of these leaders. Such ideologically antagonistic positions are taken for granted as national symbols for veneration in the public life. In the painting ‘I hate India. I love bharath’ once again the yearning for the Hindu nation comes to the surface. Again the letters ‘I hate.. .’ are written through the emitting smoke whereas ‘I love bharath’ is written in a manner that they are to stay permanently. Does it remind one of the ever recurring Hindu nationalism in India? Does “bharath” textually refer to the visual body of “bharath mata” in the colonial times? The painting ‘deep devotion makes them disappear’ is another example of such ideas in circulation. The images of gods and nationalist leaders are covered in the smoke soot probably out of deep devotion in the Hindu manners. Politically correct, images of Dalit leaders like Ambedkar are left out of this Hindu veneration. The regular ‘arathi’ of camphor has blackened or made them disappear. The national leaders are seen in par with the bazaar gods whom adore the Hindu middle class homes.

In the painting ‘delete’, the text of the national anthem dominates the whole picture. Beneath it are further layers of a sketch of a teacher teaching students which is overlapping a map probably of colonial times? The word ‘Sind’ is covered with smoke or probably deleted by smoke. His attempt to delete the word ‘Sind’ now Pakistan from the national text and to give the text referring to the actual national boundary as it exists today can be seen as a utopic attempt to make a cartographic abstraction coincide with the actual reality existing out there. Can it be also read as the national forgetting of the people (both Muslims/ Hindus of now Pakistan) in the joint struggle for freedom from British? 

The map of India in his paintings is always singular. The “enchanted globe of patriotism which frequently features India, as if it is the only entity that exists on the surface of the earth is a powerful visual enactment of the patriotic claim of the singularity of the nation”(1). . The India of the earlier patriotic globes (colonial) stretched to its mythical extent and reaches and was left to the patriotic imagination to configure its stretch metaphorically. Unlike that his maps and text of national anthem makes us rethink that patriotic stretch into a reduced boundary with Pakistan separated. Also the soot which develops in the map is the ephemeral map which would bend and vanish as the internal conflicts from all the corners are increasing from north to south from east to west. All brings to fore the fragility of the Indian state to hold together the differences which were portrayed as blended in a unity out of diversity. If one could see a formal connection with the painting “enemy at the doors but anyways they meet at the end” and the painting where the map of India is formed by the soot emerging from the neighboring houses brings in some interesting understandings. Though both talks about the neighbors, the second show the neighbor’s house also emitting the smoke to form an Indian nation and not any other neighboring country. Who can be our good neighbor?  The patriotism which is exhibited by his works is in contrast to the patriotism which was whipped up during the colonial times. During the colonial times the maps or bodyscapes were always stimulating a positive light to fight, but what we find in his paintings is the negative and the failure of the democratic project in India. By remembering these leaders sacrifice an attempt is made to think of the glorious past of struggle for freedom under the stewardship of these leaders. Again the popular notion that the rule of these leaders would change the problems of today is yearned upon. Also is the loin clad worker/ farmer is the face of India today who has been neglected. As the work suggests “mera bharath mahan” the nation is great ‘but I am not’ and the work India is my country but I don’t have an inch of land. It brings in the problem of the displaced people, farmers, tribal and the labouring working classes who are within the painting but yet are the borders of the great country. His recent painting “common in their flying...” is an interesting take on the militarization of all possible spaces in nature.

His entry into the aesthetic is via the popular there by the intellectual and the critical gathers its subjectivity from these popular visible ideologies in circulation which have created/ addressed an audience which is receptive to these slogans of nationalism and Indianess. What Balaij does is not to restructure the ways the country is imagined but to re-imagine pitiably the (Hindu) nation through the popular texts of geo piety which are still in circulation at large. His repetitive use of the same compositional formats seem formulaic and he uses similar strategies in most of his paintings. But we can read it as also allowing a possibility to read the compositionally similar looking paintings talking about differing ideological contents. If we try to trace linearity in his works we can infer how he himself has taken a journey in understanding the concept of nationality through his works. The painting “when people become priests  ...” which is one of  his very recent painting comes as an antithesis to his constant visual engagement with the idea of maps and nationality. Seen in this are people wrapping the national flag in the different canvases in mass? It seems as though the people including Balaji himself have become fed up with the idea of the nation and are wrapping the very sign which binds them leading to a space of neutrality without narrow signs of boundaries and separation. The chakra in the centre is replaced/deformed/falling apart as kerosene bottles flying in protest. In the process of re-imaging the nation today Balaji questions the very Bourgeoisie concept of national boundaries and asks for a space free from restrictions and borders.

Art critic, Bangalore.


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