Akbar Padmasee
Arunanshu Chowdhary
Baiju Pathan
Birendra Pani
Chintan Upadhyay
Chitrovan Muzumdar

Dhruvi Acharya
Gulammohammed Sheikh
Heeral Trivedi
Hema Upadhyay
Iranna G. Rukumpur
Justin Ponmany
Krishen Khanna
Nilima Sheikh
Pooja Broota Iranna
Prajakta Potnis
Reena Saini Kallat
Reji K. P.
Riyaz Komu
Santosh Kshirsagar
Shibu Natesan
Sudarshan Shetty
T. V. Santhosh



In a number of paintings and collages from Picasso's synthetic cubist period, a torn-off word appears. In most cases we see only the first three letters of that word: JOU. The complete word, which we glimpse in a couple of paintings, is 'Journal', but the first three letters admit to other interpretations, notably 'jouer', the French word for 'play'. These synthetic cubist works, created in the years leading up to the first World War, represent an important moment in the history of modernism, and the incomplete word is emblematic of that moment.

Picasso's 'JOU' paintings defuse the Duchampian charge that cubism, like the painting that preceded it, is purely retinal. At the same time, these paintings retain the centrality of the image, and thus avoiding the route, ultimately arid, of pure conceptualism, just as they go beyond the purely pictorial. They are imbued with jouissance (another 'jou' word, from 'jouir', meaning delight) and playfulness - two ideas crucial to post-modernism. Seen in their true spirit, the paintings demonstrate that modernism is far from being the austere beast of post-modernist critiques. Also, the torn-off word, in its incompleteness, highlights absence, in a manner not uncommon in modernist art, but never adequately acknowledged by Derrida and his post-structuralist followers.

Playfulness, delight, incompleteness, absence, all of these figure prominently in the paintings and installations that make up 'Words and Images'. But the word that dominates the show is, perhaps, the complete one sometimes visible in Picasso's work, namely, 'Journal'. Most of the artists participating in the show have reacted, in some fashion, to the journal-istic overload all of us encounter, through news items, headlines, captions, as well as through the cult of celebrity which governs the mass media.

'Journal', of course, has another meaning, in some ways the very opposite of what is represented by the mass media. It can also refer to a personal account, a diary (derived from 'Dies', Latin for 'day', just as 'Journal' is derived from 'jour', French for 'day'). The contrast between these two senses of 'Journal', between public and private meanings, provides the impulse for a number of the displayed works.

There are, inevitably, paintings which cannot be caught in this semantic net. The brief for the artists was to explore the ways in which words relate to images. Krishen Khanna has chosen to paint an episode from a folk romance, connecting with the enduring tradition of narrative painting, so crucial to the history of Indian visual art. And Iranna Rukumpur's abstract canvas, which hints at the influence of calligraphy, is not directly concerned with either a journalistic or a personal accounts of events. The rest of the works, however, fit within the broad parameters outlined through the 'jou' analogy.

Baiju Parthan, like Iranna, evokes the calligraphic tradition through the use of arabesques in, 'H - Happy Ending' and 'I - I Hear You', but the letters he paints stand in bold contrast to the decorative background. Parthan forges an open-ended chain of verbal and visual puns within his binary works.

Birendra Pani attempts to set up a dialogue between well-known words and their private associations, while Chintan Upadhyay explores the iconography of Pop. T.V.Santhosh, like Upadhyay and Pani, uses Euro-American imagery, but his icon is a religious one. Santhosh returns to a Renaissance image of the Annunciation that he has used before, placing himself within the frame this time round. The image can be read as an allegory of the artist's calling, but the incongruity of the scene deliberately prevents us from taking the deeper meaning too seriously.

Irony, this time of the verbal kind, is also a tactic adopted by Shibu Natesan, in his depiction of a meeting of masked militants, of the sort all too familiar from the newspapers. Natesan's second painting, 'Linkage-I', provides another kind of repudiation of the rhetoric of violence: in this case he abandons ironic inversion for the stoic silence of the monk. Pooja Iranna's works explore a contrast between two kinds of private pursuit: one, the mystical path, which attempts to connect with the universe at large by looking within; and the other, the attachment to relatives and friends, and to the natural world, which Indian idealistic thought rejects as superficial.

For those who wish to engage with historical events rather than withdraw from them, the times are fraught with new as well as abiding traumas. Gulammohammed Sheikh sees his home state, Gujarat, caught up in a vortex of violence. Nilima Sheikh selects a few lines from the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, and produces visual interpretations of those lines, and of Kashmir, a land which is at once paradise and hell.

Arunanshu Chowdhury uses maps of India and its surrounding regions as a background to his two 'Passage to Mansarovar' paintings. The maps, which have has no political boundaries, evoke lyrical associations, exemplified by the images of geese and swans which verge on the sentimental; but the land also inspires more violent thoughts, presumably in those who wish to impose their own version of national or imperial borders on the map.

Borders define identities, or nationalists wish they would, but Chittrovanu Mazumadar's paintings provide a salutary reminder that identity is always multivalent. One of his canvases has a fragment of text in French alongside a portrait of a woman. The portrait is all the more evocative because of what it does not reveal, just as is the text. But while the work, in isolation, could be seen as a renewal of the old French erotic obsession with the Orient, Chittrovanu's second painting, starker in its use of lettering, provides a wholly indigenous, unexotic, counterpart to it.

The juxtaposition of banality and exoticism is at the heart of Reena Saini's ship-shape collection of photographs, and it has long been a concern of Sudarshan Shetty, who also employs the signifier of the ship. Equally exotic, for middle-class urban Indians, are street-performers, whose plight came to Heeral Trivedi's attention through a human-interest newspaper story. But even the most banal street or building has a history, which interests Justin Ponmany. Ponmany uses montage to examine the effacement and defacement of Bombay's history. Something of the spirit of the street also comes into the gallery through Hema Upadhyay's balloons, whose strings, however, spell out concepts which are disconcertingly abstract when they appear with the childhood associations her work evokes.

A final group of artists, as diverse in their preoccupations and styles as those whose efforts have been considered earlier, are united in this show by works which depend for their impact on the unspoken, the unsayable, the implicit, the word unheard. Riyas Komu's portrait of his artist friend Girish Dahiwale - who was among the pioneers of the style, now extremely popular, of posterised, photorealistic painting accompanied by text - carries a burden of personal memory which words cannot lighten. The protagonist of Dhruvi Acharya's, 'Hot Air' is immersed in words, but cannot find appropriate ones to fill the empty speech bubble near the centre of the picture space. Acharya is clearly addressing the current state of media saturation and rising religious intolerance. The inability to communicate felt by Akbar Padamsee's characters, on the other hand, is born out of a classically existential crisis.

Reji K.P. and Prajakta Potnis paint in a deceptively simple style. We can say, jocularly, that sparks fly between the knife sharpener and the woman in Reji's 'Love Painting', but the actual relationship between the two is much more enigmatic. The objects depicted by Potnis seem to cry out for captions, perhaps in the sly manner of Magritte, and she supplies these in her titles. But, while Magritte opened up an epistemological gulf between the object, its image, and its verbal signifier, Potnis works around this and forces us to reconsider the materiality of the object and its metaphorical associations.

In Santosh Kshirsagar's light-based installation, the existential meets the topical: both 'I' and the present moment are fleeting, the lights announce as they fly past.

But they may never have seemed quite so fleeting as they do these days.

Girish Shahane


2002 The Guild | All rights reserved

Find us on