Reviews

SOLDOUT SKYLINE  –  Atmospheric Apprehensions

“Open the window. Let the atmosphere come in” – Nanda Das remembers his geography teacher nonchalantly pronouncing every time he entered the classroom in humid environs of Agartala. Windows were promptly open and the ‘atmosphere’ filled the sweaty ecology of the classroom full rambunctious boys. Atmosphere was wind, climate, weather, and more categorically the southwesterly breeze that cooled the earth during musty afternoons.  In these canvases, Das has opened all the windows of his apartment tethering at the top of tower in the urban jungle of Thane. And the sky with its entire atmospheric flourish has stamped its being on Das’s representational imagination. The sky that permeates his apartment leisurely, soothingly and compassionately infuses with his canvas, transformed by the artist’s existential predicament.

The De-toxicological practice that Nanda Das commenced with his first solo exhibition was an unfinished project.  He returns again. If the original intention was to cleanse the self, this project is to decontaminate the world that he inhabits. Purify the air he breathes. Sanitize the world he occupies. Liberate the sky he dwells under. The de-toxicological imperative of his first painterly excursion was waterborne. This is his airborne expedition – an atmospheric voyage to rescue the very ether that embraces his being.

The present project is singularly about the firmament that encompasses his tenacious ontological reality – a universe that is, like his earlier project, a part of the fissured world of mendacious urbanity that he has hesitatingly made his home. Jostling for peace he only acquaints his being with a seething disquiet – a disenchanting foreboding that infiltrates into the unblemished crevices of his fortified soul. This body of work is a courageous intervention into assuaging that unrelenting disquiet that percolates deep into his existential dystopia of his being. Lost, but thriving. Disoriented, but throbbing. Disturbed yet determined.

Nanda Das, the humanoid, the citizen, and the artist is seeking refuge. He wants to live. He wants to survive. And he seeks sky – the last and only resort of a dead hope – undying yet challenged. But that hope is also lost. The sky that he seeks as refuge is already sold. Corrupted. Sullied. Commodified. Hawked in the nauseating market place of stifling capital. This project is to reinstate that sky back.

The atmosphere is under siege. The commodified spatiality of urban Bombay according to Das is not about just capturing space under the hegemonic clutch of capital, but it is actually incarcerating the sky. Das’s work aggressively gestures towards this transformation. Here escalating high-rises of the urban Bombay is eradicating the unrestricted gaze of the sky. He yearns to liberate its emancipatory gaze into infinity. Hijacked by the infiltratory penetration of towering erections, the artist wants to rescue sky’s unfettered fidelity. Das is in search for a sky that has a possibility of celestial deliverance, but is corrupted by the ugly effulgence of affluent urbanity. The skyscrapers are literally scraping the sky of its essence. Modernity has colonized earth, dammed the waters and now he colonizing the sky. The artist in Das is desperate to rescue this sky. He wants to salvage its restorative canopy. He wants the sky that is pure.

The artistic fixation with the sky reflects his tangible transfigurations. From living in low-lying tenements in the dense urbanity of Thane, he has been forced to move into the aerial temperamentality of towering apartment complex. An involuntary disarticulation brought about by the nefarious obligations of real estate insanity that is a perpetual propensity of urban Bombay (.and Thane, by infective infliction). The move dislocated him from the accustomed congeniality of a chawl. Earth, water and foliage that furrowed the four walls of his domestic harmony disappeared. All that remained was the clear sky – blue, red, crimson, cobalt, grey and black – an ever-changing changing atmosphere. High above the earth was just the sky. The changing reality of his life again inserts into the two-dimensionality of his canvas.

The dissonance of a retailed sky-scape rattles the politics of the artist. The scared refuge is suffering. And to mitigate the violence, Nanda yanks the sky back to the earth. And from the window through which the atmosphere comes, he tugs the vibrant tenacity of the earth as well. The gritty configuration of the working class – robust Dabawalas, Tongawala and concentrating Chaiwala reclaims the sky. Here they meet the beatific grace of Kali, smiling. The earth, the divine and the diurnal meet in the confluence of a sky that is perpetually persistent.

Nanda Das continues with his signature style of hyper photo-realism. But now it is just not an aesthetic device but it is also a reclamatory practice. He uses the photoelectronic capturing mechanism to apprehend the sky that is getting retailed. He makes it his own, by transforming that sky into a world of his imaginative universe. And in this universe inhabits characters, atmospheres, and climates, weather that gives his ravaged soul a gentle solace. Das attempts to resuscitates the loss of concrete connections to the objects of his sense to fill the existential void within him. It unleashes a flow of new perceptions that his sky-scapes manages to apprehend that the city’s skyscrapers are unable to comprehend.

Dr. Ashish Chadha
Asst. Prof. Film Media,
University of Rhode Island

 

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De-toxicological Practice

The claustrophobic urbanism of Mumbai’s metropolitan existence extracts an agonizing price from its citizens – stuffed in concrete matchboxes locked in claustrophobic futures; shuttling in local trains packed like sordid sardines, slowly rotting; surviving the ruthless and unforgiving city bursting at its seams, almost collapsing under the weight of its own restlessness. In this daily struggle for life, livelihood and existence, Mumbai becomes toxic.

De-tox by Nanda Das is an artist-citizen’s response to this noxious assault. And he has a simple solution – water – the life-giving, life-sustaining and life-purifying element.  For Das it is the cleansing property of water that can detoxify his being from the debilitating toxins of the postcolonial metropolis. Das effortlessly employs his painterly skill to freeze that moment of detoxification – the moment of contact. The instant when the rejuvenating energy of water gives relief to the parched pores of his tired being. He magically transforms the daily act of splashing ones face with water into a mythical moment when the toxins of a weary city dissolve into the purifying sparkle of water.  It is at this moment that the banality of daily life heightens into a mystical moment for Das and he celebrates its metamorphic impact.

Purificatory rituals in India are usually performed in the open – river, sea, ponds or lakes. But Das moves away from the putrid exteriority of Mumbai and descends into the tranquility of his interiority. Das gently descends into his own self-reflexive subjectivity to detoxify his battered being. He excavates the interiority of his daily existence to shield from the hostility of the pernicious city. He takes refuge in the reassuring zone of his placid domestic life. The centrality of the family emerges from Das’s biography – raised in a refugee family based in the verdant environs of northeastern India, after being uprooted from Comilla, East Pakistan during partition.  The family in his psyche thus becomes the only space available to revitalize, recover and recuperate.

This familial space inhabited by his wife and his six-year-old son, is the sanctuary that is at the narrative crux of his paintings. For instance in the canvas – “Mom! Catch him”, that exudes this domestic domain, Das’s son resting his chin gingerly on a sunmica table top, nonchalantly pours his father captured in a glass of water (for he is always away from home) into the reassuring hands of his mother, who is holding an aluminum strainer. This poignant narrative in a single canvas epitomizes the ironic anxiety of his urban existence – an absent father finally in the captivity of his family.

This move from the toxic exteriority of urban life into the comforting interiority of domesticity is a subtle political move. Here the personal is exalted as the political. Das reiterates the politics of the personal and emphasizes the regenerating qualities of the domestic. Unlike the contemporary fixation with the politics of exteriority, Das subtly shifts the focus into the politics of interiority. This is a vital move in contemporary Indian art as it reinforces the dialectics between the inside and outside, the ghare and the baire and efficaciously inserts the place of the personal as a productive location for Indian art’s political intervention.

Das’s choices of photorealist aesthetics as the medium of representation emanates from more than a decade long popularity of this idiom in Mumbai art world. He is inspired by the lineage of photo-realist painters like the late Girish Dahiwale, Riyas Komu, Justin Ponmany, Anant Joshi, and others who were Das’s seniors at JJ School of Art. However, he adroitly pushes the technical precision of the practice to an intensive rigorous level. Significantly, Das uses the dexterity of his painterly skill by making his photorealist representation enormously sharp focused. Here attention to detail is brought about by scrupulous obsession with accuracy. He produces a hyperrealist, acutely high-resolution canvas that is markedly sharper than the original photograph. In the process he creates a world that gravitates the viewer into the quintessence of his imagery consecrating the acuity of his hyperrealist portrayal.

This elegant fetishization with accuracy is a subtext of Das’s preoccupation with his self-reflexive interiority. It is only through this intense hyperreal detailing of the canvas that Das is able to plunge into the depths of his own subjectivity. This is not just a stylistic representational strategy, but is symbiotically part of his theory of practice. The exuberant hyperreality of his interior worldview, saturated with images, object, animals and people from his domestic existence becomes a means through which Das is able to negotiate with the banality of his daily life. The neatly filed fingernails of his wife’s left hand in contrast to the snipped nails of her right hand subtly signaling her middle class homemaker status; or the shakha-pola-loha (bangles made out of conch shell, iron and imitation coral), adorning her wrist marking her marital (married to a Bengali man) and fertility status thus commentates the intense sensuality of banality. Both the strategy of freezing the image at the moment of contact and the hyper accurate detailing is a theory of practice through which the metamorphosis from the banal to the mythic occur.

Nanda Das’s paintings are thus not just creative artifacts but rather products of his will to survive the daily grind of a ruthless postcolonial metropolis. For Das, painting becomes a process that is intrinsically part of his struggle – a therapeutic ritual. The very making of artwork becomes a cathartic act, which makes his survival possible in a toxic world.

Ashish Chadha
Asst. Prof. Film Media,
University of Rhode Island


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D”TOX

 

What is the most important aspect in your current series of paintings? This is what I asked the painter Nanda Das, before engaging myself into the task of wrestling with words and thoughts to throw some light on his creative psyche. Is it politics, social issues, mythology, color, technique or something else, which you regard to be your subject matter of Paintings? Nanda’s answer is brief and simple – “Seeing is more important, I believe. It is almost akin to ‘seeing is believing’ – a belief that develops from observation or rather from visual perception. The rest goes easily and spontaneously, that’s no problem. One can paint anything. To see and judge whether what one does is good or not, is most difficult and is the single pertinent question, too. Duchamp has demonstrated this. It is not merely a matter of working with your own hands. It is not about being able to do something, but that one sees what it is. Seeing is the decisive act which equates the artist and the viewer.” elaborates further “In the beginning for me a Painting was a subtle observation, a higher and questful meditation, an immensely powerful passion. I was engrossed with the act of painting till the surface was adequate, Later I surprisingly discovered that even the most insignificant, commonplace and mundane happening or any kitsch objects can inspire and instigate my creative passion and emotion. I was startled to find that, I could make a photograph, my subject, and in my creative quest and enthusiasm an even better painting – a simulacrum. It also goes on functioning in the same way: It gives the appearance of something which it is not – and it does so in a faster and more precise way. This has certainly influenced my point of view and also my concept of painting.”

In the Splash Series water, a very commonplace otherwise static object comes in contact with something else, breaks free and takes a shape to assume a new contour. These rapid and momentary changes in form and shape are only possible to capture in photographs and manipulated into a new contemporary idiom for his creative and aesthetic pursuit. Water is determined by its container; it is a restricted and arrested form in its common manifestation. But in Nanda’s painting, water tries to reveal its qualities, exhibit its natural and distinctive free flowing nature and spirit. In some of his works water is unperturbed and placid, but in others it is the agitated and trepid. It is as though water is dancing everywhere in his canvas leaving marks of different hues which remind me of a monotone photo composition of Surrealist Salvador Dali, where Dali himself is moving with the whirl of water. One painting reflects the artists own face revealing water’s unusual and multifaceted plastic nature.

The journey which started in 2008 with the painting ‘Splash’ has now reached its culmination and achieved a wider expanse in this exhibition- D”TOX. A span of two years is neither too short nor too long a time for a creative journey. This sojourn has brought a transformation and transition in the artist’s creative outlook. He is bolder in his approach and experimentation with thought, form, content and medium which has made D”TOX possible. The paintings in D’TOX are unquestionably contemporary, relevant and unique; Nanda’s visuals are expressed and presented in a vividly sharp, intricately detailed and uniquely delicate photorealist style. The very term D”TOX carries a metaphorical sense and meaning. The Detoxification in real life and its necessity have much to do with the painted subject matter of D”TOX. The real and the painted have a very close and overwhelming relationship between them. Among the five basic elements; water undoubtedly occupies a very distinct and predominant position in human life. It constitutes more then seventy percent of the human body. So the artist has made an excellent and discreet use of it as a theme of his present works with an aim to detoxify and cleanse our body and soul. Water is painted here as a purging and purifying agent of our external bodily mechanism as well as of the internal mindset and soul, of the thought process and consciousness, of emotions and passions and of many more abstract and finer aspects symbolizing the basic characteristics of human identity. Perhaps water is presented by the artist as an external detoxifying and cleansing agent, but at the same time has tried to create a parallel image, a sublime understanding and a magical expressiveness to it by immersing in it as delineated through his hyper real painting –“Zoom in Paradigm”. The goat’s unquenched thirst for water and the innocent child’s playful merriment are not only visually pleasing but soulfully fascinating. D”TOX will no doubt pacify and calm your mind.

You will suddenly feel lifted to another realm losing your ties with the real world. Your retinal movements will lose their desired track and will get frozen in an exotic charm and mesmerizing enchantment. You will succumb before the exceeding brilliancy of rendering and assimilation of colors and thought- but of course with a positive and pleasing consequence of sensory feeling and pleasure which thereby paves the way for the purging of passions and emotions. It is D”TOX in the true sense and artist Nanda’s paintings successfully do that. The slender margin between the two-dimensional spatial surface of the canvas and that of the world of Nanda’s extra reality gradually gets blurred and ultimately vanishes; for a moment the two mingle, till you realize that it’s a painting after all.

To quote the famous Gerhard Richter

The Idiom in Photography is the truth in Painting.’’

The use of enamel colors for the footpath slabs, bathroom tiles or the light post in all his paintings gives the viewer a sense of the artist’s contemporary feeling for colors. All the paintings are visual records of some very commonplace things, composed with such uniqueness that creates a visual illusion to D”TOX your mind both mentally and physically.

D. M. Parthasarathi
Art Critic & Historian


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INTROSPECTIVE SURREALISM

At the outset, I must caution the reader that I am not a professional art critic. I am simply a thinking, appreciative observer of art. It is thus an honour and a privelege for me to be asked to write for Mr Das’s exhbition. I started my exploration of his work by sitting in an empty room and surrounding myself with his canvases. This immersion technique was coupled with an intensive interview with the artist during which I described my analysis and interpretation of his work and understood certain finer points in greater detail.

I am thus going to approach this introduction to his work in the form of a critical analysis of creativity on the following counts – subject, motif, method, symbolism and theme. Fortunately for me, Das’ work is aesthetically pleasing, multi-layered, both hyperrealist and surrealist and provides the perfect balance of detail and symbolism to hint at the imagination but allow for deep interpretation.

If there is, to me, a single overriding theme in Das’ work, it is innocence. This is seen in his choice of subjects – the goat, his own young son and a playful canine. All three sets of images provoke not a sense of extreme intellect, knowledge, experience or emotion but simply the profundity of innocence – the pure, unadulterated innocence of the child and of the animal. It is this innocence that struck me first as I stared into the eyes of the goat and at the playfulness of the child. In fact, even Das’ self-portrait conveys the innocent heart of an artist. To take this theme further, I extrapolated the innocence by transposing the goat into metaphorical ‘man’ – the average, ordinary, everyday man who, faced with the law of averages and the naivete of not being a part of the powers that be, is nothing more or less than the innocent victim of thirst, desperation and withdrawal.

This last point – thirst, brings me to the second most important element of Das’ work, his use of the symbol of water. Water in two paintings in particular, is used in conjunction with the goat subject to powerfully convey feelings of utter thirst, ‘tahan’, desperation and the torture of longing for something that is just out of reach. This to me was a particularly powerful metaphor that brought into stark contrast the difference between longing, thirsting, and receiving. This emotional transformation is something that each of us experience in daily life and reinforces the idea that the goat is really a powerful symbol for the banality of everyday life.

On water, much is to be said on Das’ technical use of something that has been described as Impressionist Realism – his strokes manage to use water in order to create spectacular drama, light, warmth, movement and fluidity in the image which is both striking to eye, visually pleasing and utterly captivating when understood with the artist’s multi-layered themes in conjunction. An example of inversive layering is the piece in which the goat (metaphorical man) is receiving water from a woman’s giving hands – it begs the question – if the goat is man, has the human image itself been elevated to a superior position?

Water’s very fluidity stopped in suspended motion in Das’ works creates a stunning image that juxtaposes extreme movement with the utter lack of motion that prevails on the canvas. Life’s animation is caught at standstill – a metaphorical pause button – allows one to stop, recollect, reflect and introspect. It is this introspection that I believe is crucially important to the artist himself. In his own words ‘I am as yet unsatisfied with my understanding of myself and my immediate surroundings, so why look for themes and subjects further afield?’ He explains that he uses the everyday imagery of life in Mumbai in order to introspectively, enquiringly and creatively better understand himself.

What is thus most beautiful about Nanda Das’ art is its intent.

Sarjan P Shah
London School of Economics and Political Science

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