The Delectation of Despair
Indian miniature paintings reach simultaneously for the crispness of realistic depiction as well as the poise of idealised representation. Gautam Bhatia’s collaboratively produced miniature paintings (he conceives and draws, while miniature artist Shankar Bhopa paints) appear at first glance to sustain the promise inherent to this traditional form. But as you peer closely, they begin to subvert the lyrical effect of this traditional manner of representation completely. The paintings, exhibited recently at Apparao Gallery in Chennai, show impossibly profane, highly absurd, imaginary urbanscapes, presented in the disarmingly ‘naïve’ manner of traditional paintings. While ordinary buildings, objects, streets, landscapes and people (in various states of half-comic clothing and undress, and in various acts of grabbing, consuming, coming, going or simply letting go) are their visual substance, the paintings are about the culture of urban living in India. Or, more specifically, about Bhatia’s frustration with the sheer crassness that gift-wraps injustice and sloppiness in suddenly-affluent India. But this is no simple critique of urban culture. The limit to which Bhatia pushes absurdity, and his formidable commitment to being endlessly inventive in doing so, hint at a deeper motivation perhaps: a wounded recognition of his own complicity and entrapment with/in that same urban culture. The tour of the absurd city and landscape is as much autobiography as travel sketch.
One must partake, at least to some extent, of Bhatia’s essentially black vision to truly enjoy the delectation of the miniature paintings he presents. That comes naturally to the thoughtful (and cynical) city dweller, especially if he or she is also part of Bhatia’s middle- to upper-class professional background. However, the sheer ridiculousness of situations that Bhatia creates stops the encounter from becoming the opposite of a sentimental love-fest: a boring ritual of artist and viewer sharing self-hate. Bhatia’s thoroughgoing irreverence and wit turn, twist and subvert the subject. This is part devious, part mischievous, but wholly entertaining. There is something original—in the sense that its origins lie deep within him—in the unselfconscious and unpredictable shuffling (and occasional conflation) of schoolboy humour with thoughtful critique of Indian city life in all its shambolic glory.
Each painting oscillates between many different limit conditions, each vividly suggested by the concrete ‘facts’ of the painting. The hotel as a row of carved wooden boxes is ‘real’ even if naively drawn. And yet, it is obviously surreal. The unremarkable people who occupy it are nice everyday folk, drawn as such. But they are routinely doing things we will never see them do in reality (and which decent people never do). Yet, we know (from our life outside the gallery), that they certainly do those things all the time. The paintings allow these divergent thoughts no secure place at which to come to rest. Simple and seductive to the eye accustomed to the vivid joys of the traditional aesthetics of royal scrolls and truck-doors, they are simultaneously maddening to the mind that can never fully reach the extremes of despair, compassion and insouciance that Bhatia effortlessly keeps returning from.