Undoing the Ordinary

Somak Ghoshal is an editor and writer based in Bengaluru
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The carefully postured bodies in the paintings of Francisco Goya, or the ones reduced to an abstraction in the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, transform into bizarre entities in a fascinating exhibition that examines notions of health and healing in India
The new year brought in a mild winter and a mesmerising array of art. At the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in London, I witnessed two major exhibitions featuring Spanish and Italian masters, Francisco Goya and Alberto Giacometti respectively.

Both shows focused on portraiture, especially on the drama of the human face, though formally, and stylistically, the artists could not have been more different. Goya (1746- 1828), who was appointed a painter at the Spanish court in 1786, spent his life depicting various members of the royal family and the aristocracy. Mischievous but always mindful of not offending his patrons, he is often thought of as the last of the Old Masters and a fitting precursor to the moderns.

Walking among his incredibly lifelike portraits, one is struck by the commanding presence of his subjects. The Duchess of Alba, one of Goya’s chief patrons, seems to stare with regal condescension as visitors troop around her, admiring the fine creases on her gown, as the delicate patina of colour makes her mantilla appear translucent. Even the infants, some of whom grew up to be tyrants, fix the viewer with their smug and impersonal gaze. One cannot help notice the great care Goya took to capture the exact likeness of the sartorial extravagances of his day. Some of his subjects, in another time, would have graced the cover of a worthy fashion magazine.

But the most arresting figure among this motley cast is perhaps Goya himself. It was a popular affectation among neo-classical painters to allude to themselves in their own work—by inscribing their names, putting a seal on a canvas, or simply through self- portraiture. Goya’s predecessor and hero, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), was prone to such playfulness, as evidenced in Las Meninas, perhaps the most staggeringly brilliant among his creations, where the figure of the artist at work is subtly but clearly reflected in a mirror.

Like Velázquez, Goya sneaked himself into his frames, sometimes not-so-slyly, to remind the viewer, and his models too, of the overwhelming presence of the artistic hand in the final outcome. In modern parlance, such a gesture would amount to an artist at work taking a selfie with his subject and putting it out on social media.

Giacometti’s (1901-1966) studies of the human form, especially the face, offer a striking contrast to the luminous elegance of Goya’s. For four years, in the 1930s, he sketched and sculpted the human head, using his siblings, and later his wife, as models. Repetition was key to his practice. “The most difficult thing to do is what’s most familiar,” Giacometti said of the several portraits he made of his brother, Diego. The challenge, he believed, was to arrive at new sensations not through different processes but by passing through the same ones, over and over again.

There is, therefore, a haunting sameness to what Giacometti made from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s. His paintings during these years often resemble swirls of black out of which a face, or a pair of eyes, look out. The bleakness of the war years, as well as of the human condition, came through in these unapologetically grim countenances, shorn of superfluity and pared down to their essence. This severe style would be further explored in his sculptures of stick-thin figures and attenuated faces. For obvious reasons, Giacometti became a favourite among the existentialists, especially of Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote one of the most illuminating commentaries on his work, The Quest for the Absolute.

The carefully postured bodies in the paintings of Goya, or the ones reduced to an abstraction in the drawings and sculptures of Giacometti, transform into an array of bizarre, and often distorted, entities in a fascinating exhibition in Mumbai. Organised by the Wellcome Trust, a philanthropic medical foundation based in the UK, and curated by Ratan Vaswani, ‘Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India’ is one of the several spectacles, collectively titled ‘Medicine Corner’, which examines notions of health and healing in India.

A documentation of traditional modes of cure and care, such as in the work of indigenous bone-setters, street dentists and ear-wax cleaners, has been made by BLOT!, a Delhi-based multidisciplinary duo, as part of this project. In Kolkata, artists like Mithu Sen, Gauri Gill and Arpita Singh have responded to the theme in a show called ‘Jeevanchakra’, curated by Latika Gupta and hosted by Akar Prakar gallery. But it is the display at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai that stands out for the quirkiness with which it braids art history with medical anthropology.

Vaswani, who I briefly met in Delhi, described the idea driving ‘Tabiyat’ as being “affective not intellectual”. In other words, the show does not claim to present a scholarly compendium of the various knowledge systems that existed in ancient India, some of which have survived well into the 21st century. Rather, it intends to present the diversity of the resources that society has used through thousands of years to come up with “creative ways of staying well”, as Vaswani explained.

In India, the home and the street tend to flow into each other, as do notions of purity and pollution. For a vast section of the population, the cycle of birth and death plays out on busy streets. The homeless, as well as a large number of those with homes, have to use, by choice or not, the world at large as their toilet. Until recently, Parsis used to have their dead consumed by vultures, whereas other communities consider carrion-eaters and scavengers dirty and polluting.

This multiplicity of beliefs makes India a confounding case for the study of the coexistence of Western (bio-medical) practices with traditional forms such as Ayurveda and Unani. The dichotomy in the system is enshrined in the Central Government’s recognition of a Ministry of Ayush to deal with Indian theories of cure, alongside a Health Ministry that is shaped by Western trends in medicine.

Historically, too, the contrasts and affinities in the styles of representation of art are apparent. In a sharp departure from the fidelity of anatomical drawings by the pioneers of Western art (Leonardo da Vinci, for instance), the early Indian texts rely heavily on words rather than images to discuss clinical details. Susruta Samhita, the earliest manual of surgery, describes all the procedures it records verbally, not visually. While such detailed knowledge of internal organs and human anatomy could not have been possible without dissection of corpses, Vaswani surmises that the act itself was perhaps too sacrilegious to admit to in writing.

The classic Indian delineation of the body, in the iconic figure of The Ayurvedic Man for instance, is thus complicated by two ways of imagining it: as a physical form, with a system of arteries running through it (even though such details are far from accurate), and as a metaphysical entity, with the chakras governing its functions. In spite of the rotund head and disproportionate organs, the body in ancient Indian texts becomes a meeting point for scientific (Western) and para-scientific (Eastern) knowledge systems.

As a result, near-scientific anatomical studies are juxtaposed against rough-and-ready sketches of pehelwans setting dislocated bones, or elegant miniatures of a man having his ears cleaned. Blown up in a corner, Gauri Gill’s photograph of a midwife, or a dai, cutting the umbilical cord of a baby born at home signals the persistence of such realities in India alongside advanced hospitals and nursing homes.

The idea of throwing together images and objects separated by centuries is deliberate and ingenious. It suggests continuities in habits of thinking that are far from obvious to most of us. Take, for example, the humble tongue- scraper, more popular in suburban and rural India than among metropolitan elites. “I traced it back to the Chanakya Samhita, which dates 2,500 years ago,” said Vaswani. Used for the removal of ama, or toxins, from the tongue, it still serves the exact same purpose in a country where chemist shops are mushrooming all over. “I wanted to make ordinary things appear extraordinary,” Vaswani remarked in the course of our conversation. His ‘Medicine Corner’ splendidly lives up to such an aspiration.