In looking for landscape—
Eyes by the windowsill wait for the brain to light up the slope of the hill. Thought cuts a strobe to the farthest reaches of the horizon. Beds of flowers appear at the edge of a dry riverbed. Great green grasses shiver on scorched plains otherwise racked by so much wind the stones have gone blank. Slowly, filling with crags and scars and pretty fossils, the stones begin to tell how old a land is. Landscapes get plucked out of land that may not exist as one would like. Art beguiles by such landscapes. Even when they are ravaged, there is hope they will be beautiful, because landscapes are not so much fact as inventions of artistic material. This is the conviction that secures them a place in imagination. The same, one might hazard, reveals an economy of the blind—a system of entitled visionaries who power weak suns with their desires.
Calcutta Group (1943-53) artist Gobardhan Ash was one such visionary. For most of his life he painted some of the dreamiest landscapes of nature and poverty from rural Bengal to emerge out of the group, whose precedents lie earlier within the Bengal tradition of painting and the long shadow cast by philosophical manifestos emerging from Santiniketan (1910s-1930s). Titled by two Ash paintings, Wooden Horse and Boggy Land, the show offers select propositions about colonial land acquisition, middle class imagination, death, and landscapes of hysteria to revisit the implied revolutionary spirit of the Calcutta Group via Ash’s prospects of contained wilderness. Select artworks by Prajakta Potnis, Gieve Patel, and Tejal Shah are staged in the mode of a Trojan horse to question the power of the wilderness myth evident in Ash’s scenes of Bengal’s natural and dispossessed milieu.
In India, the wilderness myth has been a founding principle in shaping the diagnosis of landscape as fact, jurisdiction, and philosophical grist before Indian independence and in subsequent histories including art. By this myth, landscape is an island of contemplation and escape—untouched and endangered. Yet for such a construct to exist, land must be construed as desolate, deserted, a waste of a kind unless properly conserved and managed by the state. Before conservation, wilderness has first to be manufactured through the “civilising” project of unlearning its unnaturalness and obscuring human occupation. This show navigates some of these ideas.
Verifiable or not, the mere idea of Souza denying the Calcutta Group’s claims about revolutionising Indian art lets one wonder why fossilised art histories aren’t probed more for the stories they don’t easily tell.
Before 1947, at least two moments mark the Indian avant-garde. The first was Birbhum, Bengal. Here in 1901, on an existing ashram founded by his father, the poet Rabindranath Tagore opened an experimental school named Santiniketan, expanded in 1921 into Viswa Bharti University: a place of learning seeking communion with the world. The Calcutta Group was the second avant-garde moment springing partly in reaction to Tagore’s lessons of “one world” universalism at Santiniketan. Gobardhan Ash was a key member of this group.
Time after time, the Calcutta Group (1943-53) is held up as modern India’s first socially-committed artistic avant-garde. Shocked by the mass influx of migrants into Calcutta during the visceral and social havoc of the manmade Bengal Famine (1942-44), six artists—sculptors Pradosh Dasgupta and Kamala Dasgupta, and painters Gopal Ghosh, Paritosh Sen, Nirode Majumdar, and Subho Tagore—set out to develop a concerned aesthetic sensibility, without resorting to nationalist propaganda. With a mandate roughly on par with the posthumously-recognised assertions of Punjabi-Hungarian artist Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-41), that Indian art’s modernity depended on shedding inwardness and nativism for an “international and interdependent” approach, these artists came together to form the Calcutta Group in 1943.
Historical inspiration was obviously out of the question for this lot. Determined to override the swadeshi-British academic hybrid lyricism of the Bengal School (spearheaded by Nandalal Bose), the Group turned its back on nativist models of retrofitting Mughal miniatures with modern sensibilities, and everyone but one Group member was uniformly averse to representations of gods and goddesses. Santiniketan’s pan-Asianism propagated by the Tagore triad (Abanindranath, Gagendranath, and Rabindranath) also held no appeal. Instead, the Group set out to catch up with life as it was—namely, migration, refugee crisis, and hunger. Barring the exceptional ink on paper Famine Sketches (1943-44) of Zainul Abedin, whose sinuous draughtsmanship made pointed representations of Bengal’s starving classes, most of the Group clung to largely outdated European conceits. Easily identifiable are Monet’s late lush, messy, diaphanous style; Futurism’s chunky, pinched plastic sculptural forms; British sculptor Henry Moore’s figural abstraction; and a tempered pastiche of Expressionist affect and toned down Fauvist colour.
ASH AND THE CALCUTTA GROUP
By the time Ash joined the Calcutta Group in 1949, the group had enjoyed two critically-appreciated exhibitions (Calcutta and Bombay, 1945), the Bombay presentation with the help of K.H. Ara who would recruit art school dropout Souza to form the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in 1948. Two years later, well-nigh crowned trail blazers, the Calcutta Group teamed up with PAG for their first and only joint show in Calcutta. That collaboration might have heightened incongruities between the two groups’ politics and aesthetic choices is of course entirely plausible. This gives no reason to overlook the fact that Souza’s alleged criticism of the dissonance between what the Calcutta Group preached and produced is at least selectively reflected by contradictions in Gobardhan Ash’s work.
Ash’s interest in social failure and deprivation, famine and want, emerges in figure studies of bodies arranged in exhausted groups, some processional, some at rest, fatigue underlying the compositions. Inertly paired people frequent the great body of work he produced for half a century, from the mid 1940s to the mid 1990s. The liveliest ones are predictably female types—a hill girl, a female orphan, a gypsy, a Chinese teen—with the occasional non-human interruption: a doll and a child’s toy wooden horse with wheels for hooves.
For the most part, however, Ash was a painter of landscapes set in Bengal, giving prospects on rivers and shores, at the edge of woods and thick forestland, made in gouache or watercolour on paper. Some were in oil on board, a handful of which exude a creamy edible impasto that leaves a powerful afterimage. His works on paper, possibly his most distinctive achievements, offer untroubled consonant views, as if hazy colour filters were stretched across one another to produce not so much place as reasonable mirage. Should they occur, figures are propped here and there, dark indistinct blips within largely untamed, unhumanised places. That it would not matter were these sporadic marks people, animals, or river cranes makes the scenes to which they belong that much more valuable as archives of land fixed into landscape—a picture of contained wilderness whose ownership by ‘nature’ entitles no one to claim it as their own.
Beauty such as this comes with a slippage. With Ash it was the resonance between his landscapes and the pan-world dogma of cultural amalgamation espoused by Santiniketan that the Calcutta Group claimed to have rejected. Perhaps in the end Ash’s landscapes are too light, too slight, to bear the full weight of Santiniketan’s symbolism, but they nonetheless sum up the notions of social and political ecology that Tagore’s sanctuary put forth.
MESSAGE OF THE FOREST
Santiniketan: the undisputed fountainhead.
Intellectually speaking, Ash’s forests summon the kinds of controlled wilderness sanctuaries that Rabindranath Tagore evoked in an essay entitled “The Message of the Forest”, a pithier version of which was first shared in an eponymous public lecture on two consecutive days to audiences at Friedrich Wilhelm University (now, Humboldt University) in Berlin, Germany. It was June 1921 with Tagore on tour subtly seeding interest in the opening of Viswa Bharti University.
Notably, the lecture has no mention of Santiniketan. Yet the verdant backdrop of its ‘one world’ declensions shine through Tagore’s political theory of freedom, immediately revealing the history of his own landowning demesnes. Tagore’s urgent declarative address not only linked India’s struggle for independence with its spiritual unity, but located it in the lessons of India’s great forests. Of these green zones as sites of peaceful co-existence, he spoke with the easy superiority of the imperialist. “The voice of this truth was heard in India’s forests of old above the din of race conflicts…not by force, not by the apathy of resignation, but in the harmony of active co-operation.”
Powerful words indeed for a philosophy built on the specious logic that forests and unity were natural laws applying equally to all. History, of course, told otherwise, of the Santhal message of the forest trapped in Tagore’s own private sanctuary. To the extent that Santiniketan was shaped by visions of paradise, it offered the fantasy of the democracy of the elite. Here, everyone was equal, everyone got a piece of the forest, as long as they understood it was not the tribal commons of the past. It was a citadel of privilege disguised as public service, gratifying the expectation of cultural and political transcendence as well as the local desire for social accessibility.
To all intents and purposes, Santiniketan’s origins lie in the wilderness myth, the manufacture of which began with the British arrogation of sovereignty over Indian forests. In late 18th century India, the British East India Company unleashed a process of land-robbery to harvest timber for planks used in ships, wood for railway sleepers and railroad ties, and train cars. Aided by the zamindar system and ideologically armed with notions of wilderness conservation implicitly denying forests as tribal property, Company executors began appropriating the settled forests adivasi dwellers had inhabited, venerated, foraged, and tilled for ages.
By 1793, after the Permanent Settlement—an agreement between the Company and zamindars to fix revenues raised from cultivated land—agrarian Santhal living across colonial Bengal were compelled to leave their traditional homelands in various districts to settle in an area known as Daman-i-koh, located at the skirting of Rajmahal Hills in modern Jharkhand. Daman-i-koh was later formalised as a Santhal reserve of sorts in 1832.
Things did not stop at displacement. Extortionist moneylenders and zamindars penalised loan defaulters by confiscating Santhal land and cattle, pressing many as a result into bonded labour, eventually giving rise to hatred and resistance. In June 1855, two Santhal leaders initiated the Santal Hool (Santhal Rebellion) against Company rule and the zamindari system. The only positive upshot of the rebellion’s bloody defeat was the formation of Santhal Parganas, a district devoted to their communities located in present day Jharkhand.
It was the eve of legalising a new era of land grabs.
In 1864, to mark the imminent formation of the Indian Forest Department, Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of India, appointed the respected German botanist and conservator Dietrich Brandis—family by marriage—as the inspector general of India’s forests. In one fell swoop, the first Forest Act (1865) struck down the customary rights of rural communities and forest settlers to modified forests.
To others, the forest continued to give.
Just the previous year, in 1863, the zamindar Maharishi Debendranath Tagore, known for his reformist piety, had purchased land in Birbhum district at the benevolent sum of one rupee. Charity and expropriation go hand in hand. The seller, an admiring zamindar owning massive tracts of tribal-evacuated Birbhum, supported Debendranath’s vision for an ashram in Birbhum.
After commerce, after ownership: education. The century turned. In 1901, a hero was on the rise. Under the leadership of Rabindranath, his father’s ashram became Santiniketan, abode of peace. The subsequent establishment of Viswa Bharti University’s regime of knowledge claiming communion with the world was a small but significant metonym of how indigenous populations across India lost fellowship with theirs. So, if Santiniketan has an iconic implication, it is by blurring the distinction between the garden, or contained wilderness, as an appropriation of private property and the communal garden of utopian desire.
Where does contemporary history end and picture plane begin? Must they at all meet? In confronting these questions, the Calcutta Group sought to harness political and social agitation without resorting to agitprop. In his own unassuming way, in his capacity as a member of the Calcutta Group, these might well be questions Ash addressed by isolating figures from the landscape. The clearer and more distinct the figure the more removed it is from anything natural or wild. In contrast, the landscapes manifest ambivalently, shimmering, shivering, eternally trapped in a phase of nascence and tentativeness, allowing the eye to contemplate and behold without lingering. If you must linger, you must own the picture, a landscape once of the Santhal becoming yours.
Knowingly or otherwise, Ash’s landscapes symbolise an entitled vision of Bengal’s land—this land is my land, this land is your land—one perhaps an enlightened landowner can maintain, a landowner such as the doyen of Santiniketan. It is hardly a vision of Ash’s creation. It is one he inherited and revisited, uncritically. In looking at these landscapes, do not forget the company they keep, the numerous figurative works of anonymous characters—Santhal, peasants, migrants, and refugees—with often dazed, blurred faces isolated from any inkling of environment, in a way that lets us infer a psychological self-recognition of displacement. This hardly makes them radical characters, much less revolutionising Ash’s art, unless we personally embolden ourselves to visit their history again.
Cities. One of the more dispiriting sights they offer is of over-scaled buildings on small lots. These kinds of buildings claiming to empower and house large numbers of people enact a social exercise. The essence and ideology of cities derives from drawing humanity into a self-sustaining life, akin perhaps to villages of old but without their manageable dimensions, and instead enabling the fact of physical proximity to create an illusion of intimacy across thousands, millions of people. In this tangled complex of imagination and desire, it is often buildings and people that speak for what a city is.
In contrast, Prajakta Potnis depicts the city as a slightly mordant sojourn across mute places, mediated not through buildings and figures but discrete objects—things. One landscape is about mountains with confectionary. One about a lake with boats. Another about the landscape of mindless looking—TV watching couch potato—turning into a thing-like metaphor. Each has the sense of the city at rest, if not on vacation.
On the cusp of relocating from her homeground Thane city to Mumbai, Potnis began painting a series of large, landscape-heavy canvases. The year 2006 unfolded in a shade card appropriate to the juvenile sensibility of a girly teenager. Strawberry ice-cream pink. Not quite childlike baby blue. Prom dress yellow. The point was fantasy, urban fantasy thrust in the face for a home theatre experience, long before big screen TVs became the norm in middle class India. To the point also was the confused vintage of urban fantasy, hovering between unrequited and repressed desire. Where a family may or may not be able take a European vacation they resort to the classic manoeuvre of appropriating some aspect of it as an enlarged window, like an exclamation point of their aspirations within the hearth-like headquarters of urban life: the living-cum-dining room, TV included. Soaring from the base of one such living room is wallpaper depicting the Matterhorn, a distinctive mountain straddling Switzerland and Italy. It is an impossible springtime view of pink sky reflecting off two of the mountain’s four faces lit by the sun, a landscape about blinding, soul-eating desire.
Hence also Potnis’s couch potato, in which the vantage from which a landscape is viewed and the moving parts of the landscape conjoin and become a single entity. The couch becomes the potato, the passive, lumpen viewer of lumpen ecstasies. In this regard, I recall a friend narrating the habits of his TV-dependent father—a veritable couch potato—with a weakness for children’s talent shows—girls in frilly dresses or firm sweaty bellies twerking and hip-swinging to Bollywood songs. He found in these TV sessions a profane transformation of the man growing into an addict of what the girls were offering: sweet, sweet fantasy.
Sweetness also figures in the Matterhorn painting. Two wedges of iced blue and pink pastry set on a sliver of cabinet in the foreground pull back the picture to help you see not a real view but a scene inside a domestic setting. There is no indefinite extension of the prospect, rather continuity and affirmation between the scenic majesty of the Alps and the ordinary everyday binge. Pastry and mountain rival each other, taking turns being landscape.
White swan boats play a similar function in Potnis’s scene of an urban lake. Lake and sky merge. Thrust close to the picture, the swans push the building developments into a hazy strip in the far background. The vividness of the swans’ presence describes not how landscapes look but how they are felt, as commodity, playground, and physical inertness, all cast into seemingly immoveable things.
That Wheatfield with Crows (1890) is sometimes accepted as Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh’s last painting neatly bookends the presumption that a depressed artist is bound to terminate his own chronology with a death note, limned by the classic, complicated bird of death and scavenging, the common crow. Wheatfield with Crows shows a proverbially dramatic van Goghian sky swarming with crows over a yellow field of unharvested wheat. Instead of the angst and morbidity emphasised by observers of this work there is rather a great deal more of what historian Jules Michelet, one of the artist’s most beloved writers, describes of crows: “They interest themselves in everything, and observe everything. The ancients, who lived far more completely than ourselves in and with nature, found it no small profit to follow, in a hundred obscure things where human experience as yet affords no light, the directions of so prudent and sage a bird.”
Crows (1999), the lone work by Gieve Patel here symbolises precisely this contrasting wisdom and easy inquisitiveness of crows through the activity that lends them repute: scavenging. Four crows are strategically at work upon a dead creature, possibly a lizard, each confining itself to a different part: thigh, head, tail, and innards. Forensic activity looms at the centre of this verdant scene bursting with the typical chalky lushness of Patel’s familiar palette, here somewhat reminiscent of camouflage, as if nature has been bleached out, or denatured, by the essence of landscape: the quest for ultimate wisdom emblematised by death.
While the image bears no explicit consort with Arcadia, the classical Greek vision of pastoral harmony, which drew its name from a province in Greece, the picture’s emphasis on death is much too tempting to pass up a reference to “Et in Arcadia ego” (Even in Arcadia, there am I). This phrase, which first appeared in the writings of Roman poet Virgil (Eclogues, Verse 42) as a memorial inscription on a tomb, is a first person declaration by death about its capacity to cross all boundaries and insinuate itself as the final truth even in untainted Arcadia.
School plays sometimes cast children in the role of landscape, as trees, hills, shrubs, birds, flowers, mushrooms, streams, even clouds. Their role reckons with the physical identity of these things, how things behave in reaction to other things or simply as they are meant to be. The child playing a tree might sway gently to lend the impression of a breezy day, or violently should a scene call for blustery atmospherics. The shrub-playing actor will shiver and rustle. Playing bird, children might chirp and flap their costume wings. The flower child will bloom and close by the oscillation of her arms. Mushroom children will remain as still as rocks. The stream child will undulate his hips to ripple sweetly through the woods.
The child’s role in these endeavours satisfies the adult compulsion for inclusivity, ensuring no child be left out, not even those whose talents pale before the criminally-gifted child actor. This is the ostensible reason. Then there is the desire for sensual and psychological complexity an actor could inspire in representations of nature, things adults otherwise contend come alive in fairy tales and children’s books about magical forests or rabbit holes that lead to mad bunnies and fascist queens. Landscape is otherwise as psychologically dead in typical adult imaginaries as dead wood. It might of course inspire elevating emotion, feelings of tranquility, unlock a memory, or temporarily alleviate trauma. This is the gift we give ourselves in walking through an intensely felt landscape, that we allow ourselves to be touched and changed in a special way by something that has been around for eras.
In those plays with children trees and child clouds are moments that alter the givens of how landscape behaves. Children are prone to break the rules of formal performance when an unbearable itch sets in or a leg cramps up or a yawn won’t be suppressed. Their faces and carriage give away that they don’t care to belong in the fixed performative landscape. They have not lost themselves in the performance. If these particular moments of theatrical failure, embedding boredom, irritation, physical discomfort by proxies for landscape fall short of evoking what one might term psychological landscapes, it is not only because the child actor does not perform the distractions as virtuosically as one would like. It is also because the performance is relieved from the dogma of having to picture exacting depictions of what such a interior landscape ought to look like.
Hysteria (2007) by Tejal Shah zeroes in on the myth-making behind visualising psychologically-charged landscapes through photographic images that restage the oeuvre of 19th century French clinician and “founder” of neurology Jean-Martin Charcot, also the mentor of Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis.
Charcot worked at the The Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, a notorious Parisian asylum for mentally unstable women, historically a dumping ground to quarantine no mean parade of female undesirables—lesbians, adulteresses, the blind, prostitutes, epileptics, pickpockets, fat girls, clairvoyants, “witches”, and the demented—where they might fester together. During his tenure at the hospital, he exploited photography’s reputation as an objective and documentary mode to provide doubting peers incontrovertible visual proof of the hysterical type in his female patients.
Using a variety of manipulative techniques including the violence of electroshock therapy and genital manipulation, Charcot provoked physical reactions in his female patients to supposedly expose the presence of an inner landscape. Time and scholarship have exposed Charcot’s imagery to be all but objective. Charcot’s sitters were trained to perform their hysteria under threat of further incarceration in the hospital’s special category reserved for “incurables”.
In using photography to invent the category of hysteria and present an “iconography of madness”, Charcot insinuated a gendered landscape of uncontrollable delirium and neurosis as the modern catch-all of female identity. Madness didn’t simply register as a condition. It was presented as a gendered, female fact: the word ‘hysteria’ originates in ‘hystera’, the Greek word for ‘uterus’.
Charcot’s ‘findings’ were anthologised in the landmark study Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (1876-80), and subsequently enabled Freud to popularise hysteria (or, unresolved mental conflict) as the cause of physical symptoms (insomnia, fluid retention, stomach cramps, indigestion, and sexual desire) in female patients.
This fascinating history is not the only fuel behind Hysteria.
It is true, during an art residency at The Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, Shah collaborated with French dancer Marion Perrin to recreate period-costumed scenes and portraits of female characters modelled on Charcot’s imagery. In each, the figure is caught in a trance-like state. Charcot’s inspiration is obvious and undeniable. Even so, the exhibition display here puts forth something different. It argues for the work’s capacity to transcend that power source and instead break into a different power grid of the Indian milieu where the male body is the predominant cultural figment.
Take Group Catalepsy or The Ship of Fools (2007). Here, a ‘family portrait’ made up of Shah’s self-portraits recreates the cliché of landscape as panorama. Shah features only twice as a male figure, with the assembly of females captured in various states of performative seizure. Thus iterating the historical trauma of a patient performing and re-performing the hysterical act for Charcot through the artist’s multiple appearances is one aspect of the work’s promise. What propels it out of representation into a living landscape of the multifaceted nature of any one female identity is that Shah’s recurring body single-handedly generates a life-size tableau vivant of moving, psychologically-charged mainly female figures that simply will not be written and rooted out. The exhibition display here builds on this energy by posing two identical prints of the work across each other to create a necessary echo chamber of cataleptic hellions framing your access to the last segment of the show.
We are told that hysteria went out of fashion by the 1960s. Its use as a colloquial term to denote an excess of emotion was accompanied by enough misogyny for many doctors to deny its legitimacy as an ailment. Since the 1980s, medical professionals began denoting specific categories such as “conversion disorder” and “dissociative disorder” to diagnose hysteria-related symptoms. This was precisely the era French feminist writers such as Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément annexed the term ‘hysteria’ to argue the connections between socially-defined roles and socially-constructed femininities.
Writing about the history of hysteria in India, medical anthropologist Sarah Pinto describes how doctors at a respected hospital in New Delhi continue to refer to the term in diagnosing female patients, and while rarely making it into the patients’ medical files, the term ‘hysteria’ has currency in conversation and medical explanations by doctors. She writes: “Signs of dissociative disorder included unconsciousness, unexplained pains, headaches, anger, clenched teeth, and visitations from spirits or deities. In unmarried women and girls, affect read as aggressively sexual might be a sign—lipstick too bold, a top too tight, a dupatta draped across the neck instead of modestly covering the torso, dress beyond one’s station in life. Bangles, with their colorful ability to be piled on and their insistence on being noticed, were often made note of. I was never convinced that these were things families cared or even thought about. But for doctors they were signs of disorder. They could indicate other things too—mania, in particular. But together with other signs, and without positive symptoms of mania or psychosis, they suggested dissociative disorder”.
Shah’s Hysteria series admittedly transcends the realm of hysteria and illness per se to create inclusive panoramas about the body as mind and the mind as self-constructed spatial jurisdiction. This leitmotif is picked up by the current display of collages Lucid Dreaming (2013). Created as pendants to Shah’s multi-channel video installation Between the Waves (2013), the collages offer up spaces and bodies sliding into each other, shoring up stubbornly against expectations that things may fall apart, surprising us when they don’t.
Author’s note: This curatorial text written in conjunction with the exhibition Wooden Horse in Boggy Land: Four Propositions about Landscape (2017) at Project 88, Mumbai, is a modified section of an essay for publication entitled “Message of the Forest”, about landscape imaginaries in 20th century Indian art. No part may be reproduced in part or full without the permission of the curator and author, Prajna Desai.