Wednesday 26 March 2014

In the Shadow of the Anti-Nimbus- Ranjit Hoskote

(Rahul Vajale recent working in camp: 2013 )

At a time when many young painters are tempted to adopt one or another of the prevailing house styles of contemporary Indian art, Rahul Vajale pursues a refreshingly idiosyncratic agenda. His imagery is not influenced by the media. His work does not suffer from the semiotic clutter that afflicts any number of young artists, testimony to their misguided attempts at scanning and grabbing the hard-won sophistications of Parthan, Dodiya, Nair, Kallat and Natesan. Nor does Vajale try and win on mere scale, stretching paint and losing detail in the effort to cover the distance from one edge of a vast canvas to the other. And, most fortunately, he remains untouched by that XL enthusiasm for civil-society initiatives of social awareness which, in the absence of true radicalisation, serves numerous young artists as a feeble politics.

Instead, Vajale’s charcoal drawings on paper and acrylic paintings on canvas are marked by an attractive crispness of handling and clarity of image. His drawings insist, in their dramatic precision, that we follow the charcoal on its image-making journey around a head, rising up against the whiteness of the paper in jags, flows and curlicues: the line folds itself around the psychic history of a personality, real or imagined, and contours its representation accordingly.
(Mahatma Gandhi, Acrylic on Charcoal on canvas Size: 36x36", 2006 :by Rahul Vajale )

His paintings demand full-bodied engagement too. Look carefully at the animal baying at the moon: a chimera, part bull, part wolf, it has an intertwining serpent pattern painted on its flank. As it challenges the moon, its horns form a glowing, defiant crescent by themselves. Or is the wolf holding the moon in its jaws? Is the moon a waxy, golden chapati? Look, also, at the portrait of Van Gogh suspended in a field of colour with a prickly plant for company: yes, the genius of the tattered ear is now a cliché of artistic suffering, but gaze upon his serenity here, his anguish transferred, in the manner of the Rajput miniatures, to the symbol that accompanies him like a plaintive stringed instrument to the raga of his silence.

The energy that Vajale invests in evoking his figures is matched by the detailing he lavishes on the seemingly empty areas of field. His figures carry their histories with them, histories that are bred in the bone; and the fields they occupy are integral to their identity, tuning up a sense of loss, amplifying the melancholia of the long-distance dreamer. Consider, in this context, the man-rock-tree composites that fly past one another, at a distance, in the slow motion mandated by a zero-gravity space: there is more than a hint of Hanuman here, as he flies back to the battlefield of Lanka bearing the precious herb-scented mountain of Gandhamadhana; there is also more than a hint of the isolatos that we all are, carrying the hope of healing even as we pass each other by, as we travel through the large vacancies of hurt. While Vajale’s fictions captivate our imagination, his formal handling urges us to attend, again, to those seemingly lost properties: the cunning stroke of the brush and the delicious richness of vermilion, acid yellow, nocturnal black and forest green.
(Golden Hauman , Acrylic on Charcoal on canvas Size: 48x72", 2006 :by Rahul Vajale )

Indeed, the phrase ‘lost properties’ could act as our guide into the circuitry of Vajale’s imagination: in his vivid evocation of colour states and prickly symbols, he reclaims much that the senses have abandoned, that the intellect has grown to disregard. His paintings and drawings are generated around symbolic forms, but this should not suggest an aloof, abstract idiom. Vajale’s universe is elaborated, not from the standard dimensions that determine space, but from such unpredictable measures of sensual experience as dryness and sheen, volatility and weight, sharpness and ductility.
There is nothing withdrawn about his works: they are charged with an entire vocabulary of sensations. We feel, in his surfaces, the immediacy of clay, fire, maize, night, stubble, thorn and bone. We feel, in a word, visceral excitement in the use to which Vajale puts the inherited resources of the painter’s craft.

(Untitted, Acrylic on Charcoal on canvas Size: 48x72", 2006 :by Rahul Vajale )

Visceral excitement is exactly what Vajale feels in the presence of the human face. The faces of people he might see in the street or meet in paintings in museums return to haunt him; they urge him to memorialise them as portraits. But Vajale’s portraits are not transcriptions of retinal testimony; rather, they record the stylised aftermath of visual encounter. They capture some essential characteristic of the person receiving the artist’s attention, and translate these into a pictorial language that startlingly melds eulogy with caricature. Vajale recognises, and is ready to struggle with, the formal problems attendant on this choice of quasi-portraiture. Since his practice impels him to abstract the visual stimulus of a particular face from its lifeworld and translate it into a metaphorical proposition, the artist must manage a delicate balance between the distinctive and the generic.

Vajale develops his paintings and drawings from a secret archive: the ceaseless flow of doodles and ruminations that he makes in the sequence of notebooks that he has maintained over the years. This ongoing journal is a barometer of his works and days: in it, he records fluctuations of mood and speculations on fate; writes of chance happenings and dwells on the pressures and dilemmas of everyday life; sings of sleepless nights and happy meetings; stumbles on the patterns that occasionally reveal themselves from beneath the random movements of the mind.

Vajale’s gallery of heads, shaped in charcoal, follows the curve of this journal. His heads testify to the range of expressive possibilities inherent in the features of men and women: he treats the head frontally and in profile, now suggesting an imperial disdain, now a sage-like meditativeness; now a demotic handling, now a hieratic touch. By turns, the head is tonsured and cloud-haired, gorgonic and monk-like. What unites Vajale’s heads is the curlicued pattern that emanates from within them, curling out of the mouth or falling across the face, propping them up in lieu of a neck or swelling out like a luxuriant beard.

What is this signature device: an axis of flame; a spine; a necklace? On Vajale’s account, it is the mortal equivalent of the aura that is said to surround beings of high spiritual attainment: it is a versatile energy that could stand for virility or rage, focused attention or indwelling negativity. This anti-nimbus, this counter-halo is an integral feature of the emotional costume in which the artist clothes his unwitting sitters. It is, in fact, a symbolic reminder of our common humanity, hostages as we are to the passions, subject to a fate that we write for ourselves in the journal of our neurons, enzymes and hormones. 

-  Ranjit Hoskote

Paintings & Drawings by Rahul Vajale (Mumbai: September 2006)


Thanks for comment JK