OURS is a time that seemed like science fiction just a generation ago. An age of flux. A century of transitions. A significant era that could redefine the very essence of a human being. Or should that read ‘humanoid’? Or anthropoid?
As pure science and the imagination on overdrive jostle for space as strange bedfellows, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind fade into a surreal landscape. Especially when a cyborg named Kevin Warwick arrives at Bangalore’s National Institute of Advanced Studies in October 2002, a being who can activate a robotic arm in New York from his laboratory at the University of Reading in the UK – thanks to a chip embedded in his arm. Or when space tourism gains currency with the April 28, 2001, launch of California-based multi-millionaire Dennis Tito into outer space. Should these be termed personal spaceflights, with possible spaceports in Sweden, California, Alaska, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates? Over even as a July 2007 Google search throws up over 90-plus global android projects. On a parallel track, the possibilities of cloning upend all previously imagined culminations, to the pulse of a time when lonely Japanese middle-aged men, challenged by human infidelity, opt to bond with life-size $ 5,500 silicon dolls instead.
A practicing artist in the 21st century cannot be blind to these cycles of change. Their resonance and origins. His own memories, both received and perceived. And portents of the future.
These cross-currents of our existence touch the core of Phaneendra Nath Chaturvedi’s expressions in his first solo public exposition, through these Anthropomorphic and allied images. His is a sharing of visually-translated perceptions of rites of transition, the catapulting of unknown destinations into our present, the voyage into a surging ocean of possibilities.
What distinguishes the current work of Pheneendra, born in Banaras, based in Lucknow today? His surefire drawing skills, tantalizing lines with pencil on paper, conjoined panels that merge to form a holistic frame. This leaves an indelible impression within the larger framework of global contemporary art, where performance, installation and morphing experimental forms jostle for eye space, while mature drawing skills are rarely in evidence.
Phaneendra’s vivid, futuristic imagination is distinctive. So is his engagement with our wired world. A world where communication is instantaneous, privacy a near-myth, and humanity seems to be veering dangerously down a self-willed path to extinction, with ‘normalcy’ defined more arbitrarily by the day.
The artist has made a tough choice, gauged by both his medium and his message. Amidst the melee of alternate practices, offbeat expressions by his peers at global expositions like the Kassel Documenta or the Venice Biennale, or even at pan-Indian galleries today, he chooses safe ground to tread on, even at the 2007 Asian Young Artists show at Keumsan Gallery, Heyri Art Valley at Seoul. He centres himself on ground that is well trodden: in a linear arc that encompasses traditional Indian floor paintings and Warli folk expressions, yet includes contemporary drawings by M.F. Husain, K K Hebbar, Achuthan Kudallur or K.M. Adimoolam. His work resonates in the interstices between these practices.
Defining his inspiration, Phaneendra notes that his works are ‘songs of harmony’ in our fragmented world, straddling the disharmonious issues of caste, religion or even terrorism. His art, to his thinking, seeks to address the imbalance between religion and science, nationalism and globalization.
Simultaneously, his work gives rise to a plethora of questions. Does the ancient black-and-white battle between good and evil still reign supreme in today’s psyche? Are the tussles still governed by hand-me-down parental values, as propagated in the epics? Or has the moral ground shifted, leaving few certainties still secure, on the runway to the future?
For Phaneendra, have these issues been constant since the artist first left his impression on the global retina with his confident pencil on paper renditions? The cues are not self-evident. A 2001 drawing by the student from the Lucknow art school highlights this: sketched in limbs, sans torso, sans visage, communicate a tale of desolation, of isolation, of an endgame, clearly in the narrative tradition. The next year, another series hints at urban angst. Faceless torsos. Garments in disarray. Arms raised in supplication, palm to palm. Whorls of restless bodies seeking release on the unrelenting ground. Creased legwear, a well-worn jacket, sketched with personality, hint at the invisible being that dons them. Extending the theme, a shadowy face emerges from the crook of an arm.
By 2003, muscular arms tense to action as clad legs stretch out on a patch of grass. In another frame, arms and legs connect to a chequered floor and daubed walls through wired devices. A year later, Phaneendra’s vision has shifted ground. Hands, toes, torsos are embedded in a concrete structure, while heads float free above the emergent landscape. Multiple hands, tentacle-like, caress a stone-aged face, etched deeply with life, emotion and time. A torso attempts to scale a wall, as roots, grasses, or nerve ends creep up its vertical plane, anchoring it in The Other World, while simultaneously liberating it from linear frameworks. A statement of detachment? Of futuristic possibilities? Or a virtual theatre rendition of a soothsayer’s prophecy about the future of humankind?
Strongly couched, skillfully executed, scaled to a dark vision, a vital cue to the artist’s mindscape emerges from a 2004 work, titled (only half tongue-in-cheek) as ‘Self-portrait with watch.’ It is a sketch that seethes through the inner landscape, encountering angst, gratification and an instinct to turn somersaults into the unknown. These very instincts limn the current show, underlining the essence of the artist, and his promise for the future.
Whether in bright T-shirts or set along barbed wire, whether sketching in a link to the Neanderthal man or hinting at the missing link, Phaneendra’s world seems to straddle the cusp between reality and fantasy. Half-robotic, half-ideational, these beings belong equally to our oddball world today, and to bustling imaginary spaces of nowhere. Walls seem to separate them from accepted contemporary frames, even as they gaze into our domain. Nuts, bolts and metallic strips seem their very essence, in lieu of blood, sweat and tears. A flower held by one acquires a dissonant touch, as does a newspaper another figure seems immersed in. Conceptually, they have shifted gear from the emotive human landscape of his earlier work. These figures have human attributes, yet do not quite belong on our plane.
Have they been catapulted to a timeless sphere? To a yogic world that defies binary logic and defined schisms? Few answers teem amidst the ebb and flow of questions, doubts, even definitions.
The works inevitably make the viewer stop to wonder: what propelled Phaneendra into the creative world? Did he have to battle odds and conservative circumstances to explore the unknown? Was he thrust into this brave new world against his own volition?
Not quite. For tracing his route to the present, Phaneendra emphasizes distinctive influences and imperatives. Such as the encouragement of his father, a well-known Hindi creative writer, buttressed by the vision of his mother. At 16, faced with a tough choice between a career in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and the uncertainties of a life in art, he opted for a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) at Lucknow University.
With felicity, he recalls how an encounter with the Indian Airlines in-flight magazine, ‘Swagat,’ transformed his vision forever as a youth. Flipping through its pages, he stumbled across images of paintings that rivetted him, challenging his notions of the essence of art. These images, he later discovered, were by a legend within the Indian context, Syed Haider Raza, an artist who once declared, “My inspiration has been the works of writers or painters or even musicians, such as the Ustad who said: ‘See with your ears, hear with your eyes.’”
If Raza’s work distils the technique and science of painting that he imbibed during his French sojourn, his essence remains the bindu, symbolizing the triumvirate of Indian art, aesthetics and awareness. Imbibing this essence, Phaneendra fuses the past, present and future into a continuum that triggers a pulsing, energizing debate that engages the viewer and the artist equally.
The debate engages with the quintessence of philosophical and artistic issues. Who is an artist in our day and time? Is breakaway experimentation essential to artistic progress? Can an extension of New Age and Generation Next potential, within a neo-classical practice, be valued as equally valid as new-fangled expressions? At what point do the personal and the public spaces overlap within art practice?
As Phaneendra Nath Chaturvedi explores his evolving artistic milieu more deeply, some answers may surface, perhaps startling him into redefinitions. These moments, which could re-mould his practice as much as his affirmations, will be worth observing with keenness. For they will define whether the artist fulfils the current promise on show. Or if he will startle us into discomfited thought, beyond anthropomorphic exercises, or the tentative morphings of our sci-fi universe