Monday, 2 April 2012

Art: Gestures Speak ~ an essay on M. Shanthamani's art, 2007

Gestures Speak:
a one-off take on Brand Bangalore

A CITY. A map. A reckoning of the past, present and future. Each can be read, deciphered, decoded by a sensitized individual ~ with as much insight and intuition as a palmist reads the tracery on the soft inner spread of a hand.

The hand, thus visualized, can evoke an individual within a city, a country, a globe. It can trace the trajectory of a human being, an artist, a poet, an architect, often tantalizingly on a parallel track to a city like Bangalore. M. Shanthamani’s current show ~ titled Gestures Speak ~ brings this home conceptually and visually, pregnant with layered significance.

On her large, brooding acrylic canvases, the local and the global, the insider and the outsider battle, collide and jostle for co-existence, defragmenting life cycles and existential notions long imbued with history by association with the onlooker and the activist alike.   

Shanthamani’s stances stem from her multiplicity of experiences as a rural-born individual, now an urban being. As a young woman who made the transition in 1992 from the arts schools of Mysore and Baroda to a burgeoning, IT-propelled Bangalore. As a girl rooted in the rustic soil outside Mysore, warding off suitable matches as a pre-teen, able to identify with the indomitable womenfolk who cared for their households and 30 cattle, toiled in the fields, committed to life in a deep, essential sense. As a questing mind enriched by the company of strong, emancipated woman artists. Even as an artist who once couched herself thus:

“Painting became an important space for me to get out of all this. It gave me freedom ~ physically, mentally, financially. My canvas is now a surface that constantly questions and looks for answers in that space.”


Shanthamani’s questions on Greater Bangalore, even as Bengalooru, are imbued with reflections from her journey into the future. To her, it matters that the Garden City is now almost invisible ~ cloaked in dense vehicular pollution that chokes plant and human life alike. And that the genteel norms that governed the pensioner’s paradise have been overtaken by a high-speed youth-centric buzz, as set-back bungalows are gobbled up by high-rises blocks, gated communities, and malls. Even the fact that the silk-weavers of the old city have vanished as big brands lure the new, well-heeled customer with global mantras.

Is the constantly-morphing city redefining who we are? Is technology creating a rift between those with insider information, and the tech-deprived? Are our bodies changing as shrinking city spaces crowd us into personal cocoons not of our making? Perhaps. Through giant acrylic canvases melded with stencilled photo-verity images, water colours and body/ hand casts, Shanthamani creates parallel city narratives. Of the migrant street woman who vends mallige flowers. Or the labourers who shape the new city. All those unknown, unseen, unsung stories beyond the hype. Those women who also work round-the-clock, expressing themselves through their working hands, their inherited classical postures.

What does the hand stand for within the big frame, Shantamani wonders. In an age of body-shopping, has it become a mere appendage? Have we outsourced our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our culture, in the incessant 24/7/365 rat-race that is the new face of our globalized city?

These issues are the raison d’etre of Gestures Speak, contextualizing the individual within the city. As we celebrate the economic boom, are we neglecting a vital angle ~ that former strategic colonial pawns today provide cheap brainpower to big first-world players? Why is IT the most visible face of Bangalore today? Within the multinational marketplace, have we been reduced to invisible working hands, shadowy presences often unacknowledged?

Questions of identity surge beneath the rippled cityscape. Is Bangalore in danger of losing its past inheritance as it speeds towards modernization and westernization? Why does it so seldom glance back at the riches that migrants have brought into its cosmopolitan domain over the past 350 years, including their living skills, rituals, crafts, cuisines and languages? Such as the Tigalas from Tamil Nadu who set up Lalbagh for Haider Ali, the Devangas from Andhra Pradesh at the heart of the silk industry, the Bengali karigars who are the mainstay of gold craft. Or even the Anglo-Indians, the cantonment culture, and missionary schools at the core of the city’s skill in a global tongue now outsourced. Or the brilliant scientists who were behind the Bangalore torpedo or India’s first indigenous helicopter.  

Other facts, other faces, call for equal attention. On an average, over 2,500 white-collar IT workers, often with partners in the same industry, have flocked to Bangalore every month since the early Nineties. This youth brigade, often dubbed Gen-Next by the media, heralds new consumer trends, crisscrossing culture, food and housing, bypassing traditions and local habits. Their lifestyles are buttressed by invisible lives ~ those of construction labourers from north Karnataka and Tamilnadu, carpenters from Kerala, Rajasthan and Bihar, and marble workers from Rajasthan and UP. These migrants, of a transient mindset, identify with little of Bangalore’s culture. Are they a malaise or migratory beings of benefit to the city, whose population has multiplied five-fold in just a decade-plus? How do these citizens identify with Kempe Gowda or the Roman coins once found in the Cauvery?  

Shanthamani brings her concentrated gaze to bear on these inner city issues in Gestures Speak. Migrant-centric lives need multiple narratives within a city that lives in different time zones simultaneously. Within the digital landscape, the hand has assumed the role of a giant cultural element. Growing beyond her earlier conceptual and metaphorical work, facts and human stories assume a new centrality. For instance, the fact that in 2004, Bangalore’s 200,000 textile workers contributed approximately a tenth of India’s textile exports of $13.5 billion. The tension between these cities, old and new, underline her explorations. 

Beyond these conflicting cities, past cultural nuances and social conditioning, she once observed, “At Baroda, I realized I was a very tactile person. My central reference point is always my body. I believe in doing things with my hands. I want to project myself as a worker, maybe a painting worker. I like to smear paint with my hands, mould things.”

The body, a central metaphor in Shanthamani’s often-autobiographical work, is here symbolically the hand, representing the many Bangaloreans who seem misplaced, not recognized by global perceptions of the city in transition. The layered myth-making continues.

Her acrylic diptychs and triptychs, often billboard-like, evoke the new affluence of glass and metal-facade towers, but question why those who build these faceless, overnight cities, identified perhaps by a barcode, are invisible. They summon up the ravages of cultural imperialism in an age of pixellation, when we allow a Bamiyan Buddha to be blown up without global protest because we imagine we have the power to create. Through buttons that spell: Stop. Pause. Rewind. Save. Trash.

What would we trash in an era when every brown-skinned worker is first regarded as either a wannabe terrorist or a cyber coolie? Drawing on her experiences during a papermaking workshop in Glasgow with British expert Jacky Parry in 2004, Shanthamani self-reflects on identity and belonging, negotiating contemporary art practice.

Veering between the literal and the symbolic, she invokes the giant creator’s hand from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, looming over call centres, their staff caught in the cross-hairs of cultural conflict. Against a landscape of beeping electronic pulses, hands as huge as an adult human being foreground a question: have we lost our memory of agricultural origins? A yoga-centric canvas, dotted with stick figure asanas suggesting inner calm, subverts the inner resonance with the intrusion of  itinerant child jugglers/ acrobats who today perform for a living at traffic lights.

The series, eclectic in its inspiration, draws on sources as varied as John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero,’ Nina Simone’s soul-rich ‘Four Women, brilliant black-and-white industrial photographs by economist-turned-photographer Sebastiao Salgado, even encounters with dynamic young women from Canada, Norway and Ireland during the Parry stint. Like Salgado, Shanthamani interrogates the eroded status of the manual worker in our age of technology.

Mating with, often masking, text with colour, connecting with her earlier painterly and pictorial work, Shanthamani couches her overview thus: “I’m talking about being reduced to a pair of hands, constantly working for economic reasons since your product is removed from personal, cultural and spiritual moorings. We’ve become a cheap market product to use and throw.  But even cheap labour consumes all that their money can buy – including cheap microchips or pirated products. Within our city, everything is for sale, and everyone is a slave. We’re removed from living. We now have only two mantras: Work and Money.

 Rhetorically, even ironically, Shanthamani adds: “Is Bangalore, then, really an urban space? Or a mere conglomeration of overgrown villages? Let’s face it. Even an IT guy here is not known because he’s a great programmer, but because of his willingness to work 14 hours a day. As a result, so much is being sidelined, like our crafts traditions. The city’s only focus is on construction labour or software labour. I’m consciously trying to accept that I’m a painting labourer.”

Like her earlier shows in 1994 and 1996, the artist as migrant continues to react to Bangalore, to its manmade objects, its creation of urban waste, its loss of human touch. Have people become mere objects en route to the time of the cyborgs?

Shanthamani’s identity reasserts itself as she opts to paint once more. She highlights almost iconic Indian gestures: the hand in meditation, mudras, the outstretched palm that begs. Her choices are buoyed by an almost atavistic consciousness. She asks, “Painting as a human skill is losing ground in the face of technology. It was important for me to paint these working hands within the context of Bangalore. But I did question whether I’m painting photo-realistically, or whether these works were a collage. To me, technology can never be a solution to sweat, hunger and pain. How can it replace basic urges like wanting to play with colours or indulging in rituals that soothe?”

Perhaps her most rooted work in the series is a woven tapestry embroidered with the words, ‘Made in India,’ a label often exported to the first world. An intermediate space where Indians hire out the cheap hand skills that the west has lost to industrialization.

To Shanthamani, it matters how her body is read by the world at large. Or how she is often viewed as an aspiring immigrant while in the first world, threading through her layered engagements with Indian life in flux. 

She reiterates: “Gestures Speak is not about opposing growth. It’s about recognizing what’s happening, placing myself within it, hanging onto what I hold dear…”

Finally, the viewer and the artist revisit the crux of the interchange. In the age of the cyborg and the cyber coolie, they examine the sites of human endeavour through the lens of history. In our context, within our city, do our gestures speak? Or are they symbolic of mere tokenism that so marks our place in the globalized world? Each hand could change the course of this great charge forward into the unknown. And thus, the lifeline of Bangalore as we interpret it today. 

 (This essay was originally commissioned by Gallery Sumukha, Bangalore, in 2007)

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