|'Midst': 22 x 42 in. each, Oil on linen canvas|
(I wrote this catalogue essay on Shivani's abstract paintings for the Mahua Gallery, Bangalore, in 2009)
Still centre of the unknown
(An encounter with the abstract paintings of Shivani Dugar)
Abstract paintings are fictitious models because they visualize a reality which we can neither see nor describe but which we may nevertheless conclude exists.
~ Gerhard Richter
There is a sense of atmosphere, there is an approximation of music and, what is most important, there is a throbbing mystery about the very process of viewing and responding as if one is sucked into some still centre of hitherto unknown experience.
~ R.L. Bartholomew on V.S. Gaitonde’s abstract paintings
Abstraction in art often seems inexplicable. Or permeated by an unimaginable secret code. It seems ever-changing, like wispy clouds that morph and waft and vanish into forever. Or the surge in the depths of an indigo vat. Perhaps like the drifting icebergs off Antarctica that seem of the southern continent, yet above and beyond it. Like the chattering of squirrels, a twittering of birds in a cherry tree outside a bay window, unfathomable to the lay ear, yet cogent within its world.
This intrinsic subtext imbues the paintings of artists who veer away from the tried, the tested, the tangible. They brush past the figurative, the immediately cognizable, the near-photographic modes of representation. Instead, their outward expressions delve into their innermost chambers, where thought and emotion integrate into a terrain that changes colour and pulse with the moodiness of inner Ladakh landscapes. Such creative spirits take the viewer on a near-yogic journey into the sense of essence, the breadth of breath, the calm core within infinite flux.
Shivani Dugar’s passage to light, to the realization of her own artistic pulse, turns more than a sidelong glance at Richter and Gaitonde, at their mastery of the metier. For her oils on canvas today have emerged as meditations on nature, as wordless paeans to the beautiful unsung, to its unnamed hues, its intrinsic moods, vistas, melodies.
Her landscapes travel deep, into silences beyond forms and themes, bounding over mountains and rivers, seascapes and ocean drifts, the legacy of leaves, stem and bark, the loamy-sandy history of soil. She chooses hues that have yet to be named, terrain yet unrecognized, almost inter-galactic interstices, yet serenely poised within its own certainty.
Shivani’s certainty has been sculpted by her artistic explorations. For instance, by watching her mother paint at home, by imbibing her spiritual inclinations, the meditative chakras as visualized through landscapes – where, for instance, red embodies the earth, orange the water, green the air, purple stands for space, and so on.
Her galvanic change from within became an electrifying force when she relocated to New York City, where she did a Master’s in printmaking at the Pratt Institute. Shivani was drawn into the whirlpool of the art, its cross-hatching, its intricate linear passages, the gentle planar quality of lithography, the uncertainty that was built into the practice. She learnt to eschew the decorative for muted innate expressions. She veered away from architectural forms to paint from feeling while engaging with natural planes and spatial relationships.
En route, Shivani sought to express the awesome magnitude of landscapes, but in an individual, unconventional way. She would mull over Gaitonde’s paintings, seek out their infinite communication through an indecipherable code. Equally, she delved into the world of Richter, his multi-track evolution, his nuanced questionings, his breakaway forays from photo-paintings into abstraction. That led her to other voices with similar souls, like Somenath Maity. Or the UK-based magic realism, the chimerical qualities of Canada-born Peter Doig, who often pays tribute to Le Corbusier.
Her art is deeply rooted in reminiscence, but not for the immediate past or for distant dreams. Instead, her yearnings stem from nature. Her canvases gaze inwards at an atavistic past, at omnipresence on a solular journey centuries ago, at meditation on transience, even on inner certitude.
|Detail from 'Search': 40x40 in, oil on linen canvas|
Shivani’s moods, once abstracted, reflect those of the seashell that sings of an inner surge, of the butterfly bound for the cloud on horizon, of the blue beetle that claims the clinging vine as home. She expresses nishabd or the voiceless through banded, ever-layered hues, through prismatic seeings into the unseen.
Light imbues her delving into the darkness, almost like a deep sea diver in search of the rarest of pearls. But unlike that simplest of passages, Shivani’s ebb and surge, quietitude and implosions, take the viewer back to a classic Indian concept: that of the trinity of the deities Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, who represent creation, dissolution and regeneration.
Distilling essences seems to be Shivani’s forte. Like her illustrious predecessors in abstract art, she evokes the transcendental, the timeless, the contemplative and the poetic. Amidst these trajectories, she binds yet unwinds the flexi-connections between the earth and the sky, the rocks and the ripples, the space and the sea, the sunset and the moonbeam, the inner quiet and the outer retort. For can these ever be expressed in word or photograph, on stage or on screen? Perhaps not. For only painted abstractions or soaring music can do them justice.
This truth has been proved before by art stalwarts like Anselm Kiefer and Achuthan Kudallur, Jackson Pollock and Nasreen Mohamedi, Sam Francis and Viswanadhan V.. Perhaps Shivani feels in sync with what Pollock once said of his experience: “When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.” And maybe she connects as easily with Kiefer's words: “All painting but also all literature...is merely a process of going round and round something inexpressible...”
It is the inexpressible moment that Shivani expresses through her broad strokes, her inner gaze. She is in her paintings, as much as of them, and yet a meditative detachment steeps through them. She participates and alters, visualizes and demystifies, allowing the intuitive impulse, the non-imagistic ground, the overlayers of pulse on the serene first coat, to break free, to breathe, even to just be.
For, to Shivani, her abstract landscapes are often about air, fire, earth, water, and space, essentially “their depths, emotions, moods, the warmth, the coolness, the movements, the drama, the unseen,” as she couches it in words. Her textures and tones hint at the unheard, the unseen, the untouched.
Shivani’s intent remains both subliminal yet spirited, with spirituality at its core. Submerged within, subsumed by natural abeyance, her intelligence grapples with the moment with intensity yet respect, with both bhakti and shringara, resulting in cadences that speak with the rasa of Odissi, the unheard notes of the shehnai, and the thunder of a waterfall, all intermingled in a moment. Perhaps that is her fiction, her reality, the call to her persona from the still centre of the unknown.