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I, me, myself

This book takes not engage itself with Mehta?s art in terms of modernity or in the context of art history.

art and culture Updated: Apr 19, 2003 10:43 IST

Svaraj
A Journey with Tyeb Mehta's Shantiniketan Triptych

Ramchandra Gandhi
Vadehra Art Gallery
Price: Rs 1,200
Hardcover

If you plan to pick this book up as a source of information on Tyeb Mehta’s art, then it’s not useful. Yet, the book does take a unique approach. It does not engage itself with Mehta’s art in terms of modernity or in the context of art history. Instead, using Mehta’s ‘Shantiniketan Triptych’ as the focal point, philosopher and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Ramchandra Gandhi, has embarked on a metaphysical exploration. This is a completely original way of reading a painting — in our country, at least — and Gandhi has done it with attention to meticulous detail, without losing sight of the larger picture.

While deconstructing the ‘Shantiniketan Triptych’, Gandhi has also examined other major images that have dominated Mehta’s canvases and has sought to link them with the former in terms of philosophy and sensibility. The predominant images that have recurred in Mehta’s work are the trussed bull, the rickshaw puller, the falling man, Kali and Mahishasura.

It is clear that the ‘Shantiniketan Triptych’ and Mehta’s residency at Santiniketan formed a pivotal point in his life. He painted the 170X445 cm painting in 1985 when he was artist-in-residence at Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati University. The painting represents Charakpuja, an end-of-spring ritual observed by Santhals and other marginalised communities of West Bengal. The central panel shows a sacrificial site near the vertical charak pole with a seated woman and goat in close, protective embrace and the ritual sacrificer’s shadow looming over the scene. This is flanked on the left by a panel showing a group of drummers and dancers and a figure floating on the top right corner of the painting, and on the right, a group of people pulling a rope and seated observers watching the ritual. Here also, there is a figure floating on top.

Gandhi was professor of comparative religion at Visva Bharati University when Mehta stayed there. For Gandhi, the painting means a search for the all-inclusive self, the constant partition of self-awareness by individual and collective egos. Gandhi has titled the book Svaraj, or rather the self-realisation that lies at the heart of his thesis. It is also a vision of advaita or non-dualism — a wholeness of spirit. Gandhi weaves in and out of the various elements of the image, draws parallels with other works of art like Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Tarkovsky’s film The Stalker.

The book is a loosely-strung set of essays where the author simultaneously initiates a dialogue with the canvas as well as with an imagined interlocutor about the details of the image. In the process, he presents complex philosophical concepts — of particular note are his observations on androgyny, the ethical values of the tender embrace between the seated mother figure and the goat and the symbolism of the yogic mudra by the disembodied head in the foreground of the central panel.

A valuable book, this points to a new direction for looking at paintings.

First Published: Apr 18, 2003 09:18 IST