That any artwork depicting a landscape must, above all, be beautiful is something that we accept unquestioningly. Even when the landscape is ravaged or desolate, when composed as a painting or a photograph, it must give aesthetic pleasure, never mind that the artwork might have denuded the landscape of all history or context, and made it sterile of all ideas except that of aesthetic enjoyment.
In the exhibition ‘Wooden Horse in Boggy Land’ at Mumbai’s Project 88, curator Prajna Desai presents four propositions that challenge this way of looking at the landscape through the works of three artists — Gieve Patel, Tejal Shah and Prajakta Potnis — in juxtaposition with the paintings of the late Calcutta Group artist, Gobardhan Ash. She says, “The landscape is a principal leitmotif in the works of some of India’s most prominent artists, and that is a curiosity the show explores across four propositions.”
Desai does this by, first of all, unpacking the context in which Ash made his lush, lyrical paintings of landscapes and the romanticism of the “wilderness” that he seems to have inherited from an illustrious forebearer, Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, Desai traces the “wilderness myth” all the way back to British policy, where the colonists assumed sovereignty over the forests of the land — forests that were, traditionally, for the common use of indigenous communities. Inherent in the wilderness myth was the idea that forests are at their most natural and pristine when they are free from all human exploitation.
This, of course, did not mean that the colonists couldn’t harvest timber for their use, but it did mean that tribal communities, who had lived in the forests for generations, could be driven off for despoiling nature. Indian elites shored up the myth by bringing in their own notions of an idealistic space of freedom and harmony, as Tagore did in a lecture delivered in Berlin when he spoke of ancient Indians living in close harmony with nature. This was, indeed, the philosophy on which Shantiniketan itself was founded.
But as Desai points out in her curatorial essay, it is a philosophy that assumes that forests and unity were natural laws that applied to all equally. She writes, “To the extent that Shantiniketan was shaped by visions of paradise, it offered the fantasy of the democracy of the elite. Here everyone was equal, everyone got a piece of the forest, as long as they understood it was not the tribal commons of the past. It was a citadel of privilege disguised as public service, gratifying the expectation of cultural and political transcendence as well as the local desire for social accessibility.”
Having proposed a vision of the landscape as weighed with socio-political symbolism, Desai then presents a contemporary counterpoint to the lushness of Ash’s landscapes in three works by Potnis. Each of these paintings —The Couch Potato and two untitled works — seems to indicate the transformation of the landscape into a commodity to be consumed and enjoyed — whether it is as entertainment on television or as a spot for leisure or as a picture hanging in a somebody’s house. The sense of alienation from the idealised, pristine landscape couldn’t be sharper than in these snippets from urban life.
The actual landscape of modern living is covered, not with mountains and lakes and forests, but with objects such as couches, pictures, buildings and television sets. The third proposition about landscape comes through Patel’s Crows, which depicts a murder of crows feasting on an unrecognisable carcass. While Ash’s forest paintings are a celebration of the life and fecundity that characterises wilderness, this work is an acknowledgement that death too is part of the landscape.
“It is a powerful, beautiful paintings,” says Desai, “But it shows something morbid that is usually not shown in landscapes.” The final proposition is about interior landscapes and is powerfully made through the use of Tejal Shah’s Hysteria series — photographs which restage those taken by Jean-Martin 19th century French clinician Charcot to document the various manifestations of “hysteria” in his female patients.
It is now known that Charcot staged his “evidence” of hysteria by eliciting physical reactions in his patients through use of violent techniques like electroshock therapy. Shah’s powerful photographs are an indictment of how forms of madness were constructed, but when viewed in this exhibition, they also become an indication of how we imagine mental states to manifest on the landscape of the body.
Wooden Horse in Boggy Land is at Project 88, Colaba, till June 29, from 11 am to 7 pm