Surveying 70 decades of any artist’s oeuvre is a big task, particularly if that artist has been as prolific and diverse in his output as Sakti Burman. The retrospective ‘In the Presence of Another Sky’, curated by poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote, is therefore a commendable effort, pulling together as it does the various strands that make up Burman’s fascinating career as painter, printmaker, illustrator and textile designer to build a clearer, more vivid picture of the artist.
That in fact was the guiding idea when Hoskote began working on the exhibition nearly a year ago. “There have been periodic exhibitions and people are familiar with Sakti’s work, but I wanted to present it in all its richness, and show the full spectrum of his work,” says Hoskote.
Born in 1935, Burman was educated at the Government College of Art and Craft in Kolkata and later, the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His work is remarkable for its cultural cosmopolitanism, which comes not just from the fact that he’s been living between India and France since the 1950s, but also from a vision that embraces as its heritage, the art and cultural traditions of the world, not just India’s.
So while one can see in his works the influence of the murals of Ajanta and Ellora, stories from Indian mythology and Mughal architecture, there is also much that he has gleaned and incorporated from years of studying Italian frescoes, Gothic structures, stories from the Bible and European traditions of performance art and craft.
Given the wealth of stories, styles and ideas that have shaped Burman’s vision and through which he has created his highly individual art, it would be hard to not be overwhelmed by all the information that one is confronted with, in the exhibition. There are, after all, 300 works on display, some going all the way back to the early 1950s, and almost every single one of them merits a close examination because of the many meanings and references that Burman typically layers into his work. Thankfully, the show is divided into chapter-like structure, which may or may not be seen chronologically, since each one explores a different aspect of the artist’s approach.
The Mural for instance, looks inspiration that Burman has drawn from Indian murals and Italian frescoes, while Commedia dell’arte looks at Harlequin and Pierrot, two of the best known characters from Commedia dell’arte, the popular theatre form in 16th century Italy, who also take centre-stage in many of Burman’s works. Other chapters, such as Textile Design, which showcase the fragile pieces of paper on which the artist prepared the watercolour sketches he made for a Parisian design studio, and Tagore, Gide, Burman: A Chain of Connections, which display the illustrations Burman made for Andre Gide’s translation of Tagore’s Gitanjali, delight as much as surprise the viewer.
“One of the things that we see when people write about artists, is that they tend to abstract away from (the artist’s) life,” says Hoskote. For the curator, therefore, it was important to bring in a sense of the artist’s life, as a whole, and he does this by laying out before us the notebooks that the artist travels with and the many talismanic objects – dokra figures, calendars and paintings – that he collects. But the attempt to show us these other sides of the artist comes through best in Parallax Vision, which displays, side-by-side, the paintings that Burman and his wife Maïté Delteil made while on holiday in Spain and which feature the same scene but as viewed by two different artistic sensibilities.
“As soon as I saw the paintings, I knew we had to show them,” says Hoskote, “It speaks of their life in art, a life of working together. It’s the same thing that they’re looking at, but it isn’t the same thing.” The curator has very wisely jumbled up the paintings in this section, so that the viewer can’t immediately tell which painting was executed by which of the two artists and is thus forced to pay more attention to the works.
‘In the Presence of Another Sky’ is on view at National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, till November 26