The Abstraction of Myth and Memory

21 Mar

A journey of four artists, who dip into the repository of memory to create urban myths fashioned from beauty, dystopia and dream which surround their consciousness. Their art is an abstraction of all that pervades their life where the subconscious and conscious are delicately balanced on the tip of their brushes.   
By Georgina Maddox,ImageImageImageImage
Independent critic curator.

Saba Hasan


The Aristotelian metaphor of catharsis, purging and purification, underpins the work of many an artist. In this instance however it is not an actor but a canvas that faces the audience. Bits of burnt text cling to the surface, ripped and sutured fabrics bearing nails that are driven into their very heart confront the viewer. The canvas exposes itself as a living being, unabashed and unapologetic in its trauma, tactile and yet not quite inviting one to touch. For Saba Hasan, art becomes a site of exorcising her inner demons, for unleashing uncontrollable energy, anguish and expressing her social and political concerns, seen through the prism of her own life. Her materials currently reflect subconsciously the concrete, nails and rust of the city.

The Delhi-based Saba came to abstraction from figurative painting, having formally studied the human body at studio drawing classes in Switzerland. However as ‘recognisable’ forms fell away, Saba found she suddenly had a greater sense of freedom. Figures had become a boundary and abstraction allowed her to move past into a new territory. One that was spontaneous, untrained and totally experimental.

To trace back to the point when this process began and these elements first made their appearance into her lexicon, it was during the 2002 riots in Gujarat that Saba became pointedly aware of her Muslim identity. Before that she was an average, urban Delhi girl who blended in. However, it was only after 2002 that she began to get a growing awareness of what her name and identity meant. “The way people around me reacted subtly changed and they tried to fit me into a preconceived ‘box’. I know they meant well when they would say “you are so different from other Muslims,” but it still got my hackles up,” recalls the artist.  It was comments like that which led Saba to foreground her multiple identities as Muslim, liberal and female.     

Saba had already chosen to retain her maiden name even after marriage to her husband from a different community, but another choice she made was to use Urdu text as part of her visual language.  “I actually speak and read English better than I do Urdu but I wanted to use Urdu as a political choice,” says Saba. What is also important is that the text is not religious, poetic or historic but contemporary text. Like personalised notes, letters and newspaper reports that foreground marginalised voices and human rights issues. “The text anchors me in issues that are personal,” says Saba who sometimes uses a few literary references from writers like Ismat Chughtai and Mahasweta Devi.

Importantly though Saba does not provide translations of the text, instead she uses it as a piece of abstraction enmeshed with her personal issues and philosophical ideals. It’s like hidden roots that expose themselves to those willing to dig deep enough.  Besides the canvases, Saba also works with actual burnt and distressed books as sculptural pieces. Text and poetry is born from her childhood memories of poetry reading sessions at her home that colliding with the urban dystopias that she constantly feels in her city.  

Poetry also leads itself to sound and as a result some of her most recent experiments include sound installations. The sound installations which she has featured in this exhibition are titled “rehearsal for a poem” and it makes oblique and subtle hints to the violence in Kashmir where bullets are being exchanged for stones and poetry for the echo of gun shots into the night. “There are lots of layers in the sound and I do not make any direct over-the-top references,” says Saba. The sound installations are accompanied by fossil-like books. The text and voice are the artists’ and it touches upon the domain of racial profiling, love hope, music, conflict and war.

Underpinning all these experiments is a movement towards natural and organic materials, like weathered grass, mossy and mouldy textures and weathered wood. “The move towards nature indicates that there is a larger world out there, a universe that is bigger than our human quibbles and obsession with weapons of mass destruction. My work is trying to embrace that larger life force,” says Saba, who creates her own myths weaved out of her personal memory.

Bani Pershad

A rose will bloom but then must fade…so says the bleeding rose of deep brown and burnt red that drips hot black blood from its pores soaking the canvas in a rain of fragile vulnerability. The human condition that touches our lives ever so often is Bani Pershad’s muse as she translates colours and brush strokes into pure, raw emotion.

Not all expressions are marked with pain, for other works display positivity and power, as does a circle that vibrates with energy, an energetic shocking pink sea of colour through which washes of gold peep out seductively and a swirling sun that explodes into rays of warm red.

Delhi-based Bani is a self-taught artist whose creative, sensitive side has been seeking expression in multiple ways, for many years, whether it was Kathak dance or Hindustani Classical vocal; however it was painting that offered her the right vent. The softness of the brush on paper and canvas, the ease with which colour lends itself to her expression and the freedom of losing herself in the painting is something that Bani has been giving herself up to for the last five years, mentored by none other than well-known Progressive painter S H Raza.

Bani describes her work as a love affair that has taken over 25 years to come to fruition. “Before I came to painting I felt lost, like a little girl-in-the-woods, looking for something that would complete her. I remember my first painting was a simple geometric composition of trees,” says Bani. The trees played an inverted geometry where the trunks were indicated through triangles and the tree-tops were represented by squares. “I remember standing back and feeling that there was something finally right about what I was doing,” says Bani who was working out of a friend’s studio at the time.

Her approach being completely untutored and spontaneous gives Bani the freedom to not be weighed down by labels and nomenclature like ‘abstract artist’ or ‘figurative artist’, but over time she did come to a comfortable position and currently identifies as a non-figurative painter, whose main tools of expression are colour, texture and amorphous forms that defy and play outside the constraints of geometry.

Much of her work is informed by her emotional experiences with people, places and memory. Painting is her chosen vehicle of expression that says it all, whether it was a conversation that she had with a friend or it is the memory of her aunt’s home in Chandigarh, where a woman in a little hut prepared a meal for her or it could be the essaying of a difficult emotion she could not express in speech. Some of her paintings, like Sita Haran, entwine the narratives of mythological women with that of urban notions of captivity.

For this group exhibition the curator has chosen a suite of works whose octave range from subtle yellows and blues to hot pink skies dotted with greys; her deft strokes give the viewer a hint of forms that meet at the horizon—a concept that has always fascinated the artist for the horizon is both myth and reality in the mind of the artist.

The rose dripping blood is perhaps the only work that gives away a direct reference to form. Bani works within the realm of the unknown and each painting is like a journey that reaches fulfilment with the final stroke of the brush.  


Sanju Jain                                            


A triangle appears adrift in a mist of black-and-white brush strokes. A garment lies crumpled like a moulted skin from which a new form is born. Pages from a diary flutter across a mossy green backdrop, as melancholic blues pull the viewer into their depths. Vibrant greens produce the buoyancy of trees in the spring, as it sprouts fresh leaves. These are just some of the experiences that one gathers when looking at Sanju Jain’s paintings. By-and-large her works are abstract; however there are forms that glimmer and emerge from the sea of colours that engulfs them.

Sanju likes to keep her work open-ended because she believes her paintings are completed by the viewer.  It is their ‘Anubhav’ (experience or taste) that leads them to read the work according to their interpretation. “People see a reflection of themselves in my work and that is what I enjoy the most,” says Sanju.

Her palette of colours are both celebratory and melancholic reflecting varied moods, while the folds and creases on the canvas are built up by a process similar to Collography, a printing technique in which the artist adds materials to a rigid background such as wood or cardboard. The resulting design is built up like a collage, creating a relief. Sanju uses layers of handmade paper affixed by babool gum and vegetable dyes. Woking with natural fibres comes spontaneously to Sanju since her early schooling in the arts began in her hometown Ari, in Hoshangabad, M.P.

Sanju’s art is fuelled by her childhood experience where toys were handmade from her home soil. Here the bamboo formed the legs of the clay horse, the marbles she played with made up its eyes and the broken glass bangles that belonged to her elders were used to decorate the figurine. Early geometric forms like the triangle and the circle also informed those early figurines and Sanju often finds herself coming full circle when she uses these forms in her paintings. “Cow dung, wet earth, raw wood are all materials that are close to my growth as an artist where for many urban girls these are considered unclean,” says Sanju.

After a stint at the New Girls Degree College at Indore where she got her first taste of drawing and painting,  Sanju went on to study for her MA and BA  at Indore.  However it was not until she moved to Bhopal after her marriage that she met her true mentor. It was in 1997 at Bharat Bhavan when she met S H Raza that she felt a sense of direction emerging from her work. “Raza told me that I had a beautiful seed inside me that needed nurturing; a ‘beej’ of creativity that would flower into a fine tree if it had the right encouragement. I believe my work was more craft oriented before this but after meeting Raza I would always paint with these words in mind and wait for the moment when I could show him my work,” Sanju reflects. This was followed by an exhibition in 1999 at the Lalit Kala Akademi, where Jain got further exposed to the art of the city and learned to work with acrylic on canvas. Earlier her work was dominated by papier-mâché and other materials that were less durable.

Sanju’s work now encapsulates a mixture of her rural roots that relate to natural fibres while the influence of city dwelling has found its way into her art in the form of mediums like acrylic on canvas. Her work still remains anchored in a deep spiritual quest for inner peace and joy.


Rafique Shah

He is a nomad who traces and maps his journey through colour, mood and moments, who records the time of prayer, the diurnal rising and setting of the sun and the Azaan, the call of the faithful, with his colour palette and subtle forms. Rafique Shah is a painter with a fairly unconventional background.  Born and brought up in Satwas, a village near Indore, in MP, his grandfather was a Faqir, and the tradition of begging for alms has been an important influence in his approach to art, because the process of giving and taking is open-ended and one never holds on to a possession but learns to let go.

Rafique recalls that he had once gone with his grandmother to beg, when he had a moment of epiphany: “I thought, I must have come into the world with a purpose. While I am still searching for the reason as to why I paint, I find that painting makes sense to me right now and expresses my thoughts best,” says the artist.  

Vibrant colours are the primary tool of his expression however the columnar form or grid-like structure is a recurring leitmotif in Raqifue’s canvas.  One could read it as an aerial view of a road map, where roads from the village lead to the city and vice-versa. Rafique himself has travelled over these roads so many times and now he invites the viewer to do the same. While the movement and moment is not a specific experience that he is trying to capture but rather a sense of it, the use of colours and lines is rather precise. The pattern of the square and the triangle repeats itself like a mantra or prayer being intoned. The dazzling colours are sometimes applied in flat uniform tones, sometimes in shades that move from light to dark. It is a mood that changes or a time of day that moves from golden morning to inky-black night, where energy flows from one side of the canvas to the other. One could even see them as arterial veins that carry this same energy from one segment of the canvas to the other.  

His early influences have been the reading of the Holy Scriptures, from the Gita, the Bible to the Qur’an. He also read Gandhiji’s autobiography. Travel is another experience that fuels his art and he is currently working out of Bani Pershad’s studio space after a stint at a studio in Neemrana. For Rafique seeing is of utmost importance and his works are purely visual in that sense. They possess a dream-like inner vision which comes from his ability to constantly visualise, even in his sleep.  It is during dreaming that he reaches into his repository of memory where the squares of light that danced and formed patterns of the thatched roof under which he lived with his family take shape on his canvas as tiny squares of blinding light. The light leads us into his personal conscious, a dystopia junction that alters your experience of beauty.

Rafique showed an early inclination towards art, for he would draw ferociously on the walls with charcoal as a child. His father somehow managed funds to send him to college and he studied art at the Kala Sansthan in Indore in 2001. His early studies covered all the academic aspects of painting and drawing, however he found himself being drawn towards abstraction. “I still make figures, portraits and landscapes; I even once painted hoardings in my village. However it was playing with colours that gave me a beautiful and true experience. I believe that even if you make two paintings in a week it should be a work that is of significance,” says Rafique.  “I am looking for something and the search is still on,” he concludes.



One Response to “The Abstraction of Myth and Memory”

  1. themaddoxproject March 21, 2013 at 11:07 pm #

    The show was curated by Myna Mukherjee and features a selection of works by four artists chosen by her.

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