Fables and History

- Ina Puri                                     



This is a two person show that treads a meandering path audaciously poised between fantasy and realism. In its socio-political setting, Binoy Varghese draws upon his own history, dwelling on angst that stems from his longtime involvement with marginalised people SUCH AS???. Binoy as the protagonist is the presence that is absent from the frame even as he engages in a dialogue with those who, in a sense, have no real world to call their own, existing therefore on the periphery of society, rootless and forever on the move, with no destination in sight.

Distanced from authentic history, Maya Burman's world twinkles and beckons to the charmed land of wonderment, where fantasy colours the mundane ordinariness of everyday life and there is magic in the air, alive with mischief. In the witching hour, pretty maidens, with flowers twisted in their tresses dance around the mulberry bush in joyous abandon, children join in the merrymaking and it is as if a fantasy history is unfolding before our eyes, captivating our hearts into wanting to make believe, to go back to our days of innocence. The enchanted casements of Maya's painterly domain open out to sun-dappled spaces where the music plays on and dancers spin and twirl to its tunes. It is Blake's world again,

'The sun does arise, /And make happy the skies, /The merry bells ring/ To welcome the spring;/ The skylark and thrush, / The birds of the bush, / Sing louder around/ To the bell's cheerful sound,/ While our sports shall be seen/ On the Echoing Green…' and in the lush verdant setting of her canvas, the painter evokes a mood that resonates with positive cheer. Her narrative sparkles with shades of red, green, yellow, blues dominating the palette, shades that, perhaps, she naturally inherits from her artist parents, Maite and Shakti Burman. While her little friends grew up listening to nursery rhymes and fairy tales, Maya grew up in her father's studio, watching stories unfold in colours. Shakti's repertoire of mythological tales captivated the child with its dramatis personae of Kings, Queens and Jesters, gorgeously adorned gods and goddesses with their fleet of animals…it was an enchanted childhood. Paradoxes, when they did appear, came when she was beginning to know a little bit more about her own self. While she must have been confronted with conflicts, she was capable of resolving it. And as she went about her life, in Paris, amongst friends who would have known little about her world – peopled as it was with the mighty Durga astride her roaring lion or Shiva, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartika – Maya inhabited two lives, one with her French classmates and the other her thrilling secret world where fantasy ruled.

Limning the fragile and delicate between, fraught with issues concerning her Western and Indian sensibilities, Maya picked up her own palette, thereupon to carve her own individual identity. After a brief stint as an architect, Maya realised that she could best express her creativity through a medium she inherited as a legacy and she never looked back from there, putting her energies into paintings that took flight as her characters became their own personas, each with their dreams and desires. Maya's world is a mosaic of motifs that frames the background; patterns of elaborate paisleys appear, taken as if from some intricately woven silken tapestry. Maya's dramatis personae are fluid and caught in motion, graceful as they ballerinas on stage, their hair and draperies streaming behind them, it is as if all of them have wings.

While this painted world may seem to the cynic, artificial and adorned, the imagery is so emotionally compelling that it touches you deep, with its pure innocence. Maya agrees that Art Noveau has inspired her floral and geometric motifs and while that may well be true, the seamless way in which art noveau blends into her sensibilities lends Maya's work its deeply individual perspective. If Sakti's art celebrates the song and soil of Bidyakoot, Maya's is a young contemporary woman's world, one she has intimately known and experienced as a Parisienne. While Indian frescoes and miniature paintings have impressed her greatly, she says she owes her own artistic debt to European Medieval paintings, especially their naïve and symbolic elements. Radiant foliage is the subtext running through her painted narratives; leaves, vines and trees seem to be in a dialogue with her figures, participating in their celebration.

Though she has imbibed the artistic influences of both parents, watercolor remains her preferred medium. Her lyrical narrative lends itself to this medium, as the gentle washes create a dreamscape, softly luminous, with shades of oranges, yellows and pinks that lead to deeper tones of maroons and ochres. Maya begins with a wash, moving next to defining the outlines with ink and pen, before returning to watercolor in the end, to give the works their minute details. Over the decades, the painter has become more adventurous, happy to experiment with a rainbow palette, drawing from her own life and life of others, narratives that dwell on personal biographies and fantasies.



A scene from Buddhadev Dasgupta's Uttara comes to mind, of a priest and his church being burnt to cinders in a remote village in Orissa, the director's cinematic comment on the gruesome murder of Graham Staines in the name of religion. In the recent spate of senseless killings, minorities have more often than not been caught in the crossfire, innocent victims of fanatical hoodlums baying for blood. Binoy Varghese's suite of works reflect the artist's anguish and impotent anger at the plight of the 'nowhere people' who live on the fringes of society, with no home to call their own. The marginalised live in fear of being evicted and Varghese captures the poignant adolescent, a slumdog who has no hope of being a millionaire, in his habitat, head held high in pride, refusing to be vanquished by his circumstances. You recollect that an earlier body of his works was titled Chorakuzhy or The Pit of Blood, and focused on the angst of people dispossessed and shunned by society. Those years in the ’90s, he was in Canada and his own changed circumstances must have made the memories even more acutely painful, the victimisation of Christians, for instance, that never made it to 'Breaking News' priority as would a communal story with a Hindu-Muslim twist to it.

A pastiche of recollections and memories, thoughts and beliefs, lend Varghese's art its poignant urgency. The portraits align themselves generically to the genre of Mexican masters and the images are painted in deep tones, calling deliberate attention to the Asian skin colour. The eyes of his characters speak, urging you to leave your preoccupations for just a while, to listen. There is frenzied construction activity in metros across the country and, while the bureaucrats scream deadlines, it is the impoverished migrant labour from Bihar and Bengal who puts in backbreaking hours of work with little food and not even a roof over his head. Their families eke out miserable existences in shanties by the roadside with no facilities, not even drinking water. Children watch over each other as parents go to work at the building sites, playing in the dust and dirt, many times the victims of sexual assault that go unreported. Under the circumstances, it seems odd, then, to see the portrait of the bright-eyed boy with an impish smile…Varghese offers a credible – and affecting – explanation. He says when he visited building sites and actually pointed his camera at a boy/girl, their immediate response was to drop everything and smile spontaneously! The artist, in his faithful documentation, holds onto that smile. And after the explanation, that smile is as potent as Ansari's photograph, post-Godhra. The vignettes make a stunning contrast with the gaudy foliage in the backdrop, in vibrant shades of green, pink, red. In choosing not to use stereotypical urban chaos for the background, the artist creates an image that is surreal. It is as if he is home again in his beloved Koothattukulam, lush with plants, shrubbery, vegetation, on any other day, outdoors, by the door of his church, hearing his family members sing hymns in the choir, just like it used to be…SO WHAT HAPPENED TO CHANGE THAT IDYLL?

It is as if life is elsewhere for the characters in Varghese's world. The boy dreams, perhaps, of his village in distant Birbhum, where the red earth and falling rain lured people away from their chores, out to the fields, there to dance to the maddening beat of the drums… There is a poster-like quality to the gaudy green foliage, as if it is an advertisement to visit some exotic locale.

Varghese sources his images from the city streets, memories, albums and photographs that catch his attention in the media. The stillness of his paintings haunt the viewer, the eyes especially, that contain within them pools of silence and quietude. It is as if the dramatis personae are on camera, narrating mutely, a soliloquy on their life and times. Yet this soliloquy doesn't ever become a requiem, the characters never lose hope, no matter how difficult their circumstances. And so they eke out a living as tea-stall attendants or as incongruous vendors of Valentine’s Day roses! You encounter the ragged bunch, during Yuletide, selling Santa caps replete with a snowy white edging to drunken revellers in flashy cars as they stop fleetingly at traffic signals.

In his own life, these 'nowhere moments' have occurred to Varghese as he has waited in transit lounges, in Canada and elsewhere, awaiting flights, when he has been acutely aware of his Asian colour and identity, which predictably leads to extra security checks during transit…but on his large canvases, the fez and burqa are used deliberately to reiterate the fragile situation we live in. Refugees and migrants are no more a faceless community moving from place to place; they have individual identities as people.

Varghese writes, “Now the nation is on the move towards the global village and globalization, and we too are moving towards urbanization in every phase of our life, our cities are turning into concrete jungles without any logic or any aesthetics, making multistory buildings everywhere. [Text omitted] The city has to accommodate these people; nobody wants to acknowledge that these displaced people are very much needed for the development of society. The urban population thinks these labour forces from the rural areas are burden to the ever growing population of the metropolitan cities. In fact, these are the people who make cities into developed [metropolises].”

*          *          *         *