In 1997 I spent days in National Museum Delhi exploring the Indian section of the landmark exhibition Enduring Image brought from British Museum. I found irresistible attraction to Egyptian art as well there was a primeval force in the African exhibits. The raw energy cascading from the sculptures rendered in wood and iron by African tribal artists overwhelmed the sensibilities. (A similar experience awaited me when I visited The Met in New York early this year.) A totemic wooden sculpture of a man his phallus hanging down to ground made many a viewer cast furtive glances and slide on. That was 1997-1998 India. For me and for many an artist friend it was the confrontation between what was learnt in art colleges as ‘high art’ and the Primitive art. We in 1997 were travelling but rarely to museums of Europe and U.S A. It was a rare scholarship to West that artists could see the global art. The world has changed much since for good or the bad. You may travel or surf without water and you can reach all the corners of the world and view all the art that is/was created from the confines of your computer room. You may rehash anything you desire merely by using the right software. But what is important is that with India arriving on world scene some of us can with greater faith and confidence look to our own treasures of art to fall back on for fresh inspiration. The primitive/ tribal art offers an important vignette in the minds and spirit of prehistoric Man.
The primitive art from African and Asian cultures attracted the artists in West. While all European countries, thanks to superior fire power and big sailing ships could subjugate very rich cultures in rest of the world. They called them savage, pagan. The modernist artists in West were attracted to the primitive art especially from Africa. Matisse travelled to Africa and was impressed by pure resonant colours. He along with Fauvists appropriated the colour elements of these cultures. Paul Gaugin lived in Tahiti to paint and to be part of the local primitive culture. Picasso though did not travel but had African sculptures and masks in his studio. His landmark Les Demoiselles d'Avignon used the image of the sitting woman in cubist style that he derived from African sculptures. Paul Klee Joan Miro’ and Salvador Dali used “primitivism of the subconscious” according to Professor Robert Goldwater in his seminal Primitivism in Modern Art.
Manoj Mantra the young acolyte of art from Lucknow college of art has charted his course of art journey not through imbuing expensiveness by studding platinum replicas of skulls with diamonds (I understand an artist from India is following the same path of using gold to make his art work important as art!) or pickling a shark to teach us about the ephemeral or the blind use of digital camera to produce paintings. This is the darker side of globalisation and laptops for art! I am sure as Indian collectors mature they will understand the difference. One needs to see a Ram Kinkar Baij, a Somnath Hore or an Anis Kapoor or Richard Serra’s steel sculptures to understand the deep spiritual and societal feel of their art.
Manoj Mantra has freed himself from the demons that haunt present day art. He has tried to look not on materials or their expensiveness or some other gimmick to find his rudders. He works on paper and does drawings only. Not very impressive? But does it matter. He has confronted the primitive inside him and has created an impressive array of very powerful works.
When I look at Mantra’s drawings I am in the land of dualities—of raw primitiveness and modern factotum. His human figure is more a totemic image with uneven reed like teeth imposing a foreboding, a fear and imminence. It reminds one of the Francis Bacon’s open mouth figures or the angry tribal gods... Elements that connect us back to civilisation proliferate in his works. There are phalli like elongated forms resembling a sitar or a harpsichord which has in place of strings human ribs, hatted figures, belts around pumpkin waists or around necks, bulbs lighted from un-anatomical apertures in body. His art is quirkish beyond the pale of logic or rationality of known forms. His forms are less of humans that we recognize and more like forebodings of unknown in the vein of Inferno of Dante Alighieri—
Canto-I A Dark Wood
1 MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
2 I found myself within a forest dark,
3 For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
4 Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
5 What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
6 Which in the very thought renews the fear.
7 So bitter is it, death is little more;
8 But of the good to treat, which there I found,
9 Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
Mantra’s is world of loss, of dark woods where logic, rationality love are seduced by primal forms and savagery of being. His is a world of substantial loss of civilisational memory. Some remnants of the humanity persist. It reminds me of Rameshwar Broota’s paintings from eighties and early nineties where the human/ape exist in the midst of crumbling edifices, mayhem and destruction. Mantra’s expression akin to the Inferno has a narrative style. But the narration is not linear or logical. It is neither magic realism nor surrealism a la Salvador Dali. His narrative is soul’s winter; his narrative is raw libido, the crude nightmares of being.
Mantra is not alone among Indian artists to explore the ‘The Dark Wood’ of unknown subconscious. He has the esteemed company of likes of K. Ramajunam whose dense drawings emerged from the deep recesses of the primitive id. Laxma Gaud shares with Mantra the physical elements of sexuality in his art. While Laxma is rooted in time and space Mantra transforms his dramatis persona into fantasized forms often merging the imagery animals into humans. This is a quality of prehistoric cultures which Mantra alongside Picasso has appropriated in his expression. Mantra’s forms always have stylised human feet irrespective of whether they are animal, bird or an engineered form. These forms while in twosome or a group pile upon each other in near impossible acrobatic feats. The romantic or funny cock or a bird or tubular bud flower jutting out of a gash in body are evident in many of his drawings. This adumbrates Purush and Prakriti —the male and female principles of life symbolically represented. While I talk of Mantra’s fascination with the primitive I cannot ignore the strident works of J. Sultan Ali who worked with the tribal spirit of expression and evolved a personalised art. His first solo exhibition in 1963 in Delhi at Kumar gallery stands out as a landmark of pure tribal/primitive spirit and symbolism. While Sultan Ali used a line more linear in shape Mantra uses a shaky line. He creates interesting visual play by building single line space and fertilising it with dense linear hatching. Mantra’s preoccupation with the primitive id resonates with K. Ramanujam who built a magical world from the bricks and mortar of his personal fantasies, elements of reality and cultural myths.
My analysis of Mantra’s art will not be complete without mentioning his innate sense of humour. If Picasso’s weeping woman had a boat in place of eye Mantra has an incandescent bulb instead. Even the funny postures of the figures and apples on the head remind one of William Tell’s arrow shooting skills in hilarious way. Thus he leads his fantasized prmitivising art without a stranglehold of too much mind and overt thought.
Painter, Assemblage artist