[Siddharth Sivakumar is currently doing B.A. in English literature at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. He has an avid interest in art practices & art history and routinely writes for some of the leading art journals of India. He has edited two of the volumes of Bikshan Bulletin and is the co-founder and editor of Tinpahar–http://tinpahar.com]
Why should one paint ? What should one paint and how should one paint ? These are basic questions that sooner or later cross the minds of young artists. It appears Shibu Natesan was never troubled by them. His paintings are a testimony of history through images. They march the same path frequented by great story tellers of our time. In the 80s as a student in the College of Fine Arts, Trivandrum, he was exposed to Latin American and African Literature through translations. Thereby he was well acquainted with the works of Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, who proficiently juggled fact and fantasy. Later in his carrier this intermingling of the real and the unreal develops as a distinct character of his paintings. Like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Natesan’s paintings map a certain history; making comments, sharing notes and expressing anguish in a language that shuttles to and fro between reality and the absurd alternatives of the real. The merging of fact with fiction, the smooth trespassing from the usual to the magical are the inherent qualities of Shibu’s canvas. Matthew Strecher defines magic realism simply as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe”[i]. This undoubtedly is one of the notable aspects in Natesan’s works. The magic-realistic approach of his works, invaded by man, machine and animals crafted into a certain compositional marvel, goes beyond mere mediatic realism. The use of photographs or images form published media does not suggest a lack of imagination; rather the images from different sources provide yet another canvas upon which Shibu scripts his stories. The superseding layers constitute a new narrative, a narrative which would fail if not read together.
Shibu Natesan’s works stand on firm ground communicating through its unique collage that weaves reality with the fantastic. The visual spectacle grows into a thought provoking exercise by creating moral conflicts that prompts one to explore social orders. The style adopted by Natesan suits and syncs well with his startlingly polemical works. But the very beauty of his art thrives on the apparent invisibility of that polemic. Natesan paints parables which narrate succinct stories, illustrating and illuminating certain universal values in an idiom made common by photography. The parables frequently involve characters at the verge of a moral dilemma, submitting to disputable decisions before culminating in some unpleasant consequences. The artistic language of Natesan is as transparent as the parables for children. There is a Blakean quality to his paintings in a manner of speaking. But the implications are less explicit and at times requires a closer scrutiny. In some of his paintings the presence of animals transforms the parables into fables. This active participation of the animals in the narrative structure happens to be a major feature of Natesan’s flights into phantasmagoria. His works present animals in a fashion so that they are easily identified with human beings. Borrowing Shibu Natesan’s own words, “Objectively for a painter painting human figures and animals are the same. The difference is in our association and meaning”[ii]. Often we find the flora and fauna voicing their disapproval of the hostile powers in an allegorical framework.
Man’s domination over nature and the subsequent subjugation along with entrapment of those who rely on the nature, is a terrible reality of our time. Shibu uses his art to portray this uncanny reality. In his Street Charmer we find a young bear dancing to the music of the civilized world. And there are others that show how we utilize nature for our self-interest. Day of Wonder renders the awe a child and his mother share while witnessing sharks imprisoned in an aquatic zoo. The reality is depicted once again, but the stylistic treatment has undergone a drastic change. Paradoxically it is only with this setting-in of the photorealistic style that he begins to ruminate over the same themes and add other layers to it.
A photograph by its definition captures a moment from the past. This momentary memory of a past reality corresponds to a lost time and space. In a world where nature is replaced rapidly with the un-natural, man-made entities, Captured Alive represents a scene dominated by nature. We find a set of lofty ducks paddling against a greenish ground with a half-visible grounded airplanes in the background. This brings about a change in Shibu’s perspective. The empowering scale of the ducks tend to establish a certain importance to their being. The newness of his style brings with it an alternative voice which is more optimistic while focusing on a stark issue. And Shibu soon realizes that the dynamics of time and space and the momentary reality of a situation should be challenged and altered. It is from this realization Shibu sets things in motion. Many of Natesan’s works are inspired by nature. These images often create a contrast by bringing animals and machines in the same frame, sharing proximity. The interaction between the binaries is characterized by the intertwined differences and similitude. Many-a-times flesh is threatened by the masculinity of the metal monsters. Nonetheless the message appears to be straightforward as it gets delivered.
In his Untitled we find a cheetah standing upon a yellow Gallardo. The fastest animal on earth shares a stance with the speedy racing car. However the superficial similarity from the primary inspection wanes the moment we realize that there would always be a distinct difference between an inspirational cheetah and its inspired reflection, the natural and the artificial – something that the car-door bearing the blurred refection of the real tire testifies to.
In his painting Against the Wind we find him making a similar point previously dealt in Captured Alive. The painting shows a canvas full of birds sweeping the sky while a flight takes off behind this screen of birds. Those who are familiar with Hitchcock’s The Birds will understand better that the painting though filled with birds is not a pleasant one, but one that suggests the presence of great, impending anxiety and horror. Though the soaring aircraft is mammoth in comparison to the scattered birds, their sheer multitude seems capable of bringing down the metal-bird.
Nonetheless the man in the red shirt and cap lighting a cigarette remains indifferent to the premonition that stirs the air. The utter blindness incited by apathy is in itself a burning cigarette that would soon cloud what is natural and beautiful. Suddenly we realize Shibu has altered time and space. And a new meaning emerges out of this displacement of objects and animals. Although the painting focuses upon nature it is no more restricted to animals and natural objects but goes further investigating man’s attitude towards and dealings with nature. This deviates from the trajectory of photo-realism, and as mentioned before, tries to capture alternatives to a reality. The highly dramatic nature of the depicted reality is so unreal that we tend to look for alternatives. Shibu’s magic realistic approach works like a multiple exposure shot, effectively layering a series of photographs into one. It is in this way that Natesan’s photographic images oftentranscend “a reality.”.
His artistic style develops into an intricate pattern kindled by his exploration of the anthropocentric world. In Natesan’s Each One Teach One the title immediately would strike one as sarcastic. The panic stricken, alarmed Zebras are beings with whom we would love to commiserate. The black boxer is a selfish enemy that hurts not out of necessity but out of some vested interest. The supposedly African scene amidst wilderness gets a new meaning with the sophisticated boxer’s battle-gears. The leaping Lion, the king of Africa, is replaced by the punching boxer, the master of the boxing-ring. The injustice of the confrontation is highlighted by the extreme claim on the fighter’s part against the anxieties of the victims. The painting unfolds the tragic tale of subjugation in black and white. The Zebras stand symbolic of the black and white picture where innocence is under unfair assault. We cannot but wonder whether Natesan addresses the fighting when he says: Each One Teach One or is he actually urging his watchers and inspiring them to seek revenge by instigating retaliation; asking them to teach each autocrat a lesson for life, redeeming humanity or is it an endless cycle of necessary violence–our predicament? Thus the painting is not one of those that are confined to pessimism but one that offers the flow of optimism too–a see-saw of motives.
Boxing is one of the most aggressive of the modern sports; nonetheless a real competition is demarcated by the presence of mutual respect in the competitors.The spectacular fighter gets our attention as the painting harks at self-care; calls for courage to fight against prejudices, summons all to stand for a greater good by ensuring fundamental rights. The painting seems to echo Bob Marley, one of Shibu’s favourites while following his ardent rhythm – “Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights! Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!” This messianic Rastafarian element lurks at the bottom of some of his important works.
But when there are so many characters narrating the same story, there are multiple versions of it. The painting also entails the history of the black people. The black boxer is a socio-cultural product of history; he belongs to a time that saw slavery and subjugation through violence. The Greco-Roman era is marked by its symbolic gladiators as was the bear-baiting and the bull-baiting worlds of other European powers. This trait of violence lives on in modern sports. The black boxer thus represents a long history of violence through sports, as an obverse force. Perhaps it also suggests the long history of redemption through sports. But this problematizes the observer’s stand. He stands perplexed wondering whether to sympathize with the zebras or to commiserate with the black boxer in circumstances where the victim steps into in the shoes of the attacker.
Existence of Instinct happens to be an impressive painting and more importantly another step forward in complicating our understanding of a certain situational reality. In modern times, cock-fights are usually a place for fun where violence entertains men, especially those who are less privileged and are subjected to physical labour. It is Natesan’s way of sympathizing with such neglected beings in a world that still builds on labour but chooses not to recognize, let alone acknowledge or respect. The faceless group of men are naturally voice-less. They are unable to speak-out or flag their right to be recognized. Just as the central characters of the narrative are not named in Márquez’s novella No One Writes to the Colonel, adding to the feeling of insignificance of an individual living amidst the antagonistic political situation. But in an alternative and equally possible reading of reality, we no more relate ourselves with the human figures or look askance at them. The cocks, the fight, the hands all come together and serve as a metaphor of an oppressed life. And now it is the cock with whom we identify ourselves with. A scene of fight where there is no actual physical fight materializing. Nonetheless the painting is all about the struggle; the struggle of restricting a self-destroying act, that the evil-hands are pushing towards. The cocks are also quite reluctant to face each other. They are not ferocious to tear, slash and engage in the act of destruction; rather, with their heads turned away they represent reluctance. The cocks are aware of the history, their everyday fate; the feathers scattered across the battle-ground tell the twisted tale of the evil hands.
Another significant feature of the image is the absence of the violence mongers’ faces. We only see the hands that try to take the cocks’ destiny into their own hands and decide their fate. These are the evil hands, the emblem of sorcery and voodoo on positive forces. The facelessness on such characters representing the forces of our world only makes it more dangerous. This deliberate act on Natesan’s part to frame out the faces also suggests that they are the common faces we see around, in the alleyways, around the corners and at times within. In this case it is not the insignificance of the faces but their ubiquity that is underscored by Natesan. The true horror of the painting lies in this fact of being ignorant of such malicious puppeteers and submitting to a fate that is not ours but one that is enforced. Existence of Instinct therefore is about the marginalized existence of the underdogs, but the layers are so diverse that they can accommodate two virtually different perspectives, one where we identify with the human-beings and the other which reduces human entity to animalistic existence. We now empathize with the helpless cocks that signal an impossible resistance against the adversaries that surround them. Although the motif of oppression remains unchanged the story transforms into an unfamiliar tale as the characters of the narrative are shuffled.
Painter turned director Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon has several characters providing alternative accounts of the same incident, as we all know. Kurosawa claimed that knowing the truth was not the point of the film as he intended it to be an exploration of multiple realities rather than an exposition of a particular truth[iii]. Each One Teach One and the Existence of Instinct both testify that Shibu Natesan not only plays with fact and fiction but brings to life multiple realities, strutting across time. The alternate readings his paintings offer cover a wide expanse of realities, through exchanges between historical and the contemporary. The forked voices in his works present an unresolved picture of multiple realities.
The painting, The Other World was Shibu’s reaction to the Gujarat riots. The painting is important as unlike the previous ones, it deals with no distant history or for that matter universal traits of the human nature. It is the impulsive reaction of the artist to an immediate event. In an interview Shibu talks of the effect the riots had on him. And he states that he had lived on grapes, confined in his studio till the painting was completed[iv]. Such revelation foregrounds the artist’s emotional engagement with his subjects and the spontaneity with which they are accomplished. The photographic realism of his paintings deceives one into believing that they are born of skills with a lesser involvement of intellectual or emotional agency. But it is seldom the case. The true achievement lies in Shibu’s aesthetic negotiations, where the dexterity is of secondary status.
In Natesan’s The Other World he artfully brings together a varied array of feelings. The figure can be of the sensitive, remorseful man who lies with his eyes closed in a meditative trance fully liberated of all mundane restrictions and yet is not fleeing from the scene. Small fishes are moving around him in clusters; a process of reconciliation amidst nature where man is in perfect harmony with his surroundings. The figure is all calm and composed, detached from any emotional-burst on the outer surface. Shibu too identifies himself with the man where the serenity of the expression envelopes the inner torments. At the same time, the human figure embodies lifelessness. The figure imprints the impression of a corpse in all its stagnancy.
However, the pious neon glow of the painting encourages us to identify ourselves with the human being, and ensure that the evil within us rests in some form of peace with all its inhumanities. Certain eastern school of philosophy describes the profound peace of mind that is acquired with moksha or liberation. The immersed man from Shibu’s painting evolves as a figure liberated from earthly sufferings, but still very much working within our daily tribulations and vexations. This is the phase of hibernating, a delicate balance between being alive and being dead. At the verge of being extinguished the individual is blessed with a luminous consciousness, traipsing at the edge of history. The radiation marks the emergnce of the self after an eclipse. The neon light that illuminates Natesan’s canvas suggests the salvation of the all-pervading spirit, but a salvation which is not beyond us, not transcendental. The painting brings to life a clear picture of ambiguous thoughts that are hard to express or convey verbally or otherwise. Nonetheless, The Other World transforms into an intricate design as the artist addresses the inner psyche while painting the exterior. Thomas Hardy’s anti-war poem, “In the time of breaking of the nation” is about the horrors of the first world war. But the poem hardly mentions the image of the breaking nation, instead it talks of a quotidian lifestyle in a rural setting. Hardy contrasts scenes of political strife and discord with scenes affirming the regenerative cycles of pastoral life. Similarly, Shibu uses a certain alternative method to elicit the monstrous reality of the communal riots. Thereby in a unique way the unpainted reality gets painted through this alternative route. And then Shibu traverses from the alternative to the real, instead of the other way round.
In Natesan’s paintings men and animals whisper anguishes and trade fantasies while grazing in the vexed socio-cultural milieus and political landscapes. In his paintings Shibu primarily tries to depict certain snippets of reality, often the ones that disturbs him the most. But soon he realizes that it is better to seek cure, if at all there are, through envisaging other worlds, distant universes. In other words, on facing the negativities of life he chisels a new optimistic voice. Interestingly both the voices, nay many, finds expression on the same canvas, since unlike a written piece, paintings always talk to us by projecting (or hiding) their myriad layers. The real is always accompanied by alternative realities, culminating in multiple-realities. The simplicity of his works is as deceiving as our modern existence itself.
[i] Matthew Strecher, Dances With Sheep: The Quest for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki, Center for Japanese Studies/University of Michigan, 2002, pg-80.