Negotiating Reality                                                                                                         1995

Burning colors

     We live in an era of visual violence. We are bombarded with gaudy, loud, offensive images - on the roads, on our television screens, in the cinema hall and even in the political arena. So much so that our visual imagination has become atrophied, distorted and cued to receive images that are repetitive and soulless. These images are often frozen in time and space and represent reified versions  of  female  sexuality,  male prowess, political identity and social status.  One  has  only  to  consider advertisements, film posters, cut-outs of political   leaders,   and   statues   of community personages to understand how an atrophied and perverse visual imagination works its effects.

     To counter this pervasive decay in our visual culture, we need to evolve a different way of seeing. Artists with a sense of their vocation, with the ability to achieve a nuanced expression of the social reality they inhabit can and do contribute  to  the  evolution  of  an alternative visual culture. Such authentic expressions need not be merely realistic or overtly political. What one expects from a responsive artist in an invocation of a mood, a place, an experience, a web of meaning, in short, an intimation of the spirit of the Age we live in.

     Pugazhendi attempts in his works to  negotiate a responsible aesthetic relationship with social reality. His works attempt to frame -faces, bodies, events, and post-mortems’ of events. There are strong faces here - set in patience, touched by exhaustion, disenchanted. The old man’s moods captured here are fine instances of a brush that wishes to expose the mortality of  all  flesh.   Pain,  torture,   hunger, sickness and a whole host of other things that our flesh is heir to interest Pugazhendi. He shows us a veritable gallery of victims - of natural and manmade disasters; of earthquakes and riots;  of  caste  violence  and  political vendetta. His paintings resonate with names of places that we recognize for the horrors they have been witness to: Bhopal, Chunduru, Chelkurthi;  Sri Lanka. There are men, ‘women, children - mere bodies, impaled on events and acts over which they have no control.

     Pugazhendi’s work possesses a certain  directness  and  transparency: there is an invitation here to read messages off his lines and shades. There is a sombreness here, a refusal to abandon his brush to the whim of the moment, to fancy, to play and even to colour. While this sombreness matches the political intentions of the artist it does not seem to reflect the range of his aesthetic talents.

     The question arises: whether an artist’s  human  concern  and  political “rightness”may alone constitute the basis of a radical aesthetic. The relationship between aesthetics and politics is never a direct one. It often suffers multiple mediation. Art can be brilliantly original and directly political, as is evident in the works  spawned  by  the  October Revolution. Not only painting but poetry, theatre  and fiction  flourished  in  the months after October but they drew their concerns and energy from the great mass of the people. But at other times art  remains  confined  within  its  own space, not entirely severed from political reality yet not entirely engaged with it. But in all circumstances - and perhaps Pugazhendi would need to reflect on this - aesthetics cannot be reduced to politics even as it cannot be delinked from it. If the latter happens we have kitsch and consumerist art and if the former view prevails art becomes an instrument of the State.

     For  the  artist  in  India  and especially in Tamil Nadu where popular visual culture is utterly decadent and vulgar, the task of holding his or her own in the criss-crossing terrain of politics and aesthetics is particularly fraught with tensions. To  shatter the  images of popular visual culture is necessary but an engagement with the space and experiences of popular life is also important. To enter into the life of the great mass of our people is not easy, given the inequalities of wealth and caste. For  here  meanings  are  not  so transparent  and  require  patient observation and listening and seeing on the part of the artist. To feel out the rhythms of life, to absorb its details and trace out its meanings in, today’s social and cultural universe the artist needs to be vastly suggestive and the range of his or her work broad and experimental.

     Besides,  to  be  truly  and fundamentally political, the artist needs to eschew the easily and obviously political. For these latter may become easily stimulated, copied and reproduced. What seems important also is not to overload the image. In a sense the image has to speak in and through of itself.

     Pugazhendi has many years ahead of him and his sensitivity to the world he lives in should impel him onto more adventurous paths.