In the remembered land

I have before me a painting that dates back to the start of Madhuri Bhaduri’s art practice. It is a work of some confidence, if not yet of substance, a fictional portrait of a Rajasthani woman – somewhat romantic and naïve, even perhaps decorative. It does not serve the artist I now know well – in fact, it does so poorly – but is important to talk about anyway. The blue palette of the painting is illusory, as is its idea borrowed from an ideal mooted by the Bengal School as an Indian trope, the corruption of which led to its demise a whole century ago. But the sentiment has persisted to this age, this idea of bucolic landscapes and beautiful women and noblemen in a stylized setting.

What is important about the painting, though, is its choice of color even though it ill-suits it, but which allows us a glimpse of the bold palette the artist will continue to employ almost to the point of elimination of everything else. Certainly, the figurative form central to that painting has now disappeared. No longer does she paint within the restraints of a genre – even the term abstract is a misnomer in her case. There is no longer a narrative in her work, the artist preferring the stark reality of colors. In the long chasm that divides the early work and her recent paintings is an artist’s journey of vindication and self-discovery. Like other painters before her who have undertaken the same passage, she has opted to eliminate the convention of form for that which is internalized, walking a lonely path by choice. Abstract art, however notional that idea, is an act of courage, but it is also the most sublime – a surrender of the senses before the capacity to move the viewer solely on the basis of colour, harmony, movement and imagination. It is a rare skill, and only an artist foolish – or foolhardy – enough would attempt it.

Whether or not they have teachers, mentors or patrons, artists will tell you that theirs is a lonely profession – if to address a career in art is not to insult it. Within the confines of a studio, cut off from a living world outside, an artist draws on memory and recollections, relies on philosophy and experience. Life outside is disorienting, debilitating; within, any chaos is of one’s own making, a retreat nevertheless from the absurdity of governance and regulations. Here, the artist creates and critiques, is observer and commentator, can work or hibernate. Art has survived beyond history, when all mankind had cared for but history. History passes on just as art lives on. Great kings are no more, their struggles long forgotten, yet art survives – in temples and churches, in humble homes and formidable forts, in excavations of long-ago civilisations doomed to folly.

Do artists long for such loftiness? It would take infinite wisdom not to yearn for longevity, yet artists are chroniclers of their times, choosing their own methods to recount stories around them, whether of the past or present. Some are drawn to the narrative of the social and the political, others more simply to beauty. The art of the aesthetic is a primal impulse, and it is of this that Madhuri can claim to be a devotee. Her journey from those early figurative works to her impressionistic canvases has been an eventful one, and each is probably the sum, or a part, of her life’s experiences, complete, yet incomplete.
Madhuri’s works suggest her acute observation of light. Everything else – even color – must needs be secondary to it. That light can be bright, harsh, incandescent; it can be dappled, shaded, shadowy; it can be alluring and seductive or mischievous and playful. Its relationship with color is almost transient. On the surface, they might appear joyful, but a closer look discloses hints of poignancy and destiny. They are, like the wrinkles of age, or the scars of time, worn gracefully, weathered a little, magical as only life can be. In Madhuri’s paintings, they are her markers of time.

Reflections of Time

The rain has been incessant. Outside, puddles have formed. The streets are wet. Leaves have rained down, released from their stems – a bruised autumnal crush of gold. Fallen petals swirl past into an eddy before emptying into a drain. A child’s paper boat is trapped between twigs. A wet jacaranda is a blur of indigo, mauve flowers scattered atop their own image, creating a mise-en-scene. Water hyacinths congregate in an offering of shadows. Everywhere, reality is heightened, distorted, enchanting.

A sliver of moon, a glimmer of lights, buildings shimmering into a suggestion of lines – is that the sky or merely a whisper of it? Those dancing colors, do they have feelings? Can blue be warm, orange cold? Is that a streetlight forming an orb or the sun enveloped in an overcast halo of clouds? Radiant lights sway on the damp surface, and are aglow. Smudged footprints cut a path that is soon swallowed up, as ephemeral as our memories.

The rain as a trope has been a favourite with the luminaries of the creative world. Amateur photographers have used it as a medium; artists have been drawn to its possibilities; writers, lovers, filmmakers, everyone, it seems, has manipulated its nuances. From its savage drumming in torrential downpours to its refreshing cadence, it has been a part of cultural lore, the smell of wet earth associated with nostalgia, longing and long-ago childhoods.

What form do these evanescent, ephemeral moods take? Are they real or merely a guise for a reflection of reality that we long for, but which remains, inescapably, beyond our reach? Can we capture these magical moments, envelope them in our memory, the better to recollect them, like William Wordsworth, in remembered solitude?

These and similar responses and questions form the rubric for most artists. Madhuri Bhaduri, if she is troubled by them, does not show it. Her response is a spiritual communion with color. Not for her overcast skies of doom, the filth and grime of our urban settlements in which rain is an unwelcome visitor, not the joyous celebration of poets, the evocative expression of artists. Quick as lightning, her palette seizes the moment, each fleeting shadow and experience captured on canvas. Perhaps there is much to be thankful for, for the mirror she holds up is one of childhood and innocence, youth and tenderness, fulfillment and love – not the jaded appetite of the ancient and abused. Like the colors, so the reflections, hence the memories – they swirl into an enactment of a faded remembrance. Sounds emerge, gentle, joyful, contended, a lost language of pleasure. Where did we lose this, this candor and openness, to receive and to give? Where did happiness go?

These, then, are the artist’s notes to herself. For, once upon a time, there was bliss in the pitter-patter of rain, and in its footsteps followed mirth and gaiety. In the parched subcontinent, the monsoon turns into a celebration. Madhuri is less concerned with the sowing and harvesting, the tumescent rivers and gurgling streams, the floods and breached embankments. Hers is a gentle contentment, a nourishing of the soul that reflects not the rain but its passing, when the gloam on external surfaces is but a passing too, a transition that will be marked when the damp has gone and dryness returns, causing a loss of magic, when enchantment will be no more, and memory will cease again.

Hers is not the romantic painting of the rain itself but the savoring of its aftermath. Her brush draws upon the theatre of nature’s many transgressions. It looks to lakes and ponds where the lengthening shadows deepen into mysteries. Are there magical habitations here? Or – delicious thought! – are they not reflections at all but the glimpse of underwater worlds, their surface scarred by a rippled murmur, revealing a glimpse of that below which is hidden? That mysterious, magical underwater holds no terrors. The colors are bright. Orbs of light dance lightly over the surface, creating ripples of movement. Tree branches form a camouflage on the surface through which streaks of color peep through. Somewhere in the distance, the sun is setting in a streak of crimson, a flight of birds has created a pergola, tree stumps break surface, lily pads float past like giant trays, leaving a clear stream down which the moon traipses. The stars twinkle too – not in the sky but in a parallel world somewhere beneath our feet – real, unreal.
Madhuri’s success lies in capturing the water’s surface – now calm, now restless – whether by village stream or city pond. So might the sea be, so a fishbowl left carelessly out on a terrace, transforming it into a netherworld of possibility. What might these reflections be? Of this, the artist provides no hint, for her interest is not in the lived reality of our mundane lives but in the alternate probabilities they offer us. She returns to them almost obsessively, hoarding them in her recollections, a wave of her brush sprinkling fairy dust across the surface like tiny jeweled notes that dissolve in the water.
Like an enchantress, Madhuri gathers up a dominant tone for each separate painting. Nature drapes herself lightly in the colors of her painter, no one similar to the other. These impossible iterations are like tools in Madhuri’s hands – lyrical blues, placid aquamarines, flaming oranges, jungle greens, inky cyan’s and charcoal blacks – each bursting with the familiarity of life. They stretch over her entire canvas, seemingly spilling beyond them, a world that cannot be contained in the mere surface of a canvas. Beyond its confines, they float then, like the water they imagine, casting their dappled shadows in a reflection of her imagination – and yours. Fleeting seconds frozen into a tableau of infinite possibilities, forever.

The lived experience of landscapes

Any artist’s relationship with the landscape around her is inescapable – nature, beyond all, is the perfect teacher. The golden rays of the rising sun, the gilding of monsoonal clouds, a moon drowning in the river; light filtering through a forest, a deserted path lined by wild flowers, a trail cutting through a meadow; a hollow in a valley with a village cuddled in its crook, a cottage on a cliff, buildings sluicing the air in a city. A photograph might capture that reality, but who can evoke its essence but an artist?
Madhuri’s landscapes are impressionistic, if one is forced to give them an identity. Much more than that, they are her response to the sky and earth and everything in between, a language of relationships and color imbued with a range of emotions that change by the hour, almost as though the light in them changes with the passing day and encroaching night. Her fascination with the arboreal runs deep. More than most, though, Madhuri’s landscapes are, if not waterscapes, at least an ode to water. Glints of water bodies – whether lake, river or sea – are a constant reminder in her paintings about this enduring captivation. As an artistic device, it serves her well in reflecting the sky back, allowing the possibility of light to play a game of hide and seek. In these secluded inhabitations, her muse – like her spirit – soars free. The inspiration comes from her extensive travels within the country and outside, but the particular is absent from these paintings, making them, again, the sum of her memories, of remembered places – a sleeping village here, a distant boat bobbing in the water there.
But she is no mere tourist, mapping her footprints across a constantly shrinking world. Hers is a play of relationships, the physical melting into the emotional through her use of colors that meld just as seamlessly. The horizon plays an important part in these, almost a foreground to the painting, though it, in fact, forms a panoramic background. This is her grand theatre of life where the everyday plays out, made subservient by the might of nature. For what can surpass that we see around us, brought up intimate and close by the artist? No moment of ecstasy, let alone tragedy, can surpass the magnificence of the world that surrounds us.

If the exclusion of form marks these landscapes, it is her distinctive use of color that charts a unique territory. The use of a single pigment in each is passionately saturated with feeling. Madhuri’s unique ability is to dominate the characteristics of each colour, so that blue, or green, can be as vivid as crimson, or scarlet, that red, or yellow, as placid as aquamarine. In dissolving the perceived distinction between colours, she manages to imbue them with her artistic personality, setting up a bond between herself and the viewer which is at least as intimate as the folds of the hills on the land from which they rise – tethered, inescapable, resolute.
From the rooftops, in
Consigned forever as an outsider, the artist must be content to remain a voyeur, someone who only peeps in briefly to glimpse other people’s lives in the unfolding panorama of their existence. No wonder artists are drawn to doors and windows – and, sometimes, as in Madhuri’s case, to rooftops.
As a painterly ploy, it is a device Madhuri uses in her landscapes to get even closer to her subject, allowing an interplay of roofs glimpsed from a height – as, sometimes, you and I imagine them like pieces in a tapestry, or jigsaws in a puzzle, from an aircraft. Like a patchwork quilt built by loving hands, a repository to ancient memories, to warmth and homecoming, these cross-patches of color allow her abstraction full play. Layered geometrically, they hint at her art undertaking another journey, but Madhuri remains conscious enough to rein herself from the pure abstract to the impressionistic form of which she is a painter.
At the start of this essay, I had dared suggest that Madhuri had shorn off the figurative of her early practice almost entirely from her oeuvre. Yet, here is proof that the figurative has remained – even if in the form of an absence. For these rooftops are her response to the narrative that is an important aspect of her painting. Here are her stories, gathered from her travels, lived as experiences, shared as confidences. While the physical form might still be absent, it remains here, in these paintings, more tangible than her early figuration. What goes on under these roofs? What loves? And betrayals? Little triumphs and heartbreaking sorrows? Lives lived and gained, losses measured and stored? Resolutions and manipulations? Life – and death? The particular success of these paintings is in the possibilities and hopes, the give-and-take of daily existence that she hints at, leaving it to the viewer to decipher at will. For, then, each story becomes a canvas of a myriad possibilities, each response dictated by one’s own life’s occurrence. No more must the artist struggle to provide a resolution, leaving it to the viewer to judge on his own basis. So little said, so much unsaid…
In her series of rooftops, Madhuri has approached the subject in two ways. In one, she merely creates planes of patches to represent the context; in others, she has literally walked the road, firmly holding the viewer’s hand as she guides him up the street, to the very door of the rooftop that conceals it. What lies beyond is left to our imagination. Perhaps a boudoir or maybe a school. Is this a fishermen’s village, or the vegetable market? A bus shelter or an artistic commune? What lives pass under those roofs?

And then, a thought… Is there, perhaps, a figure in blue, a Rajasthani veil, a countenanced gaze, arising from the memories of a long-ago artist whose journey to this point has been sure and long? The urge to lift the roof and look under is irresistible, the strength to stay outside and beyond, wise. The viewer, who, like the artist, opts for the latter, would gain from such a tryst. There are many translators out there, while those who prefer to leave it to our imaginations are rare. Madhuri, thankfully, remains one of those few.