Writing

Age and beauty

The walled city oozes so much spiritual history, every gali could turn into a trail. Here are four roads less travelled ♦

spiritual trails

Part of a few stories for a Time Out Delhi’s “Ten spiritual trails” cover. Click to read with pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Older Delhi

The pre-Shahjahanabad tour.

The walled city hides several sacred sites that predate Shahjahan’s imperial city. Four major ones are relatively close together and can be visited in one go.

The Turkman Gate area gets its name from the Shah Turkman Dargah, but locals know the grave complex of this Sufi saint – Shamsul- Arifin, also called Biyaban – as “Dada Pir”. Start at Turkman Gate and take the Bazaar Sitaram lane to the left of it. Ask for Basti Dada Pir and Mohalla Qabristan. The complex is tucked away to the right of the main road. The graveyard is on two levels: an upper concrete-covered level with half-sunken graves (including a sinking, inscribed marble tomb and an elevated grave) and a little mosque and adjacent dargah down a flight of stairs. According to Lucy Peck (in Delhi: A Thousand Years of Building, Roli, 2005), the different levels might be due to burials taking place one on top of the other over the years.

A gentleman we met there, who said his family had been taking care of the place for generations, told us that Shah Turkman (who he referred to as “aap”) came from Turkmenistan and is still commemorated during his urs, when people come from as far as Pakistan to venerate him (he died in 1240). Certainly the dargah was nicely decked up with tinsel and petals, the newer little mosque next door is studded with broken tiles, and the courtyard – though home to a family of cats, quite a bit of rubbish, and the caretaking family’s side business in machine parts – is a peaceful final resting place for “the dada of all pirs”.

Return to and continue up Bazaar Sitaram until you see the glimpse of a mosque to your left. Up a steep flight of stairs is the Kalan Masjid or “Big Mosque”, built by Feroze Shah Tughlaq’s prime minister Khan-i-Jehan Junan Shah in 1387. One of seven mosques built by Khan-i-Jehan (and his mother, according to a signboard inside), this one was repaired 12 years ago and is in good condition, rather gaudily painted in bright blue, purple, turquoise and green. There’s a marble courtyard fountain with goldfish swimming in the placid green water. When we visited, there were a few kids playing and a friendly mullah, who took us up to the fourth-floor roof, which is studded with the 30 wide gumbads – quite a surreal setting. The view from this tall mosque is breathtaking; we could see Rashtrapati Bhavan from one side and several interesting mosques poking through the spread of Turkman Gate on the other.

Continue up the main road, taking the second right to “Bulbul-i-khana”, where – at the very end of the gali – you’ll find Razia Sultan’s tomb, or “Rani-Saji ki dargah”. Razia Sultan was a follower of Shah Turkman, and her burial site is allegedly the place where he used to sit – though conflicting reports saythat she is buried in Haryana, where she died in 1240.There are two worn away graves in the centre of a courtyard; the one nearer the little modern masjid is supposedly Razia’s, and the one beside that, her sister’s. The gate to the small complex is locked except during namaaz times, but ask at the Farsi printing shop next door and someone will open it.

Go back to the main road, take a rickshaw up to Hauz Qazi and Lal Kuan, and ask for “Gali Batashan” in the Naya Bans paan market. Up this colourful street brimming with toffees, batasha, mishri and other sweets is the Hauzwali Masjid or “Masjid-i-Khari Baoli”, which was built around 1540-50. This smallish mosque has wide, low-sprung arches and gets its name from a tank within the complex. The sky-blue building looks a bit like a sarai; indeed, there was a man sleeping inside. In the courtyard, a couple of labourers, taking advantage of the quiet spot, told us that the mosque is mostly frequented by Bengalis working in the area.

The masjids the queens built

Not all the religious sites here were endowed by men.

We did a quick roundup of several Shahjahanabad mosques that were built by women. It’s possible to visit all of them in one, only slightly hectic trip.

Starting at the south end of Ansari Road, take an auto to Zinat-ul-Masjid (Khairati Ghat, Daryaganj), which abuts the city wall (and is just visible from the Ring Road). This serene mosque has rather tall minarets and is also referred to as the Ghata (cloud) Masjid, according to an INTACH board outside. The mosque was built in 1707 by Zinat-al-Nisa, Aurangzeb’s daughter, and is supposed to have been the Emperor’s final resting place until 1857, when his remains were moved and the mosque was appropriated for military purposes. The mosque is in good condition and, as a bonus, has its original sandstone exposed. The red stone is beautifully juxtaposed with striped black-and-white gumbads and, despite a rubbish-filled tank and several little buildings nestling up to its sides, the building is very striking.

From here, take an auto or a rickshaw to the Lal Qila parking lot, next to which is the petite Sunehri Masjid (next to Delhi gate of Red Fort). There are other Sunehri Masjids in Delhi, but this one was built in 1751 by Qudsia Begum, a former dancing girl who married Mohammad Shah Rangila and was the mother of Ahmad Shah. This diminutive mosque – which survived 1857 while the larger Akbarabadi Masjid (built next to Jama Masjid by one of Shahjahan’s wives) did not – has elegant details, like an entry gateway that is reminiscent of a miniaturised version of the Red Fort’s main ramparts, and has its warm yellow stone exposed. It’s in far better condition than the ruins in Qudsia Bagh in Civil Lines, also built by “Sunehri Begum” (as the mullah we spoke to called Qudsia Begum). Despite the masjid’s small size, we were informed that on Fridays and around festivals, the crowd spills onto the street outside and loudspeakers broadcast sermons. According to the mullah, a small mazhar behind the mosque marks Qudsia Begum’s grave. The domes were originally plated with copper, which was replaced with sandstone by Bahadur Shah II.

Take a rickshaw from across the street, past Jama Masjid and Hauz Qazi, alighting just after the Chawri Bazaar Metro station on the Lal Kuan road. On your left is Masjid Mubarak Begum (Bazaar Hauz Qazi, Sirkiwalan; on the first floor above some shops). Mubarak Begum, who built this mosque in 1823, was the wife of Sir David Ochterlony,the first British resident of Delhi. The board outside doesn’t say much about her except that she loved music, but according to some sources, she was a Brahmin dancing girl who converted to Islam. Apparently, this mosque, which was either built by Mubarak Begum or for her, was sometimes locally called “Randi Ki Masjid”. Now under the Waqf Board, the mosque, which has an inscription in Farsi over its entrance, is painted over in a red terracotta colour (with green trim) that attempts to approximate the sandstone beneath. You can make out scallops on the inside of the gumbads, as well as carved niches, but any painting that might have been on the walls is painted over. One of the turrets is missing a miniature gumbad. The mullah there enthusiastically told us the mosque’s committee wants to replace this and make other repairs but doesn’t have the funds. When we visited, he was cheerfully overseeing the mounting of two large rotating fans on either side of the entrance. He explained that this mosque is especially popular as an all-night hangout during Ramzaan.

From here, take a rickshaw to the Fatehpuri Masjid at the western end of Chandni Chowk. Built in 1650 by Fatehpuri Begum, another one of Shahjahan’s wives, this large mosque and madrasa complex has a wide courtyard and is partially exposed, partially painted. When we visited there was a minor commotion caused by a gaggle of schoolboys, who had made a game of harassing a stick-wielding, green-capped caretaker – the object of the game seemed to be to get as close to the mosque as possible before being chased away. Shouts of “Hari topi! Hari topi!” enlivened the otherwise relaxed atmosphere at the central tank. Though this mosque was once considered a place of debate and learning, clearly the school kids think of the courtyard as more of a maidan.

Take another rickshaw-ride to Lahori Gate at the end of Khari Baoli. To the right of the Walled City Museum, several large white gumbads are visible behind some shops. This is the Sarhindi Masjid built by Sarhindi Begum, yet another of Shahjahan’s wives, also in 1650. The sandstone mosque painted in bluish white has wide gates, but is sunken and slightly dingy. There’s a madrasa and rooms here where children are supposedly sent from Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to study. The roof affords an excellent view of the railyard stretching to Connaught Place on one side and busy Khari Baoli on the other.

Sainted footsteps

Jain temples in Dharampura.

The Lal Masjid Jain temple at the entrance of Chandni Chowk is famous for its location, age (its original structure is from the early eighteenth century) and bird hospital, but the area south of Chandni Chowk, between Dariba Kalan and Nai Sarak, is dotted with Jain temples. Start at Dariba and walk down, past the right turn to Kinari Bazaar, until you see a turn with an arch marked Kucha Seth to the right. Down this gali, you’ll find yourself surrounded by marble. The Shri Digambar Jain Chhota Mandir (1541 Kucha-i-Seth, Dariba Kalan) built by the Digambar Jain Panchayat in 1840 is on your right and the double-storeyed Shri Digambar Jain Bada Mandir (1513 Kucha-i-Seth, Dariba Kalan), built in 1828-1834 by one Indraraj Ji is just ahead on the left. Both of these have rich, gold-embellished paintings of the Jain Tirthankaras; the former is open in the morning and has a Jain Dharamshala next to it, and the latter, which is on the first floor and has a larger hall, is open in the evening.

At the end of the road, turn left and continue walking towards Chel Puri. You’ll come to the large Shri Digambar Jain Naya Mandir complex (opposite 2318 Dharampura), built in 1807 by Raja Harsukh Rai, a treasurer in Shah Alam II’s court. There are several buildings clustered around the temple, including a school. This temple is open in the morning.

Continue straight to reach the Shri Agarwal Digambar Jain Panchayati Mandir (2175 Gali Hanuman Prasad, Masjid Khajoor, Dharampura), which dates from 1705 and is open in the evenings. This large temple was rebuilt about a hundred years ago and is in very good condition, with colourful frescoes, a collection of antique manuscripts and a unique brown idol of Adinatha, which is made from something that looks like sandstone.

Turn back and left, walking north. On your right is the Shri Digambar Jain Mehru Mandir (3018 Gali Hanuman Prashad, Masjid Khajoor, Dharampura), which has a very intricately carved gateway between its distinctive marble walls. According to Delhi: A Built Heritage (INTACH, 1999), the temple dates from 1745. However, it may have been rebuilt, as the Archaeological Survey of India board outside states that it was built in 1845 by Lala Mehar Chand Jain. The inside is unusual and beautiful, with rows of small, chhattri-topped pillars. Across the street is the Shri Padmavati Puraval Digambar Jain Panchayati Masjid.

From here, walk north towards Chandni Chowk and you’ll emerge at Kinari Bazaar. Turn left and then right – just before Parathewali Gali is the little enclosed street called Naugharana, a favourite on tourist walks because of its well-preserved and painted havelis. This entire walk will take you past some beautiful carved doorways, but this street, and the Jauhri Temple in it, is the most accessible. The two-level temple, which was built in the late eighteenth century and renovated later, has very interesting paintings that seem to be influenced by a synthesis of various traditions, including Mughal miniature painting.

Dark lord

The Shivalaya trail in Katra Nil

Katra Nil, the area to the left of the Town Hall, is the traditional area for scores of Shiv temples and little Shivalayas, many of them originally courtyard shrines within havelis. The havelis are gone, but there are still several of these Mughal-era shrines in use today. They consist mainly of a raised marble or sandstone pedestal with the lingam in the centre, surmounted by a sandstone chattri. A walk down Katra Nil starting at Chandni Chowk will reveal glimpses of these shrines through doorways, in alleys and on raised courtyards. Several Shivalayas that have not been enclosed by temples are still in open courtyards, which are inhabited by families who perform puja everyday. Needless to say, there’s a heavy scent of ghee and attar in the air.

515 Krishna Gali to the left of Katra Nil. A lime-green enclosed Shivalaya.

793 Katra Nil Shivalaya Kunniji Maharaj. In a pleasant raised courtyard with a bright purple wall and deities.

556 Katra Nil Babu Lal temple. Through a red gate on the left.

598 Ghanteshwar Mahadev A large white temple in a gali to the left of Katra Nil. Said to be the oldest in the area, with a metal-clad Shivalaya with colourful paintings inside its dome, and mirrors on its walls.

602 Ghanteshwar Mahadev Dhumimal Shivalaya. In a courtyard with a large peepul tree; locally known as “Peepul Mahadev”.

701 Katra Nil Bada Shivalaya. Right side on Katra Nil, through a red archway. In an almost-closed courtyard.

689 Katra Nil Pandit Hari Ranji Ka Shivalaya, apparently named for a pandit of the same name.

Part of a few stories for a Time Out Delhi‘s “Ten spiritual trails” cover. Read more here.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2008.

Published: October 3, 2008

Storm in Chandigarh, A Situation in New Delhi

Nayantara Sahgal ♦

SonalShah_BooksReview_Storm-in-Chandigarh“Politicians, whatever their political colour, and whatever they piously said, got fat from office. They would never banish the contrasts, never in ten thousand years build an equal society. How could they, when they were products of the rot themselves, of caste, of vested interests and stinking old ideas? It would take the young to build…” Those who were young when Nayantara Sahgal’s A Situation in New Delhi was first published in 1977 have seen many changes. But the political corruption that they were supposed to vanquish has only become more pronounced.

A Situation and Storm in Chandigarh (1969), both of which have been recently republished, find Sahgal dwelling upon the political and social challenges faced by a young country. Sahgal’s stories enmesh elite protagonists in political quagmires. The fact that she is Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s daughter affords her valuable insight from within. The heart of these novels, however, is their human scale. The echelons of power, riots and terror threats are always viewed through her characters’ eyes. Storm places an honest civil servant, Vishal Dubey, at the centre of the growing rift between a carved-up Punjab and the new state of Haryana, while A Situation has a larger theme – the nation’s descent into anarchy following the death of Shivraj, a figure based loosely on Nehru.

Though Nehruvian politics and Gandhian philosophy are probably in their post- post- stages, these reprints resurrect the early days of India, their consequences and their still relevant themes, in elegant, easy to read prose.

Storm in Chandigarh, and A Situation in New Delhi, Penguin Rs. 250 each.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2008.

Published: September 19, 2008

Thukral & Tagra

Admen, artists, ambassadors ♦

bosedkIn the ongoing search to furnish India’s contemporary art scene with international emissaries, it is appropriate that two most prolific ambassadors have a background emblematic of the country’s most shining industry: advertising and design. Anything but appropriate, however, is the impish name of the fake brand that artist/designer duo Sumir Tagra and Jiten Thukral have invented – Bosedk Designs.

This cheeky attitude hides a pair of highly imaginative minds and two pairs of capable hands. Working in a variety of media – graphics, videos, music, interiors, products, paintings, sculpture and installation – Thukral and Tagra showcase design as high art. Yet Bard College curator-in-residence Trevor Smith writes aptly in a recent T&T catalogue that their engagement with design is “not one of distanced reflection or appropriation as is typical of visual artists, nor is it an academic critique of design.”

The artist/designer duo have had several major gallery shows, but also work in graphic and product design, including commissioned work – such as a 1”x1”x1” book titled David and Goliath – for companies such as Condé Nast, United Colors of Benetton and Ogilvy & Mather. Working collaboratively, T&T defy definition; are they artists or designers? Indians or global citizens? Dead serious or completely deadpan?.

What remains consistent is T&T’s almost branded style, straddled insouciantly between art and design. Their paintings – executed with the polish of digital prints – are stylized arrangements of stencil-like cut-outs, precise lettering and ornate embellishment. The question of whether these are backdrops for installation work, studies for projects or product overviews remains one for the critics. In Thukral and Tagra’s major shows, paintings rub shoulders easily with installation, seamlessly connected through content while varying in form.

T&T’s 2007 Everyday Bosedk exhibition at Nature Morte perfectly illustrated this easy coexistence. An exhibition that specifically built up the all-encompassing Bosedk brand and, in doing so, called into question the commercialisation of art and a commodification of style, Everyday Bosedk incorporated wall-size paintings, sculptures and a central installation. Upon entering, each viewer received a pin – a miniature version of an installation of chocolate sauce bottles (with questionably chocolatey boys on them) – forcing the spectator into interaction. Paintings like “It rains everyday” provided ample window-shopping with cookie-cutter figures engaged in various mundane and bizarre activities. But the centrepiece installation, “Keep out of the reach of children” encapsulated the uncomfortably satirical point of the exhibition. The gallery’s basement was transformed into a mini-supermarket – the whole venue branded to dizzying totality with neatly packaged, mysteriously multi-purposed Bosedk products. From bottles reminiscent of cleaning fluid to alcoholic beverages, the installation raised several important questions. Is this packaged seamlessness the real art-mart of India’s elated (perhaps inflated) art scene? Does the work’s title imply a condemnation of homogenization – a note of caution about the effect of dangerously attractive consumer culture on young children? By creating the illusion of mass-produced, monopolizing corporate unoroginality within an installation that was – given its galleried context – highly original, Thukral and Tagra have the last (albeit ambivalent) laugh.

The duo continue their political engagement in new projects, despite a certain self-directed irony. Peter Nagy writes in their catalogue that “Blinders are helpful when jumping into any fray… Most necessary [for artistic creation] may be an inert stupidity (in no short supply) against which to measure one’s own actions and intelligence…” The knowledge that world-saving may be arrogantly idealistic but better than doing nothing  at all underlay the pair’s recent “Put it on” exhibition at Bose Pacia, New York. The show handled spreading awareness of HIV/AIDS and condom use with witty delivery and a strong conviction in content. Whatever else they make think of themselves, Thukral and Tagra take their job as communicators seriously – coming up with underwear that promotes condoms, slippers with correct steps for condom usage printed on them, and a diagram, appropriated directly from market-strategy, of the moments during foreplay at which condom-awareness intervention through media is necessary. Extolls Nagy in the catalogue, “The Revolution will not only be televised but also commodified. The call to arms is to Personalize, Strategize, Sensitize, and Diversify.”

T&T’s latest show at Art Statements during Art Basel 38 – Adolescere – Domus – included works that spoke of more personalised touch, less evident in other, artistically aloof, pieces. In these and older paintings from 2004, the pair show up occasionally – not just as their cartoon avatars – but painted realistically if incompletely – a shoulder here, a pair of legs there. References to Delhi Public School, rotory phones and old-fashioned televisions curl up against iPods, bikinis and  self-portrait cartoons. These passing, pastiched icons are as close to self-explanatory as anything T&T have done. We’re in the thick of it, “deformed olive lover” and “skinny-kinky mind”[1] seem to be saying. We don’t care what you call us. We’re just having a damn good time. And then an echo of (canned?) laughter.


[1] Descriptions of Sumir and Jiten from their website www.bosedkdesigns.com

Originally published in Art India, 2007.

Published: October 7, 2007

Fragments of beauty

Attiya Shaukat at Anant Art Gallery ♦

Bits & Pieces II

Bits & Pieces II

Lahore-based Attiya Shaukat’s miniature-style paintings on view at Anant Art Gallery are sensitive and intelligent works. Like several Pakistani artists nowadays, Shaukat draws on contemporary themes and symbols in her miniature paintings. Her work stands out, though, for its experimental montaging of symbols and compositions and for her inspired themes.

Shaukat was admitted to the Lahore College of Arts for textile design, but once she saw the miniature paintings done by senior students, she said, “I decided to switch to that medium within my first year.” According to her, the number of students concentrating on this subject is on the rise, as is the interest in modern miniatures both in Pakistan and India.

The paintings in this exhibition roughly correspond to two themes. The bulk of the works are expositions of the show’s title In the Flick of a Second. These paintings stem from a spinal injury that Shaukat suffered in 2003, which left her legs paralysed. Like Frida Kahlo before her, Shaukat turned her physical pain into fragmented visual beauty, and these paintings are a record of the various aspects of her injury, surgery and recovery.

Recurring images tie these paintings together. Bones, nerves, steel, feet and flower petals create a personal symbolic language that nevertheless communicates her pain and recovery with visceral clarity. A series of paintings titled “First Steps” are extremely simple – in one, there are just four feet foraying onto the corners of a page. Yet, the simplicity also reflects Shaukat’s struggle to return to painting. “I had to learn to hold a brush all over again,” she said.

The motif of a five-petalled flower with one discoloured or blackened petal becomes a symbol of deformity, useless limbs, and a youth cut short by fate. In other paintings, Shaukat uses petals to symbolise the unacknowledged “delicacy of the spine” and the restrictions of the human body. “Chained” is a self-portrait in which the figure’s torso is held immobile by a Kangra-school flower that looks like an unravelling spine. A ghosted chain roots the waist to a finely rendered blue petal, which anchors the elements of the composition.

Other paintings in this series foreground the process of surgery and recovery. In “Within Brackets”, steel girders frame a straight rod in the bottom two-thirds of the painting, while two backwards pointing feet peek out of a panel on the top third. Thick-yarn stitching adds to the composition, and a painted crimson petal stretches from a thread with a smattering of red drops around it. In other paintings, an arm of a fan, seen as if from a bed, turns into a curved knife. In “Don’t You Dare Open It”, two panels are stitched together down the centre, recreating the tension of taut pain and the uncertainty of surgery.

There is no doubt that these works convey strong emotions with a mature subtlety and delicacy. But it is the few works that are not related to the title theme that really showcase Shaukat’s artistic capabilities and breadth of thought. In these paintings, Shaukat explores political and societal themes, as well as stories taken from illustrated manuscripts of the Mughal era, such as the Akbarnama. Collectively titled “Bits and Pieces”, a few of these works depict the Iraq War. The strength of these works is the cubist fragmenting that Shaukat introduces into her miniature figurative paintings, which create puzzle-like compositions. In one painting, George Bush’s face peers over shard-like vignettes of chained men in traditional miniature style; in another, bones and knives fade into upturned bowls and cuts of cloth.

A series of paintings inspired by red-light districts show that, besides personal and universal suffering, Shaukat has an eye for depicting the various pleasures of life as well. A lusciously red street scene with electric lights and the sign “Broadway” is suspended over a miniature-style female figure reclining on a couch, which is sliding away in sections. In another work, dancing girls are painted with a tender delicacy to highlight their beauty and grace; at the same time, the composition is unsettled by the jigsaw sections and disconnected limbs.

These varied paintings are the real indication of Shaukat’s resilience and ability to move on. But more than that, they demonstrate a rich imagination and a sense of curiosity, which have influenced both her choice of subjects and her style and, we hope, will continue to do so.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, May 2007.

Published: May 1, 2007

Upside Down

Georg Baselitz: Printed Works 1965-1992 ♦

baselitzProbably one of the most important artists living today, Georg Baselitz still evokes some criticism among his contemporaries. He is best-known for his inverted subjects: figures, animals, landscapes turned upside down. While this may seem a simple contrivance, a retrospective exhibition of Baselitz’s printed works – Georg Baselitz: Printed Works 1965–1992 – at the Lalit Kala Akademi provides the opportunity to delve into the artist’s complex oeuvre. With inverted nudes as well as more recent works, which impose artificial grids and arbitrary blocks of colour across the surface, the exhibition – organised by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen e.V. – is a comprehensive experience of Baselitz’s corpus, as well as a challenge for the viewer.

Born Hans-Georg Kern in the town of Deutschbaselitz (from which he derives his pseudonym), just before World War II, Baselitz’s early years promised a rebellious career. He even got himself expelled from art school for “socio-political immaturity”. But even from his earlier engravings, it is clear that Baselitz is adept at his craft, though perhaps lacking a trained virtuosity. In these expressionist drawings – “Rebel”, “Blocked Man” – he tends towards the grotesque, not with the intention to shock, but rather because he seems to have no patience for studied harmony at the expense of stemming the raw power of paint.

Baselitz once wrote in a catalogue, “Things always do go back to…the harmonious and the disharmonious. And there is the condition between the two where they meet. Here things mesh and are balanced, which, with my paintings and drawing, I don’t like, probably because I can never achieve it. And so I tend to take disharmony as my principle: it gives me better results.”

The biggest step Baselitz took towards freeing his subjects from the confines of conventional aesthetics – towards bringing the painting itself to life – was to paint things upside down. This has the effect of drawing attention to the form of reality, and of freeing subjects from their forms.

Baselitz’s paintings are unsettling, even repellent. The catalogue for the exhibition begins with a quote by Bonnard: “It is not about painting life, but about making painting come alive.” Baselitz responds to this with, “Reality IS the picture, it is definitely not IN the picture.” Some of his most successful works combine large etchings, woodcut prints and finger-painting to create bold brushstrokes that suggest wings and feathers.

Baselitz’s series of birds, in fact, particularly demonstrates the strength of his upside-down technique. “Untitled, 1974” (exhibit 14) looks at first glance like an abstract mountain or just a composition of negative and positive space. As the brain tries to make sense of the image, it starts to look like a bird falling out of the sky, suggesting agony, confusion and death. Imagine the painting upside down, and it gives the startling impression of an eagle soaring through a blue sky.

Another painting (“Untitled, 1974”; exhibit 16) suggests danger with its heavy black brushstrokes crisscrossing the blue background in a skull-like form. Yet, there is an attractive internal organisation in the painting that compels you to look again. The image of a bird in a nest, which stereotypically suggests security and comfort, appears inverted – provoking contradictory emotions.

The works can make you realise the controlling nature of the brain; when one has seen the motif in a painting – the conventionally “right” way to see it – the eyes obstinately refuse to let go of that image. The conditioned mind clings tenaciously to the bird and has difficulty going back to the more innocent experience of the form of the painting. Baselitz claims that his use of motifs is unimportant and his later works obscure any recognisable subject even further, focusing on the painterly aspects of each piece. There is harmony here – but it is a harmony that is less concerned with aesthetic balance within a frame and more with a balance of emotions and ethics.

Baselitz has written, “When I start my paintings I begin by forming things as though I were the first to do this, the only one, as though there weren’t all these predecessors – although I know that there are thousands of examples to speak against me. You always have to do something that is valid and final.”

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, 2007.

Published: January 18, 2007