Friday, August 17, 2012

Power of Myth

KaliPainting by Tyeb Mehta

Recently a European curator asked group of artist in India "But why are Indian artists so obsessed with myths?" Everyone turned to me as if I was the culprit. As if I was the only artist who was so parochial still dealing/ speaking the language of myths. Not knowing how to deal with her question ( was it a condescending one? was it a genuine curiosity? or was it  meant to suggest Indian art has not moved beyond gods and goddesses and demons) I just asked her to clarify what she meant by 'obsessed'.

Now put on a back foot she said I am genuinely trying to study Indian art for a while . But all I find that every contemporary artist at some point in time has touched upon the themes of mythology. Hussain for instance one of the India's greatest artist has major body dealing with themes of mythology. Tyeb Mehta another great artist painted themes of death and destruction through motif of Kali. And it is not just old generation even new generation is still dabbling in mythology take the case of Pushmala and her themes.... 
"Ok I just interrupted her mid way. "I get your question" 
Silence prevailed as I began to grope for the right words. "Good question " I said to her. I recollected an incident in my life.
When I came to Mumbai, in order to make a living I worked as freelance  illustrator with Times group. Times group one of the leading publishing house in India has various publications under its roof. For instance beside political journals, they have science magazines, women's, film economic magazines . So as a freelancer one always got some work or other.  Economic Times one of the leading business journal paid well for single illustration but illustrating a business story was one of the difficult tasks. At least I did not like much. But for the sake of money I picked up the stories.

Rule is every illustrator has to read the story before illustrating it. A thousand word story was about business expansion plans of a prominent business house in India. Write up was equally boring.
I turned to good old mythic imagery. I drew a man in three piece suit lying like Lord Vishnu and through his navel lotus various products such as TV, washing machines, computers emerging out. The illustration was meant to show that company was diversifying into consumer goods such as televisions washing machines etc. Thats it. The illustrations was published. I took my money and forgot about the illustration.( unfortunately I never preserved this illustration of mine. But I am sure  if I look into  ET archive I will find it).

After almost a month while walking on the footpath of Mumbai I noticed this very same illustration neatly cut and pasted in a cobbler's shop . I got curious. why a humble cobbler who can hardly read and write would understand a business story. “sir, can you tell me why have you stuck this picture in your shop” I asked him. “which one this one?” He asked back without much interest as if I was wasting his time. “I cut it out from the news paper that came wrapped with some old shoes” He explained. “But why this picture? What is there in this picture?” I was getting little impatient with him. “I liked the idea” he was still not ready to open up “what Idea?” I asked.  He looked at me for a moment  and said "I liked that bhagavan (God) comes in all forms. In old times lord Visnu wore dhoti today he wears black suit. Today god appears through Televisions, computers...... and takes modern form. He is still present among us.......” words faded as he went on explaining. I had never imagined such an explanation was possible. But the humble cobbler had derived some profound meaning from the image. At least that is what it meant to him. I never told him I drew that picture. 

What happened was, cobbler was referring to the mythic image of Vishnu which he was familiar with  and reinterpreting the new image with new context.  That is the time I realized the power of myth.
It allows an open ended interpretation. Meaning/s that might be personal and metaphysical. When Tyeb Mehta painted figure of Kali in his painting, he left the possibilities of interpretation to the viewer who could be a cobbler on the street or an astute art critic of contemporary art. And every interpretation is valid experience.

To understand the power of myth you have to live the myth. Or shall I say you have to Believe it. only than the meaning/s  are possible. Without the knowledge of myth it is just a story the way curator was understanding  Mehta or Hussain's art.

To return to the question of why Indian artists are 'obsessed' with mythology.  Answer could be sheer  power of mythic image and  its reach and possibilities of interpretation available to its people.

I turned to the curator and said, Honestly, I have no answer to your question” .

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