DASHAVATARA – Dialectics of Tradition

“Only a dialogue with the past can produce originality” – Wilson Harris

The quotation by Wilson Harris has enormous implications particularly for Giridhar Gowd an artist based at Garuvupalem in Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh. His works mark a return to tradition by infusing it with renewed vigour, vitalized vision, reinvention and redefinition. At the heart of his creative endeavour is his engagement with country’s visual art tradition particularly the murals and miniature paintings. He foregrounds these pictorial arts to serve as conduit of creative expressions, thinking and articulating through epics, Puranic and mythical narratives. Giridhar says, “I have developed an immense interest in stories, poems and historical legends from my childhood. I have always approached these legends not as religious, superstitious stories but as priceless epics, a treasure house of wisdom and as unique examples of the essence of life”.

His aesthetic predilection for the past contours his visual language, transcending which, his works gestures towards a mission of revival of mural and miniatures with respect to materials, pigments, style and the compositional structure. Giridhar asserts, “We tend to forget our glorious past with the passage of time. Change is natural. Desiring a change leads to the new. But in the name of new our own roots, should not be rejected. Instead of merely adapting to suit changing times, my principle is to move forward by reacting to the changes keeping in mind our traditions and glorious past, by respecting our cultural heritage and rejecting blind emulation”. The question that begs is why Giridhar was attracted to culture and tradition. His affinity can be explained through his ambient rural background, and seminally his father who was a Telegu Pandit and a pedagogue instilled in him a love of Puranas, mythical and epic narratives as a raconteur telling him stories from these varied sacred literature. According to Giridhar, “My father was a creative teacher who taught through visual forms. For me my first lesson was when he combined a circle, square and triangle to create the basic human form. This was my first lesson in drawing from him.” Thus it was at his father’s feet that young Giridhar picked up not only the rudiments of three R’s of artistic creation but the importance of tradition in steering his intellectual progress. In engaging with epic and Puranic narratives, Giridhar’s attraction was not the story content, but semiotically he nurtured them to explore the wider canvas of its essential significance in relation to life meaning; not only philosophically but as a progressive science that eventually led to the spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical evolution of man. Semantically it is this aspect of Giridhar works that carries enormous valence, marking his vision as progressive and contemporary though rooted in tradition of literary culture.

The phenomenal world offered inspirational vocabulary, by way of sketches capturing different aspects of life, becoming a flaneur of city having lived in Hyderabad, Baroda, Delhi, and Mumbai, authenticating his vision in becoming the creator of the present by productively looping with the past. To transform the time tested Puranic narrative into a personal vision, he engaged with the local indigenist tradition of Lepakshi murals and its manifold visual repertoire. His recent suite of works thus are based on the theme of Das Avatar, rendered on large canvas with acrylics as well as miniature formats executed on hand made paper with organic or earth pigments. His visual vocabulary in terms of figure type, sartorial attire, physiognomic appearances, postures and the characteristic large fish shaped expressive eyes finds inspiration from 16th century Veerbhadra Temple at Lepakshi near Hindupur in Andhra Pradesh.
The compelling visual factor governing Giridhar’s works are his structured and well organized compositions, coming across as a stage manager, directing and placing his figures strategically, thus establishing a visual path and commanding a dialogue with the viewer. Teeming with multitude of humanity and flora and fauna, his works reinforce the interpretation of Puranic theme with his contemporary sensibility, sensitized particularly in the engagement with colours, which are as vibrant and energetic as they are scintillating. Conceptually the theme of Das Avatar traces the evolution of man through various zoomorphic and anthropomorphic forms to its highest evolution in the avatars of Rama Krishna and Buddha. The final coming of Kalki is marked by his fecund imagination showing a restless energetic horse with a rider that contains within its contours the mechanisms of technology symbolically representing the highest aspiration of the human mind within this field of development. The works are large 5’ x 4’, rendered with acrylics on canvas decorated with border similar to miniature paintings. The border narrative carries the vignette of the main story connecting it meaningfully to the main protagonist, providing a continuous link and not as a decorative element to enhance the composition.

In critically appreciating his works, it is the rich and prolific imagination that dominates. His pictorial semiotics carries special meaning. That is, Giridhar signifies the evolution of man to its highest spiritual state in the theme of Das Avatar beginning with life in water in the first Matsya avatar of Vishnu. The fish here develops an interesting feature as the snout is a human nose. This intentional significance glances towards the nascent evolution from water [fish] to amphibians [Koorma or turtle avatar] to half man and animal [Narasimha] to a fierce aggressive man [Parasurama] and finally to an evolved human being [Rama, Krishna, Buddha] in the womb of a woman sustained by the same watery fluid. Through this theme Giridhar also imaginatively explores the dimensions of panchbhutas. The inherent complexity together with the abstraction of its philosophy finds insightful interpretation, pictorially augmented by the hybridity of forms that is not only thought provoking but intelligently analyzed. The correspondence of appropriate forms with conceptual theme reveals the significant scientific, philosophical and religious meaning as attributed to human intellectual development which is subsumed within Das Avatar. By making it a trope Giridhar’s works demand that his protagonists be construed not literally but metaphorically.

Stylistically, the artist has reiterated that his imagery was derived from Lepakshi murals, which has a dominant echo of folk art tradition of the region. Says the artist, “Those which have not received due attention are the temple art, sculptures, and paintings. We are losing the unique style that they have evinced. We have the responsibility of reviving and restoring them.” The underlying desire for Giridhar is not mimicking the forms from his native pictorial framework, but transcending to manifest creative interpretation and expressions from the context of his contemporary milieu, fulfilling his aspirational vision and philosophy. Each work delineates an abundance of intermediate forms that reveal and conceal, finding a meaningful place as dictated by the artist. These concealed forms that are dexterously layered over yet maintain a semblance of their existence [“Krishna Janamam”] play hide and seek with the viewer’s vision; metonymically extending to reveal the artists subconscious desires for successful fulfillment in his waking reality.

The pictures’ materiality establishes not only the aesthetics but also the spectrum of rasa and bhava as the theme lends itself wonderfully. The Das Avatara series is painted with acrylics on canvas, a medium manipulated to create a spectrum of effects. It manifests through his deeply thought out technique and methods; that is creating transparent subtle water colour effects or thick layer of paint. The penetrating depth is consequences of layering of light transparent washes overlaid with textural effects. To advance the emotional dramatic content as in “Viswaroopa Sandarsanam”, the colour blue, yellows and oranges are not only electrifying but has the bhava of a surprise element, enhanced with textures using tools as sponge, sprays, impasto dots dribbled from the back of the brush and layered transparent colours. “Baka Vadha” exemplifies Giridhar’s skills of perspective in bodily postures particularly the aggressive form of Krishna and the bird that is subdued. The dynamic composition moves beyond traditional stylized representations to conflate western illusionism. The body postures, gestures, glances, movement and action in this series are visual repertoires engaged by the artist to delineate contemplativeness, yogic serenity, prayerful acceptance, discordant encounters, playfulness, humour and varied other emotions. As theatrical and static pictorial drama, the works are replete with emotional content. In exploring this theme with all its manifold intricacies, Giridhar has employed artistic vocabulary exuding an appeal of universal language particular in the abstract delineation of water. Nature in its abundance and bounty is freshly represented as human forms in aggression and passivity are equally admirable.

Giridhar’s potential to knowledgeable engage with colours as an independent, metaphorical and emotional tool serves to heighten his expressions. It is his discerning and intelligent understanding of colour aesthetics in terms of subtleties, nuances, dramatic, emotional and psychological properties that his works acquire an unusual vibrancy. The colours have a plethora of tones and values ranging from firey kum kum reds, sunset oranges, electric blues, ocean greens, pastoral green, earthy ochres, forbidding blacks, staid greys, funky pinks, snowy whites and other kaleidoscopic intermingling hues making his works vibrate with an unusual intensity and emotional drama. His extraordinary sensitivity to colour has given him the silence of space to paint the images of his thoughts and emotions that enhances the conceptual tone.

The seminal protagonist lending visual power and dynamism is his controlled perfect line. Maximized by Giridhar to carry the burden of his expressions, it poetically sways, dramatically walks, shies away, aggressively powerful and dominantly expressive, imparting a sense of melodrama that complies with the mood of Das Avatar theme. The interaction of different directional lines – straight, curved, vertical, horizontal and diagonal have been fully explored to give his composition both a sense of balance with restless energy manifesting continuous movement. His lines contour each form perfectly while his colours create painterly effects. The juxtaposition of these two elements cast an enigmatic aura.

Giridhar’s paintings do not provide a paradigm shift but remain within the framework of tradition. Yet he creates a powerful aesthetic appeal, reflected in its intimate detailing of a well scrutinized reality, intricacies of technique, effulgent and sensitive colours, efficient linear prudency and seminally his management of stage craft in his compositional layout. The paintings attract by their colour, drama, organic movement and the beauty of its protagonists. It fulfills the artist’s aspirations to return to roots by removing the veil of amnesia cast on past traditions, to pitch forth with renewed dynamism. In a predominant virtual and digital globalized world where time literally takes wings, Giridhar has cocooned himself weaving threads of imagination to spin anew the epic narratives through his personalized vision that continue to have magical charm, meaningful valence and appeal within our reality.

DR. ASHRAFI S. BHAGAT