Caryatid-A view Point, 1996
Material: ply wood, acrylic paint, and canvas material
CARYATID - A VIEWPOINT
There is a myth about South Indian temples that Shakuntala Kulkarni likes to narrate. The temple priest argues that the vision of the image of Visnu is too powerful in its beauty to be beheld by mortal eyes all at once. That is why the sculptural relief of sesasayi - Visnu reclining on the primal serpent - has a curtain of pillars across it so that those approaching may see only a part of the image at a time, the entire experience being one of gradual discovery and revelation.
Across an expanse of unframed, thick canvas (the kind sails are made of) reclines the giant image of a woman painted in blue. Other female figures are distributed across the space. Only a part of some of these is visible, as if the artist stopped in mid-career to reconsider, to hide some things and to partially erase others. One half-hidden figure, that seems to be a female tirthatnkara, peers out at the viewer as if from a hidden plane tucked away behind the picture-surface. And all this is seen by the viewer in glimpses as she moves across the front of the painting, through Shakunala's skewed assembly of pillars. This is not at any point to suggest that the artist would like to claim the status of the divine, the iconic, for her figures. This is in fact a sort of pictorial manoeuvre she executes: in culling from a specific ethos an idea that attracts her to use it for her own purposes.
But then, who are these female figures that populate all the surfaces of this work with marks of their presence? The female figure is the focus of Shakuntala's work; however it is not the figure of a superhuman heroine, but that of a carrier. This exhibition, which is to be viewed as a single work, is the artist's viewpoint on female caryatids that hold aloft a structure. In terms of architectural relations however, the function of the caryatid would seem to be more decorative than structural. Perhaps it is the symbolic value attached to the motif of the bharavahika, the carrier of load, that is of significance here. No temple would collapse without the supporting figures that connect beam to lintel. These figures have more to do with an expressive function, a symbolic connection between parts that make up a whole.
Shakuntala's caryatids are supporters of the structure of society. They engage in an intermingling series of actions and gestures that relate to ideas of carrying, connecting and balancing. It is important to note that she does not seek to mythologise them at any point. It follows that the figures do not pretend to be supra-mundane. Rather, they exist in all their vulnerability.
There is a special relationship between the pillar and the caryatid. The figure of the caryatid by definition is identified by proximity to a pillar or wall. A peculiar symbiosis thus ensues between the figures and the structure that provides Shakuntala with the metaphoric connection she makes between the female carrier and her role as supporter within the social structure. Again, there are parallels between the pillars that structure the space in this exhibition and the bodies of the women that are inscribed onto them. At times the bodies start emerging from the
pillars, at others, the pillar seems to abandon its imperviousness to take on the organic modulations of the body. The figures dissolve away at one point, leaving only a hiatus filled with eyes and hands gazing and gesturing, animating the space around by urging the viewer to decipher the messages contained in gaze and gesture. Whether there is a single message to be read at all is however, never clarified. The work does not easily offer explanations for its being, but invites an effort at comprehension.
Shakuntala's previous exhibition Beyond Proscenium (1994) marked a move away from the two - dimensionality of painting. The interface with theatre that was clearly part of Beyond Proscenium has been an interest that she has retained for long: even in her earlier drawings and prints. One is struck by the evocation of tension and a sense of expectancy in the atmosphere. "Caryatid" carries those interests to another level of exploration - a shadow-play gets acted out as the eye travels over numerous painted surfaces, with their figures engaged in some indecipherable dance. But the entire spatial and temporal dimensions of this play are in effect designed by the spectator, even as s/he moves between the pillars, lingering here or there for a moment.
The modulation of space in this work is characterised by the staccato rhythm of vertical members: pillars and fences running jaggedly across the space. Not only does this create the experience of fragmented space, it also creates a field of obstruction for the enquiring gaze. The visitor is greeted by a fence of the silhouetted bodies of women. The 'fenced- in' space does not allow easy visual access either, for it is punctuated by an irregular forest of straight and curved pillars which bear a multitude of marks emerging out of washes of greys and browns. The gaze is repeatedly obstructed, parried, diverted, as if it is tossed around in a continuous relay by figures that tumble in and out of space.
The figures themselves do not reach out to communicate with the viewer - they are either intent only on their present involvement with carrying and linking, or are withdrawn into an inner world. At places the figures give up the function of supporting, becoming instead accomplished jugglers and trapeze artists. There is a strange lyricism here, the potential pathos of certain situations not bereft of the occasional nuance of mocking. And that prevents Shakuntala's work from becoming a sentimental 'tribute to patient bearers of weight'.
CHAITANYA SAMBRANI July 1996