Upsetting the very kernels of reason and sense of existence, the paintings and drawings of C Bhagyanath unravel a world of absolute enigmatism.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosened upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
WB Yeats, The Second Coming
Several images and expressions crowd the mind when one looks at C Bhagyanath’s circular painting, ‘Shows are Going on’ displayed at Lokame Tharavadu, the contemporary art survey exhibition conducted by Kochi Biennale Foundation in Alappuzha, Kerala. One is reminded of the images of Dante, Yeats, Hieronymus Bosch and Francisco Goya; murals in churches and temples that feature divine and netherworlds, which envelop the human and the worldly; and portrayals of hell we have seen from cultures around the world.
‘Shows are Going on’ by artist Bhagyanath
At the very centre of Bhagyanath’s huge painting (Diameter: 110 inches) is the miniature of Goya’s famous painting The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters – of a man reclining with his head resting on a block of stone on which it is written the eponymous words; ominously flit around him are some bluish owls with glinting eyes, they seem to emerge from his nightmare or are swooping into it.
Encircling this central figure and metaphor are spiralling wooden ledge-like projections – like in a circular showcase – upon which are iconic figures and eerie images of various kinds. It is as if a vision of hell is spiralling out of the Goya painting, or a Hieronymus Bosch painting taking on life today, in a world where degenerate politics, vacuous spectacles, hollow decibels and empty symbolisms inundate lives and benumb consciousness.
It could also be the local and contemporary envisioning of a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy. While describing the journey of the soul toward God, Dante imagines the inferno as consisting of nine concentric circles of torment located within the earth – that of limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery.
Its circular composition and the images-on-ledges arrangement of figures draw us into a kind of spiralling frenzy that is at once visual and figural, metaphorical and political. For instance, we see a joker sitting on a donkey holding the Constitution of India upside down, and is glancing aside; there are the figures of the three legendary monkeys – deaf, mute and blind – in the background.
Gallery of figures
On the one side a group of men who have covered their heads with black masks are carrying the statue of justice while two performers in costumes run after them; in another ledge are two cameramen shooting a huge skyscraper crumbling down, fumes are billowing out of it reminding one of the twin towers, standing upon a nearby ledge is a portly man clanging a plate with a chapati roller (the connotations of this image in the recent Indian context are unmistakable).
On a long ledge, we see the long procession of men, women and children carrying bundles walking along reminding us of the desperate journey of migrants from the cities of India during the lockdown. (The references to the pandemic like the omnipresent facial masks, plate-clattering, etc are many in this painting) On another side, we see a masked barber shaving the head of a towel-clad Gandhi; just behind is another makeup man putting finishing touches to Ambedkar’s face (he too is wearing a coat with a mundu held tight at the waist with a belt).
In the ledge above a mother cat, its tail cut and bleeding, carrying a kitten in its mouth, is seen standing at the edge of the ledge gazing in uncertainty and fear. In another is a decorated soldier standing upright and saluting; his other hand is amputated and one of his legs is artificial. A dog sitting next to his leg looks up at him.
Another Gandhi-like figure – this time in the guise of a mahout – is seen sleeping on the floor beside a lean, skeletal elephant standing nearby; it is tusk-less and its emaciated head is decorated with a golden caparison; one of its hind legs is artificial. Nearby is a young man holding a rose in his hand crouching in front of a mirror laid out on the floor; he is engrossed in his own image reflected on the mirror, oblivious of everything around him. Jesters, magicians, performers, clowns, acrobats, cameramen along with animals, insects, objects – real, magical and surreal – populate this huge teeming gallery of figures.
As one’s eyes spiral around and rove about the painted surface, we encounter legendary figures from recent and distant history; these images are juxtaposed with uncanny presences that are sometimes contradictory and conflicting, at other times, mundane and ordinary. It is like a series of tableaus set upon each ledge, for us to view and ponder upon; time/history looms darkly over everything.
All emerge from the deep, infinite darkness behind, and all the figures are painted with muted, dark and depressing colours. There are stark reminders of historical instances and events, iconic memories and memorials, grand national symbols and insignia, objects and animals. It is a showcase of the contemporary hell we inhabit, where each ‘storey’ tells the story of our times.
Both centrifugal and centripetal forces are at work in the visual experience here: the centrifugal force of its imageries, and the centripetal pull on our gaze. You are caught in the whirl of images as your eyes move across and around them, as you take one figure, gesture, posture, action, symbol, image after another. It gradually turns into a breathing, throbbing ecology of violence or the reign of unreason that we live in today
The other set of drawings on Bhagyanath on display are done on thick tracing papers upon which are drawn figures and sketches one upon another, something like a picture-palimpsest of sorts creating the illusion of movement or apparition-like layering of figures in various states of clarity.
They appear like figures on a magic slate, where all the drawn figures remain as shadows, traces or apparitions of sorts. If these figures are sketched on the tracing sheets and appear one upon another, in the circular painting figures are spread out, endlessly spiralling out and away from the centre.
To return to the lines of WB Yeats that resonate through these works,
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The show is on at Lokame Tharavadu in Alappuzha. To read more stories on the art event, click here.