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Title:        "Madness and Play" Solo show of Shrilekha Sikander

Dates:      17th January - 2nd February 2008

Madness and Play

Shrilekha has explored the billboard language of the cinema relentlessly; it is her favoured muse, most relevant to her in these, our modern times, devoted to pleasure-seeking and instant gratification. Celebrities, and cinema hoardings, neon lit advertisements are for her, structural supports of the toppling city, desperate in the task of chasing dreams, of posing for the song and dance number. The carnival spirit is perpetually desired every step of the way, suggesting that filmic terms of engagement are pre-eminent coherences which bind the collective of place and people.

She intuits her way into the mind-set of those in revelry and roistering and those caught in indecision and gloom. It is proposed that “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and entrances.”

Shri however, refuses to show entrance or exit for a population which seems to have had a primordial existence-in-disorder and one that is self-absorbed or fleeing, running on the spot and going nowhere. Her’s is not a tone of full-blown jokiness but of melancholia, indeed the way Shakespeare put it down with a poetic cutting edge. She trains her lens despondently, wryly, intimately at eyes, bodies, costume and emotions, a lens that pauses on bridge and building and its teetering expression in the palimpsest of an urban and segmented world.

Maybe, it has been a kind of eavesdropping for a period of several years and in which an envious wonder has provoked Shrilekha to produce this repertoire of goggle donning hero with gun, sundry villains, and stunt artists, gangsters in the ritual of bathetic burlesque, women actors, ceaselessly in pop dance pose, a gallery of rogues, disguised as Mughal courtiers and wily, bearded badshahs, from history books, holding wine cup and flower. These characters glare down from posters at aimless and ordinary folk. The cameo of the publicity image and citizenry is packed together in a frame that exudes intoxication; a cricket match or war is in the air, the release of a new film is imminent, murder in the neighbourhood – these can be headlines and news which induce mass hysteria and its discontents. A droll vision is complete particularly when courting couples, threesomes, and doubtful gender denizens dot the landscape with an ardour that finds its inspiration from the local film.

This time round, the watercolors are a fresh assessment of city mania; newer pages in Shrilekha’s digest of boom town observations. A montage–like view of social energy and dross of the metropolis is her hunting ground. She cannot ignore city personae or do without nabbing that face and feature in nimble figurative devices that bring out the acute expression and temper of fakery and subterfuge vibrantly.

The dystopia appears repeatedly as the central subject matter of her canvas; it is heightened to the level of pop registers in art: the poster, the calendar of affectation and deportment. The strategy is like improvisation, almost anarchic. The paint brush strokes in hues of vehemence, a neurosis spreading down mean streets. Her numinous, flowing sense of drawing makes light fun of typical characters as she teases out resemblances, drawing equally upon medieval sculpture, 16th century miniature paintings, and the currency of the popular cine-star.

Film actors, and performers of every kind, whether politician or holy man, or street cop, all are equally in the business of role playing. The played-out part is the definitive image which Shrilekha deploys in parody like tones to comment on behaviour. The clipboard of visuals is recycled as she surveys a transitional, heterogeneous environment in which a populace battles and survives. Her nuanced depiction of facial emotion and posturing is a way of arriving at formulae and setting up her own stereotypes engaged in ordinary and inane activities.

Film posters, the advertisements of merchandise are the largest and most dominant segments on her canvas. Their lurid yellow light spills out as vapour and touches every section of a media consuming society. The gun, morbidly phallic, provides the magical illusion of vigilance and protection. Glamour and histrionics freeze in comic strip frontality. They add up as a group of photo mementos.

Caricature and distortion do not find a place in Shrilekha’s figural reservoir of types but the modes of exaggeration pithily identify character type and context in which they are found.

Putting together collage like imagery of the city and connections between ordinary people and environs, she spells out chaos as though she is playing with all its causal elements. A confusion and noise mirroring itself in a fractured glass is dominated by the bombast of posers, self-appointed vigilantes, stars from the Bollywood film firmament and a host of pretenders, charlatans, bikers, builders, strollers, lovers and pedestrians on railway ramps. We are witness to a circus, the Indian kind where the hero and the powerful share centre stage. A preening stance on the proscenium, a dubious conversation under the shamiana – the scenes play with illusion and reality, time past and present till, they are indistinguishable as event or fiction.

Shri cajoles the viewer to ruminate and look, rather than reap an agenda of protest even as she projects urban malfunction and tosses up episodic pictures, which can be called photograms or sections of discontinuity – a segmented world, in which each fragment maintains its folly and independence as well. It is as though the artist were on a carousel that spun around endlessly, fostering the heady illusion of circling the skies. The orbital, imaginative journey made her come back, again and again to her prototypes Mirroring a dynamism and contradiction or, what is called a ‘psychogeography’ by writers - is a challenge for Shrilekha particularly, when she shifts from depiction of reality, to disjuncture through the metaphor of the stage and the cinema and its method of jump-cut story-telling.

She has no incident to recount and no programme of action. She seems to be revealing an archive of whimsical documents. An unanchored mixing of portraiture modes occurs with flamboyance; the scale of faces is varied according to academic drawing but the illusions of the vanishing perspective are ruled out. The picture almost sabotages the Akbari court miniature paintings even as it adopts the non-hierarchical, vertical perspective of the art producing karkhanas and guilds of yore. Groupings and arrangements of people follow patterns from such classical art, yet the congregational air is one that is derived from an audience, tittering away in cinema and nautch halls, listening to a youth music band, attending temple satsangs, or those glued to a rustic lavani chorus performing in a sports field of the megalopolis.

Within the disassociated space of an urban residence and work place, these historical references blur with the contemporary slice of life, intervening like a series of Hamlet’s ghosts who tell a cautionary tale of civilization, decay and the promise of humanism - redeeming signs for a future and a vast, transparent open space.

Perhaps the wisdom behind the terse saying that progress is “two steps forward and one step backward” is appropriate to Shrilekha’s inventory of billboard sketches. At the moment, they pulse with ferment and the movements of people running or stuck at transit points: the cinema hall, the chai stall, the juice vendor’s vestibule with fruit and colour co-ordinations, the psychotic convergences at the railway platform, the concourse at a park and mall, the tourist onlooker on the road, the bleak and alienated international war zone, the local street fight, the court of law, the mujrim or the accused and the menace and nexus of police-underworld-neta. The protagonists, encounter advertising bludgeoning, television banality and seductions of goods and services, the main, being that of entertainment and consumption, gushing forth from street banners as a form of redemption and key to being a successful wo/man.

Shrilekha, in her delineation of faces and behaviour fosters a critique of a dysfunctional and anomic societal space related to the wish fulfillment and predatory film world. Her project is to reiterate the swaggering myths, of a cine-city like Mumbai and re look at the world of pretence, shine, sizzle and hidden persuasions along with the undercurrents of floating anxiety, fear and doubt.

An artist, it is seen, can adopt the anthropologist’s surveillance and astute gaze of scrutiny.

ROSHAN SHAHANI December, 2007

ROSHAN SHAHANI is an art critic and a research-writer for Hindustani music and the cinema.

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