Book Review: Amit Dutta’s ‘Invisible Webs: An Art Historical Inquiry into the Life and Death of Jangarh Singh Shyam’

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New Delhi | November 04, 2018 12:44 AM

A book charts the flawed trajectory of modern Indian art, with a focus on the most famous suicide of a painter in independent India.

Invisible Webs: An Art Historical Inquiry into the Life and Death of Jangarh Singh Shyam, Amit Dutta, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Pp 273, Rs 1,280

The complicated encounter of India with modernity as a way of life, and modernism as a form of art has engendered many pathologies. It has created arbitrary hierarchies, leading to anxieties and loss of self-faith among those who find themselves beyond the periphery of an alleged modern life.

Acclaimed filmmaker Amit Dutta in his new book, Invisible Webs: An Art Historical Inquiry into the Life and Death of Jangarh Singh Shyam, charts the flawed trajectory of modern Indian art through the prism of his subject, and unravels the myriad webs around the most famous suicide of a painter in independent India.
In a way, a suicide is often caused by the circumstances a society creates. But Jangarh’s suicide, like that of Vincent van Gogh, had shaken the Indian art establishment. A prodigy artist visits Japan on a residency project and, finding himself trapped in an alien land, ends his life. Such a residency would easily earn him the tag of a “globe-trotting artist”, but Jangarh was perhaps just a “migrant labourer”.

Dutta asks an insightful question: Was the suicide of Jangarh the culmination of art’s evolution in India since the advent of the British—the system of company painters that began during the colonial period to please British masters, the elevation of realism as the epitome of art forms in a society that had cherished non-representational forms of art for centuries, the opening up of art schools, and eventually the attempts by governments in independent India to forge a “national culture”?

The material and spiritual conditions that gave birth to modern art in Europe were not witnessed in India and many other colonised countries. Modernism, at best, was a restricted and, simultaneously, a restricting ideal.

It was not a coincidence that Verrier Elwin would arrive in a small village called Patan in which Jangarh would take birth decades later, before being ‘discovered’ by J Swaminathan, who visited the village trailing the footsteps of Elwin. He brings Jangarh to Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, and thus begins the ‘Sanskritisation’ of a tribal artist. Jangarh found himself smothered between the two worlds divided by deep hierarchies.

The bond between the elite and the native, the city and the village, modern and folk remains unequal and strained. The city is rarely able to shake off its historical privilege. Folk artists are dubbed as ‘artisans’, as the subaltern are destined to be seen through the romanticised and distorted prism of exotica. It robs them of independence and often pushes them to the dark alleys of the self.

His death, Dutta so accurately notes, stands for “the tragedy of a whole generation of art practitioners and their societies that are coping with the loss of beauty.”

Yet, there are no easy conclusions. In his foreword, art historian Partha Mitter asks: “To help them (native artist) is to patronize them, but to leave them alone is even worse?”

Dutta raises a series of unsettling questions: does the concern for preserving tribal life without any attempt to adopt its ethos reflect an adherence to pluralism or an “unshakeable faith” in superiority of one’s own culture?

Was the radical impact of Jangarh’s art diluted because it was taken into the fold of a purported national culture?

The book is rich in references, draws its sources from archives, but is not a mere academic argument. It’s essentially a personal statement of an artist about his illustrious contemporary. Dutta, who made repeated visits to Patan over several years, acknowledges that “Jangarh’s journey across this collapsed and distorted time spanning at least a century backwards, overlapped somewhere with mine too.”

Dutta has a remarkable range of works. Several acclaimed films, a novel in Hindi, and his diaries as an Indian film student that have been translated into English. In between, he has written poems in Hindi and short stories for children. The book on Jangarh is perhaps his most intimate work, a space in which he converses with his art in an inverted manner: “Does confronting the self through the other unwittingly amount to judging the other through the self?”

His journals record that the depiction of a girl’s suicide in Robert Bresson’s Mouchette drew him towards the form of cinema. It is not certain whether he was aware that he would later find himself decoding a suicide.

The book reminds one of Gleaners and I, a movie about the condition of gleaners in France, which is also a metaphor to decode the art of its director Agnes Varda. Filmmaking, for her, is an act of gleaning all that has been left aside by history. Dutta, too, comes across as a gleaner of the remnants of Indian art, with Jangarh as his doppelganger, a double for his life and art.

A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla

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