Feature : Vasudev Shetye / History Repeating / Sushma Sabnis
Having recently concluded his solo show at Jehangir Art Gallery, titled, ‘History Repeating’, Goan artist Vasudev Shetye presents a subtle critique and distinct polemic about the rapidly disappearing cultural milieu, observes Sushma Sabnis
When one looks at the influences of a ‘foreign’ culture on any country, one is reminded equally of the good and bad impact of colonisation. This tug-of-war between the native and the foreign culture is subject to fluctuations which never ceases till some semblance of an equilibrium is reached in society. Some times symbiotic and at other times parasitic, these associations could hamper or enhance the individuality of both elements depending on socio-politico-economical agencies. As a native who has been witness to this climate change of cultural unpredictability and flux in his beloved state of Goa, artist Vasudev Shetye, endows his paintings with subtle critiques and daring polemics which address this implanted imagery of touristy cliches one finds associated with his homeland.
Culture, if put under a microscope, is an eccentric organism which has its multi-pronged appendages in every aspect of human living. It dictates, moulds and gives aesthetical meaning to lives of the living through creative and accepted frameworks. Each of the appendages of this mutable organism together form a mosaic structure of inimitable strength and versatility. The unique feature of this organism is its ability to adapt, adopt and absorb into itself, that which it deems endurable, giving itself a face-lift unlike any other. Culture is the changing face of time.
Vasudev Shetye is a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from the Goa College of Art and his works deal with the glaring problem of loss of Goa’s cultural heritage at the hands of foreign influences. Vasudev is a very perturbed artist. His native lands have been wrought with invasions and colonization in the past, the last invaders being the Portuguese who ruled Goa for four hundred and fifty years. While most part of society accepted and incorporated the customs, traditions and culture of the invaders, a faction of society knew the ill effects of such liberal acceptance in the course of history.
Vasudev in his works plays the part of the new generation Goan artist who has grown up grappling with these influences while adhering to his own indigenous culture and customs. This dichotomy jumps out of his canvases as one comes across the blend and dilemma of two obviously disparate values vying for the viewer’s attention. One is often reminded of the blending of two seas of an ocean, having travelled miles, their waters coloured with every essence of their own journeys, merging awkwardly, yet holding their own individuality. This is the effect one could see in Vasudev’s works, as the pictorial surfaces get divided into foreground, background and middle-ground, yet one cannot discern the space completely as elements strategically placed within the surface, demand the attention of the viewers.
For example in his work titled, ‘Nostalgia’, the artist brings in the European artistic style of painting with the female form shown grooming herself while holding up a mirror. One is reminded of numerous paintings by masters like Titian, Peter Paul Rubens,Velasquez to name a few. Some of the influence of Ingres’ works like The Valpincon Bather too come to mind. This act of self grooming could be seen in Indian art history in Hoysala sculptures, Chalukyan sculptures in Karnataka, the cave paintings in Ajanta dedicated to ‘Shringaar’ and the ‘Lady at her toilette’ murals. However, the point that the artist aims to address here is not just the aesthetics of grooming among female protagonists, but that of the changing face of society reflected in the mirror. The imagery of a woman looking into a mirror was seen as a mark of vanity, connected to Venus the epitome of beauty and romanticism, but in Vasudev’s painting, the woman who peers into a mirror seems unsettled, and with good reason as the face that peers back from the mirror is that of a foreigner. A visual rupture is caused in the minds of the viewer as they cope with the metaphor of a cultural schism.
One can see this duality in visual language reflected in all the works of Vasudev, as the artist juxtaposes these contrasting elements on his pictorial surface. In a work called, ‘Marriage of Cultures’, Vasudev paints two figures who attempt to dominate the painting. A European woman/queen, adorned in ornaments, fine laces and silks sits in the centre of the painting while beside her is an Indian man/king. The setting seems to be as the title suggests a marriage of diverse cultures, aimed at bringing prosperity to both continents/ people involved, but the cracks in the nuptial foundation are made evident in the crumbling black area of the neck of the female protagonist, where a hollow gaping void seems to be widening.
Another thing that the viewer would notice in Vasudev’s works is the use of various textures and design elements in the painting. The lavishly designed gowns/ clothing of the protagonists are embellished with photographs of historical monuments which are in a dilapidated state, culture markers in the cities of Goa, Portuguese tile designs, church and temple facades which are unique to Goan culture. This creates an interesting matrix of the inner workings of the artist’s mind, as he embeds this personal-political tapestry of memories blended with his concern for Goa and the state of disarray it is in today. The rift seems to be widening and what follows after this is the struggle for dominance/ survival. An inkling of which is given in his work, ‘Yin Yang’ where two female figures stand apart from each other looking at the viewer. The viewer’s gaze travels first to the left, where a traditional Goan woman stands in a pretty red dress, a hand fan, wearing a small crucifix pendant on a chain. The figure that stands next to her is masked, unsightly with sharp teeth, wearing an armature that is soiled and dirty from use. The figure on the left is a well groomed person who embodies etiquette and sophistication while the figure on the right is a rebel.
While tiny droplets of cultural differences percolate into an existing infrastructure of a society filling it to the brim, it turns into a critical mass bursting at the seams at some point. The stark differences fight for their expression in society and revolt happens. Vasudev captures this sentiment in the work titled, ‘Cultural Appropriation’ where a native of the early communities who inhabited these lands is seen on horseback, taking up arms and ready for a rebellion to reclaim what they deem their right. The background depicts the gates of a fort, which has been ornately decorated with Portuguese, Islamic, and other designs which refer to the invasions Goa had been subjected to.
Another painting titled, ‘Lost in the Milieu’ depicts Goa as a woman whose face has been decorated by the traditional floral ornaments, painted tika on the forehead, which are markers of the religious diversity of the region, while she cradles a lamb in her arms. Her gown is adorned with images of architectural monuments which are being razed to the ground to create malls and urban edifices. The decorated face of Goa in itself acts as a metaphor for the illusive beauty of a state while the neck and shoulders which hold the head up high is a gaping chasm. The background has emergent details which hint at influences of this once pristine but ravaged lands over time. As the artist depicts, today Goa stands like a person with no singular identity, but a fragmented whole of multiple cliches.
Vasudev’s works in acrylic on canvas medium, with inputs of decorative and decoupage materials devised to enhance the textural quality not just of the surface of the painting but of the thought depicted in the work. Depth is one aspect which the viewer would be drawn to in each of his works as the elements placed within the pictorial surface move in and out unpredictably between the three zones of fore, middle and background, making the viewer come close to the work and at times, stand away to take in the entire painting. A similar diving into the work and soaring from it happens on the level of inner thought for the viewer.
Another interesting feature of Vasudev’s works is the palette he chooses. While the symbolisms hint at dissent and cultural dilemma faced by today’s society, Vasudev ironically chooses the palette akin to the European artists. The deep Mediterranean blue of the sky along with the deep ochres, umbers, browns and yellows, resurface in every art work from this series and if one were to refer to the European masters’ works, one could locate these hues. This could be misinterpreted as the artist’s leniency or acknowledgement towards the ‘good’ that the invasive forces infused into the existing indigenous culture of Goa. But if one were to look through the entire series again, one would discern the angle, subtly depicted by the artist. The sky or the weather depictions in a painting often direct the viewer’s mind to become set in certain ways, so as to almost anticipate the rest of the imagery. A blue sky, an old building facade, a hint of a sea, leads the viewer on into a Mediterranean riviera-esque realm. Here one would assume the sun has the right kind of heat and light, the mind auto-sets into a relaxed mode and a feeling of mirth burgeons within the viewer.
But in Vasudev’s paintings, though most of the sky depictions are reminiscent of Mediterranean rivieras, an ancient neglected and exploited feeling is evoked as a reminder of what once was, and what it is today. It could also be seen as the artist’s subtle critique on the air/ climate of Goa polluted by the exploitation of nature in the name of globalization. This nature that he refers to here is not only the outer surroundings or just the air one breathes in Goa, but the mindsets of people, youth especially and the unnatural progression of a society into a greed driven reckless civilization.
Vasudev Shetye’s works from this series, ‘History Repeating’ is a clear warning of the loss of all that is natural and unique about a region/ state/ country and the harsh mutation into an impostor culture that exists unclaimed, unsure of its standing in historical timelines.