REVIEW: Douglas John / Inner Divinity / Parables from a Pilgrimage / Sushma Sabnis
Artist Douglas John’s solo show ‘Inner Divinity’ at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, are recollections of his numerous pilgrimages, literal and metaphorical, narrating subtle lessons about tolerance and love.. writes Sushma Sabnis.
For centuries, writers, poets and artists have always been inspired to bring to their works metaphors of ‘walking along a chosen path’. Be it Paulo Coelho’s book on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella; monks of different orders who walk along intricate labyrinths with the aim of reaching their inner core; people who traverse perilous terrains for places of worship and tors/ towers of redemption; or people who religiously attend annual festivals and village fairs or embark upon ‘Tirthayatras’, the purpose remains the same – to move towards the divinity within oneself. Artist Douglas John embarks upon one such pilgrimage each year and his art works are like parables of his experiences over years.
John is Mumbai based but originally from Solapur where the annual festival of saint Siddharameshwara has been held since the 12th century. Siddha Rameshwara was a social reformer, a staunch believer of Lord Shiva, a poet and a philosopher. Being a karma yogi, he believed that spirituality became relevant only when it went hand in hand with action to evoke any social change. He initiated the Sharana movement which stood for equality not just in spiritual practices and abolishing caste/class discrimination, but also social equality and equality for women. He could be seen today as one of the founding fathers stoking the embers of the Bhakti movement which proliferated from the South to the entire country over the next few centuries when others began initiating similar ideological challenges to the dominating Brahmin/Brahminical socio-political and spiritual orders. The Siddharameshwara / Gadda Yatra is organised in his honour each year in Solapur and follows the path of paying homage to 68 jyotirlingas which he consecrated with the sole belief that god or divinity could be accessed by everyone through pure love and tolerance. In today’s fragmented, intolerant world, one regards this journey as a flicker of hope.
John’s works revolve around this pilgrimage and all that it has taught him so far. He participates in it every year and finds people who have come from various parts of the country and world, from varying sections of society, social and economical status and of varied religious beliefs. This unprejudiced gathering of people from all walks of life opens up a panoramic view of the world and it is here that John dives in to bring up some pearls of inspiration which are seen in his works.
Working in the acrylic medium, John’s works could be quite deceptive for the diffusive quality of the background; a technique which anoints the works with a mystical, otherworldly feeling. This as he says is easily achieved in oils on canvas but is quite tedious in the acrylic medium. However, the textures which layer the canvases speak quite eloquently of how the mastery over a technique/medium often bridges the chasm between simply ‘pretty pictures’ and monotony. Most of the works also have gold leaf and gold dust strategically layered on to the pictorial surface which brings about the unusual misty light effect. It is known that in certain mosques and churches in Europe a technique of laying gold foil and dust into the floor was used by Renaissance artists / architects, as the dust flew up into the air, the natural light from the stained glass windows caught the gold dust illuminating the space with a divine luminosity in a way that candle lighting would not achieve. John’s works create similar luminous spaces within the pictorial surface.
All the canvases portray pilgrims of the pilgrimage, dressed in plain white dhotis and kurtas with a white turban, an attempt to homogenise their identities rendering all as same, one of the main tenets of the philosophy. It could also be seen as an ego diminishing act, especially when people from varying strata of society walk together as one breathing organism, the differences are struck out immediately. In wiping off one’s identity and influence, one focuses on the other human being walking next to them and begins to understand what it is to be simply alive. In most of John’s works, the male protagonists are portrayed walking away from the viewer’s gaze. In some works one sees a small boy walking with a grown man holding his hand, in others there is a huge group of the pilgrims walking away from the viewer’s gaze a large organic mass, while the city’s silhouettes of churches, temples and mosques are quietly fade away into the golden sky.
These paintings could evoke some very contradictory responses from the viewers. The first reaction could be that of absolute silence and slowing of the pace of time. It is only when one feels there is hardly anything to look at in a work that one slows down only to ‘see’ more. The other reaction is that of the feeling of monotony in the depictions, hence an easy and quick dismissal as a reaction. However if the dust settles suddenly things emerge in the works. Through the gold dust and particles, through the polished surfaces, messages erupt abruptly, but could only be seen probably by observant eyes. The other reaction to John’s works could be that of transfixing the viewer, as one uses keen eyes to visually comb the surfaces for messages, for symbols and signs with an uncertainty of finding anything. When one regards the number of reactions one could expect to experience through these works, one realises this could be applied to a larger concept and experience of life itself. The dismissing eyes, the observant eyes, the keenly seeking eyes, belong to the viewer, who is also a pilgrim, witnessing another fellow traveler’s memoirs through the art works. This makes John’s works and art practice itself a part of his pilgrimage, one that he takes to Solapur and back and the one he travels within himself to his inner realms which capture unique stories and memories on canvas.
A pilgrim is never lost or found. A pilgrim may fervently seek or be sought after. A pilgrim tires and rests but seldom gives up the pilgrimage, for irrespective of the movement being literal or metaphorical, inner or outer, a pilgrim must keep moving. As one unravels these few truths, one can fathom the embedded allegories breathing the traces of one’s walk towards their inner core or inner sanctum. This walk towards the self is a difficult one but certainly rewarding. It is the true pilgrimage of life and artist Douglas John has been on one all his life.
(Images courtesy the Artist)