Debraj Goswami – Visual Satirist

Debraj Goswami – Visual Satirist

Jasmine Shah Varma

Debraj Goswami’s paintings seems like scenes from The Adams Family. Objects appear like they have been put through magic spells as they transform from being ordinary to peculiar. Two solo shows held in 2006, ‘My Experiments with Half Truths’ at Gallery Chemould in Mumbai and ‘Recyled Masterpieces and Etc’ at Gallery Threshold in Delhi gave a view into the world of Debraj’s thoughts. With these exhibitions behind him he is settled with a well defined visual armory.

Debraj creates a unique visual vocabulary by painting disparate motifs together. At one level there is humour and visual wittiness. A table lamp has a fork instead of a bulb; there are grenades in an ice tray and a gun in a toothbrush holder which create surprise and bring on a smile. The images are rendered in a stylised manner with precision and a sense of veracity but they are altered from reality. At another level these images lead to a deeper meaning and to the artist’s concerns about the state of affairs around him.

Broadly Debraj’s work is stemmed in the idea that what you see is not necessarily all there is to see. Through his imagery he uncovers the dual nature of the apparent. He gives a throwaway example: “We see a harmless briefcase someplace. But there is a bomb in it which is not visible.” The tangent imagination seen in the visuals tickles the viewer’s thought process and one begins to wonder at the connection between the pairing of dissimilar objects. Even if there seems like no possibility of connection or reason for correlation, a deeper probing leads to one. His contention seems to be that there is no black and white situation, but several hidden facts, agendas and explanations that may not be apparent at first. He does not pass judgements and de-seats himself from the moral high ground that artists generally tend to mount upon.

The objects and references from art of the past that Debraj uses are recognisable. Picasso’s Guernica and Women Running on the Beach, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam and Rodin’s The Thinker are some of the references from masterpieces that he uses. The use of these as motifs at the risk of creating clichés is to suggest what they stand for but in a context different from the original. So the reoccurrence of bits and pieces from Guernica in Debraj’s compositions is used to suggest violence and war. The context he uses these in is contemporary, local or personal. Certain pieces of art serve as emblems, because they are widely recognised and understood, to speak of today’s situation.

One wonders how Debraj chooses the objects and what compels him to overturn the regular meaning of objects. He says that it’s been his habit from younger days to stare at an object until it transforms into something else in his mind. As a child he would reuse discarded objects to make toys. A used battery became an oil tanker, for instance. Today objects become part of the painting. Like the ladyfinger becomes a sharp-edged dagger and Debraj enjoys pondering over how the vegetable that is being cut becomes a knife in itself. Later these thoughts turn into probing metaphors for life situations. Debraj feels that one object can say a lot of things and when these objects are kept in an unusual context then they can suggest even more.

With a few objects unified into a single central motif Debraj keeps the structure of the painting minimal. This trait is vastly different from his earlier work process which was heavy with suggestive symbols. He changed his process of work because he felt that earlier his concepts were too strong for the images to carry. Now a few powerful images painted in visually appealing manner draw the viewer into the painting to unravel the layers of meaning in the work. Like his belief that there are shades of truth, he leaves the viewer to interpret the paintings in multiple ways. He says he likes to set up a situation in his paintings and not give his opinion.

Debraj’s paintings do justice to the adage a picture speaks a thousand words. For the thinking eyes, his paintings are a minefield. His paintings are not direct illustrations at the same time he does not go out of his way to cover the tracks leading to his thought in order to keep the mystique in his paintings. He has a natural knack for wit and has clarity about his art practice and content of painting.

Jasmine Shah Varma is an independent curator and art writer based in Mumbai
This article was published in ‘Art & Deal’ magazine in 2006