50 Revolutions around the sun - Nikhil Chaganlal

50 Revolutions around the sun - Nikhil Chaganlal

Portraits of emotions

Portraiture today is thought of mostly in the context of photography. But before cameras replaced the need for painters to capture an individual for posterity, the genre had a rich and complex history. While portraiture in art was once concerned mainly with fidelity, Vincent van Gogh did away with realism and let swirls of colours and texture speak for the moods and emotions in his self-portraits. In the 20th century, under Pablo Picasso’s cubist lens, perception of human facial features underwent a radical shift. In the 1960s Andy Warhol’s silkscreened portraits of Marilyn Monroe brought the genre into a conceptual framework. In contemporary India, in De-Curating: Indian Contemporary Artists, Bose Krishnamachari created portraits of established and emerging Indian artists who he thought were instrumental in shaping contemporary Indian art. The artist-curator as one effort combined faculties of artisanal skill, concept, context, commentary and historical perspective.

Nikhil Chaganlal revisits the genre to freeze human emotions, moods and intangible qualities that he cherishes rather than represent physical attributes of individuals. Making portraits is the formally untrained artist’s childhood passion, and has led to a signature style, alongside his interior series. In this suite of 50 uniquely formatted paintings on masonite board are glistening images of mystics, Hindu deities, faces suggestive of iconic figures such as Buddha and Jesus, and fantastical portrayals of kitschy women. Pulling a thread out of the history of antique pendants with painted portraits and coins with reliefs in ancient Greece and Rome, he has ornamented these paintings with carved and painted wooden frames. He describes them as jewels to celebrate and make memorable his 50th birthday.

One might wonder if this can be labeled portraiture in the traditional sense since they do not depict the physical semblance of real people. It is a reexamination of the genre with the aim to capture the essence of humanity. They carry the quintessence of people he has come across in his life and extensive travels around the world. It is worth juxtaposing and considering how similar yet distinct are the approaches to the human head by Nikhil and Akbar Padamsee. The latter’s austere colour palette, medium and vibe couldn’t be more different from Nikhil’s flaunting style. Yet both artists aim to capture an abstract quality in a human face while establishing an undertone of temperament that is unique to each. There is an existential search in both their approaches.

For Nikhil portraiture seems to be as natural as the act of doodling; it flows from his paint brush spontaneously and not as planned composition. Unless it is a portrayal of a deity such as Ganesh, Durga or Shree Nathji we are not led by context to read a narrative to know who these people are. They are moods of as much the people the artist observes as they are of him. In one spectrum, at a subconscious level, he seeks qualities like compassion, innocence, grace and tranquility in his subjects. In the other spectrum, some of his portrayals of women evoke raw sensuousness and erotica. In some, the eyes beckon the viewer with a stare while in others we see a more meditative stance where the eyes are closed. One is curious to know if he is searching for himself in the faces around him. Is the act of creating hundreds of portraits over the years an aspiration to inculcate those traits, descriptive of his experiences, or homage to human nature? Perhaps it’s a little bit of everything.

The use of bright, garish, bold colour palette for the various strains of subjects is overlapping. It does not distinguish between the traits of sadhus, the deities and the beckoning mortal women. They are all vibrant, celebrating the exuberance of life. Colours are used as tools to emote without prejudice about one’s character. More or less universally his protagonists display an idyllic state of mind. This contradiction of energy and tranquility brings out the complexities in Nikhil as a person and the way he perceives life.

In this suite we may be confronting 50 strangers but the emotions they evoke are familiar and suggestive of humankind in one way or another.

October 2011
Jasmine Shah Varma
Writer and curator based in Mumbai

Published in catalogue by Art Musings, Mumbai for Nikhil Chaganlal’s solo show, December 2011