A Social Panorama

A Social Panorama

We love to watch other people. It is a basic human tendency to observe and speculate on fellow humans, and we watch them all the time: in airports, malls, hotel lounges, doctor’s clinic, out on the street. We judge them based on how they dress and talk, we imagine their occupations and love lives, and we put them in categories and boxes in our mind. Gurcharan Singh has turned this from a private voyeuristic act into a grand artistic preoccupation: his latest suite captures a panorama of individuals in various social settings.

Artists present for us a lens through which we view the world. Gurcharan’s lens consists of human forms and gestures. His world is not a hostile world filled with conflict, but one where meaning and understanding is sought through interpersonal relations, everyday events and the mélange of how different personalities collide. Gurcharan eschews themes of politics and economics, and focuses instead on the intimacies and intricacies of human interaction and behaviour. His characters span social classes, genders and age groups, and the palette of emotions that he presents leaves no colour unexplored.

His canvasses are typically large tableaux featuring characters of all genders and ages, and even domesticated animals and birds. Some of them are dressed in modern clothes; others are clearly from earlier times. There is a mix of nationalities as well, coming together in compositions that contain a larger narrative of the world they live in, and that they share this world in spite of differences. His characters are juxtaposed, and not necessarily connected to each other: for example, the man with a suspicious look on his face, seated with a live bird in his hands at a table with fruits; a woman barely wrapped in a some sort of fabric, walking with her head hung in shame; a baby crawling on a table with someone playfully reaching out for it; the man in a suit and hat with a moll.

In his earlier work, Gurcharan has taken on social issues, such as the suffering of the underprivileged, and the victims of violence and injustice. (His works after the 1984 Delhi riots are an example of that.) His latest work, though, turns its eye inwards to more everyday emotions: the lust of a young man, the joy of a mother holding her child in her arms, the worry (for reasons it is up to us to imagine), the banter of two youngsters in animated conversation. The tone of the paintings encompasses a range of idiosyncrasies of people and social circumstances. If we are to look at artists who are preoccupied with social and familial interactions and those who reflect on the society via the human form, Gurcharan has created a niche of his own in handling the subject. At one end of the spectrum it is neither full of gaiety or froth in a fantastical setting nor is it weighed down by issues of the working class. Currently his preoccupation is the human psyche.

These works evoke nostalgia for a bygone era. The absence of typical contemporary things like electronic equipment or vehicles recall an earlier period; a time when the pace of life was slower, there were joint families, children played in the backyard with domestic pets and people spent time with each other rather than interact through internet social networking sites.

Emotions, characters and moods are expressed as much with hand gestures, bodily poses as with the choice of colours. From deep violet tones for a figure, to blue or green faces, and brightly coloured attire the paintings are enlivened and made communicative through the use of an unrealistic palette. The emotive use of colours calls to mind Post Impressionists like Henri Matisse and Andre Derain. The use of domestic creatures like dogs, cats and the most frequently used parrot motif suggest ideas of compassion, love, care, loyalty and trust. Noticeably these pets are always in motion, never caged or chained. He paints implausible and humorous situations like the one where a little girl is seen holding a fish in her hands. And then another where we see a frog, rendered almost like a caricature, on top of a table alongside a bottle of alcohol and a cocktail glass.

There are recurring features in these paintings like the large table at the centre of a composition around which the figures are positioned. This trope is as useful in the technical aspect of laying out several figures as it is symbolic of communal dinning. A large table shared by all and sundry - a reminder that we are made of and will go back to the same elements in spite of the cosmetic differences. Another repeated device is that of arches and windows which is used to create space and depth. He creates a complex plane and a dramatic montage that keeps one engaged from edge to edge, calling attention to each character.

There is a warm and agreeable feeling in the latest paintings even as he admits the non-agreeable elements of a society in his tableaux. The world he creates is akin to a fable and the people he portrays seem to be from a distant land. These works are like a theatrical stage on which all kinds of characters are performing their parts and we play spectators.

December 2011
Jasmine Shah Varma
Writer and independent curator based in Mumbai

Published by The Viewing Room in the catalogue for Gurcharan Singh’s ‘Twilight Tales’