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Echoes of Silence: The Works of Santana Gohain Seen As Landscapes

Written by Kadamboor Neeraj, December 6, 2019

This article will be a broad reading of the bodies of works on display in Santana Gohain’s recent solo exhibition, “Echoes of Silence”. While going through the premise of the show, my knee jerk response was to question the relevance of abstraction, today – why do these paintings hold good, and where will they locate themselves in the course of time?

These works and their exhibition are first and foremost a reiteration of the modernist argument that art can exist for its own sake. That the painting is not directly representative of a situation that inspires it but is in fact a representation of the experience of the said situation or event. The modernist justification has seen its day and might seem out of date, but that is where we shall begin making our associations. Santana’s imitation of the texture and temperature of metal in her large paper works that look like copper or iron panels go on to exemplify her skill at handling medium and material. Mimesis is seen through to the last detail where the effort is evident in not just imitating, but in creating a compelling imitation. The illusory nature of these works blurs the lines between abstraction and representation – formalistically, the compositions are abstract, and yet the works in themselves are representative of the metal that the try to emulate.

Drawing as an act is a very subjective process can mean several things to each person who takes it up. It could simply be the creation of space in enclosing it within a boundary; or dividing a space by extending a line; or a collection of lines and symbols aimed at creating motion and movement. A visceral activity, it could for some be the way of leaving evidence of movement over a surface. The mark making process is also reminiscent of the development of script and, by extension, the evolution of languages; of associating sounds and meaning to symbols, and from them forming associations.

Marks could be indicative residues of a creative-cognitive behavior – of an effort to communicate. The marks we see in these paintings resemble naïve attempts at lettering made by children. They also look a lot like glyphs of ancient scripts engraved on rocks monuments. In either case these script-like markings encourage the viewer to try and draw meaning out of them – one looks for familiar signs and tries to decode meaningful messages. But these were never messages that were encoded to begin with – there was no deliberate attempt at encryption. Then how do we read these marks? We can try and make sense of the process of mark-making than, here, try to attach meanings to the act of mark-making itself.

It is possible to see them for the patient meditativeness that is associated with creating this pattern like mark. Despite the apparent banality of repeatedly carrying out the same task of making marks on the picture plane, one must acknowledge that that task was carried out with a resolute sense of purpose. The motions that the artist carries out on the surface of the canvas/picture plane is a cathartic purgation of several emotions and experiences. These motions and the resulting marks are evidences of this catharsis.

In the several conversations with Santana, she fondly remembers and talks about her homeland, Assam. Each anecdote was drawn from very personal memories – even public events were narrated with personal perception. Memories of her Assam are in color. Santana speaks of very distinct hues and how she learnt to draw meaning from them. Red was auspicious, and green was the color of the lush land around her. Her school uniform being a combination of red and green garments, for her, resembled the land and its bounty. Memories of this land and Santana’s description of the landscape with colors of the rhododendron and Palash embellishing it create vivid imagery – and one is allowed to form an image in their mind, a landscape. I cannot but make two associations here; one is to that of the Chinese landscape scroll painting tradition; and the other is of Benodebehari Mukherjee’s lyrical landscape paintings in ink and watercolor. Both these mentioned examples relied heavily on the imagination. The Chinese painters seldom painted their large scrolls by studying from life. These were imagined landscapes created to evoke a sense of tranquility in the viewer who gradually progresses along the vista as they open the scroll. The creation of these works were imaginably as meditative a process as the aesthetic experience of viewing them is. The deeply spiritual Chinese, were keenly aware of the magnanimity and vastness of nature. Depicting it therefore was done in an almost reverential manner. Viewing these scrolls is not a simple and straightforward process. For one, these lengthy scrolls were not framed or hung up on the wall and therefore were not meant to be viewed at once, they were viewed in an almost cinematic manner – beginning at one point and then gradually unfurling the scroll to view the full image. The viewing of these works is as much an exploration of a physical landscape as it is a visual experience of an artwork; from the creation until the viewing of these scrolls, there is a sense of slow ritual that encourages deliberation – a conscious mindfulness of nature’s prowess, its beauty, and one’s own location in this context.

Benodebehari Mukherjee was undoubtedly influenced by the East Asian painting techniques and formats. The Indigenous modernity prevalent among the artists of Bengal at the time encouraged an Eastward gaze, and soaked up the romanticism and stylization of the Chinese and Japanese arts. Benodebehari had from his childhood suffered from poor eyesight, that during the period in which he created the landscapes, he was visually impaired – blind in one eye. Mukherjee’s landscapes aren’t so much about the faithfulness to detail in capturing and rendering the scenic beauty around Santiniketan. They serve a different purpose altogether. Reduced eyesight meant that Mukherjee could already only see very little of the actual scenery, and by the time it was put onto paper it was further reduced. There exists a certain degree of abstraction that stems from a clear understanding of the space around the self, and also a lyricism, a sense of poetic rhythm, that in the usage of calligraphic ink and bright patches of color, make the painting almost audible.

Now, I would like to take the opportunity to compare Santana’s paintings to landscapes. Most of Santana’s resemble aerial views of lands with plots demarcated in them. Here I would also like to compare the artist’s mark making on the canvas to trails or footprints left behind by a traveler on virgin/pristine soil. And now if we were to take another approach, other than the modernist one, and look at what these paintings could possibly depict, they automatically elaborate a narrative of their own. If these canvases are compared to earth, land, or territories, then the marks and images Santana makes on them are reminiscent of primeval markings made by our prehistoric ancestors on rocks and landmasses as evidence of congregation. These works resemble vistas, large expanses of land that if not for the limits of the canvas, would have extended endlessly in every direction. What sets these vistas apart from the general context of a landscape is the absence of a horizon – and in not placing an identifiable horizon, Santana very tactfully, does away with the possibility of pinning these paintings to any particular location or point in time. Santana’s “landscapes” are overviews of lands that experience joy, the turn of seasons, the turnover of people that offer windows of quiet contemplation. These works at once allow the viewer to engage with the surface and build an intimate relationship with it, while at the same time encourage them to look at them as terrains, and planes of a landscape from far away.