This essay appears in the catalogue accompanying Saffronart’s exhibition “Ode to the Monumental“, where Phaneendra Nath Chaturvedi spoke to Rashmi Rajgopal about his work, with a focus on The Anthropoid Owl of Athena which is part of this exhibition.
Context of Phaneendra Nath Chaturvedi’s Art
In an interview with the Paris Review, Czech writer Milan Kundera makes a pertinent remark about interpreting Franz Kafka’s work: “…do you realize that people don’t know how to read Kafka simply because they want to decipher him? Instead of letting themselves be carried away by his unequaled imagination, they look for allegories…” Kundera’s comment holds true for art as well—in this context, the works of Phaneendra Nath Chaturvedi. Reading too much into an artwork and investing it with excessive allegorical meaning can be exhausting. It overburdens and confounds the purpose of the artwork, as Kundera opines of analysing Kafka’s writing. On initial viewing, Phaneendra Nath’s earlier paintings seem laden with a bleak outlook on humanity. They hinge on an impalpable, impending crisis that the viewer knows exists, but is unsure of—hence risking categorisation. On the other hand, taking them purely for their visual appeal leaves the viewer feeling incomplete. There is a need to achieve middle ground. Talk to the artist, and one becomes aware of his need to address the chaotic imbalances of the present age in his works, often through symbolism, drawing from the Indian mythos. They are part of a transitional phase that reflects his own thought-development, rather than serving to preach the viewer through their imagery.
Phaneendra Nath appears cautious, but not defensive. He fondly reminisces of his childhood days in Benaras, of being one with nature, of listening to mythological tales, of being more emotionally intimate with people. Phaneendra’s childhood reminiscences are not purely his own: Benaras is one of the oldest living cities in the world, famed for its spirituality and deep connection between its residents. “All that is gone now,” he trails off. Economic changes, industrialisation, globalisation, materialistic pursuits, choosing to connect through WhatsApp and Facebook instead of bonding in more intimate ways, he believes, have made people less sensitive emotionally. “Robotic.” His concerns are most certainly not unheard of—a whole gamut of aesthetic and moral concerns since the advent of industrialisation and, in particular, our age of technology, articulating similar issues have been categorised into movements and styles, springing forth in art and literature. Phaneendra Nath’s thoughts hint at a romanticising of the past, at a mourning of lost times, but he is quick to correct that, stressing that progress is needed to go forward. “It is a serious concern…there should be a balance.”
To a sceptical mind, this may appear as a defence mechanism to dodge criticism. A quick glance at his work should rid such scepticism. An October 2007 exhibition at The Mint Gallery in New Delhi, ‘An Anthropomorphic Angle’, featured a collection of thirteen works, each made of many panels. This grid-formation, initially a panacea to the issue of finding large papers to work with, creates an interesting effect in the eyes of Phaneendra Nath. In each work, bodies are ‘assembled’ in the fashion of robots: one can see the chinks, the hinges, belts and buckles, the nails and bolts that have gone into their assemblage. It does not cease there. Phaneendra effectively assembles the past, present and his extrapolation of the future to reflect in this assemblage of panels and machine-parts. Colour is used minimally. It is used as a device to hint at our vacuousness and folly—at our creation of devices to which we are increasingly becoming slaves.
Phaneendra’s later works, especially from 2011 and 2012, integrate animals with this breed of humanoids. An ‘A to Z’ series of pencil and watercolour paintings from 2011 is a comical and witty compilation depicting human busts with the visage of animals. “Humans, animals and machines have one core difference,” he explains. “Emotions.” The viewer then senses a dark, downward spiralling of humankind, a blurring of lines and a collision of identity in this series. His May 2012 show at the Karin Weber Gallery in Hong Kong, ‘An Anthropomorphic Incarnation’, hints at a smooth transition from his fears to something less menacing. Phaneendra Nath transcribes very specific characteristics of birds and animals onto his humanoid figures. Men and women sprout wings, at times surrounded by fish. There is a sense of co-existence in these works of anthropomorphism, of the balance that Phaneendra Nath believes we should be striving for. At this juncture, his work The Anthropoid Owl of Athena gains importance.
Reading Anthropoid Owl of Athena
Phaneendra Nath’s Anthropoid Owl of Athena serves as a beacon of revivalism through its symbols. The artist admits the mythological significance of both the owl and the fish in this work. The owl’s wings in this work are spread out, regal and free. To a viewer aware of the symbolism of the owl in Hindu mythology, owls are associated with wisdom. ‘Wisdom’ differs from ‘intellect/intelligence’ in that it implies enlightenment, a realisation, an awakening. Viewed in this light, the human portrayed here has ‘awoken’; his wings spread freely across the frame.
The Fish—Matsya—in Hindu mythology, is the very first of Lord Vishnu’s ten avatars. During the Pralayam, or the Great Deluge, Lord Vishnu appears as a fish to King Manu and promises to save him from the destruction of the world. Along with a few plants and animals, Manu is led by the matsya, which steers through floods and storms to lead them to safety. The world is then recreated with a few chosen survivors. The matsya symbolises rebirth after the deluge. The fish here are seen swimming from the extreme left panel, across the human, to the birds in the extreme right. The presence of the birds fits snugly into the puzzle, when given thought to. The horizontal movement from fish to birds suggests evolution—here, an evolution of ideas through gaining wisdom. Yet stripping the work of excessive meaning, looking at it merely for what it is, Phaneendra Nath elucidates on the role of the animals in his work: “We think and live together.”
The title of the work is tautological in purpose. Athena is the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and Civilisation—without considering her numerous other roles of patronage. Though not featured visually in the work, the insertion of “Athena” in the title gives it a more holistic significance: through wisdom and evolution, civilisation is reborn. Whether Phaneendra intended it this way is left to the viewer’s discretion.
Transformation through Style:
Phaneendra speaks fondly of his studio in Gurgaon, where he lives and works. “If I have to go on vacation somewhere,” he says jestingly, “It would be my studio.” The artist attributes his ideas as being conceived in his studio. When asked specifically if the idea for his current work was conceived there, he laughs elusively. Putting the pieces together, one can only guess. The Anthropoid Owl… was executed using pencil and coloured pencil on archival paper—“cotton-based,” as the artist clarifies. Phaneendra’s monumental work is the first of its kind. The artist acknowledges that he has never before made anything on this big a scale. The work took him ten months to complete since its inception, without any other distractions. What began in December 2012 as a seed of an idea turned out to be quite different by September 2013. When he started, it was “…more robotic”, he ponders aloud. Ten months is a long period, and a shift in thought process is expected. “Yes, it turned out to be quite different,” he admits.
If one considers how the artist, contemplating in the sanctuary of his studio and working over a stretch of ten months, changed in his thinking—evolved in the process of creating his work, The Anthropoid Owl… can be viewed as a turning point in his outlook and his oeuvre. Rather than viewing it in isolation, it is better understood in conjunction with his previous works. Phaneendra’s earlier works are portentous in their implications. The viewer gets a visceral sense of imbalance and degeneration of the human mind. Humans are rendered in monochrome, in post-apocalyptic settings of barbed wires and broken poles, others in enclosed spaces. If those works signify a dark age, to risk employing an analogy, The Anthropoid Owl of Athena would be the renaissance, the enlightenment. Colours feature in refreshing bursts, giving life to his fish and birds. Yet, while making this observation, one must consider what colour means to the artist. “Monochrome is also colour,” he says. “All colours are present in white and black.” The monochromatic man becomes a store-house of possibilities. Though at the brink of deterioration, he can still be salvaged, owing to his inherent capability of breaking free. The artist remains positive in his outlook, believing that the balance he hopes to see between animal, man and machine, will be restored.
What of the Robot?
Witnessing this transformation, Phaneendra’s past works become part of a dark and uncertain phase. Its vestiges can be seen in The Anthropoid Owl…, but are overwhelmed by the significance of the other symbols. Man, the robot that he had been just a few years ago in the artist’s works, is seen reverting to ‘normalcy’ through his awakening. He is not assembled with nails, buckles, bolts and machine parts, but of flesh and bones and skin. He can think and feel. He has gained an ‘in-depth’ knowledge of the world. He can once more live in harmony with nature, alongside animals. He is on the cusp of spiritual enlightenment—a higher attainment of need; as opposed to the shallow, hedonistic pursuits that only brought him temporary joys. Phaneendra has attempted to balance the changes he has had to witness, moving from Benaras’s deep spirituality and connectedness, to Gurgaon’s fast-growing, contemporary setting with an increasing virtual presence and sense of alienation. It would perhaps be safe to not infer any further, for risk of overburdening the work and confounding its purpose. The mind of the critic and the discerning viewer attempts to ascribe meaning when the artist does not intend more than he means to. As Kundera puts it in the Paris Review Interviews, “You can understand nothing about art, particularly modern art, if you do not understand that imagination is a value in itself.”