Eternal euphoria: Shahabuddin’s leap across time
The word leap seems to problamatize Shahabuddin’s recent yields. Amidst the effusion of brown, black and Indian red and the constituency of human hope and robust– almost inhuman– passion around the idea of freedom, the very word leap works like a double-edged razor. It cuts both ways by pointing at once at the humanoids that are caught in their act of leaping across an imaginary space of metaphysical construct, manifesting their inner strength, and also by invoking the question of progress made in the artist’s vocabulary.
With two back-to-back shows– one at Gallery Chitrak and the other at the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, the latter being more important due to the two large paintings where the sign of departure inscribes hope in the eyes of the beholders, Shahabuddin, who has been living in Paris since the early 1970s, seems to have courted ambivalence, if not coarse comments from the deshi art-loving crowd.
Yet the words that circulated around town could manage to unfurl only half the scroll that contains the comeback story. The sarcastic reflections spotlighting the scrambling involved in mounting these two back-to-back shows in the shortest span of time imaginable– having spent slightly over a month to prepare for both shows– and the downgrading of the signature imagery, the hurdling humans, seem to fall short of the energy that his work still exude.
The search for a trace of novelty in the aesthetic mode– within which Shahabuddin seems to have lodged himself for good– may misguide one as the horizon brought forth had only a few, though potent signs of hitherto unexplored subjectal and emotional outbursts. He could have easily been dismissed as a classic example of arrested development, had it not been for some of the strikingly new features that made their appearances, especially in the two huge paintings on display in the Bengal gallery.
Coursing through these well publicised phenomena that were Shahabuddin’s shows, one could easily hit upon the fact that the emotional current that used to define his body of work still has some mileage left. As an artist, who would certainly do with a gaze shift, he is yet to exhaust his enthusiasm around the war of liberation and the concomitant profusion of spirit.
The curatorial shortsightedness aside, Shahabuddin’s twin shows thrive in repurtorial repletion.The soppy, tearful inauguration by the artsy queen of Mumbai filmdom Shabana Azmi – center of mammoth media hype during the inauguration -- may or may not meddle with one’s evaluatory frame of mind, yet the glut of paintings of the same genre, at the first go, deceptively swamps the viewer. Still, at the end of the journey one feels that both shows adequately buttress the fact that Shahabuddin the artist still has some newer trajectories to explore. The engine behind the fame still rattles and roars when it comes totackling the body, transcending its taut tissues and overstretched tendrils to spectacular end results.
In his paintings, what is immediate is also corporeal.
The very site of the aesthetic and athletic body, in all his successful work, is lent a ferocity that matches a sturdy longing for a Being and Becoming of a metaphysical scale. The civilizing force that is modern architecture, is de-emphasised as the spirit that guides the humans reaches almost inhuman scale and in turn negates the structurally defined confinement of a space which is the gallery.
His figures and the primordial energy that they bring to life carry the trace of the reciprocal relationship between self reflexivity and plural reflexivity. Art that takes form by appropriating human form – mostly muscle-bound males -- seems to be made of twin torrents of both collective and personal psyche coloured by what at first seems nationalistic passion, but which later reveals as a metaphysical reflection, if not a full-fledged discourse.
Suffice to say that his representational mode has been and still is grounded on the organically internalised personal experiences. He was a freedom fighter himself and has been the foremost torch-bearer of the causes linked to that war and its indelible spirit – one that can be defined as a politico-cultural category that shuttles the man/artist to the direction of the very constellation of the collective. Here, one should register the fact that the nationalist awareness in him is not a mere construction of faith, rather born out of a continuity of the identity for which he once had to take up arms.
His very personality is intimately interwoven with the history of war, but never with the tragic course that the country was forced into, as his self-exile allowed him a good bit of distance between him and what one may dub as realpolitik.
There is another dimension to his nationalistic passion, the romantic engagement with the homeland, its independence and the politics of cultural/national identity that once framed them, rarely allows for any critical reflection. Within his canvases, euphoria thrives, and as such his repurtoire still seems divested of all claims and contours of reality as well as ethnicity. This euphoria, one that links him to history as well as the populace, stems from his alignment with the struggling masses and the eternal hope for the leap towards freedom without heeding much about the reality of their situations. Accordingly, the uneven course of history, and the sociopolitical degradation that has already derailed the project of independence, seems yet to leave any blemish on his work. His prolonged stay in Paris may have helped him remain aloof from the goings on of his home-turf.
Pathologies are not always location-specific; yet Shahabuddin’s long exile has made possible a subjectal abstraction that throws his men leaping forward beyond the reality of the country to which they belong. Consequently, most of his imagery refers back to themselves, though they bring forth a category that has analogues in the local culture.
Yet one must also take into account the fact that the absence of the traces of squalor triggered and perpetuated by human corruption has not rendered Shahabuddin’s recent works irrelevant, no! not yet.
The seed of corruption is not only embedded in human nature, as Christian theology would have us believe, the collective conscience to stave it off, within the country that the artist helped liberate, has been nothing short of an epic failure. But, Shahabuddin, though not out of apathy, chooses to bathe in the perpetual ecstasy of nationalist origin.
He unflinchingly volunteers to become an eternal cheerleader. Though, in the end it is easy for one to become aware that what is being paraded as nationalist art is actually an examination of the transmutability of the body or self, which the artists hurls into the vortex of time/timelessness, present/future matrix with fierce aspiration. This is the reason why his work rarely seems to be plumbing the nostalgia that often grips most artists in this clime.
The exhibition lasted from September 27 to October 11, 2009.