From Bharat to India

From Bharat to India


From Bharat to India

Themes of migration and displacement have always fascinated artists. Award-winning painter Uma Shankar Pathak’s works revolve around these subjects, but highlight the urban-rural divide, Hema Vijay writes

Displacement is a curious phenomenon, more so, when it is from Bharat to India. Picture the average Indian villager setting out for a big city in search of a living and a new life, with hope in his heart and stars in his eyes, the fear and uncertainty in his heart kept in rein by the bleak scenario back home in his village, as he leaves behind kith and kin and a way of life he has become tuned to. Now, turn the focus on to the city, and contemplate the mixed bag of fortune and misfortune he finds at the end of his imagined rainbow, and of course, to his now-transformed life tuned by the city’s pulse.

Well, the exodus of the Indian villager from her fields to her cities has been studied at the social level, at the political level, at the economic level and at ideological levels too — with contradictory conclusions. Now, here comes along a young artist who looks at the phenomenon at the individual level — in both intellectual and emotional terms.

Award winning artist Uma Shankar Pathak turns the artistic spotlight on the migrant story, raising some intriguing thoughts. Born in a farming family in Munger in Bihar, Pathak was educated at the College of Art and Crafts, Patna, and later obtained his Masters in Fine Arts from Chandigarh. Since then, this young man has set a blazing trail of achievements that include awards such as the Red Cross Society of South Korea Award, an International Poster Competition (2004) Award and a National Poster Competition (2005) Award.

A migrant’s mind

With the urban-rural divide being what it is in our country, arguably, the turmoil in migrating out to countries across seas could be less of an upheaval compared to the Indian villager’s transition into her cities and towns. “My recent works are the visual narratives of the struggles in the life of a peasant, conveyed within a vast space with an economy of colour. They translate the vast expectation of a poor life of a villager, who has come to the city for the sake of money and position,” Pathak explains. He does have a pulse on this dilemma, being a rural migrant with an urban education.

He anchors the rural migrant into the frame of the canvass by using objects you would typically associate with village life — such as the plough, ploughshare, the peasant, crops, huts etc. These motifs come jumbled with the metaphors of the city like cars and buildings. What is interesting is that the symbolic imagery morphs and meanders into new contexts and imagery, making a visual statement on the migrant’s transition to city life. For instance, in one of his paintings, Pathak makes the plough masterfully morph into a zebra crossing, which gets viewers to traverse the journey along with the migrant. Pathak is also a master at splitting images skillfully so as to get the same imagery to convey different meanings, even while it is a part of a continuum.

“The plough or the ploughshare captures the dominating space in this vast universe of ‘nothing in everything’. Here I quote, “‘nothing in everything’ to emphasise that like every person, my peasant also wants to have everything and when he began to earn everything, he is satisfied by nothing,” Pathak says.

In another sense, the iconography of the peasant also stands for the common man who has to work his way up from scratch and make a life for himself — rural or urban. “My present works are an evaluation of hardships, through which a middle class person has to travel. The living standards of a simple person also changes when he comes in contact with the city environment and his satisfaction with the little he earned vanishes,” Pathak adds.

Pathak works with oil colours, water colours and installation art as well. The predominantly flat treatment that Pathak gives to these paintings seems faintly ironical, considering the rugged life the paintings speak off. The cubical or geometric manifestation of imagery also alludes to intellectual journeys taken. This abstraction does come as a surprise, but it quickly merges into the narrative as the migrant is seen stepping in and out of it in complex manner, sometimes with just his torso and legs visible from the outside.

Pathak uses contrasting flat colour tones to great effect. The flat colour tones also set in place a certain mood to the situation he describes, while the imagery within it are not anchored at all. His paintings also have trees tearing through towers and birds pulling strings — which make for interesting and amusing paradoxes that are possible realities at some point of time in our lives.

Complexity simplified

The end result is an uncluttered composition that retains only those objects in the frame as required to narrate the key story, and without delineations of foreground or background… all of this going on to show the immense confidence that young Pathak has in his narrative imagery. The abstract forms in Pathak’s paintings bring out the understated complexity of city life, while the flat brushwork and surface effect drives home the superficiality of the material quest.

And then of course, there is the omniscient zebra that seems pop up all over his paintings. A zebra crossing into a new life? Actually, Pathak uses the zebra as a metaphor for his narrative of a bridge between the rural and urban scenario — in spatial terms, and also to bridge between stability from instability in intellectual terms. There are other metaphors he likes to repeat as well, such as the image of the house which is symbolic of aspiration and stability.

While artists have always been focusing on the extraordinary and the exquisite, Pathak is one artist who looks at the ordinary and endows it with dignity. His paintings throw a spotlight of gratitude for the millions of labourers who are constantly migrating to cities, and whose hands are now building the glitzy city, brick by brick. Pathak doesn’t seem to be passing a value judgment; they don’t presume pathos or jubilance either.

They simply leave an unstated question that is of relevance to all of us city folk — recent or old-time city folk: Living in a metropolis, in a life spent on a quest driven by material desires and achieving it, where does the spiritual go? Cites Pathak, “The very nature of men’s vast expectation is that — he runs after everything and when he gets everything, he is satisfied by nothing. As an artist, I took this as a subject in revealing my artistic emotions, for the reason that I too am a man of flesh and blood…”

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