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Majestic metaphors

The elephant and the tiger -- two animals with contrasting natures are the theme of an art show featuring four established artists.

"METAPHORICAL DIALOGUES" at the Apparao Galleries is showing the works of C.Douglas, K.Murlidharan, Rajasekhar Nair and S.G.Vasudev. The artists had been chosen by the gallery to work "on the two majestic animal metaphors".

The press release has the following to say — "The elephant and the tiger are both contrasts in nature and character. The similarity is that these two beasts have represented strength in mythology. They are both kings of their own realm; they are both majestic yet they are independently strong.''

It goes on in the same vein about the artists — "similarly these four artists are independently strong. They are different from each other and they are contrasts even though they have used the same theme.''

Anyone familiar with the art scene in Chennai will be able to recognise that some of the artists featured here are especially suited to a curatorial theme such as this.

Murlidharan's familiar tigers, elephants and mythological beasts in playful pop colours are there, so are Rajasekharan Nair's witty anvil shaped cats and Ganeshas and S.G.Vasudev's versatile ``theatre of life", employing the proscenium format that can accommodate almost any topic under the sun here, has painted mahout boys frolicking on top of green elephants.

It is Douglas, however, who has produced the unexpected in more ways than one.

Concerned as he is with the dark recesses of the human mind, the elephant with its dark hide becomes a metaphor for the Freudian unconscious. Douglas's capricious elephants tumble from the sky onto sleeping children and hide inside bells resisting its tolling.

Stock Freudian ideas of the unexpected return of repressed experiences through dreams and the terrifying `absence' of the unconscious are all inventively expressed. As is the norm with his work, there is an aura of deep malaise here and a sly playfulness too that turns our ``gentle and noble'' elephant into quite a subversive fellow. It is to the artist's credit that he has been able, as all good artists are, to integrate into his own scheme of things an extremely reified sign such as this.

The elephant is not new to Indian psychoanalysis though, Ganesha himself has been seen as a symbol of castration in the Indian version of the Oedipus complex. In an inverse scenario the father, Shiva, beheads his son at the threshold.

Rajasekharan Nair's Ganesha with a large lesion on its head perhaps talks about this idea but then perhaps it does not. His anvil shaped cat perhaps comments ironically on the fate of animals in general.

As far as the concept of a curated group show is concerned, this exhibition demonstrates yet again that it is really quite easy and common to come up with topics such as ``the majestic animal metaphors'' or some such thing but quite difficult to present a coherent and dynamic exploration of a theme.

Although all four are professionals having distinct languages of their own and do achieve ``metaphorical dialogues'' in their own way with their given subject matter, I couldn't really find any dialogue between them. That is if dialogue here is understood to be a truly productive conversation between the works on display resulting in an understanding of what it means to paint these motifs today and not just the incidental presence of a theme.

The show is exceptionally uneven when seen in its entirety, perhaps due to a lack of a properly thought-out curatorial direction.

Made all the more obvious by an informative catalogue write-up that talks concisely about the mythical origins of the animals, their inherent characteristics and their iconographic appearances in history etc. but fails to give any modern art historical context for the theme.

Finally, things weren't helped much by the incongruous presence in the gallery of works from a previous and unrelated show.

SHANKAR NATARAJAN

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