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Cries and laughter in the dark

Besides capturing the bright images of childhood, artist C.D. Jain's paintings hint at the acts of violence that children are a prey to, in an adult world.

"I WANT you to look at my happy children," says C.D. Jain, steering his audience towards an entire wall filled with delicately glowing colours.

These small-sized paintings in watercolours and acrylic capture the bright and brilliant images of childhood. Jain has a light, fantastical touch. In a painting such as "Frolicking Joy", he shows two children floating through a landscape filled with images of abundance, a river, trees bursting with flowers, blue mountains, a band of pink that seems to be fluttering with blue butterflies. One of the girls, neatly dressed in a striped yellow dress, with a V-shaped yoke, is holding a slice of water melon in her hand, while another girl, her younger sister perhaps, has her small arms stretched out. It could be a gesture of total happiness, the arms reaching out to embrace the world, or it could be a sign of helplessness, a surrender to the darker symbols that the artist includes in his pictures as though to warn his audience that things are not what they seem on the surface. Jain's paintings are replete with what an analyst would recognise as phallic symbols, trees that thrust themselves out of the landscape, with their branches spreading out like a multi-headed serpent hood, filled with aggression, or egg-like shapes, fish, snails, small scars that line the trunks of some of the trees, like traditional yoni marks and finally, despite all the joy, a certain tragic look in the eyes of the children. One is reminded both of the work of Babu Xavier, who also paints brilliant landscapes full of ambiguous symbols and the earlier canvasses of Muralidharan, who managed to create his own world of myths and legendary creatures.

To be sure, Jain's work lacks their robust confidence. His touch is more subdued and in the case of his black and white smudged charcoal pencil and pastel drawings, that look like faded postcards sent from a lost childhood, very much more sombre in content. These are the flipside of the happy children paintings. They deal with the dark, secret lurking in the most sacred of Indian myths about the benefits of the joint family system, knitting together different generations of the family in one gloriously happy unit. Child abuse and paedophilia were common in such situations.

As he talks of his travels through many parts of Tamil Nadu and some of the other southern States, his voice is filled with anguish as he recollects the increasing brutalisation that young children are being subjected to, today, on account of the extreme poverty of their lives. "The very people who are supposed to be looking after these children are those who are encouraging them into child sex abuse," he says. In the temple towns such as Madurai, the custom is for older men, suffering from impotence or sexually transmitted diseases to look for sex with a very young girl as a means of curing the problem. This is perhaps why there is a disturbing air of menace in many of his black and white drawings. Nothing is openly depicted. In this world of secret lusts, hastily gorged and satisfied, the victims themselves are too young or too helpless to voice the tortures that are being inflicted upon them. It is the nameless act of violence that forms the subject of some of his work, though there is neither lust nor violence depicted in them, just the suggestion of the compact between an adult world that preys upon the helplessness of children.

"My dream is to start a village museum to exhibit paintings from different parts of India, just for children," says Jain. With a two-year grant from "CRY" the organisation that has made a mission of reaching out to children, Jain has done his best to put pencils, paint and paper into the hands of the children he meets to encourage them to draw and paint. He remembers a young boy whom he met during a workshop in Salem, who told him that taking part in the painting session was "the best thing that had happened to him in his life. I was so much more confident," the boy told me. Now, if just one experience like that can do so much, why can't we make it possible for all our children to paint like that?' asks Jain. "Yes, I know there are competitions when children are gathered together under a tent and given materials to paint, but why does it always have to be a competition, he asks. "What about the poorer children who never get to any of these competitions?"

Jain's work has been re-printed in the form of greeting cards by ActionAid Society. He keeps a percentage of the proceeds from his own painting for his dream project. However, looking at his bravely independent effort at holding an exhibition in the most abject of conditions at the Lalit Kala Akademi, on a day when the entire top floor gallery was awash with water, after the rain, it looks like it's going to be a long and painful road to that museum in the sky. That does not stop Jain from dreaming, however, and from painting those brilliant images of children frolicking together in a carefree world.

GEETA DOCTOR

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