There’s a quality of melancholy in Sosa Joseph’s art. It stares out from the faces of the veiled women who inhabit her canvases: elongated and mask-like, impassive and half-glimpsed. Who are the women, and what are they looking at? Where is it that they stand, uncertainly poised, in groups?
‘What are we?’ is the title of the three large paintings, that set the pace of Sosa Joseph’s second solo exhibition at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke. The vista that the paintings capture seems commonplace, but only at first glance, for there is an element of the uncanny, of something surreal that undercuts the apparent ordinariness. Take the random assortment of objects in the foreground of ‘What are we? – I’. There’s a telescope on a tripod, two overturned umbrellas, a solitary slipper, an open metal trunk, squawking hens, a pie-dog, a sheet of asbestos, steel rods, coils of wire, a boat, and in the midst of it all, a miniature lotus pond with a single bloom raising its head in defiance. This collection of objects floats in the water before a row of shrouded women who stand on the bank, their clothes trailing water. Is this the debris of a shipwreck somewhere upstream which the tide has washed in? Or is it the backwash of the cataclysmic 2004 tsunami that devastated the coastline along Kerala, destroying houses along the shore, and throwing back in a meaningless jumble, all that their residents held dear in the world? In the background, a tent-like structure strung with fairy lights, and further back a warehouse and wheelbarrow with sacks piled high, provide little clue to this enigmatic mise-en-scène, which has an incipient drama to it, that draws in the viewer, inviting him to share in the women’s wonderment.
The scenes in ‘What are we?’ – II and III – are perhaps what Sosa sees when she looks out of the window of her studio, located in a 300-year-old Dutch mansion in Mattancherry: the commonplace vista of a bustling Indian street and bazaar. Mattancherry, a lively quarter of old Kochi, straddles the Arabian Sea on one side, and the famed backwaters on the other. The area is famous for its Jewish quarter, its 400-year-old synagogue, the Dutch palace and its mish-mash of European and indigenous architecture, a palimpsest of the many cultures, and the many peoples who, over the centuries, came to its shores first to trade in spices, then put down roots and made it their home. Indeed, the shapeless garb — at times a burkha, at times a Christian nun’s habit and at times chatta and mundu – which Sosa drapes her figures in, is a familiar sight in Mattancherry.
There is something organic about the imagery of Sosa’s canvases. This aspect is most glaring in ‘What are we?-III’, where a pink membrane provides the backdrop for the human tableaux. It is plainly suggestive of a womb, a reading that is reinforced by the sperm-like shape of the balloons festooned to the person of a toy-seller – a common sight on the evening streets of Kochi.
Sosa’s paintings yield themselves, without much difficulty, to a gendered reading. Women dominate her canvases, standing solitary or in small groups of twos and threes, chatting companionably as they return from a shopping trip, carry-bags swinging; or with their heads together, commiserating with each others fate or sharing gossip; one pulls a recalcitrant child by the arm, another rests an infant on her knees. Are these discrete scenes with their own individual, on-going dramas? Sosa emphasizes that her paintings are about “everyday” things that she is “familiar” with.
Sosa Joseph studied art at Baroda’s famed Maharaja Sayajirao University, like many of her fellow artists from Kerala before her, and since. While many artists from the region chose to stay back or tried to make their careers in the urban art centres of Delhi or Mumbai, Sosa returned to Kerala. One can discern analogies between her style and that of the Baroda School artists, notably among them Sudhir Patwardhan and Bhupen Khakhar. There’s the penchant for the urban streetscape; similar, too, is the deployment of a deliberate dreamlike whimsy that emphasizes the staginess of the tableaux without regard for pictorial realism. There’s common ground, as well, in the way Sosa foregrounds her specific concerns and milieu, instead of aiming for a symbolic universality. Her blurred figures – flat and two-dimensional – are more personifications of a frame of mind, less an approximation of real persons. Similarly her colours are unnatural, the backgrounds painted in light, transparent coats of colour and patches of pale and runny pink, mauve, grey, green and brown, all hues reflective of psychological states.
Indeed, though Sosa may seem to foreground her own experience as a woman in her paintings, her social concerns are kept firmly at the level of subtext, subsumed in the painterliness and aesthetic / imaginative logic of the world she puts together from bits of the real one around her.