Are Abir Karmakar's realistic images in westernized indoor settings, reflections of the melting cultural boundaries of a globalized world? Does his current work featuring androgynous self-portraits, play out Freudian undercurrents of sexuality and obsession? Is there an alternative social ideology being suggested here or is this perhaps a skillful act of reclamation and ironic distancing? Is the artist in the end creating something metaphoric, something so neutral that the viewers will be able to infer/impute whatever they please?
Questions, questions, questions that the 28-year-old artist, originally from Siliguri but now settled in Baroda, tackles head-on during an interview prior to his first solo show: from my photo album, an oils on canvas series.*
Even as Karmakar's photo-realism — that speaks with both emotional and formal authority — threatens to turn anachronistic with his protagonists flouting politically correct norms, he says his paintings are more about “creating a world of virtual reality featuring his other self”. The former refers to a cosmopolitan world that for him “serves certain needs”, a world of imaginary constructs that he finds seductive: chintz covered sofas and teddy bears, textures of silk and velvet, the soft glow of lamps and the shadows they cast. The latter denotes “a need to complement one's concepts through masquerade and an enhancement of the feminine”. The concept itself involves “a psychological crisis that leads one to attempt to perfect one's being”.
The artist's European style interiors that swing between the plush and the bourgeois invoke for him a fantasy world, creating an appropriate setting for his disquieting, self-absorbed subjects. Also the choice and placement of his objects and lighting coupled with the measured, translucent handling of paint and colour, emanate a resonant emotional sensibility, one that is a suitable foil for the disturbing eroticism that lies beneath his observations of ordinary human behavior. The ever so subtle friction generated, along with the disruption of expectations, sets into motion shifting moods and open-ended narratives.
Karmakar admits to a fascination with European art and culture: “take the art of the West, take our art education, take the way we learn to handle paint and colour (though he received an MA (Fine) from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda two years ago which enabled him to “fly free”, it was preceded by “colonized schooling” at the Indian College of Arts and Draftsmanship, Kolkata**), take art language itself: one cannot divorce the powerful western influence”. And as if in afterthought: “for the moment I have no urge to establish an Indianness”.
Except for an embroidered wall hanging in one painting there is certainly very little that is Indian to the objects and furnishings and to their styles and symbols in the overall sweep of his current compositions that can be cinematographic in their accretion of effects. The single image of himself as a woman and occasionally as a man or both, is invariably occidental in bearing and attire — we see the artist in various allegorical guises: a model preparing for a fashion show, a bored young mother given to channel surfing, a reclining but fully clothed odalisque in which we glimpse shades of Manet's Olympia. The classicizing of subject matter and of arrangements of form surfaces in several works. References to David's portraits and in particular to his use of light are inescapable, even though they may be inadvertent.
What is not inadvertent is the working out of an idea in each of his series — including earlier ones — as if every action of his brush and paintwork was breeding a reaction. He also has a rare ability — especially in this age of quick takes and short cuts — to nurture the passion that is integral to his sub-text: a search for the self in self-portraits with an ambivalent sexual identity. It's a search that perhaps has little to do with empirical clues or testimonies, or even with autobiography, as the scenes in photo album continue to retain an ambiguity and tension that preclude easy assumptions. Yet in Karmakar's case the hidden goal could well be taken as that of transformation, transformation not as a fixed point but as a process, each work a stepping stone to further exploration and discovery.
* Four new paintings were added to the collection after this piece was written and are not within the purview of this writing.
** Affiliated to Rabindra Bharati University.
Mumbai, September 2005
Kamala Kapoor is an art critic and curator based in Mumbai. She has written extensively on contemporary Indian art since 1983. Educated at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, her professional work has involved assignments for newspapers, magazines, journals, catalogues, exhibitions and conferences.