Hang

Riding the tornado

Manjula Padmanabhan | | Updated on: Mar 22, 2019
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Seeing Devraj Dakoji’s exhibition Heartbeat of the Void at Art Heritage was, for me, a reminder that every cloud has its silver lining: If I hadn’t delayed my recent trip back to Elsewhere, I’d have missed the show.

The prints and paintings sparkle on the gallery’s walls, freshly painted and beautifully lit. The artist’s words accompany the art without distracting from the work. It is playful and mysterious, complex and child-like, all at once, chaotic with lines and energy; gentle tornadoes whirling with animal life.

Devraj is, for me, not merely a master printer and artist who is able to make print-making seem as easy as breathing (which it absolutely isn’t !). He’s also been my mentor and guide, deeply generous with his time and expertise. Along with artist and print-maker Pratibha Dakoji, he created a superb editioning studio in Shahpur Jat. I spent almost two years there, creating over 20 editions of zinc-plate etchings and a few lithographs.

At the Art Heritage show there’s a video loop showing Devraj making prints. I’ve had the pleasure of watching him do this from one of my plates. He explains what he’s doing as he goes along, but it’s very much like listening to a sorcerer explain what herbs he uses, while sparks fly out of his fingers, producing the actual magic!

This is particularly true of lithographs, where the image on the plate is repeatedly washed with chemicals and water. Briefly, the image seems to vanish from sight altogether until it is coaxed back into view. When the print is finally taken, it is frankly miraculous that something so fresh and blemish-free can be the result of such a messy preparation.

Devraj’s art invites close attention. He uses the foreground as well as the negative space around his central figures, causing our eyes to double-blink: Is that a crow in the foreground or a horse in the background? Is the crow dreaming of the horse or is the horse a cloud on the horizon of our dreams? Are we looking at a tangled mass of lines or mountains of rubble or buildings that look like garbage? Or is that the Circus of Life, riding down the mind’s highway, dancing to a wild tune played by the wind on instruments made of limbs and tails?

A thread of cheeky humour runs through the compositions. In earlier works, we would see a little crow riding on a cycle, as if foretelling a time when animals will take over a world left behind by humans. But now the crow has been joined by a jaunty fish, also astride a bicycle. It could be a nightmare vision, of nature gone mad. Or a light-hearted riposte to Gloria Steinem’s remark “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”.

Or maybe we, the viewers, are The Fish! And we’re riding our rickety little bicycle of technology, going nowhere and looking ridiculous — but who cares! The ride is all. Show’s on till April 13 (and might be extended).

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on March 22, 2019

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