Is making art the flair and the sensibility to see beyond the tyranny of social constructs?

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By drawing references to a host of creative masters, who saw art through their unique lens, as well as through his own experiences that were to impact his thoughts on creating art – and of finding meaning therein – Santanu Borah takes us through a fascinating journey that questions the activity, and possible futility, of wanting to ‘find art.’

I have heard many artists, both living and dead, talk about finding art. Each of them have/had their reasons, prime among them being finding purity and truth, because that’s where art emanates from. Paul Gauguin went all the way to Tahiti to find purity and found a mistress who robbed him. It could be said that was a form of purity too. In its essence, everything is pure.

The photographer Brassai prowled the nightspots of Paris in the roaring 20s and captured barflies and prostitutes ply their wares to richer patrons with his precious flash bulbs, which would invariably explode in a flash of brilliant light, etching into memory a scene of, what many consider, depravity. Pure depravity, hence spiritualised, and hence art. He drank from the well of the netherworld and its terrible truth. He was the demi-monde of the Paris the world vacationed in. That he also knew Henry Miller, the writer of soon-to-be banned literature, helped matters along in a gloriously obscene way. Miller, who would soon shock the world with his ‘Tropic of Cancer’, does Brassai the honour of slipping him into his masterpiece as a savant of the night, more precisely the “Eye of Paris”. Along with these two unique pieces of flesh, bone and brain, there was a whole group of motley rebels (eg. Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Dali, Cocteau, Hemingway, Miller and Gertrude Stein) who looked at life through a lens that high school teachers would despise. But what they did was art, because they had the flair and the sensibility to see beyond the tyranny of social constructs. They were primed for life and its impulsive wisdom.

In my own feeble way, I have tried to look for art as well, or at least art-like feelings — a vibe that appeals to your innards that you react to it in some way. Oftentimes, the more visceral, absurd or mystifying the reaction, the better.

I did not have the craziness of the 1920s or the war-torn madness of the 40s or the vulgarity of the murders during the Partition as a readymade recipe for art. The more recent examples of extremism like religious killings and imperialist tendencies were just abstract news for me — hard to comprehend, harder to imagine. So, I had to make do with more pedestrian wellsprings of art. Before I move on, I wish to make a disclosure here about an opinion I have. I am careful when saying things like “the personal is political” or “the inner truth” because I don’t really understand these concepts completely and nor do I live my life by unshakeable thumb rules.

With the passing of the years I often taken refuge in shallow waters for various reasons. In fact, I have found depth to be of no use at all, but a means to bully and browbeat people, in general. I have found myself looking for wisdom in the “low-brow” utterances of comedians than in the still and cerulean advice of gurus, philosophers and the like. Of course, that does not mean that I do not regard philosophers with esteem. I do. Just that they can be difficult. With gurus one has to proceed with caution because you cannot trust anyone who wishes to improve somebody else. I have developed a high regard for scientists because of the core value of science – nothing is sacrosanct if the numbers don’t add up. But that is another story.

Like the teeming majority out there, my earliest trysts with art-like situations were at bus and train stations. My very first train ride was an infinite scroll of trees. The thrill of seeing something so common place turn into something intangible, almost poetic, held me transfixed. Ever since then, like many others, the window seat became my underage-appropriate drug of choice if I ever decided to board a train. I am not surprised that Bridget Riley, whose optical illusions are akin to unsettling bursts of energy, actually drew a picture of how trees “looked” from a train — a haze of forms, with the wind as the invisible arranger of this common mystery.

As an older teen, the trains turned into a merry-go-round of characters, as though Dostoyevsky himself had curated them. For instance, I will never forget the soldier on leave, drunk to his teeth, spewing out unintelligible cusses and perceptions, leading an epileptic to go into an intense seizure. It was rather worrisome to see some people rush to help and stuff dirty socks into the epileptic’s mouth, even as a little group of regular heroes creamed the soldier with rather unimaginative cusses. I was hoping somebody would call the soldier a “son of an unpatriotic mother” or something like that, but that never happened.  Maybe, the soldier was not the cause of the epileptic fit but I still connected the events because it made for a simpler, linear narrative. The intense desire to seek out patterns can drive you to make art. In any case, apophenia is a grand human condition. Out in the chaotic wasteland of passions and events, seeking out constellations of meaning is a fulfilling activity.

As a college student, trains became de rigeur transport and I felt at home with strangers with stranger stories. I didn’t think it was important to fact-check any of these stories. A few beautiful lies in the bush are worth more than a staid truth in your hand.

No story is complete with some danger in the mix, and trains offer a lot of danger because it is a moving host of an entire eco system. You can never tell when your luck will run out. If you survive the ordeal, you have little treasures in your brain, which you can always embellish using your creative licence. Nobody cares if you have (or have renewed) this special licence, as long as you do not waste their time with a bad plot or an anecdote sans a punchline. And to the patient reader I would like to promise that I won’t test your patience.

On one such train journey from Guwahati to Dadar, we were chugging along the Assam-Bihar-Bengal border and had crossed a nowhere place called Dhupguri, where the train slowed down almost to a halt before accelerating again. Just as the train pulled out of the station and crept back into the dark, a commotion erupted in the bogie I was in. A woman’s cries filled the air from the first compartment. It was a train heist, and the gang of over ten mufflered men ran amok. They were a cosmopolitan outfit. I could hear Hindi, Bengali, and Nepali languages being spoken, even as they scared the daylights out of us, as they plundered the meagre possessions of our second-class sleeper bogie. While nobody was seriously injured, barring an old lady and a young mother who fainted before one of the gangsters could petrify her, the ten or fifteen minutes of being at the business end of sharp weapons and a country pistol felt like an eternity. It made me see fear closely. A junior Mizo table tennis team prayed in whispers frenetically and I could hear my heart pound. Luckily for me, the thugs were only interested in families with suitcases. I came out unscathed because I possessed very little. It was even funnier when we reached Mumbai because the officials at Dadar refused to believe we had been mugged. Apparently, there was no communication from Dhupguri.

Whatever might have been the inside story, it gave me an insight into human nature. I began to argue with myself that it was human beings that made a place beautiful or ugly. Even if the most beautiful sunset was unfolding before you, you can’t savour it if enemy planes are dropping bombs near you. Sorry for the exaggeration, but it was instrumental in fashioning some of my earliest thoughts about what art must be. It made me not want to paint the landscapes I so loved to paint, because somewhere in the bushes something evil or angry was probably lurking.

While this is not the most optimistic approach for a young artist, it was how it was. After seeing a stint of President’s rule in my state and the thoughtless cruelty of Operation Rhino before I headed out to senior college, I was convinced humans were not only on top of the food chain but also on the peak of the aesthetics chain. I concluded that we paint to see ourselves because we are right at the top.

Obviously, times changed and so did I. There were different joys, different sorrows and different kinds of boredom. I began to suspect if it were humans alone that made a place what it was. Slowly, it occurred to me that we believe that we are the agency that defines the world’s history because that is easier to understand. The truth is, the Earth itself drives us to behave in different ways because it can control our instincts by sending upon us bounty, pestilence and pandemics. We are just a more complex species of monkeys. The effect humans have on the entire “ecological culture and history” is not really profound from a cosmic viewpoint. Our art is merely a response to what could be described as lingering stimuli. We paint and sing to forget and reaffirm our insignificance at once. Probably, that is why we go looking for conditions conducive to art. In the end, we need a gainful way of passing time as we punctuate the points of birth and death in the arrow of time. So, I do not make too many efforts to go looking for art anymore. The comfort that the unknowable will not reveal itself makes art worthwhile. If we knew the meaning of it all, we would not have to engage with art anymore. That probably is the only answer I have right now. So, put on your helmet and riding glasses and enjoy the highway to nowhere.

All photographs by Brassai