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Exploring Relations


Asit Kumar Patnaik has carved a niche for himself in the world of modern Indian art over the last few years, thanks to his hugely appreciated ‘relations’ series. Originally from Orissa where he received his BFA degree from Government College of Art and Crafts in Khalikote, Patnaik later moved to BHU for his MFA course with a National Scholarship and topped his batch. The conventional terminology of classifying painters slots Patnaik within the category of semi-figurative realists. He portrays figures amidst a complex and ever morphing background of almost abstracted textures. His lines and strokes are always exploring and searching in that they never quite appear to convey an impression of finality. The very juxtaposition of semi realistic figures against abstract background continues to unsettle the conventional distinction between reality and abstraction. The same dialogue characterizes his choice of subjects. All he has in his repertoire of figures are a male and a female. It is through subtle variations in their positions and their gestures and gaze that he communicates to the viewers his experiences and observations on various aspects of human relationships. His man and woman are not merely the proverbial yin and yang; they are also the memories and potentials, selves lost and reclaimed. The same looks exchanged between his figures, which resolutely refuse to confine themselves within the rubric of realism alone, could be alternatively read as nostalgic, pensive, introspective and even futuristic. They could appear despondent at first sight and extremely hopeful at the second and passionately detached in the third. This layered appeal of his works opens them up to multiple readings and through such viewer involvement that the real meets and negotiates with the surreal. Patnaik has always been intrigued by the complexities of the human predicament but it has taken him years of experimentation with form to evolve a unique language in which to frame his fleeting observations. Today, he is still as preoccupied with the texture and the background of paintings, on which he mounts his two representative figures-one male and the other female. He often takes days, even months, to finalize the texture of a particular painting. As he says ‘far too many ideas and impressions struggle within my mindscape, all seeking to burst out onto the canvas, before I pick and choose, and discard, and return, and digress, only to settle on one that perhaps still bears traces of some of them but resembles none completely’. This process, the germination of backgrounds and textures, is at the very core of his artistic sensibilities. He keeps experimenting with arrangement of light and shade in his paintings. It is in the unnaturalness, so to speak, of the lights that he invests an immense amount of thought and craftsmanship. His lights complement his textures in significant ways, both in heightening the abstraction of the textures and in setting them in relief against the semi-realistic figures of man and woman. The light hints, and hides, even as it continues to illuminate, tantalizingly, sensibilities and expressions, that are not explicitly visible but could well have been exchanged or left unexplored altogether, or sometimes both. The greatest possibilities of Asit Kumar Patnaik’s work emerge from out of their productive equivocation. The appeal of Patnaik’s craft is embodied in his deft negotiations between, and across, several binaries—figurative and abstract, man and woman, background and foreground, lines and colours, singular and plural. In that sense, Patnaik’s work resonates with the increasing propensity among critics and popular audience alike to warm up to the potential of ambivalent sensibilities. In his work, there are figures but they are never completely fleshed out; they look indelibly grounded against the highly abstract background. Background, to that extent, must be brought up front in any informed understanding of Patnaik’s artistic sensibilities. His backgrounds vary and lines grow alternatively thick and supple but the figures rarely change in their basic constitution. Patnaik’s man and woman, in other words, claim to signify all men and all women and yet their looks and their constitution firmly ground them within a cultural matrix. They betray culturally specific features; they wear exclusively Indian dresses, for instance, yet in their incomplete physicality and against their relentlessly morphing abstract backgrounds they can be anyone anywhere at any point of time. The divide between the global and the local is in effect pleasantly resolved in the rooted cosmopolitan. A second equivocation enhancing the appeal of Patnaik’s men and women is the tension between the wide variety in their juxtaposition and their unchanging physical features. In their microcosmic expansiveness, they can alternatively convey impressions of joy, sorrow, love, indifference, familiarity as well as inscrutability. They relive potentialities, they entail pensive pasts, they call up imagined futures and they even interrogate their own selves and suppositions. It would be tempting to suggest Patnaik plays god in choosing to situate his figures in different combinations and colours. But there are also ways in which these figures impose limitations on the range of aesthetic possibilities within which they could be conceived and represented. The basic figurative contours of the couple cannot, for instance, be doctored with beyond a point. Patnaik therefore experiments much more with his backgrounds in ways in which they are made to walk into the physicality of the figures. It is not as if the figures merge into the background. Rather, the background emerges as a figure in its own right while the figures’ moods appear in crucial ways to call for such rearticulation. His engagement with human relations still remains extremely passionate yet the stark distinctions that used to mark the mental horizons of his figures has been progressively resolving itself into a more androgynous realm of ideas and imaginations. The polarities of human relationships are now seen to be ever more into conversation with each other, even as they could not have moved further apart. Even as Patnaik has been going through a significant phase of departure in his career as an artiste, these new departures only serve to reaffirm his position as a sensitive chronicler of the anxieties and the insecurities lurking 

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