By Ananya Dutta Gupta
This is the developing story of a forty-something doodler who has in all of five months come from never having drawn a picture in her adult life to doing little else in all the time she can spare. She is sharing it in a bid to invite readers to re-trace the processes that mediate one’s desire to express oneself in artistic ways. In what is otherwise a random instance, the critical reader or artist might glimpse the generic story of the human arrival in art for the sake of expression.
I do not know how I came to draw. I do know how I learned to “tell” with pictures. Perhaps, unconsciously, I came to draw and paint the same way that I had recently come to “read” pictures. It was going to be a matter of time before I began to “read” my surroundings for the picture-to-be- through my own eyes and those of viewers whose viewing I had come to know. This stage precedes the one of foreseeing and framing a potential picture on the preview pane of my digital phone. There was clearly a technological catalysis at work. I had been looking for a medium and device that would allow me to create assemblages of contingent expressions in multiple media simultaneously. In what I saw as a seamless transmutation between different forms of subjective expression, I wanted to travel through free association between a photo-worthy moment, an aphorism engendered by it, a piece of music anticipating it, a painting recalling it, and a book or a character or a scene from a film comparable with it – all of this in any internally organic order. A multimedia essay, so to speak. For instance, the one here which I captioned Still Music, Still Coffee
Or the chance close-up next to it of a glow-worm perching on a curtain which I captioned, after Tagore, “my fancies are fireflies…” And this one below, which was a passing snapshot of a ruined house in Taltore near Santiniketan, which set me thinking of Fellini’s Amarcord, a word that means I remember in Italian as a’m’arcord, or I remember.
Or the fly next to it on a wall at home that reminded me of Erik Satie’s delightful piece for the piano, Gymnopédies, which means ‘dance’.
So I acquired a phone with a stylus and began using the stylus to simulate the movements and oddities of my writing hand so as to give the writing a visual originality as well as authentic immediacy. I never thought I would come round to using the stylus except to rekindle my childhood calligraphy skills. When I began to write with the stylus, as opposed to typing, it was a marvel to see how it was able to translate my swirls and juts into legible, pertinent word suggestions, just as the phone’s inbuilt voice reader, Bixby, keeps promising to translate my voice commands into fairly accurate search results. The smartphone then is already a multimedia translator, not just operator and mediator. My multimedia creative and expressive aspirations are unconsciously an impregnation of artificial intelligence. The phone is not just an obstetric device and thought-mate but also part-muse, to the endless creative and expressive capabilities of which I was succinctly alerted by the creative, expressive practices of a peer. Eventually, I came to see the unpromising nature of my handwriting, thanks to prolonged manual motor exposure to keyboards and touchpads. Its unsteady angularity, I realised, might vaguely interest a graphologist and none other.
I cannot recall any immediate, consciously experienced causal connection between this disappointing discovery that I was no longer the calligrapher I had been as a child and my coming to draw different kinds of lines, of varying depth and boldness, of different in-between hues. It just happened and it felt, as Tagore says in his letter to Nirmal Kumari Mahalanobis on 7 November 1928, like an absorbing child’s play. To quote from Rabindranath Tagore, My Pictures: A Collection of Paintings, ed. R. Siva Kumar (New Delhi: Viva Books, 2005):
First, there is the hint of a line, then the line becomes a form. The more pronounced the form becomes the clearer becomes the picture to my conception. This creation of form is a source of endless wonder. If I were a finished artist I would probably have a preconceived idea to be made into a picture. This is no doubt a rewarding experience. But it is greater fun when the mind is seized upon by something outside of it, some surprise element which gradually evolves into an understandable shape. (63)
The fun in creating rhymes is largely in the head. The fun in humming a new tune is in the head and the ears. The wonder of seeing casual strokes of an all-in-one pen/pencil/brush/crayon acquiring first any shape and form, then recognisable shapes and forms, and eventually recognisably or otherwise evocative shapes and forms was comparable but an even more compelling experience. It so reminded me of a Chinese fairy tale called The Magic Brush, which had been a childhood favourite.
When the stylus forced out lines that did not take the route of forming letters into images of meaningful words but that of lines and colour that made up images of pictures instead, I found myself responding first and foremost to the strokes and sounds of abstract instrumental music. It was as though I could see the notes in their progression, alternation, rise and fall in terms of variations in line and colour.
Unknowingly and with apparent involuntariness, my stylus had begun to respond to the instruments and the broad and fine sounds they produced in their various ways. Initially, the pictures traced by the listening stylus were abstract: layered, variably coloured loops and tangles. The abstractness of instrumental musical sound, particularly if one is untrained in the grammar of notational scales and counterpoint allows the scope for unlimited meaning-formation. For a musician, it could well have triggered a replication in music. In my confused, searching case though, the readiness and handiness of the stylus and the opportune rekindling of interest in the visual arts meant that I came to transcreate the language of music notes onto the phone screen into the initially abstract and progressive concrete language of lines and curves, sometimes with accompanying word-play in the title:
By and by, this riot of lines and splurge of colour began to take some kind of recognisable concreteness and internal logic of differentiation regarding the sound-line or sound-colour correspondences. I also came to abjure outlines, allowing the employment of deeper or lighter shades of colours to operate as margins.
My musically mature sibling had first alerted me while we were still young adults to the envisioning effects embedded in what is apparent abstraction in Indian classical ragas. The Ragamala paintings across the various localised gharanas may be viewed as one kind of visual iconography of the many moods and affective timbres of the Indian classical musical system. However, obviously, the pictures evoked in one’s mind by Ustad Amir Khan’s Megh or Marwa may not have conformed or corresponded at all to the Ragamala delineations. I am only now acknowledging to myself how much more I have been naturally drawn towards western classical soundscapes. Its grammar and lexicon retain their pristine mystique for me precisely because I have resisted initiation.
What this has sensitised me to is not just the issue of individual choice of media – letters and words, voice and instrument, or paint and brush – but also the possibility of Coleridgean or Baudelairean synaesthesia – the scope for simultaneous and alternating expressionism and impressionism across the arts in the quest for a Tagorean “creative unity”. To give an instance, the composer Mussorgsky was responding to the pictures gifted by his artist friend Viktor Hartmann with his musical piece, Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), which in turn piano maestros today like Evgeny Kissin or Katja Buniatshvili picturise in their own way before translating it back via their fingers on to the piano and thence into the listener’s ear and mind and heart.
As I keep reminding myself, translatio means travel and, in this case, untrammelled travel between different sensory experiences and different aesthetic registers. Hence, the unconscious recreation of the loops and swirls and spirals of chiasmus and antitheses and litotes and paronomasia in the loopy, swirling free patterns teased out by the free-moving stylus on the phone screen. I realise now that I have always sought the comfort of structure and pattern and design and schema even as the other part of me has admitted in spite of itself the irreducible, schema-defying undefinability of most experiences. Thus the firefly and the one-line Tagore poem cited above came back on my six inch virtual canvas as
I have also gradually learned the processes of “re-cognition” embedded in the painting or drawing subject’s self-gaze, as it were. I can read into how my longing for order and structure operates when I thematically cluster random, un-preconceived paintings done on different days not just in overlapping albums on my device and in the cloud, but also in overlapping collages – a not entirely satisfactory boxing facility granted by the digital technology again.
The fact that I want to create overlapping thematic collages, exactly the way I like studying multiple texts and authors under thematic rubrics and commonly applicable argument, says so much about my habits of thinking straddling all the media that I use! I seem to be the kind of person that loves to move between a finite number of worlds that harmoniously overlap in mutually nourishing ways.
It appears to me then that the only release of all-round expressive energy is in alternation across media. The constituents of the ensemble of expressions thus created may substitute one another imperfectly perhaps. Yet they complement one another in the collective progressive dialectical search for complete, contingent expression of one’s being. Within and without.
In my case, then, music and reading had an elemental catalysing force, while wordplay in the form of aphorisms, poems, prosimetrums, essays and line-and-colour-play on the other are the offspring of continuous raging cross-fertilisation. No wonder writers as starkly different as Sir Philip Sidney, Mary Shelley and Manik Bandyopadhyay have compared artistic, imaginative creation to conception, gestation and giving birth. The richness of, say, John Donne and William Shakespeare’s poetry and plays and of much Renaissance English literary writing in general came from this assured, unabashed straddling of the two hemispheres, both vertically and horizontally speaking. Tagore’s paintings achieve just this fruition in their seething, searing, wrenching, wringing entanglement of the mind and the body. While his songs are sublime abstraction at their purest, such as any great music is, his paintings are primal, concrete earthly life at their rawest. Unknowingly again, he has led me through just those routes in my quest for truth and expression.
Shortly, then, after taking to listening to music with the stylus, I began to learn the expressive and evocative power of individual colours, of colours in combination, and also the aesthetic and ethical value of their usage. I am referring here not just to white spaces interspersing the lines and colour, but of what Binode Behari Mukhopadhyay called ‘negative space’.
I had been aware, theoretically, of how Tagore’s own doodles emerged through a conjoining of just such cancellations – of words that had been or could have been and still are, as a kind of absent presence – blackened out against the white background with knotty grit and gritty knots refusing to budge from the vicinity of and vying for the reader-viewer’s attention with the black inked words that were fortunate enough to have been retained. I deliberately say ‘blackened’ as opposed to ‘blank’, ‘cancellation’ as opposed to ‘omission’ or ‘erasure’, since the former implies, if my metaphor could be excused, expulsion and the latter obliteration. Tagore then goes on to connect the cancellations to their similarly unfortunate siblings above or below to create a rival cluster of connections, threatening to displace the reader’s attention towards the nonlinear pattern as opposed to the contiguous clusters of legible words. The reader is then distracted into becoming a viewer, her expectation of linear meaning-formation displaced and devoured by the hauntingly inscrutable obscure forms nonlinearly connected in a multi-directional grid. It is like disorder and order cohabiting in taut, unresolved tension. Indeed, these two kinds of patterns in his manuscripts, his handwritten words and the designs formed by deletions could be said to correspond to the two beings in Tagore: the Freudian ‘ego’ of the Poet leashed to the ‘superego’ of the absent father and the ‘id’ increasingly spilling over, swamping the dams of restraint with demotic energy.
(Source: Google Images)
In his essay “Writing pictures, drawing words: the manuscript doodles of Rabindranath Tagore” (The Metaphysics of Text, Cambridge, 2010), Sukanta Chaudhuri engages with particular doodles to show how they help map the meanings of the word-texts as well as the insidious processes through which the word-texts come into their own. My reading above has been of the autonomous meanings forged by the doodles independently of their usefulness in making sense of the word-texts.
I had always been driven by the desire to express myself. Until I came to doodling, I had always sought the catharsis of involved, complex prose. The catharsis had come from the writing out of such prose, and not just the web of thoughts peering to come out of the womb of the mind. My pictures are my vicarious revenge and redemption for self-repression.
Since I cannot remember when, I have been torn between the two sisters in Partha Pratim Choudhury’s 1963 film in Bangla, Chhayasurjo. The older girl Mallika, beautiful, refined, homely and feminine does perfect anaemic copy drawings. The younger girl, known only by the diminutive Ghetu, is deliberately binarised as a dusky, turbulent half-boy, her thick loose dishevelled curls all over her grimy face, her sprightly form unkemptly draped in a plain white saree that has seen her through many a boyish prank and feat in the allegedly unholy company of her neighbourhood boy friends.
[Source: Google Images]
When she draws, it is a primal bullish spurt of charcoal, a close descendant of the Alta Mira sketch above. That frantic spontaneous surfacing of pulsating kinetic life in art, motion on canvas, of the kind hailed by Lessing in Laocoon, had perhaps lain buried in the pit of my being, underneath all the layers of disciplined reading and writing gulped, chewed, gobbled and metabolised in the red-hot stewing wok that is my mind as I see it.
My digital drawings and paintings then are the kind of raw, unbidden, subterranean, eruptive, irreproducible, once-and-for-all auto-art that brooks not the obstetrics of a Caesarean section. In such instant auto-art, inspiration ejects its own automatic technique. That kind of primordial expression of the ceaseless, tectonic, fire-spewing, overflowing elemental churnings of the mind – and their abjection – has been perhaps my long-sought telos. I remember the restlessness produced in me by both Proustian and Woolfian stream of consciousness. I always seemed to want to outdo it by allowing the vertical and lateral simultaneity of my own thinking and living on different planes to pour out in one inspired, magical form-matter singular unique whole, which can only be improved upon at the risk of Banksy-like auto-destruction.
Such auto-art then, as with Tagore’s doodles, making way with gradual but steady inevitability for a Dionysian implosion of the matter – the paper or the canvas – into forms and faces, lines and colour that then explode and seep into the viewer’s consciousness, can only be an outcome of prolonged repression of one’s deepest, truest, most vital self. Such art is like the Yeatsian gyre, restless self-propelled, self-fuelled, internally or externally catalysed by powerful felt experience. It is a rotating, dancing, inverted spiral, wiry cone.
To me, the bottom end is the recess, the home, the sanctum sanctorum, the womb-home envisioned by that philosopher of architecture, Gaston Bachelard, in Poetics of Space (1957); and it is continuously connected to the other end of the thread, where motion and life cease to be, at least cease in visibility. King Lear spoke of his madness as mother. In his madness, he could see the electric vital connection between the womb and the psyche, the abdominal and the cranial, the mind and the fount of the body.
All art then that is honest and fundamentally confessional, i.e. committed to expressing phenomenological truths filtered through personal realities, can be thought of as continuous swirl, an elastic alternation of expansion and contraction of the wire cone, a soar to the sublime and a swoop to the core. Honest painting evokes honest, vital, acutely polarised responses. I realise that my thoughts have been moving in loops, up and down the discontinuously continuous concentric circles of a spiral. On another level, as with loops, my thoughts have been chiastically ‘swirling’ between the word and the image. Before I rediscovered images, I would often find myself playing with cross-linguistic homonyms and puns and swirls of climaxes and bathoses and antitheses and chiasmuses. All these different figures of speech are founded upon the principle of alternation as opposed to alteration, upon discordia concors, of conservation of mass and energy, of the dialectics that accommodates the dynamic cohabitation of opposites, negating the philosophy of absolute loss and privileges in favour of relativism instead.
Even as I am told I should start drawing on paper, I have clung to my digital screen and stylus. The stylus’s dual function as marking and erasing instrument has alerted me to the fundamental importance of erasure as a liner in its own right. The inner and outer lines of erasure produce almost an embossing effect in the painting.
Erasures allow multiple layers of paint in different media to be applied, all of which combine to create textured colour. I understand that the materiality of actual paper or canvas would add a further, more tangible texture to each piece. For now, however, the technology and its peculiarities have charted a philosophy of method out of the accidents and trials of praxis. Were it not for the ease of erasures, total and partial, full toned and half toned, using the sliding bars for controlling opacity and size, I would not have come by the possibilities of the palimpsest. Not only can I undo and redo wrong moves and false starts by cancelling as many overlays as I choose, I have the advantage of uploading every single version of a painting without losing the Ur sketch, so to speak. This allows me to retain and rework underlying versions in newer experiments with form, colour, line and medium. The vertical re-doings of the palimpsest also allow me to build up a horizontal sequence of variations on a single theme or portrait. In portraiture especially, this has alerted me to the enormous difference made by minute changes wrought in features, say a simple extension of the lipline, just a touch of shadow to the eyes, a slight shift of the pupil or the iris in any particular direction.
I have been discovering the ease with which the grainy texture of the pastel crayon mode helps make portraits more effortlessly realistic – effortlessly because of the scope for bypassing definite outlines:
I have also discovered the stunning effect produced by the brightness of oil colour in portraits,
as well as in abstract images, such as this Expressionist redaction of a Tagore song and a William Blake poem respectively:
The delicacies of the pencil have revealed themselves to my probing stylus:
as have the boldness of the calligraphy pen, especially when using it in black against the white of the screen,
It works well for caricatures and impromptu portraiture too:
I have discovered the soothing wash technique effect of water colour,
the light-footed spread of the felt pen,
and the synthetic electric brightness of the marker pen:
While oil colour variations retain shades of the colour in the underlying layer to create a rich, lush depth, the marker produces a 3D layered glassy transparency. Combining all of these makes for fascinating multi-texturing.
I have learned to tell provocative colours from pacific ones. More significantly, it is through the actual kinetics of hand movement and the visible variations produced in terms of the relative softness or sharpness of angles, of the boldness of the straight lines and the sweep of the curves that I have come to be able to gender forms as well as to recognise intriguingly androgynous ones. In the vast majority of instances, I have not set out to draw any particular face, let alone male and female. Setting out with the lines that surface as eyes, it is my eventual recognition of the potential of the lines in suggesting a generic or specific male or female face that has steered me towards completing the picture in a certain way. I have learned to read back to my own feelings and their origins in the light of the emerging shapes, hues and effects. Such self-reflexive excavations have alerted me to the liminal, unanalysable ways in which we see without knowing. For instance, why my stylus is drawn towards a particular shape without conscious intervention of my mind becomes retrospectively evident through a recollection of colours that visitors were wearing or shapes in pictures seen that then travelled into some pocket of the wallet called the mind and eluded immediate mindful cognizance of the process. As with the following portraits done while at a meeting:
I have reoriented the reading skills I usually reserve for word-texts in class to unearthing unwitting and unintendedly Freudian preponderance of phallic or yonic shapes in faces and facial details. I have come to detect in my own sketches, therefore, what Freud sees in Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) as an unconscious infiltration of primary sexual features in the delineation of secondary or tertiary physical manifestations that the human mind deem to be far more attractive than the former. In other words, sometimes I can clearly see the libidinal displacement operating in the raw outline of the nose and nostrils or the orifice-like lobes of the ears and the earrings or even in the shape of the jaw.
Being able to see this also translates into an anxiety to correct such embarrassing exposé in a bid to give the pictures more respectability, or to queer them into subtle or overt androgyny.
Some I just let be, and their grotesquerie collapses the binary of the comically ugly and the fearfully horrific in ways suggested, again by my favourite early treatise on the intersections of poetry and the visual arts – Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766).
As I unevenly flit and falter between different kinds of forms, caricature, abstraction and likenesses of uneven merit, I am daily unravelling areas of unease, resistance, rejection, self-contradiction and denial within my own understanding of the sensory, the sensuous and the sensual. For instance, for the sake of argument I often tend to discount the primacy of the visual when it comes to the relative impact and endurance of impressions across the sensory range. Paradoxically, as doodler, however, I end up creating eyes first thing and all other features in relation to them. I also end up spending the most substantial amount of time on perfecting the eyes, either in so realistic a mode as to invite the question, “Did you do it on a photograph?”
or in wildly expressionist ways:
Most importantly, in these five months, I have been learning to subsume what might seem like personal oddities of expression in a larger ever alive and fluid self-churning vortex of culture-specific as well as primordially pan-civilisational symbolism:
The recoil that I am constantly anticipating from the primal appeal of such spontaneous representations can be explained in terms of the combined power of the body envisioned in rest and motion and from the steering power of images per se.
This brings me from the Jungian psycho-social roots of aesthetic choices to the ethics of visualisation. The Platonic insistence on art, visual most of all, to be restrained stems perhaps from its impact factor – its power to set off and propel first a sequence of sensations and through them, affective responses and thence, verbal and bodily actions. All action has implications, both ethical and political. The visual is raw, stark, immediate and for that very reason potentially irresistible. Needless to say, commercials exploit this potential in full knowledge of their aesthetic and by extension ethical rudder.
So let me end on a note of Oscar-Wilde-like contradiction, if one will recall the anomaly between the implicit moralism of the novel Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and its author’s defiantly amoral Preface. Art, I would say, cannot but be honest. Indeed it needs be honest. Yet art also needs be mindful and responsible. It can only begin to do so once it has acknowledged the full scope of its power in its own right. So long as it allows itself to be defined in condescending opposition to science, it will remain unaware of its formative effectuality. In order to walk this tightrope, it will need to draw upon the full corpus of the mind’s resources. Art, no less than science and technology, needs to redefine itself over and over again in rising to that challenge. Awareness alone can serve as the basis for constructive reorientation. Art is not outside civilisation. Art is terra nulla, terra nova, and at the same time terra firma.
Ananya Dutta Gupta January 2019
N.B. None of these digital drawings and paintings has been photoshopped.
Ananya Dutta Gupta has been teaching at the Department of English & Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, for over sixteen years now. She regularly writes and publishes travel diaries, reflective essays, occasional poems and translations into English. Her writings may be found at Pratilipi, Cafe Dissensus, Muse India, Coldnoon Travel Poetics and, recently, Caesurae: Poetics of Cultural Translation.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Hatred and Mass Violence: Lessons from History”, edited by Navras J. Aafreedi, Presidency University, Kolkata, India.