Heads as a subject of figurative leitmotif in art continues to hold on its own on the contemporary canvas — as a subject of abstract realism. A handful of contemporary Indian artists has been playing with the human head in the post-modern traditions following in the footsteps of early 29th century trendsetters like Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol, who deconstructed the human head in their avant garde iconographies, to create new organic forms.
New Delhi-based artists Vikas Kalra and Rakesh Kumar Gupta are two dedicated members of the tribe — who have redefined profiles of human heads by breaking down the contours into new shapes that address the emotions that lie within the head rather than the physical persona. They take off from the Indian contemporary master of heads —Rabindranath Tagore and F.N. Souza — to make their own interpretations on the canvas. Their styles hark back to contemporary legend Pablo Picasso’s Cubist studies of facial transmutations into organic patterns – touched by Tagore’s brooding visages and Souza’s stylization to reflect existential realities.
Heads are the essence of rebellious young artist Vikas Kalra’s “life, experiences and anger”. Nine years ago, when Kalra decided to explore the human head as a subject on his canvas, his life was negotiating a series of “highs and lows”. “I realized that what we say is not often what we feel — sometime you are helpless in the presence of anger and fight with yourself after a battle with a rival. Something happens inside the heads – the emotions…the romance, the betrayal, fights, humiliation and the acceptance of destiny enact themselves inside the head,” Kalra recalled, trying to trace the beginning of the human head as a “whole breathing entity” in his art. “We are not original. We are fake,” Kalra says when asked about the predominant emotions behind his heads. The artist claims that he has painted and sculpted at least a thousand heads in the last decade.
In 2007, Kalra apparently “had a lot of money” “And people who would normally not listen to me would turn around and listen propelled by the power of money. I was upbeat. I felt I was a king,” Kalra said. The euphoria of having made it translated into a “6 feet by 5 feet” painting head in oil on canvas. The artist put it up on the main wall of the Visual Arts Gallery in New Delhi — “it was of a proud man who stood with his back straightened and hands on his hip”. “But the art work got back at me. I picked up a fight with someone soon after the show. My car was mangled in the fight. I returned home and poured out my anger on a 40 feet by 40 ft canvas – I emptied all the colours I had on the canvas (tubes of it) and broke the original head ( which I had painted earlier) in fragments of colour in a new image. It was the face of anger on the head,” the artist said.
Anger brings out the best in Kalra’s distorted faces. “Once a policeman caught me and I had to bribe him. I returned home and painted the head of the policeman,” Kalra said. He daubed a large canvas with Indian yellow and scratched the head of the policeman with the back of is brush — through the thick swathes of pigments. Kalra uses the “impasto” to highlight distortions on his heads.
The artist, who sold all his heads at an art fair in Mumbai late last year (2013) and was feted by the media — is working on a set of 100 new heads on canvas for an exhibition. The drawings have come from the people he met on the train to Mumbai – and the visitors at the fair. “The heads are mellow now – they are more serene with experience and happy with the glow of acceptance,” Kalra says about his “progression” as an interpreter of profiles.
Rakesh Kumar Gupta, who lifts from Picasso’s Cubist patterns to create new organic images of heads with acrylic colours says “his head began with the first line on paper”. Gupta says “new things and old things in different manner through his heads” none of which bares remote resemblance to the original subject which inspires the profile studies. Till eight years ago, Gupta was “drawing figures — fluid western body parts that hung in meshes of neon colours; till “one day when he chose to home in on the head”. “I do not remember exactly when I decided to study heads in greater details, but each head is new form for me on the canvas. It is like the birth of a new being with a life of its own,” Gupta says. At times, his heads are deconstructed to the point of ugliness — to drive the dark underbelly of human psyches home.
What is more compelling than the human head in the whole of the universe, asks eminent art critic Keshav Malik — heads in art convey both non-cognitive and pictorial meanings that act as a stimulus to the artist and the viewer alike. It triggers dialogue —a participatory exchange of emotions between subject, the artist and the viewer questioning the origin of forms, intelligence and their transformations.
The head has never been so skillfully distorted and “re-invented” as a mirror of the man’s inner self by any other artist than Francis Newton Souza in the mid-20th century. He improvised on the conventional heads to “ferret out raw human emotions” of love, lust, anger, suffering and serendipity — a corpulence of excess that fascinated Souza like his “unofficial” mentor Pablo Picasso. It is often said that Souza Indianised Picasso. “He sketched heads very easily,” recalls gallerist Mohit Jain of the Dhoomimal Art Centre, an reputed art house in the capital. The centre has more than 10 head studies by Souza in its archive— including two personal “souvenirs” — a head study of the gallerist as a teenager and of his mother by Souza, dated 1993. “My father (who set up the gallery) met Souza in London in 1975 and over the years became close,” Jain remembered. Souza would “often visit the Dhoomimal Gallery in Connaught Place. One day “he just sat and sketched our heads with a few random lines — minimal yet familiar”.
A lot of weak artists would not attempt to draw heads at all because head studies require mastery over human anatomical detail, Jain pointed out. But Souza was a master of lines — like one of his illustrious aesthetic ancestor Rabindranath Tagore, who painted more than 100 heads in his brief tenure as an artist for 14 years before his death. Tagore’s heads were realistic studies inspired by his mother and sister-in-law Kadambari Devi — both of whom died when Tagore was still young and impressionable — and odd characters he stumbled upon. They were expressionistic — often hidden in deep shadows, dark and mysterious. The male heads had an element of humour and were painted off against light backgrounds while the female heads — the predominant sex in his body of figurative works — were sad and haunting on black or brown surfaces. Each of his head narrates a story
The expressions of grief and surprise catch viewers off their guard in artist Kartik Chandra Pyne’s head studies. Pyne, who painted heads throughout his career in the early 20th century, gave his realistic heads an abstract feel with minor distortions. Critic and art writer Prayag Shukla says “the human head with its brain and the anatomy of eyes, ears, nose and mouth has been there throughout centuries as the source of identity of an individual and personified many characteristics of human emotions and experiences in arts, theatre, dance and in plastic arts.
“Thus there can be no other way to create the persona of an idea, thought or an expression (than the head),” Shuka says.
An exhibition, “Portrait of an Artist” in the national capital few years ago presented sculptures of human head by 66 artists. Each artist was required to create his own “head” from a uniform mould in such a way the profile was symbolic of a persona, a reflection of Indian sensibilities in art and visually riveting. The result was a unique collection of nearly 70 heads — each with contexts and histories of its own. “As a curator, I was personally surprised to find so many innovative heads. From the remembrance of the pristine, to the reflections of our own times, all were emotively and subtly reflected in these heads… Some of the heads were thoughtful reminders of Buddha images but their construct was refreshing and exclusive,” Shukla remembers.
Some of the participating artists used “the head as a palette of colours” — whereas others used the head as a “space age” cruising icon finding its way to modernism from the traditions of realities and stereotypes.
Veteran printmaker and artist Jyoti Bhatt, a native of Gujarat, has been studying heads and their “accompanying faces” for the last 50 years since the 1960s. In studies like the “The Forgotten Moment of a Face (mixed intaglio print on paper)” and untitled collages of faces, the heads take on a look of death masks embellished with scripts, slogans and ‘mandala’ like sacred designs — in small still reliefs. While studying at the Academia di Bella Arti in Naples in Italy (1961-1962), Bhatt began to play with the idea of heads in studies like “La Signorina” and “Sita’s Parrot”— experimenting with reality and abstraction in phases inspired by the modern Italian painters.
Curator Roobina Karode says Bhatt’s imagery of the “Spinning Heads”— often treated as self/face— are for most part baffled or bewildered looking in opposite direction; turning to or turning away, going east, looking west (like a weather cock) — playing hide and seek within the folded forms of origami, assertive with a proclamation of the self or crossed out as rejected.
“The peacock, a regular visitor to Bhatt’s parental home in Bhavnagar, has also been extensively photographed by Bhatt and superimposed on the human profile (head) in many versions- often as multiples in a single image,” Karode says. Bhatt’s intimate dialogue with the self continues — the self in the process of cross-breeding is forever caught in making and unmaking; perpetually confronting its own evasive identity, the curator says.
Heads usually tend to be sad on the canvas — translating the artist’s inner quest for the “elusive” and the un-definable. Artist Sunil Das’ heads have a melancholic quality to them, smudged with deep shadows around the eyes that are dead and aging. They are stripped of beauty in the stark outline of the skull and have harsh features. A woman’s face keeps recurring in Das’ interpretation of human heads— it is mysterious and wasting. Critics say the woman who haunts Das’ imagery has a parallel in Bengali poetry — she is a young woman called Neera, who can be compared to the dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets and is continuous reference in (late) poet Sunil Gangopadhyay’s love poems.
“An exuberant ego manifests itself in Sunil’s heads. It finds a suitable outlet in the self-portraits he painted in 1990s. The faces stare at the viewers — and are often darkened with vibrant screaming shades of red or with stains of sinister black or amber,” Karode says.
In contrast, master of western-style Indian contemporary canvas Paritosh Sen breathed a Picasso style modernism into his “heads” – that spoke of the turbulence and emotional angst of the early 20th century west, where he studied art and of India — waking up to contemporary sensibilities of the 1950s and onwards. “Paritosh Sen’s head studies are expressions of human existentialism – often grotesque and forlorn,” points out curator Arun Ghose.
Kitsch art of shining “heads” crafted from tones of stainless steel kitchenware by contemporary artist Subodh Gupta can be compared to British artist Damien Hirst’s jeweled heads —in which the human profile becomes a symbol of the consumerist affluence reflecting the emptiness of the “hollow man” in T.S. Eliot’s poetic imagery. Both the artists prefer the “bare skull” without the flesh in their renderings of the heads. Interpretations of heads run in a list endless stylizations, meanings and practice in Indian art – as in international art across ages and movements.
The origin of this essential human anatomy in art can be traced back to the early Christian motifs with “folk icons” like the benevolent Green Man found in shrines — followed by its evolution as portraits in Byzantine, pre-Renaissance, and Renaissance art. The heads became more symbolic during the era of impressionism, surrealism and expressionism till it became central to the abstract iconography of the modern and post-modern movements— as deconstructed entities.