The Universal Pleasure of Recognition

There is a special category of art which manages to escape from the confines of the museum and become, if not by a byword, a reference and a source of illumination for a great many people who may never even see them at first hand. Not surprisingly most works of this kind have in common a fabulous or allegorical quality, and the pleasure we derive from them lies not so much in discovery as in recognition. Some pictures in Rahju’s present series belong to this category. Those paintings that deal with rice cultivation, or paddy cultivation as it is known in Sri Lanka, embody for the artist, and to many who will see them, facets of rural experience in a rice-growing country that has not yet seen the total takeover by machinery- a large claim, but one justified by this exhibition.

Rahju’s work has an irresistibly liberating effect, especially to those who find contemporary art a bore anyway, because it reveals that most of the art of this century (with a few exceptions) was a waste of time, and that we don’t have to worry anymore about the problems that occupied the great figures of this century, even if those figures retain a certain historical interest. I would be inclined to describe Rahju’s art as suffering from what Wittgenstein called “loss of problems!” Most artists and many people who have never become real artists, have thought up the problems of the external world and the problem of other minds without any real commitment or serious study. The few who have made a real impact on the societies in which they lived and on posterity, have arisen naturally and unselfconsciously.

Many of us are familiar with the coming of the monsoons and the seasonal flux in the paddy fields- a mutability both celebratory and melancholic, of evanescent emotions produced by the haunting emblems of memory, of promise, growth and decay. The sensual surfaces of beneficent water in the changing hours of the day depicted in these paintings is the artist’s poetic expression of monsoonal renewal and regeneration.

In these paintings with their scattered and diffuse luminous excitations and the binding of animal, man and earth (coincidentally the Sinhala name is ‘mada,’ and making mud is ‘madawanawa’) in a reproductive synthesis and habitus, we are reminded how organically bound we are to water, earth, light and air. These four elements seen in these paintings are a feast for the eye and the mind- the mind that goes back if you lived in a Sri Lankan village. With such overriding qualities it is not surprising that the paintings are so free of the obsessive self-reference that weighs down most contemporary painting. The subjects of Rahju’s paintings are the sublimated (or is it sublime?) world of Padmini/Pushkarini, the one abounding in lotuses, and Padmamalini, who is decked in lotus garlands as the tutelary deity of the rice growing people. She is also called Karsini, the one possessing the precious dung of cows, whose two sons are Kardama-Mud and Cikitita-Moisture… while of course Padmini is also the beloved spouse of Vishnu. It is as if Rahju has been perpetually seeking contact with this goddess of fertility and her ancient culture of earth and water to bring into being something like a new art from.

Rahju’s chosen subjects are: the Monsoon that heralds the maha season (the main paddy growing season), the ploughed paddy fields, the buffaloes resting after the final breaking of the sods into the alluvial mud that would receive the sprouted seed, the ‘pela-mul,’ and the men surveying the scene and giving the finishing touches. The buffaloes are shown completely covered in mud, perhaps to emphasize their antediluvian oddness, and the men no less covered in mud, as an inheritance from a past, a past culture when ploughing, sowing, transplanting and harvesting were all village celebrations. These are uncompromising subjects for a painter when painting nowadays has become like philosophy which (again) Wittgenstein famously asserted, “does not possess specific subject matter.” Art, like the world, keeps changing- as Heraclitus declared, or never changes- as Parminides said, or both- as Plato proposed, and can the way forward therefore ever avoid also leading back? Was there ever, in fact, a time when societies lived by a single logic, as the contemporary painters of Sri Lanka and elsewhere tend to think?

Rahju’s paintings are a wonderful “retour aux sources” for the eye and the mind, at a time when there can no longer be anything as “an innocent reading of a work of art.” Painting now seems to be lean and mean, without flesh and blood, and aggressively moribund. So called renascent art spreads into politics and not aesthetics. Doubt and uncertainty has never experienced such a boom. Rahju’s are pictures that demand a sensitive recognition of myriads of poetic patterns and passages of painting, variants and echoes. With each picture the painter has surpassed himself again and again, with an unflinching fidelity to the directive ideas behind their forms. The buffaloes bathed in mud resting and chewing the cud after their labours symbolize earth’s renewal and the promised germination of seed, and it is as if all the Hindu gods have forgathered to ensure a bountiful return for the labours of man and beast. This sense of a tutelary divine presence and the sensuous elan with which it has been shown in this series of paintings, is again proof of this artist’s undoubted skills if not anything else. What could be more immediate in a work of art than the metamorphosing of mud into green paddy in some of these paintings? This is the existential edge that animates these pictures-metamorphoses. The subtly marvelous effects in these pictures speak for this at every turn. To me they bring out things that were internalized when I was a child in a rice growing village. They really need no formulations, or words. They are ceremonies of enchantment to renew something I/we may have easily forgotten. In them the immanence, the sense of physical presence and transcendence of childhood experiences could not have been better expressed. These are seductive pervasive mythologies of a bygone era. The still and silent fields in these painting with their wealth of internalized and reflective emotion is again proof of this artist’s abilities.

These paintings count among Rahju’s other inventories: Tekkawatte, Lankatilleke, The Horton Plains, Polonnaruwa, in which he explores the relationship between mystery and reality, authenticity and antiquity, proving to us that something can change its meaning without changing its form, and if these works are ever exhibited together in a retrospective you would be struck by their unity and underlying implication of tone. Because of this, Rahju has become a controversial figure with conservatives and avant-gardists alike. Rahju wants to achieve universality, as is seen in these pictures again. Typical is the monsoon triptych, a pictorial perspective where a ‘mirage’ is awaiting out absorption. Rahju can change from abstraction to near-abstraction to hyper-real-reality so easily and with such elan, that his shimmering effects and veiled distances and depths are always there and somehow kept intact in marvelous passages of painting as in this painting, producing that fabulous or allegorical quality that holds for us not so much a pleasure of discovery but the universal pleasure of recognition.

Rahju has once again shown the reciprocity between art and life, and that painters can paint attention grabbing works in which the artist demands from us only a sustained quality of attention, without that all too frequent initial contagion of hasty judgments. The message in these paintings, if there is one, is perhaps that there is only one way to escape the alienation of present-day society: to retreat ahead of it!... This exhibition interweaves subjects, accumulates nuances and reveals subtle affinities between subjects. Truthful details, like the light shining on the muddy waters, and the twilight touching the niyaras (bunds) of the flooded fields, bring us sudden intimacies and intimations of mans fusion with nature and the infinite.

Essay from the catalogue of an exhibition at Mountcastle Gallery,

Colombo, October 1998