Words and Visuals of Suparna Ghosh
(Artist, former journalist and art critic)
How is one to constrict Suparna Ghosh in a frame considering both the multiplicity of her subject matter and style whose roots can be traced to her peripatetic life as she followed her archaeologist father to sites of Taxashila and elsewhere. She finally settled in Delhi where she went on another journey, creative this time, charted out by her mother who believed in the renaissance spirit of the Shantiniketan artists.
In looking at Suparna’s work, therefore, is to confront an unspoken teaser she throws at you: catch me if you can. She began writing early in life, and her first poetic output was in Hindi when she was nine. At the same time she was dabbling with paint and winning prizes in the annual Shankar’s Weekly competitions. Later, she began writing poetry in free verse, moving with timeless grace through pain and grief and joy, her paintings often reinforcing the themes of her poems. Indeed, her paintings and her poems often coalesce so perfectly that it is often difficult to look at them in isolation. If one were to regard the corpus of her poetry as a cathedral then, perforce, her paintings have to be regarded as powerful stained-glass windows lighting up and highlighting the interior, with the interior pointing to the magic of the windows.
Consider the lyricism of the lines in a poem from Sandalwood Thoughts, a collection of poems and drawings:
through summer and snow…
the love I think I dropped….
on a walk in the park
With the robust sensuality of lines like,
Do not nestle your face
on my foothills.
Let me lead you
up the incline
where the cherries are
and the peach grove is….
and the succulent plants grow
And you get an idea of the ease with which she transits from one psychological state to another and on to the burning satire of her poem ‘Goddess’, who is “born without clothes/ In a barren landscape of the mind.” Towards the end the poem rises to a savage crescendo to nailing the prurient.
Do not look
Do not stare
Draw the curtains.
Turn off the lights…
The universality of Suparna’s words finds a fine echo in her stray writings. For instance, her musings on what went wrong, how and when, in our perception of women. We extolled her once as the creatrix of the universe in such glorious invocatory verses, Ya Devi Sarvabhuteshu… to their present lot when they have been reduced to fighting for their own space in a world gone awry; in a world that regards them as embossed shadows of a man’s whims.
Suparna has a better take on that in her sharp observation on ‘Culture cloaked in religion’, in which she talks of the confidence of “a woman whose only coverings are her jewels and her hair, and whose sole props are a tablet and a pen, I wondered where it all went wrong. The change in this woman over time, has been so dramatically regressive that I can only see it as the arrival of a dark age. Who is to say what culture is? Who decides? Does it go back a decade? A century? A millennium?”
Her celebration of the strength of women echoes in her painting, ‘Mountain of Eve’. She draws ingeniously on many devices – literary and surrealist, now-you-see-me, now-
-you-don’t, “to lead you up the incline…”, and throw you into a beautifully hallucinatory world – a world that teeters between dream and reality; between Venus’ flying locks in Botticelli’s painting and Penelope’s unending knitting of the scroll, awaiting Odysseus’ return. How effortlessly does she straddle the three worlds of myth, folklore and surrealism is magical. Really.
The painting is on the cover of Ruth Colombo’s book of verse entitled, Sofia Writ Large, Sofia Writ Small. Mukund Dave, professor of English, writer and critic, related his reaction to the same painting in these words:
Her paintings (the ones I have so far viewed) are bewilderingly surrealistic. She has a knack of translating fantasies of her own and others in a very unusual idiom, style and technique. Her titles offer a clue to what she wants to depict, and, at the same time they draw the viewer away from what she envisions in a specific mood during a spurt of inspiration. Her “Mountain of Eve” is to me “A Maze of Eve” (Isn’t every fiber of Eve a part of the never-ending maze?)….
Again, Suparna surprises us with another keen observation by the humorous dig she takes at life in her gem of a poem, “Housework,” which has the lightheadedness of a pebble thrown on the surface of a body of water and flies skip-skip-skip with nary a care in the world. Like the protagonist in the poem who is lost in her fantasy of the gallant knight “astride his heart-achingly handsome horse,” as she goes about “the magic of doing housework”.
Take a walk through her website and you’ll find that lately, her poems have taken another direction – a more challenging one of writing poems in the ghazal format. And, notwithstanding the technical difficulties, the result has been beautifully dramatic, as delicate as the first flush of dawn:
Even the breeze is an intrusion when you and I meet,
like ship on the horizon where earth and the sky meet…
Just as a reader thinks he has been able to come to understand what Suparna’s creative output is all about, she surprises him with the elegiac strains of “Pilot Light,” which contain the highs and lows of grief after her mother left her. Read these lines to experience the intensity of Suparna’s distress, which is like the darkness of an Amavasya night:
Today I cannot be the breath
to fuel your roar
be the carriage
of your one woman caravan
jaunting in fierce rhythm…
I would if I could
inhale you into my belly
just as you conceived me in yours…
The elegy, “Pilot Light” is not of unmitigated gloom. Indeed, any perceptive reader will discover hope, as one notices veins of diamonds in a coal mine, and realizes that obliquely Suparna has touched on the principle of reincarnation in suggesting that she inhale her mother into her belly for another seed to grow “just as you conceived me in yours.” It’s a near echo of St. John’s exultant cry, “There will be no death because you rose from the dead the moment you were born.”
Suparna’s ability to reach beyond the surface level is evident in her second volume of verse, “Dots and Crosses”. It is a long narrative poem on fractured human relationships. Which is really a universal phenomenon. Only, most people choose to be blind to it. Hindu men of knowledge often talk of Paroksha Gyan. The phrase simply refers to looking at oneself only superficially, as in a mirror, and not through the mind’s eye. That is precisely where the merit of Dots and Crosses lies – the long narrative poem strips you and shows you naked sans your masks. It is an unhappy picture of the human condition; Suparna’s poem zeroes into our inner landscape, as it were, and acts as a catharsis. We shed tears without being ashamed of them, and feel washed and clean. This is what makes it a major work – its humanity.
In these aggressive times, the mind is particularly susceptible. Unlike a turtle who draws back his legs the moment it senses danger, the human mind has no comparable defenses; no way of protecting itself by drawing his senses in. The unfortunate result is that it becomes a willing victim of, and a fertile ground for, the rhetorical blandishments of the first canny ideologue who plants seeds of mistrust, hate and divisiveness, is precisely here that the poems, paintings and miscellaneous writings act as a salve, the corrective, most of us are looking for.
She succeeds eminently well because she speaks from the heart. And the heart, it is a truism, identifies itself with all that is harmonious and beautiful in nature, where nothing is rejected. Each is sovereign in its own right, coexisting with all there is. The balance is never disturbed. Whether it is the tuneful melody of the songbird, or the raucous cawing of crows, or the clap of thunder or the soulful soughing of the breeze through the trees in a forest, Suparna opens you to this marvelous orchestra through her poems and paintings that thrum in memory like a set of finely-tuned guitars. To wit:
It’s a monolith, thought the gull
alighting on her shoulder
a pillar, whispered the wind
twirling ’round her limbs…
a village, revealed the crier
surveying her space…
a forest, roared the storm
swirling about her hair…
a damask, decided the novel
etching a tale on her skin…
with the sky in one eye
and the ocean in the other
she decides she’s
the gut of the earth.
Although the drawings in Suparna’s two books of poems are not illustrations, they do reinforce the running themes of loss and passion, of life lost and life regained. Consider, for instance, the cover in her volume Sandalwood Thoughts, a bird flies over a landscape that is stark and rich in sensual desolation, with a hatted woman – a constant refrain in Suparna’s oeuvre – staring at an empty chair and perhaps waiting endlessly, like Godot, for it to be occupied, adding to the prevailing theme. That is really a clever visual snare that Suparna spreads be fore an unwary reader, because the poems inside are anything but grim. She employs the same device in her epic poem, Dots and Crosses, where a loving couple is shown in deep embrace against a hallucinating play of colour, with a dark moon and a darker urban landscape is suggestive of a night of amour and dalliance. This is like opening “a window to inhale the summer on your skin.” But all illusions must end and the rest of the volume is a tale of splintered relationships where, as the poet says, “lust is a must.”
All the black and white drawings in the two volumes hold their own place and space. They are autonomous units, attenuated lightning streaks of energy that light up the pages they occupy. The hatted Giacometti female figures are self images of the writer as seen in a trick mirror and are eminently powerful kinetic pictures, which are equally expressive when presented as three birds – ravens, hawks or hummers – flying across the page in perfect harmony.
John Robert Colombo, an eminent anthologist and writer, has a very perceptive take on Suparna’s work when he says:
The sounds of modern voices are heard and the whispers of ancient sounds are overheard in these poems. The poet speaks in the first person; the reader hears third person reverberations from the ancestral past. Suparna Ghosh is both poet and artist. Her words are “timely, timeless/Time bound’ Her black and white drawings conceptualize these words in contemporary, urban life.
A write-up on Suparna would not be complete without mentioning her views on colour in her essay, ‘The Art of Colour’. In particular the way she debunked the myth that it was Matisse who opened the world of colour for us, brought up on a diet of grey. She lets us know that colours breathe; they expand and contract when placed in juxtaposition with one another. She then takes us on a journey to our rich heritage of lines and colours by citing references to Ajanta and the plush world of our tradition of miniature paintings, Mughal, Rajasthani, Kangra, Pahari (represented by the Garhwal School).
She expresses the primacy of colour far more pointedly when she says:
Colour is not just a pigment of our imagination. It is a centrifugal force which transforms the environment we inherit, create and experience. Something nature knows intuitively. An arrogant parrot at an aviary, unabashedly proud of its plumes, flew on to my arm to illustrate I was no match for its flair. It made me wonder: if nature is not afraid of colour, why are we?
I find that the Times of India review of her paintings at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai applies equally to her writings:
Stand close to any of Suparna Ghosh’s works and you are enveloped in a sea of vivid colour, a shimmering space of reflected light and rhythmic undulations. Time is a key element in the experiences of Ghosh’s mindscapes, and they orchestrate, more than direct, our movements. They take us beyond our normal sense of sight and viewers are transformed into “experiencers”, surprised, shaken, or subdued by Suparna’s imagination.
And thereby hangs a tale which made her sing a paean to colour in her personal tribute in a poem titled “Palette.”
In black and white.
I love in fiery marigold
Laugh in lotus pink
Fight in vermilion
Hate in green
Mate in amber
Recoil in silver
Fear in ultramarine
Whimper in auburn
Die each night
In catatonic yellow
I remain unable, or unwilling
To penetrate the panoply
Of nine emotions.
Let us celebrate Suparna Ghosh for the compendium of the nine rasas she has taken us through in her paintings and poetry and stray musings. In this celebratory mode we’ll salute a body of work which has made us go through a gamut of emotions – from grief to laughter to introspection and, finally, to an acceptance of life in all its forms, the good, the pleasant and not so pleasant.
I think this short piece rounds up her mystique adequately.
(This article was published in the Silver Jubilee Number of POETCRIT, celebrating 25 years of Post-1960 Indian English Poetry)