Whittled Space: Piraji Sagara

The show Whittled Space at Akara Art showcases a set of fifteen selected works of the celebrated artist Piraji Sagara. One immediately notices an interesting interplay of vibrant colours and muted shades that meld to form an organic unity instead of a cacophony of contrasting palettes. The artworks are well spaced against the cool white walls of the gallery for each artwork demands one’s full, undivided attention.

Kashmir series, Oil on Burnt Wood, 35.5 x 47.5 inches, 1963-64.

I begin my train of thought and interpretation with the title of the show: Whittled Space. It is indeed an interesting title. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this is an oblique tribute to the cultural heritage that Piraji Sagara hailed from. Belonging to a community which was engaged in cutting and creating various ornamental objects out of wood for a livelihood, Piraji successfully married his artistic sensibilities to this practice and eventually came up with his unique form of creating art. As an artist who was also an educator, he created a space where the audience could not just enjoy the interesting visuals of his artworks but also glimpse into the social messages that were inextricably woven in his artworks.

Untitled, Nails, Aluminium, Copper and Paint on Burnt wood, 48 x 48 inches, 1967.

Puneet Shah, Director of Akara Art  galvanizes my interpretation, “Whittled is carving into wood. The body of works that we are displaying in this exhibition are mostly wood relief works, wood carvings or work on burnt rustic wood. They speak of his evolution as an artist and how he challenged himself with various mediums. His use of materials not as decorative elements but as innovations in texture & composition was very ahead of his time.”

The usage of contrasting palettes of the artworks leads me to speculate about the uniqueness of Piraji’s artworks. Interestingly, there are considerable influences of Fauvism and Expressionism in his artworks. The untitled painted canvas on burnt wood not only celebrates the riot of pure colours melting into each other with a certain degree of harmony and restraint, but it also has a city with hints of a very nascent form of cubism. This backdrop is a classic example of German Expressionism that brings out the social aspects of loneliness and alienation of a people who are enveloped in a chaos of whittled burnt wood that may churn out beautiful possibilities in the future. Clearly, Piraji was quite ahead of his counterparts who were still actively involved in figurative art.

Not holding himself to the ambit of abstractions in art, he also created artworks that were figurative in nature. His painting titled Kashmir Series evokes within me the same feelings of wonder that I feel when I look at Grant Wood’s Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. While the lines on the Kashmir Series painting are not delicate, they are nonetheless crisp and the palette is dreamlike with bright little windows that emanate life within the cold walls. The half sun and moon in the painting stands as a symbolic reminder that the lives of the Kashmiris have remained unaltered during the day as well as the night, or in another context, before and after the Indian Independence.

Birds, Sand, beads, aluminium and nails on burnt wood, 48 x 35.5 inches, 1974.

Much of Piraji’s other works are entrenched in Indian mythology. There are cows, peacocks, snakes, and symbols of gods in his artworks. Not satisfied with incorporating both Indian as well as Western influences in his art, Piraji decided not to limit visuals to mere colors. He used common, prosaic objects like rusted nails, glass beads, brass sheets amongst other things to create a solid materiality out of his paintings. At his time, when all other Indian artists were pushing the limits of colours and perspectives, Piraji discovered an entirely new space for art, that of art which uses objects as colors to express perspectives and emotions.

The selection of fifteen artworks in Whittled Space is a healthy mix of all the artistic phases that Piraji Sagara went through. Given the fact that each painting is dense with not just colours but also meanings, spacing is of primary importance and Akara has thoughtfully implemented a minimalist arrangement: everything is sparse and yet everything is complete.

Puneet sheds some light on why Akara decided to showcase Piraji’s works, “We wanted to show his journey of early experimentation to consummate artistry where he created this uncommon vocabulary at a time when his contemporaries were focusing on figurative art and paintings. Piraji had a deep understanding of the rich crafts and traditions of his surroundings. With the turn of the 21st century artists started experimenting with mediums and moved from the stereotypical portrayals of paintings and drawings from the previous centuries. Piraji had already started this in the 1950’s even though he is relatively unknown in this century.”

My opinion on the artist is one of high regard. His treatment of Fauvism and Expressionism together not only expresses and celebrates emotions over the figurative reality of life but also the contradictions and the darkness of the world around us. He does visually what Milton had described in Paradise Lost–there is a “darkness visible”. Piraji Sagara was a master artist who could adroitly create beautiful yet real paradoxes that make life what it is.

Whittled Space is on view till 22nd December, 2017 at Akara Art, Colaba, Mumbai.