Well-Spring of Truth
(Kamaan Singh - Resurgence September - October 2005 | N0. 232)
‘I hate, therefore I am.’ This is how Bangalore based artist C F John sums up the identities being established by contemporary religious and nationalistic politics. Adding this variation to the Descartean epithet, John points out the language of exclusion and hate that issues from the limitedness of loving one’s country, religion, sport…
Responding to upheavals at various levels in the last 20 years, John has woven into his art, problems of urban living, struggles of disprivileged communities, and institutional mechanisms of control.
In this day and age, social responsibility is not just fashionable but a thumb rule of success. One can’t be a beauty queen without a ‘genuine’ cause; cricketers and film stars play matches for victims of disasters (albeit man-made ones like wars!); clubs wait to host expensive charity teas; musicians must perform in benefit concerts… anyone worth anything (and of course only those!) must have an opinion and be able to show their faith when their country and religion demand it.
In fact John can be quite unfashionable. During the Kargil war, when ‘concerned’ artists and event managers wanted him to contribute art works for the benefit of ‘War Victims’, John staunchly refused. He wanted a portion of the proceeds to reach war victims in the ‘enemy country,’ Pakistan as well. In the jingoism of 1999, few took him seriously. Well-wishers who saw his point, were genuinely concerned for his safety, and begged him to go easy with his views.
Apart from social critique, John has long supported people’s movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the rights of fishing communities in Kerala. Given his engagement with many layered issues, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he is primarily an artist and believes that it is the artist’s sensibility that shows him the oneness of the natural, the human, and the spiritual. And it is through art that he communicates this vision.
John sees no dichotomy between his life and art, which flows from the earth and provides access to the symbolic and metaphysical. He would not like his art to be reduced to a marketable commodity, a finished product outside a contextual frame. Apart from works for galleries, John’s installations and art events make it difficult to draw the line between performance and presentation, art space and the ‘real’ world. In 1999, another artist Azis T M and John produced an installation on a Kerala beach while interacting with the fishing community there. In the final phase of the event, children of the community took mangrove saplings from their ‘earth works’ and planted them in another part of the shore. Many of these saplings are now trees that form a small mangrove forest – a natural and most effective protection against tidal waves, or even a tsunami.
While connecting the material and the metaphysical, John reinforces the unity of ethics, aesthetics and truth. This is captured in the tenet ‘Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram’ (the One, true, good… and beautiful). As an artist he sees the need to open one’s mindscape to larger realities. ‘One understands truth not just as an individual, but as connected with everything else.’
This is evident in his themes and the material he uses. Much of his work has been in collaboration with fellow artists, and communities connected to the forms and spaces that he is involved with. Before starting an art event inside a 30 feet wide dry well, he met almost everyone living in the surrounding village. He recounts stories of old women who used to draw their daily water from that well and sang songs sitting around it. Urban expansion meant the drying up of that well, and the breakdown of a rich community life.
Having worked closely with issues of water depletion, John has made the well and the frog in it, one of his favourite metaphors. To the artist in him ‘an open well is a complete form, with specific dimensions.’ But linked to this is the understanding that ‘a healthy well gets its water from sources that don’t recognize private or state boundaries! Only a well so connected would have fresh water. It is the frog that understands this reality of the well.’ Development Experts can travel across the world for solutions, but often have severed essential connections with the earth.
Through his art, John brings larger concerns to the fore, and questions institutions of all kinds. This springs from the vision he has nurtured from his spiritual guide S Kappen, who says, ‘Art is a bestowing, an overflowing of primal truth… it overthrows our familiar view of reality and opens up new, hither-to unseen vistas. Art is also a grounding. The truth.... is handed over to the coming generation for preservation. What is thus handed over is nothing arbitrary, but is rooted in the earth as the bearer of a tradition and a heritage. What art projects, is drawn from the earth, only to be grounded ever more in it.’
The place which has had John’s constant attention is the land that is home to Visthar, the organization that he has been part of since its inception 15 years ago. Apart from building design, he has adorned banana saplings with bangles, held art events around the old jack fruit tree and an even older well there. John’s exploration of an earth-centered spirituality is most strongly projected in an architectural space at Visthar called ‘Mandala’. It is here that his artistic, environmental and political involvement comes together as an experience which can be communicated not with words, but through the energies that flow from the space itself.
Of late he has taken to farming. He understands land, not through maps or as real estate. He attempts an imaginative perception of the earth through the trees and grass that grow from it. His recent works bring back memories of land, by exploring its infinite shades and textures. His materials include natural fibres, recycled paper, leaves, stones.... His ‘paintings’ don’t merely represent the earth. They demonstrate the earth itself.
John’s artwork is not easy. It is a continual challenge both to himself and the viewer. Like all else, he sees art as a fluid space which transcends ideologies, and is freed from ‘endless imitation’ of current thoughts in circulation. His deep faith in the earth and its ability to renew itself gives his art an edge that constantly defies definitions, categories and labels. In communion with the natural world, his art remains fresh and alive.