Well-Spring of Truth
By 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.
The 'Song Line'
by Marta Jakimowicz in 2016 (from the catalogue: St. Kabir, Fransis of Assisi and Other Pregnant Birds)
Many of us remember the thrill of early discoveries in close contact with nature, when, leisurely but keenly observing tiny insects in the grass, one could intuit how they, at all angles, kept moving and reaching for things. The behavior, which might appear chaotic at first, follows previous practice and momentary learning during which each being acts both as an individual and part of a loose team. Their untiring business attempts to find a way around the ground and its possibilities, its grains and pebbles, its plants and other creatures, lasting through dead-ends and triumphs and continuing further. Best recalled in its peaceful, life-affirming aspects, the route, however, also contains belligerence for survival and eventual destruction that nevertheless brings regeneration. Analogies with complex, large-scale regions of life come inevitably here, along with thought and creativity too. C.F. John’s seems to be an instinctive as well as conscious method of multi-disciplinary collaboration, one that includes other artists, earth and water, flora and animals, people with their agricultural practices, daily habits, stories and myths, natural materials, as well as persons and problems he meets in his social work. Like in the organic world, he relies on everyone contributing to the common whole in a somewhat unpredictable, open-ended manner which now functions both in the form of independent acts and in response to the attendance of the other participants and to the place. Those who have met John a few times cannot but notice the calm, receptive and loving smile with which he looks at all, whether a farmer, the local community, someone in need of help, a blossoming shrub confused by the climate change, a squirrel on his roof, a casual acquaintance or a fellow artist. The cordial, accommodating patience, though, has a dose of reasonable, self-preserving distance and broader reflection.
John’s many-directional involvement has been evident to his art audience, whereas he always emphasises his imperative - the simultaneous, mutually impacting role of aesthetics, agriculture and social activism. Having actually had very few solo exhibitions, since the later 1980s he has organised several interactive events and workshops with installations and site-specific work dominating, where references to the presence of nature and people living in its proximity remain vital. Those events addressed topics from cultural plurality and violence in contemporary life, to indigenous communities, their struggle for basic rights and identity. The artist’s Kerala childhood recollections of farming processes and movements among the underprivileged fed into his long association with Visthar in Bangalore where villagers’ knowledge and intuition about soil, water and plants was always respected and applied on its campus, the campus itself from the site turning into a participant. Equally important throughout has been the preoccupation with his residential layout in the city. The focus on concrete, common issues, objects and people there, from officials to labourers, along with their emotionality of often contradictory kinds is welcomed by him for the much required mental “fluidity” it stimulates. That fluidity, essential to all fields of existence, all work, human exchanges and art, stands for the very connectedness of life’s diversity and is John’s perennial concern.
A corresponding oscillation among interlinked diversities, natural materials and references underscores John’s own artwork. His paintings from the second half of the 1990s and later are mixed medias often on paper-pulp boards of frayed edges using banana, cotton or rag fibre. Abstract colours and textures offer there a sensuous feel of mud and earth, while schematic images or vectors coexist with symbolic as well as fragmentary realistic representations and small actual objects embedded in the layering. Earth as the foundation of all creatures’ relationships cannot be separated from water, its sources and channels, and with seeds, all underscored by the desire to reconnect with elemental authenticity. By contrast, appropriating plastic flags serves to visualise a loss of the values the national emblem meant originally. Often exhibiting with Raghavendra Rao, T.M. Aziz, the performance dancer Tripura Kashyap and others, John has thrived on group effort for installation and site-specific work. As ‘Silence of Furies and Sorrows – pages of a burning city” dealt with the socio-political brutality of the time, in “Territory” he traced community and underground water channels, while “Paper Trails” explored the substance’s non-utilitarian associations. A culmination came with the complex project “Walls of Memories – an art event of unresolved edges” of 2001-2003. Supported by the IFA at Visthar, from commenting on life it triggered direct learning about life from reality and making art respond to it. The artists looked at the dried well together, through its structure and changes, through the presence, personalities, history and culture of the local people, as the environment and its moods revealed a varied, deep connectedness of everything generative and fatal, practical and mythical or symbolic. Besides photography and sound, important was Tripura Kashyap’s performance attuned to the well’s unique circumstances. “Quilted” presented at Gallery Sumukha in 2003 compressed similar references further around memory, conscious and unconscious strata in a patchwork of personal spaces and dreams with realities, multidisciplinary but synchronised efforts, formal languages, materials and individualities, again music, photography, installation and video projections with performance and dance blending in and enhancing the interwoven entirety.
The well project inevitably affirmed the recognition that corporeal labour and spirituality are inseparable and complementary rather than contradictory. In the “Landscape Parables” paintings, this let John focus on the body that remembers in an enigmatic relationship with the surroundings. An immediate, physically sentient contact with landscape to be rediscovered by individual, bodily consciousness becomes imperative in a world which turns the elements into commodities among avaricious entrepreneurs and mass-produced, falsified ideas. Territory as a unifying, organic village is preferred to one of state control, boundaries and division. Restricted and sore, yet a meeting point, it houses a vision of the confluence not only between the mind, nature and nourishing waters but also between “the river consciousness of humanity and the personal stream of consciousness”. John, who writes poetry and essays, has discussed the embodied experience in lyrical as well as roughly straight detail in the recent publication “Body and Earth” co-authored with Thomas H. Pruiksma. Corporeal reminiscence, understanding, culture and abundance are seen as healing like water that brings back the senses and the need for a peaceful, fond community life, as the body possesses its own aura and energy, taste, beauty and cosmology. In a revealing and concealing bond with scenery it has to be savoured slowly and rhythmically, layer by layer and accepted along with seeds, vegetation, wetness, human and animal labour, with science on par with intuition and sacred myths. Walking in nature, feeling the elements on one’s skin, such intimate yet universal knowledge can make everyone serene, while one’s balance in it can be epitomised by a dancer’s ability to find a centre amid motion. Children, musicians and artists instinctively recover the body’s remembering to be treasured as tactile yet ultimately mysterious.
Thus, learning from life for John and depicting his journey towards it cannot be anything abstract, formulated in metaphysical terms. Instead, its sublime facets remain entrenched in the sheer physicality, even dirt, of the real, both planes proving as vital. Accordingly, the ability and course of handling coarse sides of practical existence, whether in farming against limited resources and capacities of the land or negotiating unpredictable tempers, challenges in the layout, cannot be truly different from art-making, each adding to a mutually enhancing pair of phenomena, the very roughness of things being suitable to hide and expose the worth of the loving engagement that by itself surpasses its aims and in the artist’s words constitutes “an entry into a realm that is beyond sensory perception”, ever embedded within the ordinary, not away from it. Hence, for John his work with the community and doing art, remain two sides of the same necessity. One has to face desperation, frustration, anger, cynicism, crisis management, as well as eagerness, anticipation and hope. The other asks for a mind of quietude and stillness as a ‘sadhana’ helping to stay with the beginning of life. John believes that intuitive, artistic processes lead not above the accessible actuality and shapes or passing time but to something that lies profoundly within all that. “Every moment, form and happening demand real physical resolves and I understand it is in the core of these things we can find what we seek – the ‘song line’ that connects the immediate with everything before and after.”