Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Slobbering Cow: Questions for Amita Bhatt - Interview

Amita Bhatt, “No Straight Answers,” 48 x
48 inches, Oil on Canvas, 2015

" take partial inspiration from the Greek maenads, drunk frenzied bitches who’ll tear you to shreds..."

Slobbering Cow: Questions for Amita Bhatt

In my yoga studio there is a sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesha. Yoga practitioners leave him offerings, a piece of fruit, for instance.

Ganesha’s appearance is absurd, four arms and an elephant head, but don’t let that bother you. Super-imposed onto this god are the notions of good-fortune, peace, and wisdom.

I recently came upon a Tantric scripture that offered instructions on how to meditate on Ganesha. The text described the proper mantra, breathing and visualization. Despite his fat belly and wine-flushed complexion, do internalize the god, he removes obstacles. Critical to the practice, it stated, is to thank one’s guru, preferably with gifts of cows, land, gold, clothes, drinks and jewels.

Ganesha’s hybrid nature, in my opinion, embodies the fundamental truth that our miserably tiny human form contains within it the energies of the entire cosmos. We have in us the destructive as well as regenerative forces that fill the universe. Accordingly, the human psyche has good as well as demonic impulses.

To contemplate paradoxes in human nature, artist Amita Bhatt placed Ganesha’s elephant ears on a nude figure with breasts. The elephant-ear figure punches or fondles another figure with penis and Medusa-like snake hair. Scattered throughout Bhatt’s art, you’ll find a Christian saint here, a jackal there. I’m partial to her human-like figures with goat horns.

Interaction is comically perverse, chaotic. The figures fight, dance and have sex. There’s a hint of violence, a whiff of ecstasy. Bhatt mines from sources as disparate as Hindu religious iconography, Greek mythology and contemporary culture, then refashions into unhinged scenarios. “Personalized and unrestricted,” the artist called her images.

The ecstasy and terror I gleaned in her scenarios are somewhat reinforced in Bhatt’s artist statement. It describes energy-filled worlds with “ecstasy and benevolence as well as darkness, suffering, and turmoil.” Meditative contemplation of this type, in my opinion, constitutes an enlightened search. It is through expanded awareness that consciousness approaches Ultimate Reality, sometimes called the peace which passeth understanding.

Amita Bhatt, "Why did you have to?”
(Ibrahim Dawood), Oil on Canvas,
48 x 48 inches, 2014

Initially, I avoided the painting "Why did you have to?" (Ibrahim Dawood)

Jesus Christ Amita! That title reeks of tragic associations.

Crime Boss Ibrahim Dawood, it is said, masterminded the bomb explosions that killed over 250 during the 1993 Mumbai Riots. Hoping to de-stabilize the Indian government, he stirred up festering sectarian conflict, and incited or bribed people to behave violently, and employ terror tactics such as deadly blasts. Rioters ignited buses, temples, mosques and madrasas, they burned homes and businesses, and blocked streets so authorities could not respond. Seven hundred died in the riots, many from stabbings.

Mobster Dawood was, however, kind to his friends. His syndicate generously gave the al-Qaeda organization a helping-hand by sharing smuggling routes across South Asia, the Middle-East and Africa. It also sent large scale shipments of narcotics to the United Kingdom and Western Europe. Dawood had cordial relations with that jackass Osama bin-Laden.

When Bhatt artistically pondered Dawood, she did not render a fat-faced murderer and money-smuggler, slickly-appareled in the fashion of a Bollywood kingpin, committing despicable acts. Nor did she depict burned victims. She painted instead two mysterious floating figures, with missing parts, one being slobbered-on by a scrawny cow.

The painting is a philosophical and psychological exploration of human nature. Man is sacred and profane. Two apparent opposites are in fact aspects of the one reality. Bhatt reflects. Nothing is resolved.

Amita Bhatt, “A Fantastic Collision of the Three Worlds – XXIX,”
 Charcoal and Oil Stick on Canvas. 9 x 12’, 2017

Recently Bhatt notified me she will exhibit over 30 paintings and drawings in her solo exhibition Between Light and Shadow which opens on June 22, 2019 at Deborah Colton Gallery, though August 10. I decided it would be fun to ask Amita a few questions.

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: Were you injured or in danger during the Mumbai riots?

Amita Bhatt: The Mumbai riots will remain one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had. It opened the doors to a view that I found was a global phenomenon. Identity based killings are sadly the norm across the world now, and have gained currency at shocking speed everywhere. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen a resurgence to ethnic and religious conflicts and identifications which continue to be in the center of political discourse. In addition the rising popularity of right wing politicians in different parts of the world, all point to a multiple collision course the world is headed toward. I use irony, paradox, and humor to work through the absurdities of our war ravaged societies.

VBA: You indicated dismembered figures and compositional chaos occasionally refer to dislocation, which causes human misery today, as it has since the beginning of time. Unsurprising dislocation is a primary theme in the world’s great mythological and narrative traditions, Homer and Exodus are examples. We find the theme, as well, in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, in which Arjuna arrogantly boasted about the carnage he stirred-up, and died with the other Pandavas. I’m curious, did your ancestral family suffer dislocation during partition, which of course caused an obscene number of deaths and displaced over 14 million?

AB: Fortunately no one in my family was directly affected by the partition of India and Pakistan.

VBA: You’re probably aware that Hindu scripture states my buddy Ganesha composed the Mahabharata. My blog readers know I’m as interested in the life of the person who creates, as I am in the creation. Do you work a “day” job, teach or research or whatever? You remained in the U.S. after graduate school in Baltimore, what brought you to Houston?  How often are you in India?

AB: I got my MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and taught a few semesters at MICA after graduating. Houston had been home base for almost two decades until I had to go back to India to take care of ageing parents. I am mostly studio bound and don’t do anything outside of my studio practice at the moment.

VBA: Do you make preliminary sketches before you paint?

AB: I sketch a lot Virginia. However the process remains organic and the work might suddenly take a completely different direction from my original intent.

VBA: Do you consult visual references while you work, or do images flow from the imagination?

AB: I am always looking at historic, contemporary as well as random images. Right now I want to develop my - “politics as circus”- theme and I’m looking at a lot of contortionists, gymnasts, and circus imagery. The essential idea comes from researching and contemplating certain ideas and/or a philosophical comment I want to make. The character that is developed must be able to visually embody that thought using visual codes. Sometimes these characters are direct references as well. My characters are signifiers and are transformative in nature. They live in a constantly changing world as they locate their space on the canvas.

VBA: Say something about your choice of colors. Are they strategic? Symbolic? Ancient Indian and Greek sculpture was coated with bright colors.

AB: My palette certainly has Indian influences but they don’t have any art historical references. They can be emotional responses that are meant to excite certain sensibilities in the mind of the viewer.

VBA: Amita, your females are fierce. Battleaxes on equal footing with the males. It’s fun to think you take partial inspiration from the Greek mythological maenads, drunk frenzied bitches who’ll tear you to shreds. And surely you draw on the Hindu goddess Kali, with fang-teeth and severed heads to adorn her body. That broad is a manifestation of the feminine principle, and encompasses the fact that death, fear and pain are as much a part of nature as its positive aspects, and are necessary. In Tantric tradition, woman has an equal share of the Source’s energy, recall Kali danced on Shiva’s corpse. Comment on taking influence from feminine concepts as interpreted through Tantric practices.

AB: The divine Feminine is central to the study of Tantra. My early influences (I thank Professor Deepak Kannal for introducing me to Tantra - a topic that might still be considered taboo in certain circles) were certainly rooted in Tantra albeit loosely. One of the more blatant examples of female energies is the goddess Chinnamastak - a predominantly Hindu goddess who will sever her own head to feed her devotees. Several miniature paintings illustrate the goddess severing her own head with one of the spurts of blood feeding a copulating figure and another feeding her own self. She is symbolic of sacrifice and re-generation. While both Kali and Durga are hugely celebrated across India, Kali probably finds more prominence in Bengal. Chinnamastak is powerful in her directness and matter-of-factness.

But the mere study of political violence, or Tantra (which states that violence is an essential part of the cycle of creation and destruction) isn’t enough. Once one researches it, one also has to understand his/her own position in this constantly churning world.

VBA: I’ve been thinking about the slobbering cow in "Why did you have to?" (Ibrahim Dawood). "It’s possible the painting contemplates “cow vigilantism,” where sectarian extremists use the protection of cows as an excuse to commit violent acts, misbehavior becoming more prevalent. Want to say something about the show at Deborah Colton Gallery?

AB: It opens June 22, and I intend to show about 10 large drawings, about 12 paintings (mostly 4 by 4 feet) and about 8 or 10 smaller works.

Amita Bhatt, “Desire, Motives Assassins,” 
48 x 48 inches, Oil on Canvas, 2015

Images from Amita Bhatt's website
© Amita Bhatt
Deborah Colton Gallery

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