The Precariousness of Reading

Recent Paintings by Manjari Chakravarti 
Ranjit Hoskote 

 The basic unit of Manjari Chakravarti’s ensembles is the alphabetic character, a motif that she nudges into play in the richly uncertain terrain between legibility and visuality. She builds up a palimpsest of letter threads that fall tantalisingly short of being sentences; she organises grids of grouped characters that are looped, overlapped, layered over one another. Even the works that are designated as landscapes are, in fact, tablets bearing the passage of code and translation, inscription and counter-inscription, erasure and recuperation: in Chakravarti’s handling, the landscape is not a problem of geographical traversal but an essay in attentive reading. 

Each of these pictorial provocations confronts us with a roster of questions: Can you read this? Can you interpret it? Can you make sense of what I am saying? What is the pattern, can you catch it? These questions are crucial, for it reminds us that while the script has often served as a luminous vehicle of revelation, it can also act as a penumbral surface of mystery. 

I am reminded, when I look at Chakravarti’s paintings, of the Rosetta Stone and the precariousness of reading. The Rosetta Stone, which provided researchers with the key to the Egyptian hieroglyphics, is a covenant of understanding. It promises us the power to translate the riddling into the comprehensible, the strange into the familiar. What if one of the inscriptions on the Stone had been eroded away, though? What if the key were lost, and the solution to the mystery lost with it? Imagine yourself in a world of inscriptions that are entirely enigmatic because you do not know how to read them. And could you, perhaps, reorganise your relationship to these inscriptions, treat them as image, respond to them intuitively as visual stimuli? And, again, what sense would you make of them: what depth, intensity and quality of engagement would you achieve? 

Interpreted from this point of view, Chakravarti’s paintings are discreet inquiries into the nature of art, into the intricate complicities between image and word, sensation and representation, by means of which meaning is generated. In the same spirit, the continuous relay of pattern and its breakdown plays a major role in Chakravarti’s art. She is attracted to the geometrically precise yet hypnotic, not easily decipherable logic of the kelim; she unfolds prototypes from the enigmatic announcements of lost scripts. In each case, stability is barely achieved when it gives way: the key condition that she explores is the precariousness of all reading and all understanding. 

Nor is this conceptual texture secured at the expense of more immediately sensuous and palpable accomplishments. Chakravarti has a gift for colour, and orchestrates a complex palette of browns and greys meticulously and with grace. She delights, especially, in umber, sienna and taupe; these chromatic pursuits form a dynamic ground for her play with semantic and semiotic potentiality. Sometimes, in looking at her paintings and discovering the beginnings of sentences or the advent of notational images, you wonder whether she is outside, writing on glass, leaving you messages in mocking reverse; or whether she is inside, and you are watching her write as fiercely as she can, to spell away the gathering onslaught of rain. 

(Bombay, October 2008) 

RANJIT HOSKOTE (born 1969) is a poet, cultural theorist and curator. He is the author of fifteen books. These include five collections of poetry, the most recent of which are Vanishing Acts: New & Selected Poems 1985-2005 (Delhi: Penguin, 2006) and Die Ankunft der Vögel (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2006), and six monographs on artists, most recently, The Crafting of Reality: Sudhir Patwardhan, Drawings (Bombay: The Guild, 2008). He has also co-authored a history of cultural confluence with Ilija Trojanow, Kampfabsage (Munich: Random House/ Blessing Verlag, 2007), and collaborated with Atul Dodiya on an artist’s book, Pale Ancestors (Bombay: Bodhi Art, 2008). Hoskote has curated fourteen exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, including a mid-career retrospective of Atul Dodiya (Japan Foundation, Tokyo, 2001) and a lifetime retrospective of Jehangir Sabavala (National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi and Bombay, 2005-2006). Hoskote is co-curator of the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008). 

+         +         +         +         +          +        

Manjari Chakravarti


VISUAL ARTS: Somak Ghoshal

Manjari Chakravarti’s exhibition of drawings, paintings and installations at Akar Prakar (Ecriture III... and a few other things, till November 30) captivates the viewer at the outset, even though Chakravarti’s motifs, symbols and metaphors are drawn from fairly conventional iconographic traditions. There is a surreal allure to her work, which uses highly sexualized imagery: phallic cacti, bloodied petals, vagina dentata, floating spermatozoa, ovarian clusters. We move through a visceral wonderland of sorts, with the solitary figure of a woman, like a dystopian Alice, trailing us. Interspersed with the finely cross-hatched colours are words and phrases, enclosed within thought-bubbles, as if mumbled in a dream: phallus, bogus, priapus, fungus, octopus... the thread trails off into ennui, but not before leaving behind the resonance of two unspoken syllables: callous. Born, exclaims another drawing; we are tempted to fill in: forlorn. Between the artist and the viewer, a playful bond is created, as deadpan banter and prurient humour come together to form a secret code that runs through this show.

In her paintings, Chakravarti is more unabashedly intense, as she sheds the vestiges of frivolity to hit out with maximum effect. Shorn of the jokey interface, art and life merge into one little mass of fears, doubts and confusions. “Look not into the abyss or else the abyss will look into you,” warns a pen-and-ink drawing, showing a lonesome girl peering into the void from the top of a cliff. The same composition is also realized in acrylic, where the insistent warning, repeated like an incantation on the drawing, is replaced by a fierce medley of black and white strokes. In Earth, a minuscule human form, alone under a sky streaked with blue and red, heightens the barrenness of the surroundings (picture). At the still centre of Chakravarti’s work is this bleak solitariness, a vision of life in which the individual must reject the comfort of daily consolations, immerse herself in a ritual of relentless self-scrutiny, and tie up the odds and ends of collective life to the deepest structures of her thought. “Art is cerebral,” believes Chakravarti, “there are no two ways about it.”

In the final body of work, where found objects are assembled within wooden boxes, the artist gives shape to the fancies that cling on to real memories. Fragments from the ongoing life of reading, thinking, speaking, making, breaking, loving and hating are gathered into these exquisite cabinets of curiosities, just as facts, fictions and fantasies get tucked away into the nooks and crannies of our heads.