Amidst animal world, horse has continued to engage the mind of artists since times immemorial in all cultures across the globe, as reflected in the prehistoric renderings of hunting scenes on cave walls at Bhimabetaka in India, the royal processions and stories featured in Persian and Mughal miniatures dated 16 century to equestrian paintings of European artists such as George Stubbs in the 18th century and more recent abstracted sculptural works by American artist Deborah Butterfield or the engaging paintings by India’s own legendry MF Hussain. Treated initially as a wild creature hunted for meat; horse got domesticated as people took to farming and horse power began to play multiple roles in warfare, travel, myth, ceremony and symbolism. Given a remarkable bond between the man and the animal the beauty, power and dynamics of the stallion’s form have been persistently depicted with great fascination by numerous classical, folk and contemporary artists in a wide variety of ways and Amitesh Verma’s creative overture seems to rhyme with this context.
Horsing around with Amitesh
The artist’s fascinating repertoire of work focusing on the stallion’s lithe physique, strong spirit and engaging character carries this search a step forward through the animal farm. The fluent lines, flowing geometric forms, taut curves and counter-curves of the body, selectively bathed in colour bring his racing horses alive. There are plump or buoyant characters as well as lean ones, in pensive mood, profiled in imposing canvases. Drawn in meticulous details are their faces, torsos, legs and limbs with tails flying. Each one is created differently, positioning their faces, bodies and feet in singular directions- sitting, standing, running or rearing to go, while there are also complex compositions with vertical faces and horizontally placed torsos in browns and ochre over black and white. Some of his horses adorn an innocent look or an enquiring mode while others are shown with nostrils blown. There is a fleet of sturdy bodied galloping stallions at the race course in different stages of preparedness ready to strike. One might also see a horse just relaxing or lost in its own world or in pairs or groups of two, three or more in a face to face encounter or entangled with each other, one hiding behind the other, ears down, or eyes wide open. Amitesh’s horse farm includes compositions in variable moods and appearances featuring stallion couples or pairs fondling and cuddling each other in love- be it sexual or motherly or brotherly or sisterly or just friendly!
But where did the artist’s infatuation come from and how did it all begin? For someone bom in a middle class family at Chapra in Bihar, who studied Botany before turning up in Delhi to study art at the College of Art in the city, it was a totally unfamiliar domain that he entered by chance when he visited the Capital’s race course with a friend whose father looked after the stable there. It was a point of no return for Amitesh whose work until then encompassed a varied repertoire including portraits, narrative paintings, landscapes and nudes, that he had started making when still at college to earn a living. Of special beauty are his nudes- particularly women that he painted from live models where the sensuousness of their bodies made them appear like nymphs. A bitter experience however brought about a change in his art track and he began to explore the metaphysical world as reflected in works such as anubhuti, or way to heaven or his painting of a Guru with his sainterly countenance, flowing beard and calm took exuding compassion and blessings. It is only when the artist found his muse finally in the magnificent creature that his work began to show a maturity and a consistency in form and technique.
A love for animals in general is manifested in Amitesh’s work that also includes a few paintings of dogs. However it is the horse that he finds of perennial interest and “a symbol of power”. Searching, studying, re-tracking and following them consistently over the years at race courses, stables, stud farms and on the streets the artist has been taking notes, making sketches and painting their shapes and positions, to give each of his creations a personality and a story. Closing in on their facial expressions, he looks into their eyes or the turn of their head, position of their legs or wagging of their tails as if having a heart to heart with them!
The suite of charcoal drawings and paintings in water colours and oils in the current exhibition include a wide variety of images of the stallion including some colossal life- sized works in 8’x7′ paintings that explore the animal form, its anatomy, structure and mood. The titles given to the works, such as Friends, Family and Melody, point to the human characteristics that Amitesh accords to his studs. Mixing drawings in graphite and charcoal and studies in pen and pencil with paintings in soft colours alternating with vibrant reds, oranges, yellows, blues and greens, he creates a stunning palette and fine compositions. Most of his drawings and studies emerge from his long hours spent at the race course in Delhi during numerous visits over the years. “These horses though mostly female, eat a lot and they are more powerful than ordinary horses as they exercise a lot.” The artist takes pain to sketch and paint them in detail drawing the viewer’s attention to “the beauty of their sheared shining bodies” There is a focus on the anatomy and structure of the stud and to quote the artist, “If you know the anatomy you can draw and paint anything, be it man or animal”. Working in life size paintings of horse in oils on canvas as well as smaller drawings in charcoal and pen on paper, his detailed and intricate renderings of the animal appear pensive and refreshing, emotive of companionship and love. “My research shows horses move a lot, in quick sharp moves. When they hear a sound their ears stand up like radars and their eyes usually open”, says the artist. Their human friendly nature and comradeship with one another is reflected in their preference for walking in pairs or movement in groups. And these are some of the features that Amitesh has attempted to capture in his sketches, drawings and paintings of the stud. The current collage includes horses in resting position in some paintings as in New forest whilst in others they are in action- galloping see Racer, jumping ‘Stealer and striking Dartmoor. Prancing polo players in the race course are suddenly seen turning tame faithfully in front of their master in works such as Harness Racing.
One can see the horse snort in Mother and Child II while in Sympathy see one horse trying to sympathize and console the other that reflects the personal tension that the artist was going through at the time when painting the work. With its feet above the ground as if flying in the air, the stud in Pegasus-11 transcends from being an exotic animal to being a dreaming creature. The excitement of moments before the start and also action of the race are expressed in these works as beautifully as the power of the horse in some of their large stone and bronze sculptures that adorn some of the Victorian era buildings in Kolkata and Mumbai. The portrayal with front legs extended forward and hind legs stretched rearwards, make evocative illustration of the gait of the horse in motion. The artist finds horse and other works by masters Michael Angela, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and William Turner very inspiring but unlike them or other impressionist artists from European and Arabian cultures. Amitesh sees; horse more as a man’s companion rather than a glorified possession as signifier of royal grandeur or authority. His work highlights a fundamental friendship between the animal and humanity with a shared spirit and feelings of joy and pain as depicted in Childhood friends. There is a touch of abstraction in his animal figuration that searches inwards into Indian mythology b1turning the stud into partly human and partly heavenly incarnation, where a fickle-minded person is likened to a wild stallion while a wise man is like a disciplined horse, pious enough to pull God’s chariot like ‘Pashunath’. One could also see indirect references to Lord Indra’s ‘Ucchaishrava’ or a recall to historic ‘Chetak’ or the legend of Lord Rama’s ‘Ashwamedh Yagya’ in some of his work including Galloping-ll. In fact horse in Indian folk lore, religious annotations and popular culture is believed to bring prosperity, joy and immortality all around and is the trigger for Amitesh’s works such as Hunting Horse and Companions.
Form & Technique
Researching, studying and practicing on the theme regularly for the last many years, the artist seems to have finally achieved a finesse to get his figuration right. “I am not interested in a photo finish or a realistic re-play of the scene” says Amitesh who does not take recourse to photography but has made numerous sketches and drawings while observing the horses at the race course. Recreating the images subsequently as art works triggered by his studies together with an imaginative intervention, he is now paintings some amazing compositions directly onto the canvas. He finds life size “more exciting and challenging as I can work in large sweeps of brush strokes” but small size he finds easier to handle as “it can be done more peacefully within less time and with better concentration”. Though his current preference is for larger size he has also made some fine works in smaller format.
Amitesh’s drawings in monochromatic strokes seize the angular movements of his muse’s limbs sometimes in a frontal perspective and at others in side or hind purview. The texture on the surface is laboriously built painting in oils and acrylic and scratching with palette knife or sand paper to give it a cross hatching or stone effect. In free strokes with brushes of different sizes and thicknesses, he embraces a spectrum of myriad hues black, white, ochre, time green, browns, pale yellow and turquoise often mixing them with different types of turpentine, adhesives as well as charcoal pencil and pen work. He plays with light and shade, as his stallion begins to assume a distinct personality and mind of its own be it docile or wild, confined or free. He prefers the roughness of canvas to paper and enjoys working in oils to paint his favourite black and brown riding racing horses.
There is an incessant flow of horses from the artist’s staple. Some of them appear more defined and coloured while others tentative and pensive- standing, sitting or lying down. The artist seems to revel in painting their elongated necks, big bodies and shining tight skin that come from cross breeding and the diet and exercise they get”. There a lyrical movement in the works that brings alive their fast pace of running at hundred km per hour in carefully planned line drawings and brush strokes. The surface is not submerged with renderings and the imagery is interspersed with drawings in the foreground and blank space in the background for better effect. Stallion, the humanly beast of the animal farm emerges with distinct characteristics in the Art of Amitesh Verma as his search for the fascinating creature continues to explore it in newer forms and nuances.
VENUE: Jehangir Art Gallery
161 B, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Fort,
Mumbai- 400 001
DATE: 9th– 15th September 2008