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Visual Echoes

          Remembrance, like history, exists in the present even as it records the past.  Memory is aroused by recent events as is history stirred by contemporary life.  Indelible impressions that time fails to erase gain significance and transform into symbols that keep surfacing in the form of images as their visual equivalents.  Dattatreya Apte talks about Miraj, his village in Maharashtra, where he spent the formative years of his childhood, with a touch of nostalgia.  His sharp perceptions are informally verbalized in lingering speech.  However incomplete, they provide insights into the artist's personality as well as the artistic content of his work coloured by his early impressions.  His entire childhood witnessed the colossal presence of a huge banyan tree with open, grotesque roots spread wide.  Endless years of enduring existence had made it one with the space around, both seeming incomplete and inconceivable without each other.  ‘When my mind wanders to the village, the tree as an object form appears first', says Apte.  As a child, he used to perform a ritual everyday of collecting twigs and leaves around this tree, that were to be offered to deities.  They were not to be plucked, only picked up from among the fallen ones.  And so, the strong affiliation to the form.  Close by, a locally dreaded Shiv temple gave the village a mystical corner, evoking supernatural associations.  The vast fields each time ploughed, made a fresh pattern on the earth space, beautifying it and making it fertile.  Seeds plugged into formless layers of earth shot into concrete form, changing the physical make-up of the land with the

Seasons.  The undefined but smooth body of sand near the sea, always instantly invited a scratch, mark or scribble on it, which led to the building of sand castles. These are but a few images recurrent in Apte's memory, which, without his deliberate efforts at storing them, are in some way the referential substance in the artist's expression. 

          Apte holds true that humans cannot be separated either from history or from making it.  Human responses are not solely rooted in the immediate – we stretch our minds to go back and forth simultaneously, enjoying the gift of both, memory and imagination, resulting in conjugated images.  Apte's themes are timed with his different life experiences.  But the manmade environment, bearer of meanings, stories and associations remains Apte's recurrently favoured theme.  He seems to be inclined to relate to them, often mapping connections between the visible and the invisible form, in an abstract portrayal.  His eyes feast on the tempered fragments of a wall, on broken enclosures, confident arches and battered columns, all as bearers of what touched or bruised them. They speak of the aftermath, affirming the faith and power that was once conveyed through them.  As much as he is aware of urban town planning strategies, he is equally aware of the organic growth of the village, its beauty that lay more in its surprises and randomness that its measured areas, building through locally available material. 

          The modern artist, more than anyone else, has diverse mediums at hand to transfer his visual images into and he chooses as well as pursues them for long if they come to suit his temperament, themes and needs.  Apte has always been passionate about print-making, his most preferred medium.  He has been pursuing it now for almost twenty years with consistency, enjoying the versatility of the medium itself.  Graduating from Pune in 1974, he studies print-making at post-graduate level at the Faculty of Fine Arts, in Baroda, working with gifted artists and teachers like K.G. Subramanyam, Jyoti Bhatt and Jeram Patel.  He dabbled in all possible methods and techniques especially inspired by the sand-cast murals executed by K.G. Subramanyam at the faculty premises.  His earlier series on automobiles were in lithographs, etchings and engravings.  He migrated to Delhi, joining the Garhi artist studios to further his experiments with the medium.  The city initially imparted a feeling of uprooted ness to him and culturally seemed to have no recognizable colour, but he soon found how potent the city was to draw his themes from. His prints of this period, 1980 onwards, portrayed racing, shining automobiles, opulent show windows of Delhi bazaars, the flickering lights or streets flashing at night and innumerable ruins that dot the map of Delhi.  The urban and the rural in their strange marriage faithfully co-existent in every nook and comer of the cosmopolitan environment imparted an indelible character to it. 

          The city gave Apte enough scope to put his technical efficiency to good use.  There was a large body of prints produced by Apte then in series in different mediums.  After long years of experiments in relief and intaglio methods in printmaking, Apte's mode of working has moved from an impersonal one to quite an intimate one.  In the sense that in his earlier mezzotints, etchings and silk screens, technicalities tamed his instincts, placing demands on him to guard more than guide his creative procedure.  He worked with the support of mechanical presses, chemicals and the tools that depends on precise behavior for efficacy.  His need to move to the dimensional prints of his kind was for several reasons.  Firstly, the autonomy is promised in terms of working and expressing.  It meant non-commitment to outside pressures or external monitoring, as felt in institutional workshops that are to be utilized by one and all at the same time.  It is interesting to see how he achieves the desirable imagery in his prints presently, in the absence of technical assistance and heavy machinery.  The inventiveness of the artistic act has become increasingly important to him Also, Apte from the very beginning was interested in effects of three-dimensionality in his prints.  This he tried, using illusionistic effects by working out different subtle relief levels but the visual texture and the volume somehow fell short of the physical feel of dimensions.  So gradually he started to make his prints more tactile than visual by the art work itself acquiring physical dimensions.  The history of pint-making evidences that some aspect of depth has always existed in print-making, though in the last two centuries the ‘print' has been fuzzying its boundaries to acquire a painted surface and a sculptural body.  Dimensional prints accommodate such aesthetic cravings of the print-maker and have undoubtedly gained prominence in the West and now in our country too. 

          Dimensional prints evade a concise definition for they have enormous diversity.  The purist would require the dimensionality to be intrinsic to the printing operation as in a moulded paper print.  It would not be incorrect to assume that any print that attains some form of dimensionality in its surface should be classified as a dimensional print.  Such prints include the printing of an image on a three-dimensional surface, a two-dimensional print that has been cut, torn, punctured or constructed to achieve some degree of relief, the use of translucent or transparent surface with printed images in construction or overlaying with each other, the use of vacuum form print and many other techniques.  Eighteenth centaury Japanese wood-cuts utilized embossing that give the print a three-dimensional structure in some area.  Inkless embossing was occasionally experimented with in nineteenth century French prints.  In the hands of today's experimental artist, the print is close to being sculpturesque.  To gain high relief impression, artists are using lead intaglio prints and cast pulp prints.  Apte has been experimenting towards developing the physical body of a print, not seeing it in terms of a flat plane.  The inspiring forces have been the sand-cast murals executed by K.G. Subramanyam, the mud-well decorations of our folk traditions, the ritualistic objects made of papier mache pulp, use of broken tiles on mud, Harappan seals and Assyrian reliefs of Sumer, the Wounds series of Somnath Hore and the works of Robert Rauschenberg in the West, all leading to a new eclecticism. 

          Apte's present series are paper-pulp casts in which the images are arrived at through two different processes.  One in which he works by taking casts of a prepared mould.  He pours out hot wax in the manner of a sheet, producing a wax sheet on which he can either carve as he does in linocut, or cut the sheet into little stakes that he can press and fold to mould into numerous shapes varying in height.  Little found objects and discards get incorporated into them.  The collaged construction of the desired image is prepared.  Once this stage is ready, he pours liquid latex (rubber solution), brushing it over the constructed collage in about four to six successive coats and then allowing it to cure overnight.  A mother plaster mould is prepared to support the sensitive latex mould from getting fugitive during the application of the pulp paper.  Deciding a proper area around the image, silicone is sprayed over the latex, and plaster is sprayed over the mould to the height of the image and then leveled off.  Curing overnight, it becomes the mother mould that receives the latex mould, which in turn waits to receive the prepared pulp. 

          The working method draws a direct analogy with cooking.  In his studio it is almost like watching a skilled chef at work.  With an apron tied round his neck and a clock ticking on one of the shelves, Apte monitors his preparatory tasks that are loosely sequenced.  A complete floor space in his house has been converted into a studio, where he relaxedly spreads out the materials and objects needed for processing.  He begins to prepare the paper from used coloured hand-made sheets that have been soaked overnight.  Once moist and swollen, they are torn rather than cut in small pieces, almost in the manner of mincing by hand, rather than cutting them into small pieces.  Ready for grinding, the shredded ingredients enter an old kitchen grinder along with a few drops added as preservatives to save it from fungus.  A little natural glue is added to act as a binding agent.  The soft pulp gets prepared through grinding.  The pulp is spread out in the manner of a pulp sheet by hand pressing, draining off excess water by laying it on a home prepared vat.  The pulp then is gently pressed into the latex mould by fingers, sticks or spoons to reach deep corners and acquire the desirable shape.  Newspaper or sponge helps to suck out excess moisture from it.  The pulp stays there for two or three days to dry off naturally remaining in the shade, away from the direct sun and artificial air blowers.  

Once freed from the mould, Apte chooses to keep some of the paper pulp casts in pristine form, retaining their purity while he has all the freedom to apply local paint on the surface to give it distinction and a colourful resonating appearance.  Also, the paper-pulp casts derived from a latex mould preserve the ability to edition if necessary, allowing playful variations of one image.  That perhaps is a deeply internalized attitude of a printmaker who usually visualizes in terms of pulling out multiples.  Of late though, Apte shows more interest in the physical properties of the relief itself and thus breaks the boundary of the mould to create what he calls ‘unique'casts. 

          The other method employed by Apte now is to work directly with fresh paper pulp, shaping it instinctively, taking liberties with its malleability.  He exploits the possibility of working on it in succession to extract from its stages of wetness and dryness.  For example, he impresses certain object marks on the pulp when it is a little wet while he pricks the pulp with a needle when it is somewhat dry to record a clean cut.  He adds and subtracts, constructs and dissolves, revising his actions as he goes along, enjoying the adaptability of the medium and above all its forgiving nature.  Though in some ways he still is like a printmaker, in many more ways he now behaves unlike one.  He in fact aims towards a successful amalgamation of the nuances of all his mediums in order to enhance the ‘expressiveness' of the visual aesthetic experience in his work. 

          What I enjoy immensely in these later works, that directly play with pulp, is the quality of creative innocence and the look of an object grown rather than built.  Disdaining caution, Apte fearlessly wanders-the mind revealing itself through matter.  His primary tools are now his fingers that are more suited to subconscious working and lend themselves to a playful sense in the process.   The feeling of consciously holding an external tool is overcome.  Earlier, as a printmaker, the process of working never revealed itself in the product but with a direct working with pulp, Apte relishes the transparency of the process, its refreshing visibility.  He revels in the possibility of turning accidents into aesthetic elements.  He invents his own tools picking up broken parts of his child's toys, keys, strings, buttons and playfully impresses motifs that lose their isolated identity and get into coherent relationships.  Prints with playful variations on the image enjoy different treatment and colour to make their moody presences felt.  For example, he uses an old monochrome print as an architectural backdrop on which he superimposes the colossal tree image in physical relief, making variations on twin images, one more pronounced with black vegetable dye, burnished with a spoon to sharpen out details and add extra smoothness to them The window image is also playfully transformed.  The religious symbol placed in the static, open window changes the focus as our eye is drawn towards the reading of symbols. One notices his interest in collaging fragments of man-made environment in an aesthetic ensemble as seen in those images that pick up striking bits and attempt to tie them into a unified whole.  He tries to capture the textural feel of the physicality of wood planks, corrugated sheets, bolts, curtains etc., all colourfully represented in a new aesthetic space.  Cracks on a wall, scaled out parts, rusty edges, dents left by fallen nails, are evidence of Apte's microscopic eye that feasts on details of what the materials have gone through in time.  Fragments of a wall are magnified to capture rugged texture.  Alternatively, he puts his lens to use in a macroscopic sense, moving like a bird, to enjoy aerial mappings of earth and sea.  Depths excavated by man in the bosom of the earth, dots circumambulating a field, steps and ladders taking us up and down, all highlight the unevenness of things and the human craving to plant man-made geometry on Nature.  His interest in creating reliefs and pushing the eye into depth through cavities, niches and cracks is apparent. He paints over them to create light and shadow effects which enhance the feeling of depth.  He achieves a sandstone-like effect through coloured handmade paper reminiscent of stone reliefs and uses sharp, incisive lines to guide visual movement on the broken stone tablet.  Images though lose their sharpness with time, with nature working on them, yet evoke connectedness to the past agenda of man.  One observes different levels of impressing.  Apte develops, superimposes, adds, dissolves-all his acts primarily dependent on instinctive control.  He has worked for too long with a preconceived plan and structure; hence here one sees his inner need to break logical shackles and disrupt sequenced procedures, once the material is in hand.  He strives to be in a state of anxious expectation, to move, pause, and go on, to stop when he feels it is the right time. 

          Apte enjoys the creative process that shapes the formless into form, and offers innumerable alternatives.  For him these anonymous words which stir him communicate the breadth of pursuit in and through art….

           All things in creation exist within you,

          all things in you exist in creation.

          There is no border between you and the

          closest things;

          there is no distance between you and the

          farthest things 

          It is perhaps worth waiting to see what other dimensions slip into Apte's future ventures.

ART HERITAGE  -  December 1996

By Roobina Karode


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