We relate to animals in a variety of ways. With paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations by 22 young and mid-career Indian artists, The Human Animal is an ambitious attempt at examining and reflecting upon some of this variety—the show focuses on the welter of feelings fellow creatures who inhabit the planet evoke in us, while also commenting on how we treat them.
Animation: (clockwise from top right) One...Two...Three, Tooshum by Gurusidappa; Sursa Attacks Hanuman by Champa S.; and Animated Holocaust by George Martin. Courtesy Threshold Art Gallery
So, for all the abundance of animal figures, the real subject of the show—like most art—is man. “I felt the need to relate to issues and the human condition through animal imagery,” says Marta Jakimowicz, the show’s curator, explaining its genesis. “There is a compulsion (among us) to relate to them as they partly resemble us—their bodies and emotions, their behaviour is not so different from ours.”
This resemblance and kinship has been expressed since the earliest times in the form of hybrid human-animal figures, and there are plenty of those in the show. The duality of likeness and otherness finds an elegantly simple and effective representation in Jehangir Jani’s shiny, smooth and featureless metal human heads with carnival masks—bear and monkey snouts—affixed on them and, in the third instance, crowned by the horns of an oryx.
Other hybrid forms have been employed here in service of that old theme—to show the “beast inside man”. “Often animals represent the darker, aggressive side of us, which we try to cover up and hide,” says Jakimowicz. “We impose our traits on animals.” Animal attributes symbolizing our follies are represented in Piyali Ghosh’s paintings of a caricaturized grimacing man with a long phallic tail-like extension, surrounded, for good measure, by dogs and pigs wearing similar expressions.
In a similar vein are the five colour pencil drawings in the Nomad series by Viraj Naik, representing man’s sexual id, as beaked and ox- headed men with clothed upper bodies and naked legs straddling four-legged creatures of indistinct provenance. The tone is set in Nomad II, where the animal’s thick and long neck doubles as the penis of the man straddling it. A more benign fusion can be seen in the delicate watercolours by Mithu Sen which, like Jani’s heads, merge the human and animal in a way that reminds you of their common origin.
Kinship and shared origins apart, the bald fact is that, overwhelmingly, animals for us are objects of consumption. The artworks in leather by Aku and Shanthamani—notably, a stitched piece by Aku that looks like a mutated baseball glove and, if your gaze lingers for bit, like a beaten and worn-down bison—remind us of this stark truth.
Arun Kumar’s depictions of animals yoked into human service, are not jarring because their servitude is sanctified by tradition. The soothing seated Nandi bull figure is fashioned out of mud, straw dust and cow dung, as are his framed reliefs of cow’s udders.
Udders reinforce our likeness to, and dependence on, other mammals. In the form of human breasts, they represent both mother’s milk and objects of sexual desire—something that is driven home dramatically by Shanthi Swaroopini’s She, a fibreglass sculpture of a naked hairy-backed woman on her fours, with five pairs of swollen breasts hanging from her belly as if she were a suckling sow. Gopikrishna taps the same vein in his lush oil on canvas, which shows a female wolf in a sylvan setting, with two calves and a strange man-child figure nursing at her swollen teats.
You could argue that viewing the animal as a mother, nursing and nourishing us, is just another way of stating our absolute domination, at the top of the evolutionary ladder, over all other creatures. This is brought home starkly in the installations of Vinod Patel, where bright beetle-like insects rest on a giant human finger inside a sealed wooden box—the insect’s fate is uncertain, hinging on the whim of a four-year-old perhaps.
On the whole, The Human Animal, with its diversity of subject, approach and media employed to make art, is an exuberant and optimistic commentary on the state of contemporary Indian art.
Organized by the Threshold Art Gallery, The Human Animal opens at the Arts i gallery, Connaught Place, New Delhi, on 18 March.