An artist is free to express his vision in any manner or mode of his choice. Today, that can range from the outlandish to bizarre to downright crazy—instances of self-mutilation as performance art come to mind. A much older—classically older, in fact—deviation from the usual is choosing to paint or carve out an artwork on three surfaces instead of one. Paintings and photographs that consist of three panels—the middle panel often being bigger than the side panels—are called triptychs.
Trifectart: (above) Riyas Komu’s Mr Panopticon; and Atul Dodiya’s Tomb’s Day.
Why would someone want to make a painting in three pieces instead of one? Artist Riyas Komu—who has been gaining steady recognition in India as well as internationally, and is known for his diptychs (a work done in two panels) and triptychs—tries to explain with an analogy: A person can take a walk in the park alone quietly or he can walk with another person and there is dialogue between them; and if a third person joins them, the whole affair takes on a public aspect. Komu is talking about flow—about the artist’s desire to create a dynamic that cannot be expressed in one panel. He is talking about telling a story that requires more than one canvas.
He cites the example of his triptych Mr Panopticon, which he made for a show to raise funds for inmates at the Tihar central jail in New Delhi. The two side panels of the print feature an old diagram of the panopticon—an influential building design for a prison that was first conceived in the 18th century to enable constant and cost-effective surveillance of the inmates. Superimposed on the diagram in the third panel is the grinning skull, a recurring motif in Komu’s work, and the figure of a boy—a fan of the national Iraqi football team—taken from another series that Komu did earlier. The middle panel has a portrait photo of a tribal boy from India.
There is a multitude of references in the work, leaving plenty of scope for interpretation. “The story becomes three dimensional in its political references,” explains Komu. He likens the idea of being watched at all times by an unseen entity to the idea of God and to that of a dictator of a state. The triptych format, he feels, “allows you to have a conversation”.
Besides the need to express his or her creative vision, there may be more mundane and practical considerations for an artist to make a triptych. As Jagannath Panda—another young, rising star in the contemporary art scene—points out, there can be technical grounds and conceptual grounds for making one. “Conceptual” refers to artistic reasons and “technical” to the plain fact that sometimes when a canvas is too big to paint on or to carry around, it is simpler to divide it into smaller pieces.
Komu recalls when he made a work in three panels for purely practical considerations. He had graduated with a master’s in fine arts from the Sir JJ School of Art, was living in a shared flat in Mumbai and making a large-sized work titled Man Committing Suicide. It was, he says, a “venting” of the stress and strain faced by a young artist trying to find his feet in the big city. He didn’t have a studio at the time and the only space to paint was the terrace upstairs. Carrying the charcoal and mixed media work was not practical, so Komu says he opted to make it in three separate parts which made the work a triptych, sort of.
He calls it a “structural device” which made the work easier to handle and transport, but also adds that the three conjoined panels lent “a larger reality—in a three dimensional way” to the melange of themes he was tackling in the work—suicide, slum-dwellers, immigrants in the metropolis, and the personal coping with the hard reality after leaving the cocoon of college.
Senior artist Atul Dodiya though is clear that just because a large work is cut into two or more parts for easy transport, it does not become a triptych. Over the years, Dodiya has made many triptychs and one, titled Tomb’s Day, hangs at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi. He says it is all about how the work is conceived.
“It may not start as a triptych,” he explains. “It may start with one panel and then it demands more explanation. You feel you want to add another panel, so you have a diptych. But then you feel three panels will convey what you are trying to say.”
He describes his triptych Ancestor, with the middle panel depicting a large tree trunk and the far panels showing the spread branches—it could, he says, be seen as a chopped tree and also as a whole tree that is spreading out.
Dodiya speaks with feeling about the triptychs made by one of his favourite artists, the late English painter Francis Bacon. He marvels at Bacon’s “animated sense of location” in a work that shows a man in three postures and positions in the same space. Dodiya points out that the work and others similar to it done by Bacon have no narrative or story, and yet posses a dynamism that has a “fantastic impact”. Triptychs, he says, can accommodate works that are “epic and elaborate”, recalling another notable work—the Shantiniketan triptych painted by Tyeb Mehta which hangs at the NGMA, right next to Dodiya’s own Tomb’s Day.