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From wings to wheels
- Padma Jayaraj

October 13, 2017

‘Puppets & Birds’ by Satyapal T.A. (27th Aug to 18th Sept 2017) was an exhibition of paintings and graphics featuring works that speak of current realities in David Hall at Fort Kochi. Reminiscent of cave drawings in places like Bimbetka, the tribal motifs of Satyapal give an ironic dig at ‘civilized society.’ The texture of the backdrop is unique casting a rocky exterior to create the illusion of cave drawing suitable for his figures. He emulates the stylistic minimalism of tribal art to critique contemporary realism in its socio-political dimensions. Although linear, the figures have 3-dimentional quality as if illumined by lighting.

His monochrome paintings have figures infused with life by single dots of red or black. Each bird of the Birdscape is brimming with life as if its soul peeps through its eye, a speck as alive as the pupil of a human eye. The birdscape has a panoramic quality with roots in the tribal belief. The artistic perceptions of Satyapal have been shaped by his long sojourns in the tribal belt of central India. He has great regard for the culture of the tribal communities: their primitive philosophy, love of nature, mythmaking imagination, and the autonomy that they practice in familial, economic, and political life of their communities. Consequently, his art reflects the tribal influences in techniques and inclinations. The bird series has layers of narratives. While the winged beings, airborne, stands for freedom evoking the mythical beings of many primitive and ancient cultures with divine dimension, the two birds perched upon a tree is an interesting story.

The artist recalled Boturam, a Muria Gond sculptor who etched two birds on a wooden pillar: the big one, up on a branch and the other, smaller in size, down below. Evidently, they are not the couple of our imagination, or the mother-child with which we are familiar, but the longing of a tribal heart for rebirth as a bird, “perching on the foot of a hill where flowers resemble flames, where stars afloat ….when the  son dies he will also come there as a bird…” Bastar abounds in such memory pillars, each etched with images of birds, animals etc, the after-life persona of the dead. Satyapal’s fascination for such myth making is reflected in his canvass as well. The series of congregation of birds in different hues bring to mind the chronicles of ‘Animal Planet.’ If they are a reality check, the artistic narratives are visually appealing compositions. At the other end we find birds fitted with wheels in an interior as if their wings are frozen. Here comes the symbolic aspect that connects the notion of freedom with our civilizational advances. The bird is cast as a primitive toy, a puppet. Somewhere, we recall the wheel, a leap in our advancement - the invention of wheel with which speed began, perhaps, curbing sublime human imagination. The onlookers are ushered into the world of puppets critiquing the modern life with accent on speed.


The Toy Seller



The world of the puppets, like children’s classic, looms larger than life. It has the sharp edge of a cartoonist version of life. ‘The Toy Seller’ is the best example of this razor’s edge pointing to the irony of selling: the economic terms that destroy all that is humane in the name of development. The theme of migration resonates with great poignancy not only in the context of India’s tragic history, but also in the light of the refugee crisis that the world faces everywhere. The headless figure of a woman mechanically following her man who cut her head off, highlights the suffocating ‘Patriarchy’ that annihilates half of the world population. The figures look like primitive toys very much alive in the heart of India’s villages even now, where Barbie and Spiderman and their ilk adorn the showcase. ‘Puppets on wheels’ is an ironic depiction of the  Frankenstein monster that Mary Shelly prophesied long ago.

“After listening to their fantasies and gaining a deeper perspective of their visual sensibilities, I began to empathise with them,” said the artist. Indeed his first solo show in twelve years, ‘Birds & Puppets’ is a tribute to a “phenomenal empathy with the tribal people in India” to quote Johnny M.L, the noted art critic based in Delhi. And Satyapal has done a lot to bring marginalized indigenous art to the mainstream in his official capacity as the Secretary of Kerala Lalitkala Akademi and the Regional Lalitkala Akademi for the past many years. As the Chairman of the Kerala Lalitkala Akademi today, he is still crusading for art and artists as his mission in life.

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer on the arts and a regular contributor to