In Rabin Mondal’s most iconic paintings, amphibious characters resembling frogs stare out of the canvas. A founding member of the group Calcutta 8, Mondal made oil paintings that, like works by many of his modernist peers in Bengal, India, came from a place of great discomfiture. Having witnessed the Bengal Famine of the 1950s and the refugee crisis in the early 1970s, following the formation of Bangladesh next door, Mondal represented the human degradation that came out of loss, turmoil, and the complete depletion of economic resources.
Kingdom Of Exile at DAG (Delhi Art Gallery) Modern in New York is showing Mondal’s paintings from the late 1960s and ’70s, which best exemplify his deeply personal technique. In “Genocide” (1972), a deluge of semi-abstract forms present a mass group of people pressed together. Like totems portraying moments of crisis, expressions of anguish and defeat are carved into oval shapes with a palette knife alongside heads with horns. Elongated structures that represent trees, poles, and buildings cut across the canvas and evoke the topography of a landscape of destruction and distress. Thick, rough brushstrokes in shades of red, blue, and green distinguish an exodus of abstract shapes moving in unison.
Mondal’s depiction of trauma, like Picasso’s “Guernica,” is about the human condition during war. Unlike the revival of Neo-Expressionism by artists such as Georg Baselitz and Julian Schnabel in the ’70s and ’80s that came as a response to earlier movements of Minimalism and Pop Art, Mondal’s expressionistic style germinated from endemic despair. In his 1977 Crossing the Border series, the artist veers away from his rectangular and oval cubist shapes and depicts brutish images of three enervated men dragging a cadaverous cow along the road. Painted in bright hues of red and aquamarine, the artist personifies the grief and struggle of war.
Mondal is best known for his King series, including “King Dethroned” (1976) and “King Being Appeased” (1976), in which he overturns the abuse of authority and alludes to the damning isolation of individuals in a disorderly country at the time. Desolate and isolated, naked emaciated men, who might well be characters from outer space, give shape to Mondal’s earlier totemic forms. Forlorn and seemingly imprisoned in an empty room with red walls and black-and-red checkered floors, the pathetic and somewhat tragic-looking figures in both the paintings are quite obviously the antithesis of a king, and personify the starving, lonely denizens of Calcutta. However, Mondal’s most alluring and complex amphibious character appears in “Man Acting as King” (1982). Here resembling a seated frog, a bulging-eyed, broad-shouldered combination of man and animal is emblematic of both power and utter ignominy. Web-shaped feet and hands that signify inability further strip this “king” of his powers. But painted in green and ochre hues against a black background, Mondal’s iconic totem appears to be almost chameleon-like — threatening to change colors and form any moment.
Isolation and loneliness permeate all of Mondal’s pictures. Be it his abstract totems or his kings, their expressions are hauntingly bereaved. Often referring to his own isolation from being sick for many years as a child, Mondal’s images are steeped in a solitary battle. Life in the small, densely populated industrial town of Howrah, near Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he grew up, appears in the series of black and white watercolor, pen, and ink drawings made predominantly in the ’70s. Resembling the elongated faces of Native American totems and the childlike figures of the deities of Indian folk art, Mondal’s rigorous, line-filled works reflect his obsessive interest in form and tendency to depict couples alone but together.
However, Mondal never received the attention he deserved. Unlike the members of the Progressive Group in Bombay (now Mumbai), who pioneered the Indian avant-garde movement after independence in 1947, he and many of his peers in Calcutta failed to gather momentum. But like his contemporary Jogen Chowdhury, whose satirical portraits of life in Calcutta gained much acclaim, Mondal’s depiction of the same historical period warrants recognition for its dynamic, abstracted portrayal of the horrific aftermath of famine and war.
Kingdom of Exile: A Rabin Mondal Retrospective continues at DAG (Delhi Art Gallery) Modern (The Fuller Building 41 East 57 Street, Suite 708, Midtown East, Manhattan) through September 3.
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