Without realising it you begin to breath more deeply before Laxman Shreshtha's new paintings many of them large diptychs whose overwhelming scale and splendor compel a bodily response. Their basic vocabulary is conservative, not experimental: high ridges and valley slopes torched by the sun, sharp crevasses and abysses rimmed by empty sky. But soaked in restless, radiant colour and refined to notation of force, these landscapes achieve the intensity of invocation, become a hymnal refrain of mountains, a celebration of infinitude.
Laxman Shreshtha has stepped out of the slow road into the hills that he has walked for nearly a decade, past forms suggestive of pellucid lakes and isolated woods surmounted by clouds. Towards the end that walk had become ritual, formulaic in its gestures; and it is as well that Shreshtha has changed direction.
Currents of resurgent energy now course through his pigment; the canvasses crackle with the friction of planes shifting against one another. And you, as you view this topography, find no position from which to parachute down into vistas that recede, only to forcefully re-assert themselves. Indeed, these perspectives are often so precariously projected, that ideally, the viewer ought to adopt a hovering stance to do them justice. And then, the ranged horizons appear, not as forbidding palisades but as presence's splintered by the sky's weight avalanching their freight of sienna and amber towards the foreground, towards the eye.
" I have always been preoccupied with expanses," says Shreshtha.
It is significant that his chief visual impressions of Siraha, the Nepali village where he was born in 1939, are of a plain dotted with a few trees, with mountains rearing in the background. That sensation of a momentous vastness creating a stage for the self to compose itself has recurred constantly in his paintings; he seems forever to be reconstructing that past in his motifs as a base from which to make fresh departures.
Shreshtha's personal choices have taken him far away from Siraha; but in the white-walled studio where he paints, the artist asks for little more than solitude, a stillness in which he can layer over those first memories, the experience of every other openness that he has sought out: the North Sea islands where he once wintered; the Tungabhadra river, along which he has trekked for days; the miles of natural wilderness stretching endless in every direction, which entranced him in Kenya; Kerala's mountains, which he regards as a spiritual home, a sort of southern Himalayas, "After such experiences, " he broods, " you cannot come back the same.''
The notion of a spiritual home is one that has exercised him greatly, and at no time more oppressively than in the '70s, when he felt trapped between contrary decisions, countries and urges.
"I had a loving wife, I had no complaints about my painting, but an inexplicable confusion drove me almost to suicidal madness," he recalls.
Describing this moment as a "crossing of the abyss", he looks back with gratitude to the intervention of his friend and fellow painter, V.S.Gaitonde, who introduced him to Nisargadatta Maharajan unassuming seeker of bliss. This encounter had a calming effect, and during the same period, Shreshtha also took to reading the canonical texts of Brahminism and Buddhism; the only durable homelands are those that you carry with you, in the imagination.
So that although the grandeur of his landscapes proposes an extension of the self into the universe, this desire for transcendental union is propelled by a migrant's overriding sense of mingled vulnerability, curiosity and fear.
I am at home everywhere, "that artist smiles, but you suspect that he is at ease only in the landscapes that his magical skills summon to life.
The dialectic between the home and the world is not the only one mediated in Shreshtha's paintings: his structures reverberate with a series of oppositions. The moody lyricism of his images can suggest tranquillity as swiftly as it can anxiety; it negotiates a formal counterpoint between balance and disturbance, integrates fragments only to set them once more adrift.
"My paintings always begin with scratches or layers of paint that gradually grow into planes," he says, his pleasure palpable. "Tensions are created on the surface, and then questions break cover. As the paint is banked down or piled up, or stripped away to reveal the layer beneath, a game, a mystery develops."
In their see-sawing unpredictability, Laxman Shreshtha's abstractionist, metaphors are intimately reflective of natural processes.
If the mural-scale embodiment of the natural forces in oils defines the compositional pole of Shrestha's project, the opposite, improvisational pole is seen to advantage in his charcoal drawings, and in the mixed media works on paper, which in corporate china ink, watercolour and sennelier pastel. A fine-tuned calligraphic sensibility operates here, heaping broken cities on dark plateau and opening doors into shadowed hills.
"I like to play off strong accents against delicate rendering, "notes the artist, adroitly manipulating these strategies to set up a rhythmic exchange between the tentative tremolo of laminae and the assurance of the black stroke that slashes through them, between the atmospheric mistiness and the harshly contoured highland around whose edges it vanishes.
References dissociated from their visual moorings, Laxman Shreshtha's images memorialize the representational in the very act of dissolving it. "mountains. trees, mirroring in water - the external world of sense impressions is important to me," reflects the artist." but painting, for me, are spiritual exercises through which I attempt to express the intangible, those subtle- ties which cannot easily be named in shapes or words."
The central contradiction in Shreshtha's work is the one that besets the work of any painter possessed of a spiritual project. How does one reconcile the quest for the intangible and formless, with the sensuous, tactile materiality of the painted image? At every level, Shreshtha draws upon energies released by these conflict of imperative, evident in the engagement between structural austerity and unabashed coloristic opulence.
Through meticulous elaboration, he patterns a teeming life across the surfaces at his disposal. Sudden whites thrust out azures and ochre's; the percussive strokes of red sound upon the sonority of blues; fireballs of yellow and purple flame against the edgy blue of ice.
Shreshtha has transmuted the landscape into a system of harmonic elegance. Aspiring to the condition of epiphany, the painting glows with an aura; the shimmer and blaze are signs of the majestic otherness of the universe, of the numinous.
Written By: Ranjit Hoskote, December 11th, 1994
The Sunday Times of India