Urban sprawl is nothing new. Bangalore the city where Suresh Jayaram was born, raised, lives, and works is an especially stark example of unbridled, unplanned, and corrupt growth. The sprawl has consumed large numbers of trees and the once verdant Garden City, Air-Conditioned City, and Pensioners’ Paradise is now rapidly deteriorating into a concrete jungle. Always a nightmare for asthmatics and allergy-prone people, it is increasingly becoming inhospitable.
Fortunately, Bangalore also has an important legacy of lung spaces; they help Bangalore breathe. The botanizing of the City by the British constructed a hybrid landscape with a wide variety of botanical imports from different parts of the world. This made for the diversity of vegetation of the city and the changing urban landscape. These lung spaces are all cultural landscapes – deliberate interventions that have sought to maintain a certain canopy to help mitigate the increasing noise, dust, chemical, and spiritual pollution that has come with Bangalore’s increasing and questionable “global status.” Money pours in, and it exacts a heavy, and green, price.
Parks and gardens are human efforts to assemble, preserve, celebrate (physically and spiritually), connect with some desired geographies, and constitute a health-affirming and health-seeking behavior. These are interventions that not only recapitulate but also affirm the need to be and the fact of being part of both nature and Nature.
The parks and gardens (also the tanks) of Bangalore are a valiant, and increasingly desperate, attempt of right-minded individuals from many walks of life to keep the city, and its denizens, breathing. There must be some spaces around the city for its and its people’s anuloma and viloma. These lung spaces are the keys to Bangalore’s praanaayaama. These are attempts of urban culture seeking nature.
Homo ambiensis is alive and well; thank goodness for this! Planting and promoting greater floration and foliation involves many different modes of action. The silent, passive user of the gardens and parks who only walks there every morning, doing his/her constitutionals; the lovers who have only those spaces to speak of their love whether it is the kind that dare speak its name or not; the reader who wishes to withdraw with a good tome; the aspirant who wishes to meditate in silence among benevolent sylvan presence with the hearty birdsong therefrom; all of these affirm the importance of these parks and gardens in the City that otherwise is in real danger of becoming reduced to a collection of bricks and mortar. Not all of it tastefully arranged either.
Into this space comes the artist, concerned citizen, who participates, captures, and expresses a deep and abiding love for this effort at finding and fostering the Natural amid the chaos of the artificial – Suresh Jayaram; artist, art historian, and concerned citizen.Bangalore is the subject and object of his concerns.
Bangalore has been a concern for Suresh Jayaram for many years. In many previous shows, he has engaged with this concern overtly and with passion. About his first one-person show (Sakshi Gallery, Bangalore, 1998), art critic Martha Jakimowicz wrote in the catalogue:
“Suresh Jayaram’s work is all about looking closely and with rough tenderness, at organic things. The innocence of direct participation in Nature may be completely lost for a city dweller; yet, the artist responds, in his own way, to the natural landscape that still survives around him. His urban sensibilities evolve a language of emotion and thought which registers the rupture and bond of nature. He leans low towards it, his chest filled with accepting warmth and questioning curiosity.”
In “My City” in (Sakshi Gallery, Bangalore, 2001) Suresh said in the catalogue:
“My work has been closely connected to nature in an urban environment. I am concerned about its fragile ecosystem surviving amidst the global climb of the cyber city. It addresses issues that are here and now; it visually speaks about an artist’s role in the dynamics of the city.”
Suresh locates himself in the city by mapping the city’s topography much like a cartographer. His work is prompted by concerns related to the city and how one occupies it. His images seek Bangalore’s local legacy and sensibility amidst an increasingly global sensibility here; reckless environmental change, attitudinal changes (from put-on accents to consumerism; a blind and exasperating “exoticization of the endemic”). In this process, he recollects his ancestry. It is an autobiographical search for his roots and identity. The visual artist locates himself in a hereditary community of farmers and horticulturists who played a significant role in developing Bangalore into a Garden City.
His morning walks in the Botanical Garden (Lalbagh) or Cubbon Park are his enjoyment of the garden of earthly delights. These daily perambulations of Suresh’s approach Shankara’s profound line to Shiva, “Movement with my feet is clockwise circumambulation of Thee” –– only here, prakrti (nature), however human-contrived in its organization, connects to Shiva, the purusha (deity).
In the context of contemporary Indian art, what is Suresh Jayaram’s location?
He is one of a new breed of artists speaking in a new vernacular visual language beyond the high modern classicism. Their eclectic strategies incorporate a new range of stances that are hybrid, plural, and pan-cultural. Functioning in this realm is an ongoing, but very productive, struggle for these artists. While they go against established representations, they also have to work within the contemporary contexts to support themselves. Thus, they write, curate, experiment with multimedia etc.
The challenge today is the subversion of the art-object while still sustaining material exploration beyond pre-occupations with the art market. Artists’ explorations with materials and conceptual strategies have been nurtured by organizations and individuals, making these subversions possible. Examples include artists’ camps like Khoj in Delhi and many individual attempts in Bangalore. Camps like these have consciously encouraged exploration in material and made visual art more public.
Suresh keenly observes the cycle of nature unfolding in the City known for its cybernetic pre-eminence. It is a romantic obsession with the fragile remains of the lung spaces of the City. Are they on a rapid path to extinction?
Clearly he is concerned with the continued sustenance of these remains, even expansion of these lung spaces. As an environmentalist and artist he tries to preserve and nurture the fragile. His studio and house have a diverse collection of seeds and plants collected from different parts of the world; the artist is a keen horticulturist himself. A large almond tree, older than the artist himself, stands as a benevolent protector of the artist’s space. The entire edifice was built without disturbance to this elderly presence.
Nothing is ever plucked from a plant; these are already given by the sylvan presence to Earth, and Suresh picks them up with all the love, care, and even grateful reverence for a gifting Cosmos.
The work titled Love on a park bench is an arrangement of flowers shaped like two hearts with frangipani flowers from the local trees. It is a fragile site-specific installation in a public park; a spontaneous gesture that locates private desires in public. It speaks about love and longing; loss and desire; public and private in one simple but evocative juxtaposition of found objects/flowers from the park floor.
He extends the same strategy in Red river, a work using the red Gulmohar flowers ubiquitous in Cubbon Park. He arranges these bright red petals like a river trickling from a large granite rock that is naturally split in the center. Red river is a recollection of violence; the red flowers ooze out like blood from the body. It is also an act of mourning for the environmental violence of the times. It is, as well, a metaphor for life’s transience, a river of red flowers in a public space lasting just for that moment till curious tourists and inquisitive school children trample it.
Lately, he has been taking digital photographs using his shadows during his morning walks in the public parks, documenting the ephemeral nature and the self.
In the 2003 Khoj International Workshop held in Bangalore, Suresh continued to address the issue of urbanization and the environment. He used a large ‘mug shot’ portrait of himself on an easy arm chair. This was suspended on a granite wall of the local museum overlooking an artificial landscape; a ready-made garden that raises issues about artificial landscaping in the city. The self-portrait locates the artist in this context of an installation: a passive armchair, a vulnerable situation where the viewer is challenged to sit on a chair that is suspended in midair.
Suresh’s efforts resonate with a global community of artists. The acknowledgements of, and accolades for, his work stand testimony to this.
The first such international accolade was the Charles Wallace grant (2004) from the British Council. This provided international exposure and affirmed the global relevance of his concerns.
Tate Modern (London) has also affirmed the work of this new breed of artists (of whom Suresh is a part) by listing his work in Magnificent materials: an art-appreciation project with some of the international names using materials as metaphors are listed (2006).
There is a passionate continuity in the artist’s works from his early preoccupations and the recent fragile installations in public spaces. He locates himself in the sprit of artists everywhere (e.g., Andy Goldsworthy) working with the elements of nature and the changing dynamics of using organic materials.
The artist works to keep the urban organism breathing.
Chandra Shekhar Balachandran, Ph.D.
Dr. Balachandran is a cultural geographer increasingly drawn to the works of artists such as Suresh Jayaram and their work with extant landscapes. He is the Founder and Chairman, The Dharani Trust, Bangalore.