The Week - Political and Social News Magazine
07/03/1993 , By Vijaya Pushkarna
FRAMES OF FANTASY
Diwan Manna’s brand of artistic expression has clicked
WHEN Diwan Manna, an artist from Chandigarh, says “come and see my work”, one lands up expecting to be shown some serious but prosaic pictures of poverty in different forms – rickshawallahs, dhabawallahs, itinerant vendors and women and children in agony, the all-time favourite theme with artists of all medium. But his colour-splashed photographs of stars, trees, mermaids, unicorn, flowers, motorcycles, children swimming on the grass and trees growing in a star-strewn sky by daylight are refreshingly different and simple.
That is because these are indeed painting efforts of children. The photographer-artist had ‘directed’ them to ‘still act’ between their painting and his camera, to make his own work: photographs of children juxtaposed with or superimposed on their own work. The unusual combination of the easel painting-acting-camera has become Diwan’s own brand of artistic expression.
“I don’t know whether I should call myself an artist or photographer yet… it is my dilemma,” says the 34-year-old bearded man. “But I suppose you can settle for artist, because though I finally use a camera and the finished product is a photograph, being an artist does not limit my medium of expression.”
Diwan’s choice of fusing three different mediums is not surprising. He began with theatre when still a student of graphic art and print making at the Chandigarh Art College a little over 10 years ago. Theatre was street theatre on serious social issues. That experience combined with close friendship with the poets, writers and painters of the region led him to mix and match.
He began using paintings done by his teachers as backdrops for photographs of actresses who worked with him. He played director to the actresses, as well as the photographer, for photography was also a subject in his art course. Diwan chose the clothes and make-up of the actresses, as also their expressions which he froze in the camera. Later, in the dark room he played with the colours until he reached something close to what the artist in him had visualized. This painting-acting-photo synthesis became the art form of his choice.
The painting Diwan initially used as back-drops for this collage or montage were of his college senior Viren Tanwar, whose work was immediately recognizable by the headless human forms filled with zebra stripes in different colours and his teacher Raj Jain’s painting of brick walls sometimes crumbling sometimes supporting. According to Diwan the headless forms were just the right backdrop for him to depict the contemporary violence that was just beginning to rock the country in a big way in the early 1980s, through the facial expressions of women who were most affected by it. Through the crumbling walls behind his actresses. Diwan photographs the decaying social and political edifice.
The stunning blend of the mediums made him the natural choice when UK-based sculptor-environmentalist Avtarjit Dhanjal came scouting for Indian talent to work as “artist in residence” in eight different schools in Shropshire County. Artists using other medium were also taken. Diwan took his portfolio along. But for the seven to 17-year-olds he shed his serious and romantic perceptions and let them go will painting their dreams and fantasies. For six weeks beginning late February, he guided the English children in painting and more importantly weaving a story round their dreams and fantasies.
“At first they used to be bogged down by the realities… later they opened up and you had them painting a mermaid a crocodile, a unicorn, a spacecraft, princes Vikings and so on recalls Diwan. “Once they had painted all the elements that figured in their fantasies, we mounted them just as you would any drama settings in theatre. The little ones told and enacted the story of their dreams, some sat on the crocodiles and mermaids, some swam on the grass and walked through the ocean, and were thrilled to bits and pieces when we fixed the trees on the sky and mountains in the ocean.” He adds. And the odd Bhangra and Gidda steps that he treated the kids to made them overcome their camera-shyness as he shot pictures of the young artists in their fantasy world painted by them.
When Diwan started off he could not attract many people since schools and students were interested only in the vigorous and colourful Punjabi Bhangra and Gidda artists in residence. But he soon could cheer up as his work clicked with everyone.
Diwan has ‘directed’ kids to ‘still act’ between their paintings and his camera, to make his own work: photographs of children juxtaposed with or superimposed on their own work.
The authorities of the school where he conducted the workshop gradually began finding funds for bigger and bigger prints of his pictures. Next they found money for the frames, and finally they held exhibitions of the 80 pictures against 45 different backdrops. The exhibition, held at Rhynpark Secondary School at St Martin’s is now traveling all over the UK. In September it will be at Wolverhampton, in November at Shrewsbury and thereafter at the Ludlow festival.
For Diwan himself the interaction with the children and the digression from the hitherto routine themes he was working on seem to have made all the difference. He will be holding a similar workshop for children back home. But that is not going to be as easy as it was in the UK, not for reasons of funds alone. “The sad thing is Indian children are not allowed to play around with material. Theer minds are dabbling in ceramics, puppet making, sculpture, graphics, theatre, music, etc., right in the primary classes.” But he hopes to overcome that by tapping the imagination of the Indian children, who have been exposed to the 10 heads of Ravana and five-headed serpents, a flying Hanuman and Krishna presenting himself in myriad forms.
Diwan does commercial photography and TV documentaries on Classical singers and dancers to sustain his work though lately many of his pictures have been sold just as if they were paintings. The Fine Arts Museum of Punjab University exhibits his pictures along with paintings of M.F. Husain and Satish Gujral. The two Raj Bhavans in Chandigarh and many corporate offices, besides some private collectors, have bought his pictures at a price that is “quite a bit for a photograph”, says the young artist, excited as a kid flying on a crocodile could be.