Gallery Ragini presents the solo show of acclaimed artist, Poonam Agarwal, in New Delhi. The show titled ‘The Kingdom Within’ captures paintings that are inhabited by beings that are conjured up by the artist in her emotional and intellectual serenity. Each figure looks transcended from its mundane existence. The bowers, foliages, streams, lotus flowers, moon, starts and the women floating over and above these earthly presences animate the pictorial surfaces. Lucid and luminous colors build the body of these paintings; they are layered, revealing minute animations behind the apparent surface.
Poonam’s aesthetically philosophy spirals around her core belief that each human being is invested with an inner potential, which due to various materialistic situations, he/she fails to understand, polish and realize in multifarious expressions. For instance, in one of her paintings, a young woman is seen running behind a golden deer, which according to the artist is like a musk deer that fails to understand the origin of the fragrance that lies within its own body. As human beings, we all search for our happiness in the outside world, whereas the artist reiterates through her aesthetical expressions that one has to look inside for the actual realization of the self.
However, it would be fallacious to position an artist like Poonam within the generic spiritual discourse. Her paintings do not directly talk about spirituality as a part of the larger religious discourses. For her, it is an intimately personal search, using her own methods without repudiating the established imageries prevalent in our lived and living socio-cultural context. Poonam uses certain cultural symbols like moon, lotus flower, boat, trees in her painting. Amongst these symbols ‘boat’ becomes a recurring imagery even when a ‘river’ is not directly painted or suggested. River and boat are two powerful symbols that could delineate the philosophical as well as aesthetical concerns of the artist as an extension of her primary concern of realizing the self through introspection and contemplation. I deliberately avoid the word meditation in this context because as I understand, the artist prefers to be an active agent in her visual discourse than a passive surrogate figure that is seen in a yogic or meditative posture.
Poonam’s paintings, even as they deal with time, travel/journey and inner realization, do not depict contemporary imageries from the physical surroundings. It is a conscious aesthetic ploy used by the artist in order to make her works go beyond the temporal contexts. A sense of universal human being who aspires for transcendence pervades in her works. The symbolic use of boat and river should be seen in this light. River is the eternal time and boat is the philosophical vehicle that one uses to wade through the turmoil of the eternal time. This river is not limited by the suggestion of a beginning or an ending. The boat carries the farer to her destination which, interestingly too is not suggested by a definitive conclusion. This open-endedness of Poonam’s paintings leaves a lot of possibilities for multiple interpretations including the materialistic as well as spiritual inclinations of the viewer.
Even a cursory look at Poonam’s paintings cannot fail to notice the subtle presence of a nude female figure whose hairs are open and hands are outstretched. She may be seen standing upon a hill, sitting in a boat, lounging in the curve of a crescent moon or facing a tree or a flower. Though a viewer might be tempted to think that this female character could be the surrogate presence of the artist herself, I prefer to read this figure as an emblematic presence of the universal woman who aspires for freedom and self realization. Freedom and self realization do not have anything to do with militant feminism per se; on the contrary, irrespective of gender any conscious being would aspire for freedom and self realization. Hence, the female protagonist in her works exemplifies a human aspiration than an individualistic or collective rebellion by a gender group.
While attempting to universalize the qualities of Poonam’s paintings or the presence of a female protagonist in them, I cannot overlook the fact that as an artist whose ethical and socio-cultural understanding is nurtured by the larger Indian context, her employing of a nude female protagonist has a lot to do with the very same cultural ethos. Out of an array of choices regarding freedom, self realization and empowerment, Poonam chooses the path of individual purification than a collective action. Her protagonist therefore becomes the representation of an individual’s choice. One could say that what is not represented in the painting is the context of these paintings. In other words, we could say that the presence (of a liberating or aspiring to be liberated woman) includes the absence (of the problems in the contemporary world, especially the ones faced by women in general).
Poonam is poetic in most of her works. She uses bright colors for creating a sort of luminosity from within the painting. The imagery of moon shows the divine madness that often poets are endowed with. This divine madness, for the artist is the freedom claimed by women in their public and private lives; this is a freedom that transcends the mundane boundaries. With this divine madness the artist could render her protagonist to exercise their free will in a gleeful abandon. At the same time, she is the embodiment of Sakti (the female principle of nature) who has more than two hands like a goddess. She is capable of opening her inner eye and her innate qualities as exemplified by the images of a lotus petal opening into an eye and blooming into a full spring. By alluding to these traditional imageries, the artist shows her understanding of the Indian culture and mythology.
Poonam uses a lot of symmetrical shapes in her works in order to create a sense of rhythm and balance. This at once shows her creative hold on visual design and painterly craft. In a way her paintings function as a bridge between the indigenous craft and design traditions and the contemporary painting techniques. She has been attracted to this approach even in her earlier works. The consistency of theme, aesthetical views and philosophical perspective makes Poonam Agarwal’s works a delight to the viewers’ eyes and this consistency never becomes an impediment while she experiments with color or design. As these paintings celebrate the inner freedom of a human being and its varied manifestations, her panting technique itself becomes a performative act of this professed freedom.