When Punjab’s painter Malkit Singh goes to Japan for a two-month residency on the invitation of Dhillon Marty Foundation, the idea of cultural exchange gets painted on canvas. He travels into time and space with oil paint to explore the immortalized ties of spaces and make geographical boundaries immaterial. Differences blur and commonalities come into sharp focus. Effortless creative flights of Malkit’s brush bring philosophical engagements to the fore with utmost ease, as his reference points are love and humanity. This intense engagement is not just nostalgic but carries with it contemporary concerns and an image of utopia.
Malkit divides the canvas horizontally with yellow and blue colors. The spiral stitches binding colors together remind one of Kabir’s Dhai Akhar Prem Ke (Two and a half letters of love) and Bulle Shah’s Hik Alif Padh Chutkara Eh (The first alphabet is emancipatory enough). Goats graze across boundaries, rivers cut borders at will and the sun and wind remain parts of nature that do not discriminate on the basis of borders. Malkit has Buddha and Sohni to reinforce human beings’ propensity to love. Buddha’s torso appearing from the branches relates the yellow tree on blue land to Sarnath, where the Gautam Buddha pronounced his first sermon under the Bodhi tree. Buddhism reached Japan from India to become part and parcel of Japanese life. The yellow tree of wisdom and a Japanese Chetaya (Buddhist temple) beneath it occupy central space in the blue part of the canvas. A woman on the bottom right corner looks soulfully towards where Sohni is walking upstream. The illusionary support of the earthen pitcher has already taken the shape of a reddish sun visible on both lands. These women seem to have a lot to share with each other. This bond of sharing cuts across binaries of time, space, and specific. Sohni seems to engage with her future generation while she herself has become one with the river. The river moves like a snake, the poison and violence of which shape the fate of Sohni. She is ready to take the difficult path, defying social norms and traditions.
In the canvas all the elements of life, whether living or non-living, are looking inward as they engage with each other, except for a boy on the left bottom. While smoking he is gazing outward, seemingly having no interest in the canvas, or even in life itself. Even as he depicts eternity, Malkit could not avoid the serious contemporary issue of drug addiction. The youth consumed by drugs have lost interest in life. Here is a story of Punjabi youth, which seems to resonate also with a generation of lost youth in Japan, where Malkit rendered this painting. If the Buddha can reach out, and if the hapless Sohni can be engaged with, then drug addiction too has universal connect. The blackish blue structure over the boy has yellow reflections; the experience of the yellow land adapted to the blue land depicts the eternal process of sharing.
Steps from a Punjabi house reach the sun in a Japanese sky. Two similar figures on different lands feature close to these steps, and are also common in Malkit’s paintings. The figure seems to be of a drum-beating farmer celebrating the harvesting festival. He could be someone in Malkit’s ancestral village – Lande in the Moga District of Punjab – or even anyone in the Japanese countryside. Similarly, goats are a metaphor commonly used by Malkit to depict rural society, where people involved in agriculture treat them as fellow beings. Through these drum-beating farmers and goats Malkit has added another element of shared culture to the canvas: the toiling class.
In the end it seems that certain emotions, ideas and the labour depicted in this painting make up a universal culture that cannot be confined to manmade boundaries of state and history. Malkit’s demystification of boundaries through patterns and designs creates a mystery of lines, which are important but not an end in itself. Perhaps this might be the language that the Buddha, Sohni and toilers choose to talk to the creator. Flora and fauna seem to be the grammar of creative flights. Malkit’s signature and dateline are perhaps the only claim of ownership this canvas has entertained.
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