A solitary male figure bearing the rigour of spiritual discipline, tonsured of mundane superfluities regarding name and location, inhabits the space of Ebenezer Sunder Singh’s paintings. And yet, the figure isn’t a detached archetypal motif, but a projection of the artist’s embodied self. Ebenezer uses his own body as a measure of his expression, allowing it to soar only to be grounded by its reflection: embracing a cosmic totality only to be cut by the swirling swathe of death.
Form the late 80s onwards, Ebenezer; an alumnus of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Madras, found himself frenziedly turning to his own body as artistic raw material: “Every nuance in the painting was triggered by me own physical entry.” The artist’s choice to return to the same from may seem like a stringent limitation, but it does not negate the potential for freedom. In facts, it a liberates him from the distractions of excessive visual stimuli, to concentrate on the live material of the body that burns a thirsty flaming yellow, turns green with lust and envy and blue with spiritual awaking. Moreover; the same form does not translate as a relay of stasis from one image to another. The body, as represented in Ebenezer’s paintings, has homed itself in many avatars, that of the questing bhikshu with a face as open and empty as a begging bowl; of the hirsute cave man possessed by the hunger for flying; of the sword-swallower costumed in a skin brimming with blood, skillfully thrusting the instrument of self-annihilation into his mouth; and in a more intimate, autobiographical vein, of a child-man wearing his father’s outside shirt. In these acrylic and charcoal images on paper; from the mid-9s, we experience Ebenezer’s struggle to alternately tempt and passion. This tension between seeking abstention and giving in to the demands of the pleasure craving self are dramatized by abbreviated, even abortive gestures of trying to fly or painfully splitting the self from the body. An existential angst, a clod melancholia, contrasted by warm colours, pervades the works of this period.
The early 200 works, acrylic and fiber glass sculptures, are less tense, more confident representations of body; they carry the warm instructions of memories and longings. These works address the conflicting, yet overlapping states of blindness and vision. In Blind Man’s Profession, 2001, the artists face the viewer like a crucified Christ, burdened with the weight of eyes hanging from his arms. Here, Ebenezer seems to be ironically alluding to the viewers at larger, who fumble like the blind men of Hindustan trying to decode the objects of art. What makes it even more intriguing is, that the invisible elephant in this picture is represented by the artist’s own body, which awaits the touch of wholeness and is weary of partial discoveries.
Ebenezer’s most recent acrylic and charcoal works are still occupied by solo performers, but they are social, connected to each other like beads in a rosary.
The tone and register of these images range from the high seriousness of a sacred cosmic diagram to the pithy profane wisdom of the home-grown proverb. The difficult themes of spiritual transformation are dealt with a lighter; playful touch and the body is correspondingly formed of less rigid, more malleable lines. We respond to the luminous revelations of small transcendences rather than the ungraspable miracles of the universe or the cosmos. In Golden Eggs, which is an obvious allusion to the cosmic womb, the hiranyagarbha, the body is bejeweled with egg-shaped signs that surprising resemble glowing neon signs are abstracted from the over stimulated urban forest and planted in the garden of the body, they gain a new auratic charge. These neon-aura cosmic eggs remind this writer of a Simon and Garfunkel lyric: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.” This painting can also be seen as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the artist as a hen who lays golden eggs, a cautionary tale for our times, where rampant commercialization has reduced the object of art to a unique-selling commodity.
In the current paintings, the body is shown to interact with object with objects of meditation or revelation: a Sri Yantra, a mandala, which represents the creative principle of the universe or; a diviner’s rod which is a homage to the noted deconstructionist, Derrida. While the former can be read as a yearning for cosmic totality and centeredness, the latter can be seen as a tribute to a shaman whose diviner’s rod read the whole world as if it were a text. In Homage to Derrida, eyes crawling on the body of the figure stream into the neon-diviner’s rod, electrifying the powers of interpretation. A work that specially draws our attention is Cats of War; where a reclining figure rides the dream with his feet is blazing neon-yellow, is it waiting to prey upon its unsuspecting dream-rider; or is the tiger an illusion willed into existence by the power of the dreamer’s imagination? Since the illusion is constructed as a mirror image, one part reaching out to the sky, free and transcendent, the other standing on its head, grounded and rooted. As against Mirrored, another sculpture, Throne, does not immediately divulge its secret, a figure sits regally on a coil-stool that appears, at closer viewing, to be a tail. Is this figure, possibly, Hanuman sting on his tail-throne in Ravan’s court, or is the coil symbolic of the awakening kundalini?
I suggest that we read Ebenezer’s works as allegories of moksha, since they express the constant struggle to deliver the body from the cycles of life and death and seek geace for the embattled self.
And finally, let me plot a sufi move. The body is an unfinished room and Ebenezer is in two minds about vacating it.