The Parasher exhibition is a constant series of surprises, but none are so sudden as the shift from the bleak and wrenching drawings of the Partition period to the works done in Simla. Where there had been charcoal and pencil drawings there suddenly explode cheerful landscapes and portraits in warm, vibrant colors. The effect is rather like the shift in Mughale-azam; indeed the palette is rather similar, vivid but slightly subdued, self-conscious shades that manage to be exuberant and tentative at the same moment. Typical of these landscapes is what looks at first to be a bucolic rural scene, 'Potter's Hill'. Low buildings are nestled into a hilly landscape, construction so secondary to the natural that only the title allows us know what community this is. Although there is no sign of action anywhere, light colors and eager brushstrokes suggest Himalayan spring. Primary in the play of shadow and light is an unusual pink shade, perhaps that of the clay invisible under the spontaneous overgrowth. Perhaps it is something bleaker, either the memory of troubled times so recently past, or a suggestion of different trouble in
the future; it would be very little time before this painting would be the last record of a way of life already threatened by population shift and modernization.
All of the Simla outdoor scenes have a commonality in the way they use quiet to suggest activity. In 'A Branch and a Memory', twisted, weathered trees lean away from the viewer, all the lines of their uneven growth attesting to the winters they have endured. Dark mountains rise in the background and in the foreground is a small white fence. There is nobody leaning against the sturdy trunk in the place which looks like a person should rest and no traffic on the road, but the entire piece is filled with longing and a sense of witness. Like 'Potter's Hill', this painting depends on a limited spectrum of color as a way of focusing attention; as its yellows evoke not only a particular season but also a particular kind of light, the final effect of this rugged old mountain tree is not of permanence but of transience. The Simla period also allows us an unusual look into Parasher's skill as a portraitist. In the Partition sketches, faces, when present at all, are primarily rough-outs of raw emotion. Once quietly settled at the base of the Himalayas, the artist seems to have taken a lively interest in the life he found there, and in addition to depictions of rural and town scenes, painted portraits of some of the Hill People. All of these radiate good health and good humor. With rosy cheeks and traditional clothing, each face is distinctly more Pahari than Punjabi, and seems remarkably unsurprised to find its mountain self-represented in so western a form. Entirely realist in concept, the portraits contain none of the thick paint and impulsive-looking brushstrokes found in the landscapes. The details of their appearance are rendered as carefully as with a botanical drawing. It makes one wonder if Parasher, having just gone through so much change himself, recognized here too that he was recording images that would soon pass from view. Somewhere between portraiture and landscape is 'Grass Cutters'. Purple mountains in the distance do not let us forget that this is rugged, upland farming, but center to the picture are the three reapers, sickles in hand, bodies curved with labor. Dressed similarly in black dogris, short kurtas and turbans, they are somewhat indistinct as individuals. They are all bend into their work, apparently oblivious of painter or viewer. While the portraits are face on, offering a candid view of the subjects, with the grass cutters we can not be sure whether or not they are aware of their picture being captured. The standing figures look down at the grass and their however, seems to have a slight smile and a glint in her eye, neither acknowledgement nor rejection of the attention. As with his depictions of other creatures, Parasher renders the workers in repeating curved lines that not only lend a lively action to the whole painting, but also suggest in their tenderness an expression of love for the subjects, honoring them in all their transient vulnerability. As with most of his Simla landscapes, Parasher has painted the grass with as much yellow as green, recording here both bright sunlight and the seasonal wisdom that would harvest fodder at its peak of value. These organic yellow greens and the more mysterious blues of the worker's clothes suggest early development of color practices that would increasingly mark the artist's work.'Langoors' illustrates an even more playful element to be found in many of the paintings of this era. Several rather confrontive looking monkeys appear to be swinging through a small crimson rhododendron, each one keeping his face forward and his eyes on the viewer. A couple of their unusually long tails hang down like bell ropes while the muscular arms and legs all suggest action. These lively beasts seem entirely engaged and full of attention at the same time the painting also includes two maidenly looking women perched on a rock below. Their eyes are cast down, they are barefoot and modestly shawled. Instead of being involved in the riot above their heads, they, like the foragers, appear entirely oblivious, attention focused elsewhere. It feels like an
illustration for a story about enchantment. What are the langoors so aware of? Why are the women so self-contained? Indeed, as transparent as their subjects often are, all these works contain secrets. 'Flight Return' offers us a collection of birds arranged in a low tree rather as the langoors are. With the birds though, attention is not focused at the viewer but among one another. Although some are just alight and others are more poised, that they are a community is clear, each in some way relating to the others. As the monkeys seem to wish to draw us in, these creatures are enjoying an avian life to which we have scant access. Their rounded shapes and concealed eyes make them more akin to the maidens and the harvesters than to their arboreal kinfolk. Also like 'Potters Hill', 'Grass Cutters' and 'Langoors', this painting features a distinctive use of vivid yellows. In the former pieces though, the yellow might suggest bright, close to oppressive, sunlight. 'Flight Return', in contrast, has a deeply blue-black background against which yellow leaves glow brightly; since there are buds on the branches as well as these glowing leaves, season becomes ambivalent. So does the time of day in which birds are active but surroundings are dark. Most interesting of all is the way the quietly dressed circle of birds competes successfully with the foliage in capturing the viewer's eye. Rounded shapes, swirling action, and most important of all a blue palette are beginning to transform Parasher's vision from a modified realism to something far more symbolic. Most mysterious of all the work of this period is the swirling tumult of 'Mahunag'. Portrait or landscape, mythic or familiar, here is the great blue pheasant who is also the divine serpent prince, the surface of his body as well the road upon which his devotees with their dholaks are drumming out the beat made visible in the whorls of their bodies and the whirlpool of the god's tail. Mahunag's alert eye meets us head on, but the drummers, like so many of Parasher's subjects, are inwardly focused, attentive to
their human procession, caught in the invisible wind that bends them forward and curls each separate shawl like a closing shell. Movement is everything. The only straight lines in the painting are a pair of tree trunksin the upper right, but even these, which in color and outline might be mountain spruce, are leafed with swirls of green more like kelp than anything land grown. As his intervention isimplored, the god may leave his watery domain, but since he is both place and being, it does not leave him. Parasher's signature colors appear again, remarkably changed in effect. Multiple shades of blue, navy, cerulean, turquoise, identify this as an image of consciousness, and a consciousness that is perpetually active. The few highlights in pink and yellow point to the direction of the light, reinforcing what we already know, that Mahunag's neck may be curled protectively over his human companions, but his eye is focused on something we do not see. Here is historical Indian iconography piercing itself into the 20th Century, fluent in multiple languages at once. As the artist's intellectual/spiritual practices drew him more into the familiar but not necessarily visible world, he would increasingly be drawn to the abstracted subject, one which does its speaking by being apparently recognizable, and then, upon longer exposure, even more an evocation of the invisibilities crowding around the chimera that is color, line and light.
Sandy Sterner is a poet and teaches Creative Writing at Chatham University, Pittsburgh.