“It is entirely possible that I have never had an accurate sense of what is called realism in that I do not, as a reader, discriminate between it and fantasy.… Realism is by nature historical, confined to a period. … The fantastic exists as hypothesis and dream: if everything were different it might be different thus.”

— Louise Glück, ‘On Realism’ (2004)

The Latin word fabula means both a story and a lie. Thus ‘fabulae poetae’: which can mean the poet’s stories or the poet’s lies. The Bengali word katha – derived from the Sanskrit and pronounced as kotha – lends itself to a similarly dual usage. “Kotha bolchi”, literally, means that someone is telling a story; colloquially, it means that someone is spinning a yarn. The connection between fiction and deceit, make-believe and make-it-up-as-you-go-along is an ancient one. And yet, some fictions or deceits are so vital and necessary for our well being that we ought to treat them, as the American poet Louise Glück indicates, as a means of expanding our sense of reality.

In the course of an informal conversation at the Pundole Art Gallery many years ago, Sakti Burman told me how he had been fascinated, as a schoolboy, by the Greek cautionary tale of Pandora’s casket. What held the future artist’s attention was not the parable of potentially self-endangering human curiosity, but the consolation that, after the casket had spewed out every imaginable misfortune, plague and curse, it could still offer humankind the redemption of hope. “I am full of hope, I want to express my pleasure in sensation and beauty,” the artist said to me. “I do not want to lose my optimism – otherwise how shall I survive in this world which can be so exhausting and full of dangers?”

Photo credit: Prakash Rao.

Burman’s articulation of hope takes the form of narrative: an ever-flowing river of narrative in which everything he sees and thinks of, that troubles or exhilarates him, is absorbed and carried forward, enriched by layers of significance gained through the acts of telling and retelling. Impelled by curiosity, generosity, and an abundant desire for a future that is more utopian than dystopian, he plunges his viewers into a mercurial, effervescent condition of fabula, of katha.

As a storyteller, Burman takes his place in a millennia-long genealogy of fabulists. Among his ancestors are the authors who kept up the relay of tales that were compiled as the Katha-sarita-sagar, the ‘Ocean of the Rivers of Story’. And the circles of poets, reciters and redactors who composed the epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Iliad and the Odyssey – and the Norse Eddas. The adventurers of the imagination who produced the cycle of the Alf Laila wa Laila, the ‘Thousand and One Nights’, are Burman’s ancestors too. And so are the reciters, singers, storytellers, scribes and minstrels who carried the fables of the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesha from one land to another, in a circulation that embraced Persian and Arabic – Dastan Kalilah wa Dimnah and Anwar-i Suhayli – and continued across the Silk Route and the Mediterranean seaboard until it reached al-Andalus, the Pyrenees, northern Italy, and Cornwall. And there, thousands of miles away from their point of origin, these travelling Sanskrit stories eventually found avatars in Boccaccio, Chaucer, and La Rochefoucauld.

Photo credit: Prakash Rao.

Heir to these legacies, Burman revels in orchestrating enigmatic encounters among figures belonging to different orders of being. In one of his paintings, a couple with an infant, reminiscent of Picasso’s Harlequin and his family, are addressed by a magical child who rides a wingless bird but holds aloft, on a branch, a wondrously plumed bird that heralds psychic and material transformation. This heraldic bird recurs in Burman’s narratives, as does the Daphne-like nymph-turned-shrub, her arms raised in the very moment of turning into branches. Such images suggest the irruption of enchantment into everyday life, alluding to the inexplicable epiphanies of art, which can shift and disrupt the even tenor of normality.

Consider ‘Journey to the Moon’ (oil on canvas, 2005), in which he offers elegant homage to Hieronymus Bosch and his memorable phantasmagoria, ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. Burman borrows, from Bosch, his glass bubble with its naked nymph – but replaces the male figure in the bubble with an astronaut. Around this caprice, various figures float in zero-gravity space: humans and animals, and also a violin. Burman encrypts the traces and vestiges of various stories here, leaving us to imagine the outcomes that spin out of this frame: a seven-headed figure, a man who appears to be reclining on a beach, a child wearing an imperial laurel, and a hare, every character seeming to fly off in a separate, speculative and equally tantalising direction.

Photo credit: Prakash Rao.

And consider, under the sign of irrepressible optimism, these twin allegories: ‘Ark of Hope’ (oil on canvas, 2014) and ‘Eternal Legend’ (oil on canvas, 2014). ‘Ark of Hope’ marks the moment when the vessel carrying the survivors of the cosmic deluge makes landfall – not on the bleak, craggy heights of Ararat, but in the kind of idyllic paradise-on-earth that Burman loves to evoke. In his version of the Garden of Eden, the hare, the squirrel, and the peacock share an enchanted homeland of serenity untainted by the advent of conscious, asymmetric differences, by the onset of shame and violence. This peaceful cohabitation of species sets an ideal for the progenitors of a new, post-diluvian earth to approximate in their conduct. In ‘Eternal Legend’, a painting that fluidly conjoins the two narrative halves from which it is crafted, the artist juxtaposes the ark – as floating palace; or, perhaps, its equivalent in Sanskrit lore, Manu’s pralaya-vaulting ship – with the scene of the churning of the Milk Ocean by the gods and the demons, the kshira-sagara-manthana, from the Puranas. Here, too, Burman celebrates the promise of redemption from catastrophe, and the reassertion of order over chaos.

Sakti Burman. Photo credit: Sangeeta Raghavan.

Excerpted with permission from In the Presence of Another Sky: The Confluential Art of Sakti Burman, Ranjit Hoskote (Bombay: Afterimage, 2017).