Down here, next to me, in this lonely crowd…

— Bob Dylan

‘Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the centre was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it.’

— from 'The Immortal', Jorge Luis Borges

Nityan Unnikrishnan’s work sits in the same open train compartment as the work of Indian painters such as Bhupen Khakhar and Sudhir Patwardhan. Unnikrishnan has a valid ticket for the compartment but he sits at an angle from his elders, his knees sticking into the corridor, looking out through a different window and telling very different stories.

As a child, Unnikrishnan says, he was terrible at school. At times he “failed everything”. Doing physics in “a dumpy college” didn’t make him happy either. Somehow, he passed the entrance exam for the National Institute for Design and joined, with no prior knowledge of design and with “zero art history”; from there he attempted to start a career in ceramics and from there he tripped into painting. He tells me he’s dyslexic – perhaps that saved him from a successful “normal” career; saved him for us, for art. Dyslexic or not, Unnikrishnan is clearly an avid reader; bad at school or not, he received a parallel “schooling” growing up in his parents’ milieu of Malayali intellectuals, writers, poets and film-makers. By the time his talent and real calling came into focus, the man had learned to be serious about the world without taking himself seriously to the point of pomposity – a common failing in people who see themselves as artists.

'Extra Topping', 2019, glazed stoneware ceramics and wood, 8.25 x 11 x 9 in. Credit: Nityan Unnikrishnan. Courtesy: Chatterjee & Lal.

After living in Delhi for many years, Unnikrishnan and his wife moved closer to the sea, to Goa. “I lead a very normal life,” he says on the phone. “I wake up in the morning, have coffee, get angry reading the newspaper, and then get to work.” As he describes it, the work itself is slow, painstaking. A painting can take up to two months to make, sometimes more. The mediums and surfaces Unnikrishnan uses are mostly unforgiving; unlike the overpainting allowed by oils and acrylic, when using watercolour, or ink, or painting on khadi, you get only one chance. Another reason why Unnikrishnan works slowly, perhaps, is that he doesn’t plan or map out his paintings in detail – there is a basic idea, maybe some drawings, but the work evolves, the image emerges as he goes along, a creative process that must involve an inordinate amount of pausing, looking, thinking and gambling. “I lead a normal life,” he repeats, “I go for walks, I shop for groceries, I cook. I like cooking, but not for large numbers of people.”

Unnikrishnan cooks for us in his paintings and sculptures; he cooks with great skill and what one can only call a passionate “anti-skill” that fights prettiness, that side-steps virtuoso showing-off, what Angela Carter described as “avoiding writing well”. This anti-skill adds the slight bitter under-taste that sometimes fully completes a complex dish. It’s a strain you find in some great artists – Louise Bourgeois, say, or Francis Bacon or Philip Guston. With Unnikrishnan, as a viewer you are pinballed: between beautiful rendering and vivid grotesqueries, between recognisable narrative and almost metronomic micro-abstraction, between strong drawing and wispy, afterthought brushstrokes.

Unnikrishnan paints cityscapes teeming with people, the quirks of individual men and women, interiors detailed with the minutiae of domestic life. A keen sense of observation and the skill to image the world around are obvious in his work. The silver-haired men at their desks seem comfortingly familiar; so also, a middle-aged couple in their home surrounded by the messy paraphernalia of domesticity. However, the sense of the familiar ends almost without us realising it. Unnikrishnan branches off from conventional representation, adding a surreal visual vernacular that takes us into mindscapes and emotive states.

In his earlier work as well as in this new collection we recognise some things immediately: the rash of megalith statuary, Gandhi, Patel, Ambedkar, Durga, Michelangelo’s David, buildings like the Jama Masjid or Ambani’s Antilla, fish and ships, precisely rendered magazine covers and newspaper pages, and food laid out on tables. And yet, things which should be grounded are adrift, things which should be moving freely in water are beached.

In some of the paintings and many of the sculptures, impossible architecture is frozen on the verge of toppling. In a couple of images, the poet Kalidas rides the undulating branch, his axe working away between himself and the tree trunk. People sunbathe on a beach under dirty grey skies. Others drink wine and prepare salads beneath paintings of people sitting down to lunch. There is an upside-down horse balanced on a plinth, its legs flailing like those of an upended beetle – perhaps it’s a warhorse, perhaps the great warrior hero or heroine who rode it has been plucked into a neighbouring plane, where they continue to ride empty air, or perhaps a tree branch.

Unnikrishnan’s work offers multiple views of heterotopia – with figures, objects, places and spaces painted and sculpted in an approximation of the world around us, where the details are precise, yet somehow always askew. What is this place in which men comfortable in their nakedness lie relaxing, oblivious to cockerels larger than themselves? Where is this that rocky outcrops appear to squat like humans, where in the far distance we spot a listing see-saw and, in another black and white painting, a doomed city and a shipwreck?

Looking at these images we are forced to ask – is it this world and this time we are inhabiting or are we trapped in someone’s nightmare, caught in the maze of somebody’s regrets and longing?

Whether it be the built conceits of power or the humble poet and his grand epic, in Unnikrishnan’s imagery things and people are always in danger of being sucked down into another universe. Equally, the gravitational pull of the time contorts our bodies into strange postures, scale warps without any handrail of perspectival juxtaposition, things morph where they stand, figures grow and shrink right next to each other, paintings grow out of people’s heads. Paintings in which massacres meld, where 1984 accordions into 2002, while, elsewhere, composite creatures stand and watch as armed militias stride into the water to wage war with the ocean.

When you look at the paintings you get the feeling that there are some drop-outs, as when viewing a damaged video file; at the same time you sense that there is more to see, as if the ziggurats, the open pages of notebooks or the Chinese mountains popping up in the middle of the frame are, somehow, hyperlinks; that if you press hard enough with your eyes they will take you down a rabbit hole. The only way out of this adjacent reality, the images seem to suggest, is by going even deeper into it.

From the train window he’s looking out of, Unnikrishnan sees a different India, a different world. The crowd of the modern metropolis has always been lonely, but the pith of its loneliness has mutated since the 1980s, aided by technology. The acid of atomisation has had a lot longer to nibble into its victims. The signs marked “Exit” and “Way Out” actually lead you further into the maze. Jorge Luis Borges had his mythical cities, as did Hieronymus Bosch and Italo Calvino, as did Indian miniature painters. Likewise, Unnikrishnan has his, places that take perch on the branches of our imagination and threaten to start sawing away.

'The Way Out' at Chatterjee & Lal. Courtesy: Chatterjee & Lal.

This essay accompanies The Way Out, an exhibition of Nityan Unnikrishnan’s works on view at Chatterjee & Lal, Colaba, Mumbai, from Tuesday to Saturday 11 am-7 pm until April 27.