Keshav Malik

The number of paintings produced in relation to hours of study is comparatively small. Just as the sitarist must practice for hours a day to keep in training for the relatively few hours of concert performance, so the painter has to keep up a steady routine of study if hand and eye are to remain alert. Of course 'study' takes various forms. All painters have their individual methods developed in accord with their vision and temperament, and no two will be alike. Still all have to remain devoted to what is called the 'craftsmanship of observation '. Manu has received her art training under a very eminent artist. This training has evidently given her a close insight into those qualities and processes inherent in the three dimensions of time and space, which are constant beneath the flux of events and appearances. One of the processes is the mechanism of sight. At any rate from the consciousness of time and space Manu has derived a fair feel of movement & energy.

Her present work -often figural -introduces us to a variety of forms, which cohere by the law of gravity and patterns or structure. So that her work has a strong feel of distance, solidity texture, and density. With her genre of work the memory of touch is evoked, to a good degree, as of balance between the disparate images. Her mastery in drawing certain figures in movement proves that the painter has learnt her basics well. They carry the weight of conviction.

But what the artist does with her learning is her own business, to go with her temperament Manu banks on some past legends, metaphors, and turns them to account. Once athleticism had a semi-religious significance as part of the ritual of the idealized, that the tribes, then worshipped as the gods. So the painter produces her own characteristic emphasis in the shape of the idealized human cum equine creatures. But the distortion of form in these, or of its exaggeration, is less obvious. The modifications of the normal are therefore for the sake of a legitimate idealization. It could be said that thereby more ennobled proto human types are produced to suggest meaning and value. This way the artist suggests beauty, strength and gracefulness of the human soul and above all of the power of human emotions. Like sculptors she reveals the energy by means of physical features, stresses and gestures-several reaching out for the stars, others dramatically expressive.

Manu's images would seem to exist concretely, but yet they strive to enhance our apprehension of those spiritual energies that are the life- giving property of the human creature on earth.

The reality of life being only very partially known artists create 'strange' images of it. In this way they etch a near mystery wherein vision is served by the language of analogy or fiction; where, conversely, ambiguity and obscurity are consumed in the clarity of primal truths. In Manu's order of work the 'meaning' cannot be fully disclosed until we, as viewers, are ourselves transformed as participants. Thus elements of Greek Drama and the mythic imagination; and thus too the great mythic apparitions of the Indian imagination from long past eras.

It could be added, that serious painting is a sort of metaphysical activity. All this means to say is that art, when really articulate, is informed by profound insights, bearing on mankind's destiny on earth.

Manu is en route, at least for the while on the same path. Her figure and places cannot be materially located since we only see them in a moment of initiation in that imaginative space where we are already projected beyond the confines of the habitual world. Such imaginative moments must be lived on the plane at which they are realized.

In our too empirical, too pragmatic times the creative, meaning- making metaphoric capacity has been sidelined, till we are become creatures like all perishable objects. This painter has, thus, chosen a path upstream, against the current of these times. Clothed in fantastic bodies her aspiring figments mean to take themselves into deeper or steeper spaces. In their gesture is a fecundity of the spirit, the potential qualities of movement, rhythm, tenderness and elegance. Such qualities transform the pen or brush stroke into living reality. They could in time become the agents of the transforming consciousness.

The way I have tried to interpret this genre is not meant to be a literal description of it. With compelling techniques and critical know how (and which of us does not need that?) Manu's work will mount geometrically, for she has the keen desire to outdo the usuals of this time and day. Given that her inner preparation is authentic (as in her work on the hand mudras), she would startle us even more in due course. I wish her god speed, and the courage of her convictions.

Johny ML

One would wonder, while looking at the paintings of Manu Singh, why this artist's world view is so gloomy and darkened. But on a second look, one notices the wings growing on the human bodies, scattered in the space or even the hands that reach out to pick up a couple of them. Then there is a sense of relief; no, this artist is not so dejected by the life on earth and its realities both imagined and experienced, but she is optimistic about the eventual human elevation to a sublime level, if not in life but in death. Life and death, the inseparable duo play an important role in Manu Singh's paintings as she understands the philosophical fact that it is death that is one assurance any human being can have when he/she comes to earthly life. But this sure passport to deliverance is often seen with a heightened sense of fear therefore each human being's effort is to deny this ultimate reality and move on in life with the kind of engagements that one would like to have in order to distract oneself from the thought of death or rather life. In the world of constant and persistent distractions, if an artist is trying to turn her focus onto the larger issues of existence and it's passing over to another plane called death, then her world view must be different from those of many of her fellow beings. In her paintings, Manu Singh, shows a dark nether world, which in fact is the world that we inhabit and gives out enough optimistic pointers which could help one to move out of its clutches and liberate oneself. These paintings are in a sense cathartic, though not autobiographical, providing a sense of relief in the desire for deliverance to the sky of freedom.

Manu Singh calls her present body of works, 'Wings and Shadows'. It could be deciphered in two different ways: One, the pictorial surfaces are proliferated with the images of wings therefore they could cast a shadow over anything that comes under them. Two, there is a huge shadow looming large over human life, of doubts and differences, however, the presence of wings could be the idea of hope. In both interpretations, what remains common is the hope that the wings could constantly provide. The feathered creatures have always fascinated human beings who imagine themselves as earthlings who are bound to spend their lives in ground. Despite the fact that we have aircrafts and other devices that help us to be air borne temporarily, we come back to terra firma once again feeling the dejection of being confined to the limits of earth and its gravitational pull. It is where the metaphorical wings appear in every human being in the form of imagination. When one is 'cabined, cribbed and confined' by situations and events, the final hope rests in imagination that provides one with a pair of wings in the form of creative expressions, day dreaming and wishful thinking. Hence, 'wings' is a powerful, positive and entertaining imagination that could transcend both physical and literary bondages.

My attempt as an art critic here is to see how the metaphor of wings gives a new edge to the works of Manu Singh though it is apparently clear that the wings are the symbols of hope. According to my view, a pair of wings, even when it is grown in an imaginative plane, is a price that has been exchanged for what one already has, which could be freedom, autonomy, beauty, despair or bondage. Wings as a metaphor itself foregrounds the fact that one has to leave or reject something one already possesses. There is a contract of exchange embedded in the imaginary acquisition of wings. One has to eschew an existing state of being the moment one acquires a pair of wings or even when one aspires for it. Such acquisition prepares one to question the existing rules and regulations of life, gentrified activities, generic thinking and routine responses. A simple aspiration or desire for a pair of wings would not help one to grow it over the shoulders/mind; one has to really work hard for it and show a tremendous sense of rebellion though it manifests only in subtle ways. Having a pair of wings amongst two legged and four legged creatures is a stand-alone situation. It would make one an outcast, a suspect and a rebel. Hence, one has to pay a price for that freedom to be unique. Growing of optimism does not just lie in wishful thinking but it lies in affirmative action, the artist seems to say.

I would like to discuss three classical situations where wings are referred as a way to freedom but in exchange of something one already has. First and foremost, the story of Icarus comes to mind. Icarus and his father Daedalus were confined in a tower as a punishment. They collect the feathers of eagles and with the help of wax they make a pair of wings. Fitting it over the shoulders they decide to jump from the top of the tower and fly away to freedom. But before jumping, father warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun for fear of wax melting by heat. But Icarus was a bit daring or even careless. He flew up and the heat caused the wax melt. Icarus fell down to the abyss, to his unwarranted death. This story shows that having a pair of wings could set you free but lack of discretion could herald doom. In Manu Singh's works, the desire for wings also comes with this caution for discretion as the protagonists are seen a bit cautious even in their desire to have a pair for themselves. What I mean to say here is that the aspiration for wings could be in exchange with death, provided cautions are thrown to wind.

The second example, which is more appropriate in Manu Singh's pictorial renderings, is of Jatayu, the mighty bird who stood against the demon king, Ravana, when he was abducting Sita in his airborne Pushpak. In the epic of Ramayana, it is said that Jatayu fought with Ravana with his wings, mainly flapping them against the ten heads of the supposedly evil king. The outcome was tragic; the winged creature could not stop the king from abducting the unsuspecting Sita but he also lost his life in the fight. It is important to notice that Ravana cuts down Jatayu's wings and lets him bleed to death. The metaphor of cutting the wings comes as a sort of castration of the 'manliness' of Jatayu. He is not stabbed to death, instead, his wings are brutally chopped off, letting him 'live' a life between 'life and death and death and life', a liminal space where his existence becomes only that of a messenger, not as someone who acts. Jatayu leaves the message for Rama, the grief and anger stricken husband of Sita and dies. For Jatayu, it is a different kind of deliverance, a fulfillment of life through the losing of his wings. Hence, a chopped wing could be a pre-destined fate for someone like Jatayu, while he uses it before getting clipped to its maximum effect. Wings are not just devices to fly away from the present but they are the signs that define the existence of a person; the moment it is taken away, life reduces to that of a medium and message.

Manu Singh plays up this ambiguity of wings that could render one a witness, a medium and a message, without much significance once the message is delivered, like a TV which has lost its picture tube or a newspaper that does not print news but advertisements only. People, despite having their desire for wings, are bound to live this earthly life in too many distractions; it could be dark scenes as seen in the background of Manu Singh's paintings or packaged wings as she dexterously portrays the present situation of life where even the desire for freedom itself is packaged and delivered through television and print media advertisements. The human beings, like Jatayu are made to give a short term fight and succumb to the wounds inflicted by the 'events' around. Hence, the wings in Manu Singh's works take a critical edge and tell the viewer that the constant rendering of people as passive witnesses, just mediums of proliferating the corporate ideals or messages of avarice and greed also could be seen and shown through the metaphorical representations of wings.

The third and final example that I would like to cite is a movie, 'Wings of Desire' by the German film maker Wim Wenders. In this movie, two angels, Damien and Cassiel, watch the activities of the people on earth (in Germany) where an extremely lonely circus artist, Marion lives. Damien grows fond of her and eventually he decides to leave his angelic existence to become a human being in order to feel, touch and understand love, obviously from Marion. How he does achieve this is interesting; he sheds his wings. By shedding wings, here unlike Jatayu, he gains 'manliness'. Rejection of wings here takes a new turn and suddenly points to us that the angels' liberation lies in the shedding of wings. While human beings aspire to become angels by desiring wings, angels do just the opposite. Seen in this light, we could say that Manu Singh's works also play upon this ambiguity of having and not having wings. Then it also becomes an existential dilemma of the human beings in the present day world.

It is interesting to notice that Manu Singh as an artist also tries to negotiate the metaphor of wings and its possible meanings as she paints on. In the initial paintings that she has done as a part of this body of works, one could see the predominant presence of the wings. They almost cover up the entire area of the pictorial surface and in the receding planes of middle ground and far ground, the rest of the human drama takes place as if they were happening under the shadow of these wings. In that sense, the wings here appear both as a hope as well as a threat, as we have seen the cases of Icarus and Jatayu, respectively. But as she paints on the wings gradually become small in stature, they occupy lesser spaces of the pictorial surface, as the artist herself debates this metaphor in all its possibilities. In another painting, we see a pair of wings as a gift. This is exactly what I mentioned elsewhere in this essay that there is a contract which has to be signed for freedom, a social pact, here through the idea of a gift. The labor/struggle meant to achieve it is signified through the images of spades and shovels. Conspicuous absence of the people who are supposed to enter into this pact of accepting the gift of freedom is quite palpable in this painting.

In one of the paintings that catches my attention repeatedly, Manu Singh reduces the number of struggling people in their naked bodies, like a picture of hell , and the density of these strugglers is brought to minimum. Perched on a rock or a triangle created out of the struggling bodies, there sits a man and ponders over the possibilities of the wings that have been now pushed to the left end of the painting. The extraction of the individual being from the chaotic mass is an interesting gesture by the artist, or an aesthetic achievement, through which she suggests the emancipation of the individual who is ready to engage willingly in this discourse of loss, gain and the eventual social contract. The thoughtfulness of the figure shows that the protagonist is already aware of the consequences of this desire for freedom through the achievement of a pair of wings.

An interesting shift happens in Manu' thoughts on the metaphor of wings, when she reduces them as minute spangles that fly around in the atmosphere. Here a disengaged body is seen at the right end of the canvas and the middle ground is taken over by a pair of hands that inquisitively probe the existence of those wings. The inquisitiveness of the hands for touch and feel has multilayered meanings as seen along with a body that has now turned away from the scene of wings. What he/she lays open are the shoulders on which the wings that the hands would pick finally could rest/fit on. But the question is whether such freedom is anymore desired at all or not. The artist leaves this to the decision of the viewers as she further moves on with a painting that shows the mirror images of a thinking self and a pair of wings. Interestingly, in this painting, the man/woman who has been craving for wings is now seen away from the presence of wings. The wing is right there at the right edge of the painting. Both of them like Narcissus, see their reflections on the water. In this painting, one could see four images, two of the protagonist, one erect and the other upturned in the reflection and the other of the wings, one straight and the other upturned. This painting also shows the self-absorption of the artist as the medium that negotiates the idea of wings; the question is, are such flights of fancies necessary or are they just temporary escape routes?

In my view, Manu Singh, philosophically and aesthetically reaches to a conclusion that she would like to have a sense of freedom/wings in herself at the same time wants to be rooted in reality and makes things work differently here through affirmative action. In one of the paintings, surprisingly towards the end of the series, we see a pair of hands and a pair of wings occupying the whole pictorial space. I find this a point of solution as far as the 'wing series' of the artist is concerned. Here the pair of hands exemplifies the artist's desire for action and at the same time for deliverance and liberation. She could fly to freedom in her imaginations but at the same time she wants to do things here. It is not just celebration of labor but the celebration of conscious human engagement, with a deliberate choice to do work. As an underlining to the whole process of creating this body of works, Manu Singh has painted one work, which could be called a re-assessment of her works so far, where she paints a pair of hands, amply distorted with labor and its struggle, going up towards infinity. And in another painting she affirms her belief in affirmative but caring and lovable action through a pair of hands clutching on to a rope; it symbolizes the artist's belief in human aspirations, desire freedom and above all positive acts that involve both body and mind.

Born in Kerala Johny ML has three postgraduate degrees- Creative Curating , Art History & Criticism and English Language and Literature. He has curated numerous shows and is the founder editor of two online magazines on Indian contemporary art. He also directs documentaries on art, translates international literature into Malayalam and writes a blog . Currently , he lives and works in Faridabad, Haryana.

Writer,Critic,Curator,Translator,Human Being

Jyotsna Sharma

Wooden Horse


This body of work by Manu Singh speaks of hope, achievement and possibilities in the face of uncertainty, highlighting the turbulent world we all live in. The'Wooden Horse'series came about when she was commissioned to paint for a children's charity show. She was reminded of her childhood companion the wooden horse, on which she could travel to various magical imaginary destinations. The wooden horse had all kinds of powers; he could fly, he could swim, there was nothing he couldn't do - he wasn't limited by the restrictions we as adults place upon ourselves.

As adults, key emotions such as love, appreciation and kindness are sometimes coloured by self-limiting beliefs like jealousy, the fear of rejection, and the need to get ahead. Her paintings urge us to introspect and let go of these. In her paintings, the wooden horse symbolises the self, the backdrop is at times the sky, the ocean or even the earth, giving one a sense of vastness. For instance, in the painting titled Wooden Horse - a selfportrait, she examines the concept of the self. Striving for perfection based on societal standards, self-doubt, fear of rejection, genuine happiness & and a state of contentment are all investigated. In doing so, she encourages us to challenge our perception of the self, which is usually, a sum of our individual experiences.

Nailed Shadow is another example of being tied to a painful reality or an idea. Here again, she comments on how the human mind perceives a situation to be larger than what it really is. The option of moving away or staying on is always present.

Her mastery in the use of colour is illustrated in Survivor- Two Worlds, which depicts two skies - a stormy sky at the bottom and a calmer golden sky on top. It is really the merging of two separate worlds. This painting is an extension of Rooted Boat, which is a comment on how the world perceived and reacted to the migrant crisis of Europe in 2015. Over a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe, which led to a crisis, and as a result, some countries decided to shut their borders, causing a vast number of refugees to be displaced with nowhere to go for shelter.

Her artworks, mostly figurative, have surrealistic qualities. She experiments with different media and uses familiar imagery such as figures and everyday objects to produce the desired effect. Every artwork with its profound message leads one to reflect upon key emotions & beliefs.

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