There is a certain cosmic element about large battles described in epics like the Iliad or the Mahabharata. Maybe the forces unleashed from the large seething masses of humanity numbering in the tens of thousands as they stand to square off in what could be the last day or night in their lives evokes out of control celestial bodies – or maybe it is the magnitude of destruction about to unfold while rational thought remains crucified at the battlefield entrance helplessly watching the bloodletting that ensues… I am not sure, but there is something other worldly about them that pricks our atavistic core. Childhood memories are fairly strong – or so neurologists say – it must be because our brain cells have not fully formed then and any available sliver of information is indelibly singed on our neurons… For some reason, to this day, I remember vicariously participating in the imaginary battles while the warring clans clashed under the overcast demeanor of Kurukshetra through comic books such as the Amar Chitra Katha…
One such scene from this epic tale unfolds with two very large armies about to face off each other over a vast battleground. Moments before the time of reckoning draws near and that first arrow rends the sky, one of the commanders experiences a sudden burst of self-doubt and starts a dialogue with his charioteer on the nature of humanity, the soul, our existence and filial duty. A striking tableau develops when his charioteer drives the chariot out to the midlines of the battle field and starts to explain the answers to some of the questions posed. The interesting exchange between the doubtful commander and his self assured charioteer is so powerful that it forms a separate section of the Mahabharata called the Gita. Though I would consider certain portions of the conversation between the two to be bit facile, a lot of the principles laid out in this conversation that took place thousands of years ago resonates even today.
Even if the words did prod my thinking in many ways, the aspect of the epic that was most retained in my mind from all those surreptitious nights of comic book mythology was the battle. This painting (below) is an attempt at trying to capture some those crucial moments before the impending battle. This scene is a familiar one and numerous Indian homes have a semblance of this tableau in some framed format. Owing to the scale and the gravity of the scene, I decided to try something large scale (though it was not really necessary) – I had not done anything so large before and the aspect of size in and of itself presented its own peculiar problems. Finished, the painting is about nine feet wide and six feet tall. I did make a mess of our basement completing the thing and am not sure how long that is going to take to clean the oil paint mish mash left on the floor. It took about two and a half months for me to go through the motions of the initial measurements, sketches, gesso ground and finally painting the canvas in three sections – the middle first, followed by the left and then the right side.
Sunil Gangadharan, ‘Everyman and the charioteer’, Oil on canvas, 101″ X 73″