At no other time in the history of modern civilisation has man been so alienated from nature and his surroundings, as in the last half of the century. It is almost as if man, in his arrogance, has placed himself at the core of creation with little or no thought for the flora and the fauna, the animals and forests around him. In his excessive greed, he has cut down trees and whole forests, destroyed species which are now extinct, and polluted the rivers and seas making the earth unliveable. Excessive consumerism has resulted in mountains of garbage while the thoughtless use of fossil fuels has resulted in pollution on a scale we could never have dreamt of. So, where are we going with the world?

Bharath Sayyam who is a Yadav, and comes from a family that used to milk buffaloes and deliver it to families, has been working on the memories he knows best – the pastoral life of his community. This was the world he grew up with, buffaloes and bulls and their decorated horns, the thatched houses which had gobar stuck on the walls, and brass and aluminium cans that were used to deliver freshly extracted milk.

However, now the artist moves away from what was an idyllic, rustic world, a world that was cleaner and less polluted, to ask questions about man’s alienation from this natural environment.

The very issues of climate change that are now plaguing the world, and have their activists, drives Bharath to use his canvas to mark his style of protest. Since he is most familiar with the pastoral animals, he infuses them with new meanings as well as the canvases and painting techniques to make powerful statements. But in these series, the bulls are anthropomorphic figures. They now wear gas masks and goggles and are thronging traffic lights worried about the air they are breathing, not unlike the men and women we see in back to back traffic on busy roads.

In another, there are mounted heads of bulls; very much like the tigers that were hunted during the Raj (almost wiping out their population) looking down at a gas mask and the perilous atmosphere and wondering if they are better off on the walls than on the earth.

And in another painting that is sinister, there are images of animals, cows, buffaloes, birds in the dark, all lost amidst huge piles of garbage, looking forlorn as if it to ask, ‘brother what have you done to us, and the earth?’ The most heart-breaking one according to me is the work titled ‘Modern Mutton Dukaan’ where the slaughtered head of a buffalo with the garbage it has eaten waiting to go to someone’s table. It reminds me of the well-known painting of the head of John the Baptist that is brought on a silver plate to Salome.

Bharath has been working on these large and small canvases for over four years, and we can see he has been thinking about his oeuvre. And the world around him. He is asking himself and us what the artist’s role should be: would it be simply to do decorative art that will look pretty in homes, or ask larger questions about the world? I believe he has taken the difficult path of raising questions that make us think. He is asking, are we so completely drenched in our greed that we simply don’t care about the earth anymore. But then what about our children and future generations? Do they pay the price of a world raped? And what about our shared humanity, where have we abandoned it?

There is certain darkness in these works; however, the humour is not completely lost. There are bulls that have been transported into an urban milieu, are sitting on drawing room sofas sipping wine and gossiping and chatting with another lady (bulls) with shoes and dark glasses; with even a Picasso print hanging at the back!

There is nostalgia too. He has collected bull horns, hoof and horn decorations and even cans used to deliver milk from his extended family to turn them into installations.

I have followed Bharath’s works for a good decade. For the struggling artist working on a small format pen and ink drawings of cats and blind beggars in Old City, I see these large scapes, asking larger questions through a medium he knows best.

I was happy to see that he is relating his art to larger questions about the world and where, as a race are we heading. Questions we should all be asking, in fact.

By Ratna Rao Shekar.

Journalist | Author of the book ‘The Purple Lotus’.