September 15, 2012

Anita Desai's 'The Artist of Disappearance' Captures Art on the Run!

In this collection of short stories titled, The Artist of Disappearance, Anita  Desai, besides telling three engrossing stories, makes evocative use of language to transport readers into unique settings like the cicada buzzing government bungalow of a staid civil servant in post colonial India, and a glade in the Himalayas that is strewn with  "pebbles worn to an irresistible silkiness by the weather". 

Published in 2011, The Artist of Disappearance captures the changing perspective on art and artists in our current day world. While bemoaning the passing of an era of innocence, realness, and virginity in art, the writer exposes the contemporary obsession with hoarding art, its over embellishment, and the sensationalism associated with it.  Consequently, some of the characters in Desai's novellas, 'are people who look at pictures and read books: the rich who 'collect and neglect' art, the civil servants who 'fail to support' it, the adapters and critics and publishers who 'cluster round the edges', their restless jostling muddying and blurring its (art's) outlines." As the grand finale, in the last novella, Ms. Desai presents Ravi, an artist and a recluse, who being hounded by a movie crew, withdraws into absolute anonymity and capsizes his artist's canvas from a glade that 'contained the essence [of the Himalayas] … as one glittering bee … might contain an entire season", to a matchbox "he could carry on him, and keep to himself". Art appears to be on the run in Ms. Desai's collection of short stories! Replacing art and artists are hoarders and collectors, translators and publishers, directors and producers for whom art is but a saleable commodity. Each of the three novellas track a disappearance, a diminishment of art or of an artist, either done in protest to preserve creativity, or else in despair against the ravages of modernity and industrialization.
It is noteworthy and reassuring that in the epigraph to this collection, Ms. Desai quotes from Jorge Luis Borges' poem "Everness", and it reads, “One thing alone does not exist — oblivion.”  Clearly, Ms. Desai believes there is still hope for Art and for the artist because, as the epigraph suggests, disappearance can never be fully realized. Consequently, in the end the artist Suvarna Devi, of the second novella 'Translator Translated', is still free, somewhere, in some other part of the world, and so is Ravi – Desai's last true artist in the title novella– he is still alive and happy in the village, making a new, even smaller world in a matchbox.

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