Through the looking glass: the art of Tauseef Khan

The graceful domes of Delhi’s famed Humayun’s Tomb have been captured in oil many times, but Tauseef Khan adds another layer of perception to the image. In his canvasses, the architecture is tactile, hyper-real and vivid, but shaped in places through the glass of a wine goblet. Through the screen of the glassware, light distorts, patterns are amplified and new shapes created, evoking something new altogether. This is more than the monument whose green grounds host picnics by visitors and locals, more than the familiar marvellous shape that soars into view as you travel down Barapullah flyover. Tauseef’s fabulous painting reminds you of a truth we all tend to overlook: each and everything we see is our perception of its reality.

Tauseef’s Reflections series is an entire symphony built around this note. “Through my paintings, I want to explore the concept of constantly changing perceptions. For instance, the monuments of Delhi, which I often paint, are objects of grandeur and antiquity, but to me, they are also familiar markers of my home city, places I often visited with family and friends.” That mixed tone of wonderment and comfort is evident in the way Tauseef depicts historical architecture: bright, as if bathed in afternoon sunlight, immediate as if tactile. Panels of Mughal inlay work in marble and bejewelled stone are vividly presented in some paintings, and in others, the red sandstone of a temple seems so comfortably warm you’d want to touch it.

Playing with light and time

A striking aspect of Tauseef’s paintings is the deliberate attention drawn to the artifice of the image. He paints realistic objects, not for the sake of verisimilitude, but paradoxically to underscore their transient nature. “I am inspired by the masterworks of Dutch Still Life painting, with the amazing tables full of precious objects, fruit and flowers, which the painters rendered with photographic precision. I work to achieve the same sort of hyper-realism in my works, so that the painting is at once very real but also something illusionary,” he explains. Like the anamorphic distortions of the Old Dutch masters, who painted distorted skulls in otherwise hyper-realistic compositions, to remind the viewer of the temporary nature of life, Tauseef’s glass screens too seem to tell us that all things are a function of time.

Apart from the deeper themes of perception and history that run through his work, Tauseef’s love for monuments and glasses also has a personal element. “Growing up in Delhi, I found monuments were not separate objects, they were a part of your day to day life,’ he says. “Whether it be Humayun’s Tomb or the Nizamuddin Tomb or little doors and arches here and there, history is all around us.” The other connection is his family’s antique business, which inspired in him a love for all things touched by time, including gorgeous large timepieces and old ittar bottles. The glass of the ittar bottles struck a primaeval chord in the young artist, he recalls. “I loved to watch the world through the screen of the glass, how light went through it, the play of light, colour and shape.”

Monuments and Perspectives and reflections may be the dominant themes of Tauseef’s art today, but the journey here didn’t exactly have a straightforward trajectory. If we look at the graph of Tauseef’s career in art, we see that he has worked with different media, including charcoal and pastels, different forms, such as sculpture and even different themes. “After a lot of experimenting, I found my greatest comfort was with oil paints,’ he says. “Oils gives me the flexibility to mix colours, which is one of my passions, and is also the best to create the desired realistic three-dimensional effect in my paintings.” Neither has his learning experience been conventional. Unlike many other artists, Tauseef finished his MFA only recently, after two decades of working as a professional artist. The largely self-taught painter chose to learn in an iterant manner before that, absorbing inputs and insights from workshops, lectures and short courses. “At the Triveni Kala Sangam, I worked under great artists like Rameshwar Bothe, which was like an entire education in itself,’ he says.

Perhaps it is this oblique perspective, which gives Tauseef’s artwork its distinctive edge. Through the striking device of the glass objects as a screen to view monuments, he unpeels several layered themes. “My paintings are about how we view history through the prism of today, how it is constantly shifting and changing according to our contemporary perspectives. The wine glasses are a metaphor for society, how the people we know and come in contact with effect how we perceive the world and our past,” he says. But at the end of the day, the paintings are also special because they as beautiful as they are full of meaning. You can easily see the painter’s deliberate attention to the aesthetic, sensorial elements in each canvass, in the way the solid stone monument contrasts with the transparency and delicacy of the glassware, in the contrast between the monument per se and the monument seen through glass, creating a landscape with its own power, something which keeps the viewer looking.

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