There’s something about trees.
An Internet search on “thoughts on trees” throws up sentiments from the lofty –“Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” (Kahlil Gibran) — to the decidedly droll — “Trees are always a relief, after people.” (David Mitchell).
Perhaps it’s their architecture, rising from soil, reaching out, topped by elegant arches, steeples and clouds that appeals to our deepest spirit imperative: to rise. Perhaps it’s the living, breathing colour of the arboreal form. For artist Sanjay Devsale though, who has spent ten years trying to capture the essence of a forest, the magic of a tree lies in many things, beginning with its textural possibilities.
“One can spend a whole life just exploring the artistic possibilities in the form and surface of a tree,” says Devsale. “In fact, sometimes I feel even one life may not be enough.”
Trees have been a favoured muse of painters worldwide since the 18th century, but Devsale’s depiction still brings in a new, striking perspective. His pointillist landscapes in pop-up colours are detailed, striking and tactile. Devsale’s play of texture forges an immediate connection, evoking that universal desire to run your fingers across a tree’s warty, gnarled bark. You want to become a part of the forest world of his landscapes, gently treading the banks of snow in some and in others a silent carpet of grass.
Does its experiential appeal imply Devsale’s work is hyper-real? Far from it. In his landscapes, the foliage of the trees turns airy as cotton candy and is rendered in joyful pinks, blues and yellows. The stem and branches are delicate and strong like a photograph of an exposed nerve. All this gives his landscapes almost an electric energy. And then there’s his unique, generous use of space and context, allowing his trees – and viewers – room to breathe. Looking at the painting, you feel yourself exhaling deeply, letting go of the clutter in your own head.
“I am always trying to explore the essence of trees, of nature in different ways. And the response it inspires in me and others. It’s not about realism, for that you have other methods,” Devsale explains. “I think more about the new inspirations and shadows you can get from that just one natural form. That’s fascinating to me.”
His preoccupation with trees and landscapes also has a tangible connection with his own childhood and upbringing. Like so many other artists who grew in an environment close to nature, Devsale, who now lives and works in the city of Pune, tries to reimagine and re-establish that primal bond. Born in 1973, the painter grew up in a small village in the Latur District of Maharashtra.
“The first time I made a drawing in my primary school classroom, I knew I loved art,” he says. Trained in fine arts and with a Diploma in Art Education, Devsale went on to apply for jobs as a government teacher. “But that didn’t materialise.” That early setback was a silver lining, of sorts, because it made him turn to painting as a full-time profession. Devsale began with the popular subject of the time: figurative art. But something in the process, just didn’t “speak to me,” he says. “I like rapid brushwork, and playing with texture, but I wasn’t being to explore those fully when I was painting figures and portraits.”
That missing instinctual connection he found in landscapes.
Once he started painting landscapes again, like he used to quickly render the watercolour canvasses of his boyhood, Devsale started developing a strong, individual style. Moving away from hyper-realism, he found inspiration in the works of masters like MF Hussain, S Reza and Hyderabad-based Surya Prakash, the last often cited as a pioneer of impressionistic art in India.
The impressionist mode is evident in the way Devsale uses light and colour in his landscapes, yet his unique voice also shines through in his signature spacing and background. This uniqueness has led him to have a long career in art, with solo exhibitions across India, including at the Jahangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in 2015.
Despite his steadily growing oeuvre and recognition, Devsale is careful not to romanticise his art, using only matter of fact statements to describe it. When asked about the themes of his landscapes, he replies with characteristic humility and perhaps some humour. “Theme? They are just trees.”
It’s clear through Sanjay Devsale’s beautiful work that the cliché about mistaking the forest for the trees is itself myopic: sometimes the forest is its trees.