By COLTER RULAND, September 2019
On his deathbed in November, 2018, Bharat Dalal, who had scarcely uttered a single word for quite some time, finally spoke. While his family wishes to keep his last words private, they were, to everyone’s surprise, about his artwork. A perfectionist at heart, he had toiled over his passions for years in relative obscurity with no care for who might see the work. No one aside from his close friends and family even knew he was an artist. While he did not live long enough to see his work presented to the greater public, Dalal’s ambition far exceeded what time was given to him. After Dalal’s death, his family unearthed six immaculate, large-scale paintings that demonstrated his remarkable artistry and skill. Accompanying them were handwritten manuscripts, one for each of the six paintings, and which, prior to this discovery, risked never being read. His body of work, which continues to be much larger and more enigmatic than previously thought, is the culmination of a lifetime spent in pursuit of personal and artistic transcendence.
After culling through his manuscripts and a trove of material provided by his family, one soon realizes that Dalal wanted to understand how things worked. From the way one assembles a grandfather clock to the very nature of existence, Dalal was always trying to unpack the intricacies of life itself. The member of a prominent business family in Mumbai, India, he did not seem to be satisfied. His family began to notice a sober, perfectionist personality developing within him as he went from one technical school to another in his youth. He tried his hand at almost everything from music composition to drawing, from writing to carpentry. He once took an entire year to finish crafting an intricate inlay table, giving it the polish of a piano finish. In his manuscripts, he describes “an artistic environment that was partly hostile and partly favorable, partly irreverent and partly conducive.” In other words, he was alone.
In one of his first series of paintings, what he called Inner Scapes, he expressed his inner life and dissatisfaction with abstract, Kandinsky-like gestures. These paintings are “the most spontaneous renderings of my childhood instincts,” he writes, providing a kind of “autobiographical account.” In Imaginary Home Town, the “veil of a country landscape” is translated through hard geometric shapes and complementary colors. In Sensuality & Sexuality, the geometric shapes soften and billow with innuendo as a “surreal sexual fantasy of my childhood.” Dalal describes this period as an “outburst of expression” as he moved quickly to keep up with what he saw, how he felt. This would be one of the few times in his life he would create work with such abandon. As time went on, things slowed, and he looked further inward, even into the past, for inspiration.
It was in his early twenties that Dalal began to be “haunted by persistent visions.” In them he saw Leonardo da Vinci and the passions they shared: technical perfectionism and a predilection for the metaphysical. In da Vinci, Dalal saw a similar quest to “bridge the gap between the desire for perfection and the actualization of this desire.” He began to conceptualize a series of paintings “based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci, not as a homage, but due to visions so persistently haunting, that their full comprehension completely transformed the way I perceived the implausibilities and negativities that lay within my soul.” India, however, did not seem to have enough “space” for the kind of work he had in mind. The visions persisted and within them he also began to see the only place that seemed spacious enough, willing to bridge the gap, a place that long advertised the fulfilment of dreams.
In the 1980s, Dalal arrived in Los Angeles. He stayed with a friend and instead of renting his friend offered the garage as a studio. It was here, in the seclusion of a garage in Inglewood, California, that Dalal set about to complete the work he felt da Vinci had left unfinished, a series he would title The Fossilized Passions of da Vinci. It would take him over five years to complete six paintings. Five years. That kind of commitment and concentration had always been a part of him. His family remembered him playing the sitar for eight, nine hour stretches at a time. One begins to wonder if Dalal experienced time in an entirely different manner.
For The Fossilized Passions of da Vinci, Dalal took a selection of da Vinci’s paintings and introduced them to an added layer of expressionism. To achieve his vision, Dalal created his own unique processes. Back in Mumbai, everything had been at his disposal. Now he had to make a new beginning. With the help of his friends, he sourced wood to build his own frames, large frames stretched over with canvas he had brought with him. Dalal, as expected, obsessed over the quality of his materials. As he primed the canvas in layers he also sanded it smooth. Instead of acrylics or oils paints that faded over time, he chose exterior paints that would last. In the garage, he created his own pulley system, suspending the canvas from the ceiling. He would section off areas with contact paper. As he poured paint onto certain sections, he would tilt the canvas with the pulleys to make it spread, creating a mesmerizing marbling effect. He would fine tune with an airbrush. No detail was too minute.
The years went on like this. His devout nature was not interested in going out or conversing with people who were not a part of his inner circle. But he was not a recluse. Perhaps he had some of the tendencies of an outsider artist—namely, the construction of a complex and idiosyncratic world where the arcane mingles with the futuristic—but he was not disconnected. In fact, the six paintings in The Fossilized Passions of da Vinci offer an immaculate and otherworldly connection between history and the metaphysical. It is easy to be swallowed whole by the sheer size of them: the largest being over six by fifteen feet. Here the past meets an ethereal future. In The Loggia, the marbling harkens back to classical architecture, but in the background is a fantastical landscape that could easily be the landscape of another planet or a dream. In The Last Supper, the figure of Jesus is completely removed and replaced with an entrance that opens onto a lucent void. In Ginevra de Benci, the realism of the original background is morphed into a melancholic expression highlighted by an accompanying passage that reads as a personal recollection of meeting the woman in the painting during a “misty twilight.”
As with the grandfather clocks and inlay tables he had created in his earlier years, Dalal’s six paintings are personal explorations into what it means to be living in—and perhaps at odds with—a modernizing world. After five years, the result was a series as immense as it was mysterious. After an evaluation, the time spent alone valued the paintings to those typically found in museums. And yet Dalal did not show them to anyone until they were finished. Even then the people who saw the paintings were controlled and limited. And when he was done, he left Los Angeles as abruptly as he had arrived.
As of now, not much is known about his time after he returned to India. His family acknowledges he led a different kind of life. He practiced Jainism. He was vegan. He did not eat anything that grew underground, and he eventually gave up carpentry because he wanted to inflict as little harm to life as possible. In some ways, he was homesick for another time and place. He carried a wooden box he had made himself that held his brushes and writing tools, including a homemade wax seal. In his manuscripts he savored the details of the objects he used, listing their names, materials, dimensions, whatever comprised their being and his possession of them. He longed for the past. At the same time, he also acknowledged that life was not constant. He knew he “shouldn’t do the same things, that he should grow with time because that’s the world he was living in,” as one family member puts it.
The world that Dalal lived in was one he had been constructing his entire life. Even in his later years he continued to repurpose his own paintings, which had in turn repurposed the paintings of da Vinci, in order to question the “reliance on the temporary rather than the eternal.” Dalal’s work is unabashedly grand in both scope and execution. It is work that is so illuminating, so puzzling, one wonders, one hopes, there is more out there left to be discovered. WM
Colter Ruland lives and writes outside of Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Territory, Cosmonauts Avenue, Fiction Advocate, Goodnight Sweet Prince, The Thought Erotic, Switchback, and elsewhere. He is working on his first novel.view all articles from this author