Artists

In the ongoing exhibition titled Granite, Lamp and Mirror at the Vadehra Art Gallery, artist K.M. Madhusudhanan navigates the colonial body and its various manifestations in the cultural sphere, in the realms of cinema and caste politics respectively. Using citation and memory, he puts together a body of work that presents a surreal set of images drawn from the postcolonial anxiety around one’s roots. While the genesis, process and ongoing ramifications of colonial despotism deeply inform his work, Madhusudhanan also recognizes the potential effects of ideological conquest. Madhusudhanan mobilises cultural history of violence, ownership and colonial transactions to create the works on display.

This history could be considered to have been inaugurated by Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India in the 15th century, a pivotal moment that opened the gateway for an age of global imperialism. Da Gama is referenced in the three light-boxes mounted by the artist in the series titled Hunters in the Desert. Experimenting with a new medium, Madhusudhanan uses a light-box against which he has distended an expanse of goat-skin held on the frames by strings. On the leather is painted a full-body portrait of Vasco da Gama, his ship and his trademark crown (all contained in individual light-box installations), the representative shapes defined through perforations that allow the light from the base of the work to radiate through and subsequently create an illuminating effect. Taking a cue from the art of Tholpavakoothu or shadow puppetry in Kerala, the artist uses light as the primary tool to engage with an age-old tradition of cultural identity while harking back to an important moment in the political past. The figure of Vasco da Gama and the accoutrements of power are represented in the forms and colours of a folk tradition in an assertion of postcolonial agency.

Two other series in the exhibition, The Marx Archive: Logic of Disappearance and Archaeology of Cinema, engage with global contemporary war politics through the dual lens of cinema and political myth-making. Madhusudhanan was part of the leftist avant-garde collective- the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association in Kerala, which intended to use art as a mode of engendering social and political consciousness. While studying in the Trivandrum College of Art, the group engaged in street protests through politically-charged posters after the declaration of a state of Emergency in 1977. Art and politics were thereby woven into each other; art now needed to actively address conditions of marginality through individual questions of identity. However, after leading member and artist K.P. Krishnakumar’s death, the movement dissipated. Madhusudhanan’s works are now a testimony to the collective’s vision.

The charcoal works from The Marx Archive series display an affiliation with the archival. By representing bloodshed and violence in monochrome, the artist cites the photographic quality of the archive to present an indictment of colonial history; this evokes the spectre of a collective memory akin to the phantoms evoked by archives. One of the notable works from the series is an installation where a fiberglass statue of Mao Zedong has an enlarged arm raised in a wave, while an array of bulbs (with red filters) issue from his torso in the reverse direction and illuminate an open book placed at the base. The installation, titled Red Book. Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, borrows its title from a slogan pronounced by Mao during the Hundred Flowers campaign in 1956 where he intended to address intellectual critique against the socialist government. The campaign historically failed and gave way to violent repression of dissidents, thus ending in a betrayal of its original principle. The emanation of red light may then be viewed as symbolic of the bloodshed of that event. Madhusudhanan also populates his frames with technologies of propaganda such as loudspeakers, military tanks and helicopters, and skeletal (or mutilated) figures. A panel of three from the series depicts a swine (connotative of arrogance in Buddhism) bound to a loudspeaker, followed by a tall row of speakers with the symbolic red flag anchored on top. The third painting shows a sculpture of Lenin’s head being carried by a helicopter; all three images collectively evoke a lapsarian picture of Marxism.

These works fuse with those that are actively drawn from Shree Narayana Guru’s [1] influence on the artist and the socio-religious movement he led in Kerala in the 19th century. Born into the Ezhava caste (a historically lower caste community, deemed “untouchable”), Narayana Guru found himself concerned with the uplift of the historically marginalized Avarnas (an umbrella term for all lower-caste communities in Kerala). In 1888, he consecrated a granite block (in the shape of the Shiva lingam) and by extension, a temple in his community in an act of resistance to the social mandate that only Brahmins could erect or enter religious monuments. He justified his act by arguing that the granite represented an ‘Ezhava Shiva’. This effectively dismantled the Brahmanical monopoly on the ownership of the Hindu god, and enabled the existence of a subaltern Shiva. In subsequent years, the Guru instituted the lamp and the mirror in different temples as objects of veneration; while the lamp was seen as a conduit for knowledge, the mirror became a metaphor for self-introspection. These acts were directed towards quelling the abjection that had come to define the lower classes. Insisting on economic and intellectual self-sufficiency, Narayana Guru used these material elements as metaphors for a project of egalitarianism through the self.

The installation of the granite, lamp and mirror took place across temples in Alappuzha, Kerala, which is incidentally Madhusudhanan’s birthplace. These objects come across in their intended import in the artist’s works, as each is seen physically mounted on a human torso in the place of the head, with one hand pointing towards itself with a gun. Made of fiberglass, the torso of each of the three installations supports the aforementioned objects in a moment of suspended action; all three are under perpetual threat from the lethal weapon that is the gun. In conversation with Shree Narayana Guru’s philosophical text Atmopadesa Satakam, the installations are accompanied by citations that impart context, complete with a portrait of the Guru himself, who is deemed a Dalit icon in retrospect. Madhusudhanan draws attention to Narayana Guru’s revolution in the realm of caste politics, channeled through an insistence on social dignity and the recognition of individual worth. While this reform movement subsequently gave way to others that took up the cause more vehemently in the direction of creating a new Dalitidentity,theartist goes back through his work to the project that marked the beginning of a radical social praxis by posing a challenge to Hindu priesthood.

A common thread that runs through Madhusudhanan’s works is his preoccupation with the machine. Just as cinema is predicated on the machine, so is war. Madhusudhanan looks at cinema and the image in relation to history and memory. On its inception, cinema was seen as a medium that celebrated volume, colour, motion and rhythm, marked by its potential for meaning-production beyond the language of still photography. Madhusudhanan celebrates it by representing in his work technologically-contrived figures that materialize in light. Portrayed in a skimpy outfit and holding a pig, a smiling female figure repeats herself in a particular frame as an image in motion, imitating the manoeuver of the magic lantern. While the painting references the proto-cinematic device of the magic lantern, the kitsch profile of the female body also recalls the colonial gaze on the coloured (and gendered, in this case) body as one of wonder and consumption.

The apparatus of the camera itself is often placed in the centre of the frame, foregrounded in its technological marvel. Focusing on the history of its genesis and arrival in India, the artist fuses representations of the medium with figures of 18th century British soldiers. A panel of eight charcoal works shows icons of early Indian cinema like Fearless Nadia and Sulochana who, in hindsight, come to embody the revolutionary impulse of the medium. Madhusudhanan’s fascination with cinema as a historical medium is exhibited in his formal imitation of the filmic language; the works are displayed as a series, placed in dialogue with each other. The magic lantern, or shambarik kharolika, forms the centerpiece in this series. Adopted and improved over years by Madhavrao Patvardhan, who created an indigenous version of the European magic lantern and used glass slides to put up long performances for entertainment, the artist inserts the same in his paintings where its role in generating the image in motion is emphasized in its elemental function.

Rejecting the luminous quality of the oil, Madhusudhanan’s paintings have exaggerated darkness pervading the canvas, similar to Francesco Goya’s later art (especially The Black Paintings). Spanning a range of historical watersheds in cinema and politics, Madhusudhanan presents a visual registry of technologies as they have evolved to fit the functions of war and entertainment. The artist uses the mediums of cinema, Marxism and philosophy to produce a collage of charged truths engendered by an intimate vision of history. Whether it’s the apparatus of cinema or the stylistic tenebrism of his oil and charcoal works, light radiates through each of the mediums a little differently while running through the entire exhibition- whether metaphorically or figuratively- as that elemental current that makes history visible. Madhusudhanan positions the colonial body as the underlying thematic in the exhibition. Whether consumed in its hyper-valued cinematic avatar or de-valued in its absence of social sanction, the colonial body in his work becomes the phantom of a very contemporary pulsating anxiety around colour, abjection and institutional regulation.

Notes:

[1] Shree Narayana Guru (1856-1928) was a social and religious reformer who led a reform movement in Kerala in the 19th century to eradicate casteism and promote values of social equality and spiritual freedom.

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