Listen carefully. It all happened quite sometime ago. In what we usually call the past. It comes from the far side of the river of memories. Remember that I am on this side. [1]

In our present time we are confronted with an acceleration of history; the immediacy of international mass media constructs an omnipresent now in which the particulars of the local are run asunder. Spaces of memory, those sites of unregistered change, existing beyond the grand tectonics of the global are often trampled underfoot, discarded and cast adrift. The works included in Rajan Krishnan’s Memoir reclaim the sites of memory and their often antithetical relationship to history. Memory, at its core, is multifaceted, pluralistic and rooted within the bounds of a particular community or individual. History conversely rejects the particular in favour of the general - its universality rests in the valouraization of causal orthodoxies. Writing in 1989, French historian Pierre Nora considers the conceptual differences between memory and history to suggest that lieux de mémoire (sites of memory) are distinct locations where memory crystallizes [2]. Standing on the distant and uncharted shoals of time, sites of memory are subaltern spaces that shimmer in the shallows of alternative time. Nora observes lieux de mémoire are “moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned; no longer quite life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded [3].

Krishnan’s paintings seize on sites of crystallized memory as critical interventions into the present. Recalling and recollecting the flow and ebb of time (both real and imagined) his images simultaneously evoke the will to remember and the desire to heed the accretions of localized time. As an artist who chose to stay in his natal state of Kerala, India, Krishnan’s images may reflect the personal and the local; however, his subject matter and his conceptual concerns transcend geographical boundaries. Krishnan’s often monumental images and their uncanny conjunctions sharpen our perception and encourage us to consider the vital interplay of the contradictory.

In this short introduction to the work included in Memoir, I have chosen to focus upon three images: Memoir, Root and Transit. Exemplary of Krishnan’s conceptual and painterly approach, to my mind these large canvases most succinctly express some of the resonate issues in this exhibition.

Spanning three panels, Memoir represents crumbling monuments of modern industry and manual labour. Set within an indeterminable locale, these vertical sentinels of progress collapse under the burden of time: their shallow veneer of heroic optimism reminds us that change occurs over the longue durée. The world does not end with a bang but a whisper. [4] Whispers like memories are ephemeral; they grow thin and fragile over time. Krishnan arrests the slow decay of memory, furnishing visual evidence of its fleeting existence. Like many of the images included in this exhibition, Memoir is disquieting. Seeking out frames of reference we are left with stoic forms threatening to fall off the edge of the canvas. Neither black nor white, Krishnan’s modulated palette further illuminates the subtle and imperceptible march of change. The play of form, the hard edged verticals, and the diagonal juxtaposition of the embryonic form with the full moon heighten the sense of transformation and how these truncated structures mark the silent passage between now and then.

Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. [5]

The industrial gives way to the agricultural in Root. Contrary to Nora’s characterization of memory as an unconscious practice, Krishnan’s Root deliberately embraces the transformation of the landscape. Three tapioca plants stand against the backdrop of a cement barrier. Once considered the poor man’s vegetable in Kerala, the tuber of the tapioca is now consumed by all. Unearthed and vulnerable, Krishnan represents the tubers ravaged by a land that is unable to provide sustenance. Stalks blighted. Roots revealed. In a futile effort to stave off trespass, the cement barricade stands vigilant; yet, it does not possess the power to prohibit what lies beneath. The increasing demands for the vegetable have fuelled the use of pesticides and herbicides that have left their residual effects on the ground water in the state. Root reveals a demythologised landscape through which Krishnan rejects the possibilities of aesthetic sublimation to embrace the logistics of ecological devastation. The image is disconcerting in its subject matter and almost anti-aesthetic in its style. The flatness of the three horizontal registers, the discomfort elicited by the visage of the deformed plants forces one to seek refuge in the flat and unearthly slab of sky. Hovering between the poles of disease and the pallid atmosphere what recourse do we have?

The dialectics of remembering and forgetting finds full visual expression in Transit. A large iron rod fence cuts obliquely through the picture plane, its bars mete out a measured tempo. In contrast to solid forms of Memoir and Root, within this image it is the spaces in between the bars that articulate an encounter with memory. Though our vision is only slightly obstructed, the bars prohibit movement into the landscape. We are compelled, like the title suggests to move endlessly forward, glancing periodically at that which lies beyond our reach. The bars remind one of the deep structures of memory - though elusive - recollection has a tempo of its own. We either keep time or step out.

I began this essay with a quote from the novella Walls written by the famous Keralite author Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. Though perhaps it is an obscure reference, I was drawn to it because of its invocation of memory. Published in 1965, Basheer recollects his experiences in prison and how he falls in love with a woman who lives on the other side of the prison walls. It is the notion of walls and spaces of prohibition that I believe find equal resonance within the works of Rajan Krishnan. His unique visual recollections remind us that the memory is not the detritus of the past but rather critical marker of the present. Open ended and ambiguous the images of Memoir pose questions, rather than give answers. They remind us that memory belongs to no one and everyone.


[1] Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Mathilukal (The Walls)

[2] Pierre Nora, Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire

[3] Ibid, 12

[4] Here I refer to T S Eliot’s The Hollow Men (1925)

[5] Nora, 8
First published by Bodi Art Gallery, 2006.
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