Initially, Manjunath Kamath’s studio in Hauz Khas Village is like any other these days. Stretched, propped and rolled canvases lie about. A couple of computers sit on desks, and in use. However, soon enough, you realize that you have entered into the laboratory of a present day Merlin the magician. Old toys, kitsch, wooden sculptures of deities, bits and pieces of artifacts, Raja Ravi Varma’s prints and bits and pieces of whatever may have caught the attention of the artist with magpie eyes is neatly stored or displayed. Many of these have or soon will be become part of his works of art-paintings, sculptures, video art, animation videos and digital prints. Ever eclectic, Kamath (born 1972), creates his own lexicon of images with whatever strikes his fancy and purpose. It all ends up in his bubbling cauldron of images.
In this new series of seven digital prints Kamath has moved from quirky collages that play on the shock of insouciant juxtaposition towards more painterly images in which the seemingly disparate elements are more integrated. No longer does it seem to be an accretion of oxymoronic pop-ups merely placed in a landscape.
The work is far more complex and layered: a great deal appears to be happening, simultaneously. Each tableau, almost vivant, is more in the nature of a mis-en-scene. It’s almost as if Kamath has compressed a movie into a still image. Although the image may not move, there is movement in the viewer’s mind: a story may unfold, with the onlooker weaving in bits and pieces from his own imagination and experiences. The artist pulls out images from what he calls his “brain-archive” (a bit like a hat from which a magician pulls out rabbits) to create his digital paintings. Actually, the images materialize when he sits in front of his computer and goes on a photo-shopping spree, with the internet world as his oyster.
Moreover, it is not only the electronic images that inhabit his screen. Surfacing as well are fragments of memory: his grandmother’s stories, Yakshagana plays which made an indelible impression on him as a child in Mangalore, temple festivals, stories from the epics and the Puranas, and the odds and ends that he has collected over the decades.
Kamath may be telling a story but he only wants to tell part of it. His work, he explains, has a “complete visual story and it is not verbal”. All he does is provide just a few “glimpses”, evoke the atmosphere, give away some of the plot and establish his dramatis personae. He also bungs in some apparently unrelated props and quotidian objects. The artist wants the viewer to put together the pieces and weave his or her own story. He likes to think of his digital paintings as “visual puzzles”. “For me it may be something from the Puranas, but others can see different kinds of things…I am really fascinated with historic images and the stories in my own mind. It is like doing a puzzle. The images can become a story.”
Kamath describes his more recent digital paintings as “arranged photographs”, for which he has assembled a cast of characters, diverse landscapes, backgrounds and objects. What sets this series apart from earlier work is the treatment of the images appropriated from here and there, from the past and the present.
At first glance these works appear to be paintings, palpably different from his earlier digital work. Kamath has been working with digital images since ’94, when he came to Delhi and joined The Economic Times as a designer. Then, it was really a play of “ready-mades”: digital prints were not considered art. Gradually, the painterly quality of his digital work began to emerge as he began to master the technique of this medium and tried to use it as he would oil on canvas. “All the lighting” he explains, “is taken from painting…You get the light by giving layers with what you select from photo-shopping, the way a painter uses paint.” Similarly, Kamath works shadows (of his characters or objects) into his digital paintings by working with the digital process. Kamath’s digital prints share most of the elements that inhabit his paintings. For his delightful work called Pink elephant and other stories (in this series of digital prints) he borrowed his pink elephant from the painting with the title, Restless man on pink elephant in old city that he had done a few years ago.
Images from the two mediums go back and forth. Kamath is becoming equally dexterous with both. He chooses the medium that will work the best for a particular set of images or ideas. Or, for that matter, with it he can obtain a certain tone that he wants to emulate. He wanted to give “the feel of a Renaissance painting” for these works. Sometimes, painting alone won’t do it for him. “In painting I can’t always do justice to what I want to do. There is more sculptural quality in digital.” No wonder in his rather naughty digital painting, cheekily titled Arranged Situation, the image of a lion mounting a lioness on a table has a three dimensional feel about it. This animal duo---surreally placed in an airy room with the suggestive images of a bed and a couch which has obviously seen some very frenzied sexual activity--does look like a well-rounded sculpture. The artist has played with light here and digital layering, as he has in many of his digital prints.
Kamath also has the freedom to play God in his digital paintings. “I can make a man upside down in my world. I can take these liberties. But still, there should also be some kind of balance. I suppose I play between reality and surrealism,” he elaborates. This medium also allows the artist to play with time and space, to mix and match-or jar as the case may be. His digital paintings usually involve the surreal yoking-together of dramatis personae across centuries and geographies--from the paintings of Michelangelo and Rembrandt, of Raja Ravi Varma to 20th and 21st century figures, including his studio assistant and models. Nor are the iconic or banal everyday images of our times left out. Nowhere is this more evident than in the digital work titled Siesta in a Hauz Khas pond. Kamath began with the image of a real pond. Into this went Raja Ravi Varma’s image of the sage Vishwamitra with his hand raised (partially to cover his eyes from the seductive Maneka); a suited 21st century male (the kind you see in TV ads) who appears to be torn between the modern white woman who appears to be swimming after him (only her face can be seen above the water); and a classical Indian beauty out of a Ravi Varma canvas. Submerged in the lotus pond as well is a black and yellow taxi, a statue of Baba Ambedkar, a rather ornate sofa, a donkey’s head, floating plastic bottles, a sinkingtelevision set and the piece de résistance, Kamath’s assistant Krishna seemingly sprouting whitewings, like an angel’s, and peering at a swan behind him. Though, on secondthought, those wings could just be those of a swan behind him.
Kamath admits that he may just be “playing a game”. “I have somebody from Western history. And suddenly an image from a Raja Ravi Varma painting appears and I say, ok, why you two don’t chat a bit…one in English and the other in Sanskrit.” God, magician with digital tricks up his sleeves, or puppeteer manipulating his characters and stories, Manjunath Kamath is happy calling the shots. He also has the last laugh.