Marks and Sparks in Performance during the Pandemic

Marks an innovative and interactive performance by Abheesh Sasidharan and team is a unique theatrical and performance-based artistic enterprise. It is played before the people from 2021 October 4 to 8. This collective aesthetic venture is performed in collaboration with School of Drama of Calicut University at Aranattukara campus near Thrissur. It is an artistic homage to the legendary British architect who became an Indian, Mr Laurie Baker (1917-2007) who is the master architect of the still versatile and diverse structures there standing in the Aranattukara campus. Architecture, theatre, nature, performance and the people become one in an intertwined aesthetic and truly polyphonic experience.

Marks by Aheesh Sasidharan at School of Drama Trisur 2021. Photo: Ajay Sekher

The whole theatre fraternity and community at the School of Drama are involved in the elaborate moving performance. Techno-art and conservationist politics merge with human rights issues and the critique of the hierarchical society in the context of intersectionality and graded inequality. A scathing critique of power and totalitarianism is the deeply impinged impetus of the cultural event. Animalization and demonization of the human, othering and dehumanization and the biopower and resistance potential of the subjugated form a key contemporary theme that is theatrically explored and multi-vocally enacted from the beginning to the end in deeply intricate and multi-sensory ways. The various little episodes are linked through the narrative/s of motion and change. Truly multi-cultural or polyphonic vision and multi-sensory experiences make it an engaging artistic creation or combined and involved making or production of social democracy and justice at large.

From the performance Marks at School of Drama, a homage to Laurie Baker too

 The concern for humanity, life at large and ecology are thrust areas of this key artistic intervention. The very survival and sustenance of life during the contagion and the the current conjecture involving totalitarian and monopoly formations both in Kerala and India and the world at large become the real setting and context of this ethical and political act of art. A new performance idiom and language of collaborative and participatory action are also evolved through exploring the non-visual and auditory stimuli. Touch, smell, and temperature differences and sensations are also utilized dexterously in the production. Eye masking and sense of taste are subtly embedded into the performance choreography and syncretic text. The whole world becomes players and performance makers in this unison.

Animalization and othering as dramatized in Marks by Abheesh Sasidharan at SoD Trisur

Marks leaves deep and engaging imprints of life and art onto the body and mind of the engaged moving audience as they are guided through the dark interiors and starlit exteriors and the drizzling thickets and the wet hedges skirting the old bare-brick architectural ensemble in an island like landscape amidst vast Kol wetlands and paddy fields of Thrissur suburbia. The natural vegetation, huge and meandering mango trees and other wild plants that literally engulf the campus in an ethereal way in the light showers and magical lightning as the gentle rain or rainbow from heaven become the organic arena and real-life props of the performance. The twittering of the birds and their soft landing and cajoling near our ears, shoulders, and neck are mesmerizing and scintillating. The elephant encounter in the blinded play within the play is unforgettable. The smell of the wild tuskers in the humid air becomes part of our senses and reflexes.

Surviving the pandemic through agriculture and culture as depicted in Marks by Abheesh Sasidharan

Solar and dynamo-like renewable energy sources are used for lighting and minimal illuminations that sparks critical and creative thoughts, affects and emotions in the audience in intricate ways. It is a watershed in the history of performance in Kerala as its true predecessor Madness done by Abheesh on the short fiction of C Ayyappan earlier in Kochi in 2019 within a moving Ambassador motor car at Tripunitura.

Intimate and multi-sensory peformance in Marks by Abheesh Sasidharan at SoD Trisur 2021.

The improvisational and contextually evolving theatrical language used in tandem with the performers who are students and academic exponents of theatre and performance make it unique and historic once again. This collective and collaborative artwork involves and actively engages the audience in creating the music of life and a true polyphony of community and collective survival in the time of the pandemic. Let it be a new beginning for theatre and performance in Kerala after the colossal wreck of the cultural space during the pandemic.

Dr Ajay S Sekher  

5 October 2021.

ajaysekher@gmail.com +91 9895797798

Paintings that Critique Culture and History: The Subversive Visual Narratives of Chitrakaran T Murali

Vernacularising the Viratpurusha: Krishna by Chitrakaran T Murali
Vernacularising the Viratpurusha: Krishna by Chitrakaran T Murali

A cowherd is playing the flute, leaning onto a human like buffalo.  The Channar woman with a brave heart defends herself against the heinous attackers who try to strip her in public.  The cosmic dance of the lord is done over a dark and animalized body of the racial and religious other.  A woman cuts off her breasts as the monarchy and priestly patriarchy sit dumb.  The shadow of a modern sage is rendered as the image of an ancient reformer.  The images and visual narratives in the paintings of Chitrakaran T Murali are articulate and contrapuntal.

The legacy of Ram Rajya:  The Murder of Sambuka by Chitrakaran
The legacy of Ram Rajya: The Murder of Sambuka by Chitrakaran

Murali’s paintings have emerged as serious cultural critiques of Kerala history and society in myriad ways.  Through the visual depiction of hegemony and cultural elitism in subversive ways on the canvas in acrylic and mixed media his art practice and unique political aesthetics have provided a vantage and perspective for critically and ethically rethinking the past and present of Kerala and its composite culture.

Cosmic dance and Sarwajna Peedham:  Glorified slavery by Chitrakaran
Cosmic dance and Sarwajna Peedham: Glorified slavery by Chitrakaran

T Murali hailing from Malapuram district of Kerala became renowned as Chitrakaran or the painter through his illustrations and drawings in various popular periodicals including the Matrubhumi group of publications.  Later he established his own art institution that deals with commercial art and advertisement in Kannur.  Along with this endeavors he has also successfully continued his creative and critical fine arts practice and has produced  dozens of canvases that specifically engage with the visual culture and social history of Kerala.

Change from Nanjinad and the resistance by women:  Channar Woman by Chitrakaran
Change from Nanjinad and the resistance by women at the wake of colonial modernity and missionary acts: Channar Woman by Chitrakaran

The critical content and counter hegemonic thrust of his paintings are remarkable and distinct.  Unlike the popular and celebrated artists who romanticized and exoticized the elite aspects and the Savarna visual imagery, Murali has scathingly critiqued and resisted the hegemonic hangover of Brahmanical and Savarna aspects of our semiology and cosmology.  His works strategically questioned and challenged the Vamana and Padaja  ideology and discourse in the cultural history and polity of Kerala.  He has also recovered defiant voices of resistance and subaltern speech in Kerala history like the sacrifice of Nangeli at the Mulachiparambu of Cherthala.

Bold act of an Avarna woman diminishes the grace of the Padmanabha: Sacrifice of Nangeli-I by Chitrakaran T Murali
Bold act of an Avarna woman diminishes the grace of the Padmanabha and his holy state Travancore: Sacrifice of Nangeli-I by Chitrakaran T Murali

Nangeli cut off both her breasts and presented it before the tax collector of the Travancore state in a plantain leaf before the lighted traditional lamp or Nila Vilaku in true conventional but subversive way.  This paramount sacrifice by a brave Avarna woman forced the caste ridden regime to withdraw its infamous Mula Karam or breast tax.  With extreme poise and subtle sensibility Murali has depicted this immortal act of talking back by the Ezhava woman in south central Kerala against priestly monarchy, caste feudalism and Brahmanic patriarchy.

Like Kannaki's act the breast sacrifice of Nangeli becoming a curse on the Travancore state, its kings and the priestocracy:  Sacrifice of Nangeli - II by Chitrakaran
Like Kannaki’s defiance the breast tax of Nangeli becoming a curse on the Travancore state, its kings and the priestocracy: Sacrifice of Nangeli – II by Chitrakaran

Chitrakaran has also visited the place in Chertala and has presented a replica of the painting to the relatives of Nangeli near Mulachi Parambu. It is also vital to remember that  Kandapan her husband who immolated himself in her pyre has also created another history as the first recorded incident of male Sati or widower sacrifice.  It is also remarkable that his paintings vernacularize the meta-narratives of Hindutva and provincialize the icons like Krishna.  His work on Kerala history presents Narayana Guru as a modern day Boddhisatva akin to Gautama Buddha, providing stark parallels to the verses of Sahodaran Ayyappan who coined the poetic phrase “Narayana Buddha” in early 20th century at the heyday of Kerala renaissance struggles.

Old and neo buddhas of Kerala; Yaga Vedic culture of Vamana ideology or Brahmanism taking over by cheating Maha Bali in the background:  History of Kerala by Chitrakaran
Old and neo buddhas of Kerala; Yaga-Vedic hegemonic culture of the Vamana ideology or Brahmanism taking over by cheating Maha Bali in the background; Kerala renaissance through Nanu Guru: History of Kerala by Chitrakaran

His visual critique of the cosmic dance of Siva that is done by stamping down a dark and dwarf demonic figure at the feet and the Travancore dynasty are insightful and enlightening.  Murali’s rendering and subaltern appropriation of the image of Krishna as a buffalo boy with a reed is illuminating and emancipating.  In such strategic subversion and iconic twists Chitrakaran educates and liberates the people in emancipating ways.  There are popular aspects of  mimicry, irony, caricature and visual satire in his strokes.  He improvises with tone and texture to create an appealing visual and formal effect in dexterous ways.

The hierarchy and compartmentalization of caste system:  Indian Blindness by Chitrakaran
The hierarchy and compartmentalization of caste system: Indian Blindness by Chitrakaran

Paintings like Channar woman and Kerala History are deeply engrossing to every sensitive being in our society.  These paintings are also tributes and critiques of Kerala renaissance and Kerala modernity in multiple ways.  They trace the erasures and repressions that dominate the mainstream soceity and the Savarna Hindu common sense that monopolize every sites in the present.  They also try to build up a parallel referential structure of dalit bahujan semiotics and imagery that can decolonize and de-Hinduize the Avarna people in Kerala and India.  It is also remarkable that his paintings create inter textual linkages with the works of dalit bahujan writers and theorists like Ialaiah, Omvedt or Guru.

Contemporary reality of the stratified soceity and lingering hegemony:  Newspaper by Chitrakaran
Contemporary reality of the stratified soceity and lingering hegemony, a critique of media culture as well: Newspaper by Chitrakaran

The visual critique of Chitrakaran is also deeply sensitive, sensual, ethical and spiritual.  They create an earthiness in sensual perception through the use of muddy and organic hues. The color tone and decentered visual treatment of the subjects are empowering and democratic at large.  The human figures and bodies emancipate and spiritually engender the viewer and the passing onlooker with an organic gut feeling and deep rooted bio politics.

Explosive and subversive potentials of art:  Man with Bomb by Chitrakaran
Explosive and subversive potentials of art:       Man with Bomb by Chitrakaran

Chitrakaran T Murali’s artful acts systematically deconstruct and undo the hegemonic visual narratives in our temple murals or in the elitist art practices that are popularized by the mainstream media and academia through a sustained sense of subversion and critical and creative renewal.  They are powerful narratives in visual cultural politcs and therefore are able to lure the popular gaze  in a lingering fashion.  The paintings of Murali is certainly going to captivate and guide the people in the times to come as fascism and fanaticism of various kinds are trying to appropriate, manipulate and mutilate the public art practices and visual culture in several hidden ways.

Link to Chitrakaran’s home page