Review by Neha Kirpal
November 01, 2018


Granite Lamp & Mirror
October 4 to 25, 2018
Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi

“If a man sitting in the dark asks another ‘Who are you?’ and the other out of curiosity asks in return ‘And who are you?’ the answer that comes from both will be the same — ‘I am.’”
Atmopadesa Satakam – Sree Narayana Guru

Dark allegories, hot metal, darkness and light… Stark images and mixed media of this kind hit you as you enter award-winning artist and filmmaker Madhusudhanan's solo exhibition Granite Lamp & Mirror at the Vadehra Art Gallery. A spectacular collection of oil paintings, sculptures, and ink and charcoal drawings—all of which the artist created in the last two years, the exhibition addresses pertinent questions of image-making and identity viewed through the lens of politics. On probing deeper about Madhusudhanan’s life, one understands where his art is coming from.

His art has been a continuous process since the age of three when he began to draw. At the age of six, he began collecting pictures of butterflies, gods and film stars. Later, he went on to study art in Trivandrum and Baroda and spent many years in Delhi as a filmmaker. Madhusudhanan, who read banned books and even went to jail, was deeply affected by the incidents of police interrogation, book burning and torture that he experienced during the Emergency. Like many young students in Kerala during his youth, he was greatly inspired by and involved in Marxist activities and Buddhist ideologies of the time. Anti-Establishment movements such as Communism and Naxalism are a recurrent theme in his work. Against violence and bloodshed, which he questioned, he made a number of post-Cold War paintings on historical tragedies like the Holocaust. Contemporary global wars and cross-cultural issues including refugee crises have also had a huge impact on his work. “I would visually relate to these issues through photographs and use them as references,” he says. At the Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2015, he also exhibited a series of 90 charcoal drawings titled The Logic of Disappearance - A Marx Archive. It depicts concentration camps in the Soviet Union, a series he plans to continue.

The title of his current exhibition is inspired by the social and religious reformer and philosopher Narayana Guru’s meaningful discourse, in which the granite, lamp and mirror is very relevant in contemporary times. Narayana Guru (1854–1928), born in the Ezhava caste—a lower caste society—questioned the distinction of caste in Kerala society. He studied Sanskrit and became a very knowledgeable saint. In 1888, he installed a granite stone taken from the river, as a deity. When the upper caste Brahmin community questioned this, he said that this was ‘Lord Shiva of the lower castes, not the Brahmins’. He followed this up with the installation of the mirror and the lamp as well. Hence, the significance of the granite, lamp and mirror. “The mirror denotes that one is God themselves when they look into the mirror—so, there is no need to search for anyone else; and the lamp symbolizes a purifier,” says Madhusudhanan. In this way, through the medium of art, he depicts Narayana Guru’s philosophical text Atmopadesa Satakam or ‘100 verses on Self-instruction’—by creating works in different mediums on each of its stanzas.

Granite Lamp & Mirror also showcases the artist’s enduring fascination with early Indian cinema as a historical medium. “Before 1912, when India’s first narrative film Raja Harishchandra released, there was the era of silent films in India. Some of these were bioscopes, moving images and slide projections,” says Madhusudhanan. Being interested in the subject, he spent eight years researching. “I would collect materials related to the lives of actors, producers and directors at the beginning of the 18th century—people like Dadasaheb Phalke and Baburao Painter, for instance,” he says. He also made several trips to visit the American Museum of the Moving Image in New Jersey, exploring and sketching the 60,000 odd cinema objects displayed there, including film projectors, cameras, machines, etc. He then returned to India and made his milestone film Bioscopes (NFDC, 2008) about the arrival of tent cinemas to Kerala. The storyboard of the film was a series of extensive sketches and drawings in themselves. The film went on to win various national and international awards. His art series entitled ‘Archaeology of Cinema’ is based on this passion of his. In it, he replicates film stills and figures from the silent era, and uses loudspeakers, fighter jets, lamps, gears and wheels as conjunctive imagery.

The artist also engages with age-old traditions of moving images and cultural identity through the art of Tholpavakoothu (shadow puppetry) in Kerala, by adapting the technique to create perforated goat skin canvases in charcoal and ink.