A decade after the Emergency, colour in galleries was still not driven by commerce, when artist KP Krishnakumar urged people to unite and promote social and political consciousness through their art practices. It was a thought that found resonance with several students from his alma mater — College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram — and among them was young KM Madhusudhanan.
Born in the coastal district of Alappuzha, he had grown up learning about the adversities that might result from a capitalist market. His friends, who were members of the communist party, had been imprisoned and tortured during the Emergency, and he too had been put behind bars for reading banned books.
“When I returned from prison, my mother had burned most of my books; all my friends were gone,” recalls Madhusudhanan. He was 19 then. The experience deeply impacted his thought-process, affecting his art as well.
The 62-year-old artist recalls this incident and several others in the recently released book The Registry of Things Past: Neither you are aware, nor the police (The Guild, Rs 2,000). Dominated by photographs from his series, The Logic of Disappearance — A Marx Archive, the narrative begins with author Nancy Adajania describing Madhusudhanan’s studio nested in the greens in Kochi, but quickly moves to his numerous influences — “ranging from the luminous darkness of the shadow play, the velveteen black cave of cinema, or the scathing bloodlines of Goya’s Los Caprichos, Disasters of War and Black Paintings”.
The publication, Madhusudhanan says, has been on his mind for a while. “It was essential to explain my work. An interview usually focuses on one aspect but here I wanted to share my work process,” says the artist. Adajania’s text might not cover minute details of the evolution of his art, but it does delve deeper into his formative years.
“His instincts were those of a soloist; and while he did not become a martyr hero like Krishnakumar, he remained a life-long witness of the torture chamber,” writes Adajania. She refers to one of Madhusudhanan’s early works, Hawks and Sparrows, from the 1984 series Questions and Dialogue, with tormented figures.
Son of an officer in a company that traded in coir, as a child Madhusudhanan witnessed numerous protests by trade unions. He also recalls sharing stories through his drawings. It was in college and during his post-graduation at MS University, Baroda, though, that he mastered the nuances. It was after the death of Krishnakumar and the subsequent disbandment of the Indian Radical Painters’ and Sculptors’ Association, that Madhusudhanan veered towards cinema. “I felt the medium would allow me to reach more people,” he says.
A keen follower of world cinema, he started out with making documentaries for the Sahitya Akademi and India Foundation for the Arts, followed by his first short fiction Self Portrait (2001), based on a street photographer he met in old Delhi. If the much-acclaimed History is a Silent Film (2006) is on the changing times through a cinema projector repairer, in Bioscope (2008) he celebrated the arrival of the travelling movie projector in Kerala. His story board was filled with drawings, and then his drawings too began to be influenced by moving images. So Archaeology of Cinema exhibited in Kochi in 2008 comprised large-sized paintings based on drawings for his films.
The dialogue between the past and the present extends to the white cube as well. In the 2014 series The Marx Archive, he depicted Soviet power in a state of decline, from pig as a symbol of greed in Buddhism, to Bogeyman from Francisco Goya’s etching series Capricos.
Exhibited at the 2015 Venice Biennale, Penal Colony was based on an incident in the Malabar in 1921, when over 70 rebel-prisoners crammed in a train wagon by the British, died due to suffocation. “These concerns are relevant even in contemporary times,” says Madhusudhanan.
In his studio, research is now underway for his next: a project based on Sree Narayan Guru. “He rejected the caste system and promoted new values of spiritual freedom and social equality,” says Madhusudhanan in the book, during a conversation with artist TV Santhosh. The times haven’t changed much, he says, “Even now, books are banned… these are critical times.”