December 10, 2021 9:10:46 am
Caput Mortuum, Hyderabad-based artist and art historian Varunika Saraf’s latest solo show, derives its title from a pigment with an unusual history. Some say its close cousin was once extracted from mummified bodies, with anecdotes of people running out of true Egyptian mummies to produce the pigment. Others say it is based in alchemy, as the residue in a heating flask after the nobler elements sublimate. Caput Mortuum is Latin for “Dead Head”, relating to rust and residue. The pigment—an earthy brown with tones of violet and maroon—is more affable than its backstory suggests but Saraf is drawn to it precisely for these morbid and mysterious connotations. She uses the pigment extensively, often as the base layer in her paintings, including several in this exhibition that opened last month at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road gallery and runs till December 31.
“Caput Mortuum looks like dried blood. It seeps through the overlying stratum of colour and bleeds through the surface. It’s like history and past injustices,” says Saraf, 39. The artist’s note for the exhibition uses phrases such as “blots of bleeding colour” and “a present besieged by brutal acts of violence”, which would make one suspect that Caput Mortuum is not for the fainthearted. We expect a bloody affair. But in place of the grotesque, Saraf offers illusion.
Take for instance Portents II (2020). A grand spectacle of golden comets, it is inspired by imagery from The Augsburg Book of Miracles, a 16th century German manuscript that interpreted apocalyptic events. The appearance of a comet was ominous, often succeeded by earthquakes and poor harvests. Portents II has the appeal of soft silk, and we are drawn closer to it, till we see the comets’ heads. Each bears a hand-painted image — the 1989 Bhagalpur and 2002 Godhra memories of communal violence among them. There are more — people fleeing, lathi charges, loaded rifles, resistance.
Saraf says, “The Augsburg manuscript is an interesting resource for artists to talk about current times and to talk about the portents in the current time. A lot of signs have been appearing for a long time and we haven’t taken them seriously. If we had, perhaps the situation could have been averted.”
The “situation” that Saraf mentions is spelled out in images rather than in words. Land that Bleeds (2020-21), the largest work in the exhibition, is a dreamy forest of pinks, blues and brown watercolours arranged on diaphanous textiles. It would have been an ideal locale for a lovers’ tryst, but close observation reveals policemen rummaging through the foliage. The forest is enmeshed with full-moon faces, each individually painted, cut and pasted. Much like India’s forest belts, the landscape is afflicted with control, surveillance and violence.
Saraf explains that the trees are based on Mughal paintings, and the setting mimics hunting scenes from Bundi and Kota paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. The powerful used to hunt tigers, wild boar or deer. Now they hunt people or ideas. “I deeply love images from the past and this way I can make them mine as well. I have a deep love for history and the history of art,” says Saraf, who holds a PhD from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, where she researched Indian paintings that are normatively labelled as “Indian miniatures”. This love of history is evident in the manner in which her works reference photojournalistic images, such as Margaret Bourke-White’s documentation of the Partition. Saraf browses extensively through magazines and newspapers, collecting images. “Every morning after breakfast I go snip-snip-snip,” she says.
Viewers are meant to locate the time and place of the images, but it’s alright if we don’t manage to score an aha moment. The intended effect is in multitudes, as each tableau of violence and resistance is eerily reminiscent of another. The title is perhaps a sad joke that the system is kaput. Saraf says, “These events have become so widely prevalent, it’s like anything can happen, anything can trigger them, it could happen to anyone we know.”
We, The People (2018-2021), a series of 46 embroidered works, trace an alternative timeline of the nation, highlighting images that have been relegated to history, such as the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal or the Chipko movement. Here, too, Saraf makes use of iconic images from India’s socio political history. One work recalls Budhini Mejhan, a Santhal woman who was asked to inaugurate a dam of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) along with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1957. Mejhan was ostracised by her community, for the inauguration ceremony demanded that she garland Nehru, an act that was tantamount to marriage and a failure of the administration to acknowledge the culture of local populations. We, The People is a series that Saraf was most invested in, along with “doubts, self-questioning and pain” because the very act of embroidering some moments in India’s history means others have to be neglected.
Embroidery makes its appearance in some other works in the show, such as a burnished set called Jugni (2020). The series draws from Russian icons of the Madonna, but, instead of the divine mother, Saraf presents mortal women as agents of historic change. Paintings of women protesters are placed on backgrounds of glitzy gota fabric and each bears a halo of seed pearls and zardosi. Shaheen Bagh, Pinjra Tod and farmer protests are among them.
The series was sparked by a strange statement that the CJI made earlier this year with regards to farmers’ protests, “Why are women and elders kept in the protest?” It was as if women are not farmers and aren’t part of the farming sector, says Saraf, adding, “The only source of hope or solace I have got is through imagery like this. This is what has made me really happy.”
Political art is often expected to be a lot of things—daring or provocative—but it is not often that it is expected to be alluring. After all, political art often rejects established traditions. Instead of outright rejection or subversion, Saraf chooses to gently spoof them. Viewers are seduced first, only to be disturbed later. “When you belong to a certain way of thinking, there is this pressure on you to make really bold works, like Soviet propaganda posters. I have realised that is not my language,” Saraf says.
Caput Mortuum offers in parts the big lie. There are landscapes that seem joyous but are in fact treacherous or a shower of comets that is in fact a swarm of flies. The illusion is set up and shattered and all that remains is history, the perfect antidote to a web of lies.
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