On November 10, 1921, when the Mappila uprising was reaching its end, 100 detained Muslim rebels were transported from Tanur to Central Prison in Podanur. Bundled into a freight wagon, 70 of them died due to suffocation. The stories of their mass death, which later came to be known as “The Wagon Tragedy”, has been taken to Venice by artist KM Madhusudhanan. He has sketched it in charcoal in 35 drawings and found a connect between the incident in Malabar and Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, centered around a weapon designed to torture a man to death. “There is no ostensible similarity between the incidents, but the bogie too was a weapon that killed people. I have always wondered why so much money is spent on creating machines that annihilate others,” says the 59-year-old artist. Back home in Delhi from the Venice Biennale, his work is showing at the thematic display “All the World’s Futures” put together by Okwui Enwezor for the Biennale.
The journey from Delhi to Venice started from Kochi, where Enwezor saw Madhusudhanan’s The Marx Archive-Logic of Disappearance.
The set of 90 drawings represent a bust of Karl Marx in multiple frames. Thirty drawings from this series are being exhibited at Venice, apart from select works from The Penal Colony. They dwell on his own memories as a child growing up in the communist-ruled state of Kerala. In 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, many flags stopped flying and statues of communist leaders, from Marx to Lenin and Mao to Stalin were repositioned. “Born and brought up in Kerala, communism was everywhere. In 1991, everything collapsed. It was a big blow,” says Madhusudhanan. He has intertwined narratives within the works — familiar characters make an appearance in the black-and-white works; from a pig, who acts as a symbol of greed in Buddhism; to Bogeyman, from Francisco Goya’s etching series “Capricos”.
“It is the biggest tragedy that happened in Kerala,” says the artist-filmmaker, whose work blurs boundaries between the two media. For instance, the ongoing series “Archaeology of Cinema” has paintings based on Indian cinema. Soon, he intends to create a video for the series based on the Mappila uprising too. This will be exhibited at Chemould gallery in Mumbai next year. Meanwhile, in Venice the charcoals are making an impact. They are placed at the Arsenal next to his idol Chris Marker’s video. “He has always been one of my favourite filmmakers,” says Madhusudhanan.