The year was 1888 when social reformer Narayana Guru, born in an Ezhava family in Kerala, decided to make a place of worship for those who were barred from entering a temple. He took a granite stone and consecrated it as a Shiva figurine in Aruvippuram, Thiruvananthapuram. This drew flak from the Brahmins, but gathered immense support from the lower caste communities.
Later, Narayana Guru installed a mirror in its place, to stress on the idea of seeing oneself as god, and a lamp as a symbol of purification. Three of the reformer’s favourite instruments — granite, lamp, mirror — find its way into Kerala-born filmmaker-artist KM Madhusudhanan’s latest exhibition. Housed within Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, at the show ‘Granite Lamp & Mirror’, he places the items on top of a metal sculpture. A hand holding a gun points to a body’s own head in the sculpture to speak of the saint’s idea of looking within and connecting with oneself.
Madhusudhanan through his oil paintings, sculptures, and ink and charcoal drawings speaks about the caste system, still prevalent in the country, especially his homeland Kerala. The 62-year-artist, who shuttles between Delhi and Kochi, says, “It is a very crucial period we are living in. I think Narayana Guru is one of the most relevant people in Indian society today. He was way ahead of any politician or spiritual guru because he addressed all these elements and reform measures,” he says.
Hunters in the Desert series sees the arrival of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s ship to India as he discovered a sea route from Africa to what is now known as present-day Kozhikode. With techniques from Tholpavakoothu, Kerala’s famous shadow puppetry, Madhusudhanan replaces oil lamps with LED lights to create shadows. In his work, he draws the ship and Queen Victoria’s crown on stretched goat-skin canvases to suggest the arrival and symbol of colonialism. “The goat skin has several meanings, including that of a sacrificial animal. The idea is to take the viewer to a place, whether one understands it or not, that makes one feel something and go through an experience,” he says.
Madhusudhanan’s Archaeology of Cinema series stems from his keen interest in world cinema history, including Indian cinema. He chronicles the beginning of Indian cinema through his oil on canvases, by touching upon the contributions of the pioneer of Indian cinema Dadasaheb Phalke, who gave India its first feature film in 1912. “There was moving image before Phalke too, thanks to the British who came with magic lanterns and created images on screen. Before the magic lantern, there was an instrument called the bioscope. I was very intrigued by that,” he says. It comes as no surprise to find the magic lantern and the bioscope making an appearance on his canvases.
The artist’s next film is based on the Kerala floods titled Deluge, whose shooting he has just finished. “It is a docu-fiction, told through the life of theatre and film actor Nilambur Ayisha, a noted artiste in Malayalam cinema. I am interested in her life and career. Coming from a Muslim household, she was one of the first women from her generation to appear on stage, and is struggling even today. She doesn’t have that kind of stardom and fame. Her continuation as an artiste and her struggle is something I relate with, through the Kerala floods. Just like how Keralites are struggling and how they want to build something new, she too wishes to build something new as an artiste.” The exhibition is at Vadehra Art Gallery, Defence Colony, till October 25