“The Open Frame”, Chetan Shah's documentary on artist S.G. Vasudev, traces his journey
How do you reconcile the static nature of art with the kineticism of film? One way out is to douse the creative process in incubatory drama, like the countless movies where the artist — unkempt, inflamed, stippled with paint — paces about his studio, beseeching the muse for favours in the manner of a spurned man crying out to a cold-hearted mistress. Chetan Shah, whose excellent and empathetic documentary on the artist S.G. Vasudev, “The Open Frame”, which had a quiet Chennai premiere last Thursday, takes a more tranquil tack.
This is perhaps a reflection of the artist himself, whose methods as shown in the film are anything but temperamental, but also because the interior life of an artist is a mystery to the filmmaker. “I am not an art expert,” says Shah. “I was intimidated by the prospect of making a film on Vasu.” He appears to have mounted this apprehension onto the opening of his film, where Vasudev eyes a blank canvas. The visual is confessional. Two creators on two sides of the camera become one, each wondering: What next?
What follows is a bracing biopic, which traces through Lata Mani's research and interviews the personal and artistic journey of Vasudev. “The Open Frame” squeezes into its borders early-career disenchantments, parental pressures, marriages, the establishment of Cholamandal Artists' Village, Vasudev's collaborations with metal craftsmen (involving an anecdote about Chagall) and his efforts to nourish the world of art. Shah, who was suggested the subject by the cinematographer Navroze Contractor, says, “Vasu has done so much with his life. He is among the first generation of post-Independence artists and was part of the group that instituted Cholamandal. He has interacted with other art forms. He has given back to the community by working with young artists. He was responsible for setting up the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore and introducing art to the curriculum of Bangalore University. His was basically a story waiting to be told.”
Shah doesn't situate Vasudev's work in the continuum of post-Independence Indian art. “I wasn't trying to evaluate his art,” he says. Instead, he captures the creative process in what is probably the only way it truly can be captured — by sitting back and observing the artist, without comment. In a deeply personal and blatantly sensual moment, Vasudev rubs his hands over a virgin canvas, as if relaxing it to receive his creative seed. Then, like a make-up artist applying foundation, he slathers white pigment on the blank surface. He picks up a trowel and striates this lumpy coat of pigment. He will let this dry before beginning to colour. “It's almost like painting twice on the same canvas,” says Vasudev. He has a serene manner of speaking that belies the sweat that must surely seep into his art. Introducing “The Open Frame” to the audience, Shah says, “The film is also about what is not in the film.”
What Vasudev leaves unsaid, others explain. A crosshatch of talking heads — fellow artists, cultural commentators and critics, government officials, educators, long-time colleagues and friends — speak of Vasudev's art and artistic legacy in a country that has increasingly distanced itself from aesthetics. In one of his few concessions to sentiment, Shah shows a public building whose facade is festooned with Vasudev's work, while right below, a looming sign for a store announces itself in a vivid crimson. Consumerism has overwhelmed craft. But “The Open Frame” also hints at the restorative effects of living with similar-minded souls. At Cholamandal, Vasudev reminisces, there were bhang sessions and beach volleyball. Back at home in Bangalore, he takes a telephone call that his wife alerts him to and has a meal with his family and stands on the verandah, looking out, as if he were expecting, any moment, a sheepish neighbourhood kid to plead, “Uncle, ball please!” The artist, we are reminded, is also a human being.