In 1981, when Ranbir Kaleka was a lecturer at Delhi College of Art, Madan Gopal Singh introduced him to Mani Kaul. They met over a meal at Triveni Kala Sangam’s stamp-sized café and subsequently Kaul came to see a painting called ‘Family’ that Kaleka was working on. At this time Kaul was already an awarded filmmaker. Uski Roti (1970) Duvidha (1973), Ghasiram Kotwal (1979) and Satah Se Uthata Admi (1980) were among his most acclaimed films that explored the intersection between dream and supernatural, the place of art, benign and abusive uses of power. Kaul responded to Kaleka’s painting, saying cryptically, “Ranbir ne toh saari problemsolve kar di .” (Ranvir appears to have solved the whole problem.) The brief remark signalled a mutual recognition and friendship that traversed decades over a shared engagement in painting, poetry and cinema.
When they met again in 1984, a decisive social turn had taken place. The assassination of Indira Gandhi had resulted in violent anti-Sikh riots across Delhi. Kaleka was sharing a flat with Leela Mukherjee, eccentric and individualistic artist, wife of Benode Behari, mother of Mrinalini Mukherjee. Madan Gopal Singh and Manjit Bawa were frequent visitors. They shared a love for Sufi Punjabi music and Singh frequently brought his tabla and harmonium to the small studio flat in Nizamuddin. As they sang and played music, they were able to overcome the harsh contours of this difficult period. At this time, the acquaintance with Kaul was resumed: the film Dhrupad (1982) had released. Kaleka was working on ‘Dhaba’ , a painting that made some points of departure. Kaleka believed the painting bore the effects of Chandigarh and its modernist architecture. Comparing ‘Dhaba’ with ‘Family’, Kaul said, “This work is jazz, the other was dhrupad.”
Over the next decade in England, Kaleka immersed himself in cinema, revelling in the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr and Georges Franju. He had travelled to England in 1985 for an MA at the Royal College of Art and was exposed to the highly individualistic styles of portraiture of Britain’s leading artists of the time, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, even as Jean Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel created different interpretations of masculinity.
Kaleka returned to India in 1998 and made his first videos; he was already familiar with the short films of Husain, Tyeb Mehta and Gopi Gajwani. Through repetitive gestures and ‘slow time’ in works like Man Threading a Needle and Man with Cockerel , much like Mani Kaul, Kaleka’s work set about evoking contemplation.
Light, gestures, body
What was becoming apparent in the dialogue at this time was the use of the shared narrative in space, the use of simple, even banal settings, and the recourse to shadow and effect in the unfolding of the work. At a time when film or art circuits were yet to be mapped, Kaleka and Kaul individually did some of their most interesting thinking on light, gesture and the use of the body. On Kaul’s passing away in 2011, The Guardian critic Derek Malcolm spoke of him as occupying a “third important strand”, one that stood at some distance from “the glitz of Bollywood on the one hand and the eloquent classicism of Satyajit Ray on the other.”
Can we here think of Kaleka as occupying a third strand within figurative art, one that stood some distance from the kind of narrative painting promoted by the ‘Place for People’ (1981) exhibition and the modernist works of the Progressive Group and their followers that hovered between allegory and symbolism?
Kaul’s leading works and several shorts were on view, alongside Kaleka’s three-channel work ‘Crossings’ and shorter works ‘ He Was a Good Man’ , ‘ Man with Cockerel’ , and others.
It is with such a proposition perhaps that Ashish Rajadhyaksha recently curated ‘A Very Deep Silence’, presenting a seamless integration of the works of Kaul and Kaleka. The newly refurbished Jawahar Kala Kendra (JKK) in Jaipur is an outstanding setting, its multiple planes and levels complementing the split perspectives the curator creates. Rajadhyaksha opened out Kaul’s Uski Roti in five channels, much like the unlocking of a grid, allowing the work to acquire a new temporal and spatial depth. Kaul’s leading works and several shorts were on view, alongside Kaleka’s three-channel work Crossings and shorter works He Was a Good Man , Man with Cockerel , and others. Moving between the works was akin to a generously laid sensorium where the streams that nurtured these practices––music, theatre, poetry and cinema—come together in a rich confluence.
Seen in retrospect, Kaul’s call for newer models for distribution comes back, like a silent but deeply persuasive argument. The films of Kaul, Kumar Shahani and the short-lived New Wave of the 80s failed to thrive at least because new wave cinema, as Georgekutty points out, depended on foreign film festivals and TV rights, rather than a ticket-paying audience. Video has a similar system of a limited circuit on art galleries and biennales and it remains up to institutions like JKK to stage such events.
Planned in 1986 and opened finally in 1993, the Charles Correa structure is planned around nine squares that allow for imaginative use. As director of JKK, Pooja Sood had collaborated with Rajadhyaksha in the first version of the exhibition at Guangzhou, China, and here they use space with ease and fluency. For instance, Idiot Garden, a play between sculpture, reflection and shadow, served as an installation to complement Kaul’s eponymous work based on Dostoevsky. Pooja Sood is the first non-bureaucrat to head JKK, long considered a punishment posting among IAS officers. As director of Khoj and the former Apeejay media gallery, Sood has been at the forefront of new art and media practices. At a time when most central art and culture institutions are being led by RSS functionaries, the more inclusive mantle assumed by the JKK is a welcome intervention.
Gayatri Sinha is an art critic and curator who, while preoccupied with her art website www.critcalcollective.in, is also contemplating a book on The Middle Ages.