Chennai Canvas Society

Take me to the other side

A still from A Gathering at the Carnival Shop  

In his 35-minute film, A Gathering at the Carnival Shop, shown in three venues at Chennai, Mochu Haridasan resurrects the elusive world of artist K. Ramanujam, through his paintings and places he inhabited. The sea tosses between calm and fury, a pristine grove of casuarinas stokes the beach, crows flock about the bust of Ramanujam at Cholamandalam, an old glass bottle resembles evidence of the poison that the mentally disturbed Ramanujam consumed one morning in 1973, a spider scuttles, a faded picture of the dog Karuppan, the James Ensor House in Belgium where the artist Ensor (Ramanujam’s inspiration) once lived, surrounded by the seashells and curios that his mother sold — there are many such moments. Mochu’s is not a biopic where dates and events are gathered with grave religiosity. He scopes instead to trace the more unreliable artefacts of memory through associations with Ramanujam’s contemporaries. He digs and trowels through paintings like an emotive archaeologist, not a scientific one. And then, Mochu reconstructs a time, based on these findings, that does not faithfully reproduce Ramanujam — who can tell what transpires inside a man’s head? We are drawn into Ramanujam’s incoherent world through Mochu’s eyes, and quite often, he leaves gaps, which we must fill.

Gaps are where we exist, where reality exists, said video artist Bill Viola. I am compelled to go back to the history of video art, especially Viola’s seminal works since the 1970s, addressing intangible processes of life, death, remembrance and self-knowledge. In Tape I , Viola filmed himself through a mirror, then directly faced the camera, finally obliterating his image by sticking his finger in the tape loop: early movie selfies as well as selfie-destruction! In a film by Louisiana Channel, Viola recalls his mother’s passing even as he held her hand. Stunned how someone living and breathing is suddenly reduced to nothing, he describes this transformative moment as “profoundly beautiful, profoundly sad and mysterious beyond belief”. Then, Viola had an epiphany. For the longest time, he had firmly set aside family videos, deeming them private. These, and footage he shot of his mother just before she died, became hugely important in resurrecting her memory. The video image, he realised, was the only passage to the world he once shared with his mother. Cameras are the “keepers of our souls”, says Viola, as images hold the essence of a person’s identity and can virtually be watched even hundreds of years later.

This medium’s role in preserving memories spontaneously and examining the self has been unparalleled. When the filmmaker enters his film, he plays a double role of being the “seer and the seen.” Mochu chooses invisibly to enter Ramanujam and his paintings.

Artist Vishwanadhan holding an old newsprint with Ramanujam’s painting, a chandelier with myriad reflections in hundreds of glass baubles like the glittering cinematic canvases of Ramanujam, at the film’s conclusion, a ten-foot roll of exquisite drawing from a private collection… there are many such moments. C. Douglas evokes poetically. “Artists are like mothers. They give their flesh, blood and marrow to their children and then they disappear. But their children get known.” Mochu’s text appears: “But I have also heard that during one of his journeys on a giant bird, his hat had been blown away in the wind, into the future.”

July 6 was Frida Kahlo’s (1907-1954) birthday. Out of some 143 paintings she made, 55 are self-portraits. Injured seriously at 18 in a horrific bus accident, Kahlo suffered lifelong pain and debility. She painted, objectively examining her state, producing the most surrealistic renderings of her sufferings. Frida loved dressing up; her friends said the more pain Kahlo was in, the more extravagant her costumes became. Likewise, Ramanujam left the gridlocked surrounds of his mental state to enter fantastical realms, appearing in his paintings with a hat on, like James Ensor. The truth of art can only be got when there is no boundary between the self-image and what is put out there. Ramanujam’s paintings became a conduit for his angst and imagination, but they also returned something bigger — they represent universal dreams, flights and nightmares. A Gathering at the Carnival Shop takes us to the other side.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 11:46:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/take-me-to-the-other-side/article7403576.ece

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