A statuesque presence


A template for other concerns... "Untitled", photograph, Ramesh Kalkur.

A template for other concerns... "Untitled", photograph, Ramesh Kalkur.  

RAMESH KALKUR prefers to stand with his back to the world, or so it seems at first glance, when we encounter the images of headless torsos in his recent exhibition "Body Shop", held at the Pundole Art Gallery and Gallery Chemould in Mumbai. The back is the principal subject manifested in the exhibition, which consists of three sections: a sequence of larger-than-life acrylic paintings; a painting installation; and a suite of photographs.

On entering the Pundole Art Gallery, we are awed by the statuesque presence of Kalkur's paintings of torsos. Standing more than six feet high, they spin our viewerly expectations around. For, instead of being frontally positioned so as to reflect an individual personality and identity (even without a head: think of the famously headless, yet distinctive statue of Kanishka), the torsos "facing" us are surprisingly rendered in dorsal view. For a moment, it appears that Kalkur is trying to shut the viewers out by literally showing his back to us. But, in fact, he is playing with the formal convention of viewing that endorses a symmetrical relationship between the viewer and the painting: the convention that the subject of the figurative painting must show itself to the viewing gaze. That surrender does not take place here.

Kalkur's torso paintings bear a strong reference to the image of the cosmic man or the transcendent being as enshrined in various Indic religious traditions (the Vedic purusha, the Jaina tirthankara, the Mahayana bodhisattva, and the Bhagvata vishwarupa), but these archetypes are reconfigured in a contemporary social and environmental context. Thus, the artist deliberately brings the cosmic body into the profane world of materiality, by making it the site of violated naturescapes, the ribcage a tangle of deadwood, the spine a bare creeper, the skin more cement than earth.

In the photographs shown at Gallery Chemould, which show the artist's back with slides of tree images projected on it, the cosmic body is subjected to the strains of popular culture. A particular image of the universe emerges, as sacred and profane symbols flower together on Kalkur's body-trees: the profanisation of the cosmic body in Kalkur's work underscores the fact that transcendence becomes available, in the secular world, only when reformatted as fortitude.

Kalkur places himself in a lineage of contemporary Indian artists who have addressed themselves to the cosmic image, which is taken out of the context of sacred art and literally "re-sourced". It could be said, in this context, that Kalkur's current body of work bears an affinity with the figuration of the painter Surendran Nair and the sculptor-installator N.N. Rimzon. Nair often employs the colossal vishwarupa, but replaces the smaller figures, episodes and symbols, which this figure of the Universal Form is shown to contain in traditional painting, with the emblems of contemporary political parties — so overwriting sacred codes with the heraldry of popular politics. Rimzon appropriates the body-form of the Jaina tirthankara, showing this monumental figure as surrounded by a circle of implements, weapons, or images carrying references to the history of caste discrimination. The cosmic figure is thus contained rather than all-containing: standing isolated in a circle of enlightenment and endangerment, it is metaphorically trapped in the circle of society.

Kalkur, in his paintings, profanises the cosmic body with specific intent: he makes it the symbol of a nature marked by the violence and spoliation caused by the human presence. At the Pundole, the compelling series of individual torso canvases leads the eye to an orange-red wall covered with rows of linga and yoni, the ancient symbol of fertility and union. Gradually, we recognise this as an optical illusion: the linga and yoni are, in fact, the solid-painted negative spaces between interlacing torsos; we see now one, now the other element of the pattern. The painting of the linga and yoni multiplies itself, extends itself into a wall; we walk around the wall, into a cubicle, and the wall wraps itself around us. In this enclosed space, our gaze is met by walls pasted with row upon row of human-size torsos, painted in acrylic on paper, passing from wall to wall and rising from floor to ceiling. The feeling is that of having walked into a contemporary version of a Buddhist cave sanctuary, such as Ajanta or Dambulla. Of course, the artist ought to have spread such an installation over a larger space, so that the effect of a repetitive visual chant is achieved with greater success.

A statuesque presence

It is significant to note here that Kalkur does not repeat the image of the torso to exhaust this single image in a search for some ultimate mystical content. Rather, he uses it as a template to be layered with other realities, ecological and political. This is clear in the suite of photographs shown at Gallery Chemould. Kalkur makes play with images of urban tree trunks projected on his back, at various scales, from an extreme close-up to a long shot of a tree spilling, root and branch, on asphalt. These photographs (shot by Mallikarjun Kattakol and Jaggi Photography, Bangalore, for this project) produce a visual pun, since the torso is literally the "trunk"; here, the doubling acts as a de-familiarisation. While the torso paintings carry the power of organic form — each of these backs is ploughed over, scarred and smeared — the photographed torsos have, superimposed upon them, competing street signs and wayside ritual objects representative of various urban subcultures. We witness the diverse and ingenious patterns of use improvised on trees by city-dwellers: the trunks see-saw between the clutches of entrenched commerce and precarious survival, between advertising logos and the bags of the homeless. These polysemous torsos are analogous to the reflections trapped in shop-windows, with the torso reduced to a mannequin and "branded" by a tree trunk, itself "branded" by signage.

For Kalkur, the idea of the tree as a co-participant in urban culture arose during a group exhibition titled "Territory", organised in 1999 by Visthar, Bangalore. Since then, he has been documenting the tree as a multi-use urban site: as home, shrine or billboard, depending on the wishes and aspirations of its different constituencies. Sometimes, the wish manifests itself as prayer (we see the wish-fulfilling Asoka tree with ritual thread wound around it) and at other times as aspiration (we find the tree adorned with film posters and consumer advertisements). Thus, each of Kalkur's amber-and-red-cast torsos is replete with tree-signs, one a notice for Vastu expert advice, another a Speed-post mail box announcing its "Next Clearance". We imagine the city being screened on the artist's back as a series of trailers; the film is never wholly there, but is always "Coming Soon, Next Change". Kalkur's image of the torso-tree may be grounded, but the signs hanging on it change all the time. It is this paradox of stationary mobility that the artist offers for our interpretation.

"Body Shop" continues the exploration of visual and performative ambiguity that Kalkur has demonstrated in his earlier work; in a series of photographs, he presented a veiled front to the world, playing hide-and-seek with his viewers, playing off the homogenising of globalisation and the threat of anonymity, masking himself in a map and seizing our attention with an imperceptible slit that concealed his face while promising to reveal it.

Ramesh Kalkur turns his back on the world, not to escape it, but to address it head-on.

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