(Smell of Pepper and Jasmine by Ratheesh T, oil on canvas 7x8')
Are you on a look out for some ‘political art’ in India? Then go to Galerie Mirchandani+Steinruecke in Mumbai where a show titled ‘Nine Painters from Kerala’ is currently on. I may not qualify the show as a ‘political’ one just because it comprises of nine artists from Kerala, a state which is hailed to be a politically charged one. Each state in India is political and each artist has turned out to be political as the time demands such politicization of artists and their art. Did I say art? Hmm…I have to make a clarification here; most of the artists who are already politicized for right or wrong reasons, to me, are not making ‘political art’ in a strict sense. In a politically charged atmosphere any utterance cannot go free of political under or overtones. In that sense many artists do what could be called political art but the story ends there. Some are overtly political that often become sloganeering in a sophisticated way to which one would find a befitting example in an exhibition recently concluded in Delhi’s Vadehra Gallery. Titled ‘Holy Shiver’ this exhibition had images of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar both in painted and sculpted forms. But if you just take a metro from the Lajpat Nagar Station and get down at the Central Secretariat, just out there you could see the recently inaugurated Dr.Ambedkar Museum and Research centre and right in front of that massive building the same images of Dr.Ambedkar and the Ashokan Pillar. You may decide, which one is effective as ‘art’ in the eyes of the public that include public intellectuals, just intellectuals and those intelligent people who survive with their intelligence in an urban space.
(Artist Ratheesh T)
Here in this small article what I would like to articulate is the political intensity of a single work from this ‘Nine Painters from Kerala’ exhibition (Do not mistake that the gallery is overtly interested in the aesthetics produced in Kerala. The simple reason for this show is this that all these nine artists have been promoted by this gallery for over a decade). The work is titled ‘Smell of Pepper and Jasmine’ a 7x8 feet oil on canvas work by the Trivandrum based artist Ratheesh T. This artist has been doing some wonderful paintings with the images that he has sensitively as well as cynically culled from the immediate surroundings of his life. At times they become caricatures of a life that has lost its regular reality and could exist only in a caricature form in order to find relevance even in their marginalized lives. Ratheesh no longer lives a marginalized life for the riches that the art boom had brought to him have elevated his socio-economic position. But the fact of marginalization is such that even the socio-economic sublimation through education and money often does not erase the stains that a caste society has smeared on the faces of the people who survived the fringe lives. Caste is such a powerful social classification in India and only the articulation of it could remove the stigma attached to it. What Ratheesh does as an artist is this articulation with a humorous vengeance, the way Kunchan Nambiar used to do in the 18th century. There is a tremendous amount of self loathing in it but that aspect is covered with a sense of celebration which a so called ‘sophisticated society’ would abhor to do.
(Mill Call by Ram Kinkar Baij)
In ‘Smell of Pepper and Jasmine’ Ratheesh while subverting the beauty concept that is prevalent in Kerala, very strategically problematizes the notions of purity, work, social surveillance and (sexual) desire. The social relationships between castes and sub-castes have always been a problematic in Kerala. The present upper caste, Nairs, was ‘Sudra’ in the caste hierarchy. But with certain socio-political maneuvers Nairs reached the upper echelons of the society, establishing anything ‘Nair’ as the desirable position. Hence, today we see the Nairs still involved in Brahminizing itself and all the other lower castes, which were out of the four tier system of caste, by emulating the Nair codes of life create further caste divisions. Hence, even some Dalit communities find it natural to emulate what the Nair does and perpetuate the caste divisions and discriminations within their societies. The Hinduisation of Kerala society using many a religious platform tries to force out caste categories in order to homogenize them as ‘Hindus’ and in this attempt establishes the ‘Nair’ habits as the standard habits of living therefore desirable by all the lower castes. The Nairisation of Kerala society has been happening for several decades and it has reached its pinnacle in the recent years especially through the mainstream media and films. The homogenized Hindu however has not yet become ‘Nair’ in Kerala in terms of social relevance but has accumulated the burden of caste-ism perpetuated by the Nair caste. The white Sari with a golden border and the participation in temple rituals by the Dalits are the results of such Nairisation of the Kerala society, which in fact has become so gullible before the intoxicating power of Hindutva.
(Mullappoo Choodiya Nair Vanitha by Raja Ravi Varma)
In Ratheesh’s work we see the protagonist is a dark (Dalit) woman and it is clear that she is on the way back home after a temple visit. There is something very comical about her that constantly makes her ‘non-belongingness’ obvious. Her body is dark but he wears a white sari with a golden border (a must for religious occasions). She is happily oblivious about her surroundings though her ‘body’ and the paraphernalia that embellish that body correspond to the surroundings. She is as animated and happy as the women who are running to the mills in Ram Kinkar Baij’s ‘Mill Call.’ The strain of her vigorous walk is palpable in her tense thigh muscles of the left leg which is pushed forward. The drapery is painted in such an animated order that they not only capture the force of her bodily movement but also the wind that blows against her that billows the pallu of her sari that conceals a ghostly presence who is walking with her. I will come to this ghostly figure in a while. Before that let me see the surroundings; it has pepper plants and jasmine plant on the other side. The pepper smell could be the smell of a dark and sexually powerful body of the young woman whose rawness is temporarily covered by the ‘Nair’ attire. But her raw sexual appeal is as strong as the pepper and the jasmine that she wears on her hair is once again a Nair attribute (about this later). The jasmine flowers show the pure nature of her ‘self’ (which is often denied to a Dalit body) and also the subtle ways of love she is capable of. Ratheesh gives iconic status to a girl who is otherwise seen as a ‘thozhilurappu jolikkari’ or ‘Kudumbashree amgam’ (two government schemes that assure job to women; though it is generally for women only Dalit and OBC women go for it as these groups are seen as group of women who are uneducated and good for no other jobs than menial work).
(work by Ratheesh T)
Who/What is that ghostly presence behind her bellowing sari pallu? Clearly that is a man and is obvious from the muscled legs and a vascular palm tensed in an act of grabbing. In that moment of pure oblivion, this unidentified presence is crossing that girl and he looks back at her. We do not see his face as the whole of his upper body is covered by the edge of her sari. A very superficial reading could lead us to believe that this presence is that of any man who is about to molest a poor girl going back home alone. But thinking of it in a more ‘religious or rather theological’ sense we could see Ratheesh suggesting the presence of an evil angel titillating her into some sin. Or could it be a suggestion that the girl is already sinned and the sin is constantly crossing her looking back in absolute glee? What is that sin that the girl has committed? In my view, the sin could be the voluntary submission of her body to the forces of the upper caste ideology/aesthetics. She in her utter innocence has de-politicized her otherwise political body. She has just become an instrument of perpetuation. While she remains apolitical, for the viewer her body becomes the contesting field of various socio-political and aesthetical demands that subject her dark/Dalit body for their ends. Hence, Ratheesh’s painting is to be seen more as a warning to the marginalized women rather than a celebration of their newly assumed ‘upper caste’ identity.
(JohnyML in front of Smell of Pepper and Jasmine by Ratheesh T)
The presence of Jasmine is pivotal in this work for various reasons; first of all jasmine flowers symbolize erotic passion and sexual desire. This could make our protagonist lady into a desiring and desirous subject. She is like a bomb/vedi, in the common parlance, a qualification which is never given to a Nair woman under the same circumstances but is definitely attributed to a dark/Dalit girl in whatever good dress. But the presence of Jasmine is more than that. This painting as a whole is a great critique of Raja Ravi Varma. Interestingly Ratheesh also hails from Kilimanoor, the birth place of Raja Ravi Varma. And more ironically, despite the presence of so many Dalit families around Ravi Varma’s palace, who were the workers in the sprawling paddy fields just in front of them, not in a single occasion Ravi Varma had felt the compulsion to paint a working class/Dark/Dalit woman. He painted only fair skinned Nair women and the only exception was when he painted his mother in law in dark complexion. He achieved some major award from national and international exhibitions for his work titled ‘Mullappoo Choodiya Nair Vanitha’ (Nair Lady with Jasmine Flowers in her Hair). Here Ratheesh introduces a Dalit woman with Jasmine flowers in her hair. By doing this he indirectly asks why the body of a Nair woman doesn’t become sexually desirable/available and it is so when a dark complexioned girl wears flowers in her head? When we see the whole painting in these terms, the White Sari with golden borders becomes an aesthetic reclamation of such rights from Raja Ravi Varma by a contemporary painter who happens to hail from a marginalized caste. The Jasmine flower gets a different value and the painting of drapery adds to the strength of that reclamation. Ratheesh subverts all the existing aesthetical norms created out of Ravi Varma’s paintings, using the very same techniques (oil on canvas) and does it quite effectively. Political art is not painting Ambedkar’s portrait and exhibiting in A-class galleries.