Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Touched by Butterfly Souls


“Butterflies are the winged souls of our departed loved ones. Don’t kill them.”

These words struck me when I first read O.V.Vijayan’s cult novel ‘Khasakkinte Ithihasam.’ (The Legend of Khasak)

I was just eleven years old then. Not a good age to read an existential novel. Though I did not understand much then, I liked those words about butterflies. Ever since I read this novel, I stopped chasing butterflies.

My mother used to tell me if I caught a butterfly, the colours of its wings would fade and its parents would not allow it to come back to its home. The very thought of an innocent baby butterfly being chased out of home by its parents used to send shivers through my spine. Still I chased butterflies.

Mothers are like that. They say a lot of ‘Don’ts’. And the children convert each ‘don’t’ into a ‘do’. Despite my mother’s warnings, I chased a lot of butterflies and skirts.

Then in 2006, I saw a butterfly that made my fingers burn with the desire to touch its wings. It was a huge butterfly perched on the walls of the Visual Arts Gallery of India Habitat Center, New Delhi.

While extending my fingers to touch the wings, it made a screeching noise and from the surface of its wings hundreds of razor blades bared their sharpened edges at me. Finally butterflies are striking back. The wings could cut my fingers. The empire strikes back- the age of innocence if over. The butterflies can now make you bleed.

With an inverted glistening steel sword for its body, this steel butterfly was made up of shining steel and thousands of razor blades added patterns to its wings. A motor fitted behind the sword moved the wings in regular and slow intervals.

Sunil Gawde is the artist who did this butterfly as a part of his solo ‘Blind Bulbs’, first presented by Sakshi Gallery in 2005 at their Lower Parel space in Mumbai.

From pure mechanics, it shifted its position to a desire machine that spoke volumes about politics of imperialism and the resistant ideologies.

I see the butterfly again at Sunil’s studio, at the third floor of the Kasinath Building in Fort area, Mumbai. On the spotless walls of the reception are of his studio, the butterfly sits pretty, inviting me to touch it again. This time, neither Vijayan nor my mother comes to warn me. I warn myself. “If I touch, I will bleed.”

Sunil’s spacious studio accommodates a few of his small scale works that involve a lot of technical experimentations and scientific precision. I find two heavy garlands hanging from the wall and any beautiful object makes me run my fingers over it, perhaps a character developed by imitating Bose Krishnamachari and Velu Viswanathan at art openings. I am about to touch it and Sunil warns me, “Watch out your fingers.’
To my shock I find the garlands are made up of red razor blades, arranged aesthetically like a garland of flower. Sunil plays between desire and danger. The demarcating line between them is so thin like politics, love and sex.

The danger and desire of sexuality come visible in the balloons- a couple of them sticking at the ceiling of the studio and a six of them lying on a pink bed down on the floor. Resist, I tell myself. Sunil’s balloons simulate the brittle and tensed surface of real balloons. But they are made of fiber glass and the curves of it imitate the popular heart shaped balloons. Staring deeper at them I find the female genital images skillfully incorporated there. The inverted balloons, then make your imagination run wild- are they the exposed bottoms or the breasts? The work creates a zone of ambiguous passions.

Each work of Sunil tells you something more than its formal finish. They make you think about science, philosophy and small little anecdotes from your own life. From the micro worlds of your private existence you transgress to the macro worlds of politics and ambition. They blind you for a moment and then bestow you with an unparalleled vision. They make you deaf and then fill your ears with music. They cut your fingers and light will flow out of your wounds.

I sit on a chair, against a table, where Sunil shows me his earlier works, most of which I have been following all these years.

Suddenly, a butterfly flies in and it flaps its wings between us. I look at Sunil and he at me. We exchange a smile.

I hold a pen between my fingers and jot down points which I find interesting in Sunil’s conversation. The butterfly lands on the tip of the pen. It flaps the wings for a while and then folds them together. I look at Sunil through the bluish transparency of its wings. I see a much young bearded Sunil there.

Years back, when Sunil was a struggling artist, with a fulltime Port Trust of Mumbai job in hand and a huge debt in bank, one day he was making a huge painting. He was supposed to send it for a show.

The work was finished and he decided to pack it. For a final view he opened the windows to let more light in. Then a butterfly came flying in. It flew around the painting for a while before safely landing at the top left corner of the frame. Then came another one and one more. Slowly the room was full of butterflies. Sunil stood in silence and watched them blessing his paintings.

Then they left the room one by one. Sunil stood there still listening to the petal like music that the wings of the butterflies had created inside the room.

I look at the butterfly sitting on my pen.

Sunil takes me to a cupboard where he has placed an A-4 sized frame with stuffed butterflies of different colours.

“I bought it from Brazil,” says Sunil. “They are carefully preserved ones. Dead but pristine in their celestial beauty,” he adds.

Just on the cupboard, below the framed Brazilian butterflies, I find a moth like butterfly lying still. I look at Sunil.

“It came in this studio a week back. Flew around the butterfly sculpture for a while. Then went and touched every other object in the studio and fell dead on the floor. I took it and kept it near its distant cousins. I am not going to remove it from here,” Sunil says.

The butterfly at the tip of my pen then flies up. It flies around us and leaves the room.

“Who are these butterflies?” I ask Sunil.

“Winged souls of our departed beloveds,” Sunil tells me. “They come to bless us.”

After two days I am in Baroda. I get a call from Sunil.

“Johny, I am selected for the Venice Biennale 2009,” Sunil tells me from the other end of the phone. I congratulate him from my heart.

As I finish the conversation over phone, I find a small yellow butterfly flying towards bunch of flowers at the lawns of the hotel where I stay.

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