(Dr.Ajitkumar and his mural in Trivandrum - all mural photo credit: Jayachandran Kadambanad)
If someone thinks that Thrissur is the heartland of ‘Pulikali’ (A hunting game enacted by people with their bodies painted like leopards and tigers, and are pursued by actors dressed up as hunters, accompanied by the drum beats), Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), the capital city of Kerala now has got something to challenge such a notion, not in real terms but conceptually. A conceptual mural painted by Dr.Ajitkumar on the hundred feet long wall of the G.V.Raja Stadium (also known as the University Stadium) facing the Kerala’s massive legislative assembly building is one of the new visual attractions in the city. The four lane road laid in two tiers creates a wide corridor between the G.V.Raja stadium on the one side and the Chandrasekharan Nair Stadium, Assembly building and the famous Hanuman Temple on the other side, leaving a capacious viewing space for the new mural.
(a view of the mural)
Dr.Ajitkumar, an artist, environmentalist, a champion of Euthanasia and an urban space specialist, with this yet to be titled mural adds one more feather to his artistic cap (Now I am informed that the mural is finally christened as 'LIBERTY BODICE'). During the last few years Ajitkumar has been involved in converting the city walls into large scale murals done by many well known artists in Kerala under a project called ‘Arteria’, an initiative by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation. With artists like N.N.Rimzon, B.D.Dethan, late Asanthan, Sree Lal, Kanai Kunchiraman, Pradeep Puthoor and so on painting the walls with large scale works in their hallmark styles and images, the graffiti friendly city of Trivandrum has now achieved a different look. Though there are murals at the key walls in the city (including a thirty feet mural by K.G.Subramanyan), one cannot say that the residents of the city have really got the ‘kick’ of these mural for a major part of the viewers are constituted by a floating population that visits the city for some work or just passes through it. However, the curiosity in the eyes of the people as they pass by these murals gives some kind of an assurance that sooner than later the city will be wake up to its transforming skin features.
(detail of Ajitkumar's mural and Delacroix' Liberty Leading the People)
The latest mural of Ajitkumar has a strategic location and it comes as a part of the ‘Clean City’ program of Trivandrum Corporation, which in turn is a part of the Swatch Sarveshan Abhiyan of the Government of India. The mural has a hunting scene which emulates the famous 19th century French painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Eugene Delacorix. In the Delacoix painting one could see a bare breasted Goddess of Liberty leading its people towards victory and liberty treading over a heap of dead bodies of the vanquished. The concept of Liberty as a woman slowly takes shape into the concept of nation as a woman/mother who could suckle her children in many a country including India. Ajitkumar adopts notion into his mural but gives it a different thrust.
(detail of the mural by Ajitkumar)
Here in this mural the protagonists are two people, a huge woman and a smaller man (which formally has a concurrence with the Delacroix painting though devoid of other accompanying figures) and she is about to vanquish a leopard that lies on its back with its four legs up in the air. The leopard’s elongated shapely and stretched body covers almost the whole length of the wall, which should be seen as a very effective strong strategy. The sleek body of the animal with its dots almost splits into pixels reminding one of the large scale works of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. But the glee that one experiences in the works of Murakami is absent in Ajitkumar’s mural altogether and in its place what we see a sense of grimness, tension and controlled aggression. The bodies of the black human beings (somehow they are painted as primitive/subhuman beings) resonate with the ferociousness of the leopard not only in design but also in their tension and aggression.
The symbolic overload is suitable for the times that the artist has chosen to paint the mural. When the times are oppressive and the commissioning establishment cannot just go against the diktats of the central governing body, the artist has to find an allegorical way to state the fact and also the ‘state of affairs.’ This work of art definitely does not have any overt critique on the totalitarian regimes that are around (both the homegrown and the imported varieties) but the mural says the unutterable in a different way. There is a victor and the vanquished in the work. The victors are black people. Why they are black and in a way have subhuman traits as their painted bodies have the leopard faces on? Their blackness shows the people who are to be liberated or rather seeking liberation are still black and live in subhuman conditions. They are a sort of primitives and are in fierce fight with the aggressive forces. What one notices is the political correctness that the 19th century painter had brought in his work and how Ajitkumar picks it up as a usable visual quote in disguise. The correctness lies in the dominant part/action attributed to the woman protagonist and reifying her to certain extent and also the attribution of a secondary position to the visibly male character. Does Ajitkumar want to say that in the beginning of revolution (war) the rules of political correctness are observed only to be toppled at a later stage where the man would take a dominant position? One could read so, if one thinks it should be read it in that way.
(detail of the mural by Ajitkumar)
The whole action, stretched out to the hundred feet length of the stadium wall takes place against a sylvan backdrop where there are lush greenery and beautiful pink flowers. Good that the artist in a possible urgency has not tried to incorporate some familiar flora and fauna just for the heck of ‘touristic’ purpose. Ajitkumar as a discerning artist transposes the whole scene to a different space, a mythical space which could easily be turned/read as a historical space (as in our country often they interchange their given locations for political convenience) and spells out the eventual victory of the oppressed over the bestial forces. The color scheme has to be layered out/laid out vis-à-vis the social meanings of such colors in order to understand the picture. One could also read the scene in terms of taming the nature by people who would eventually evolve as beings with a scientific bent. A dotted big cat could be seen as nature that resists culture. Similarly it could be a totem figure that stands for earth and sky and the scene in this sense is a overcoming of the elements by human beings for ‘liberating’ themselves from natural ‘subjugations’. In the colonial visual discourse, a tamed tiger/leopard is always seen as a domination of the colonizer over the subjects, their lands and their resources. Hunting game had become a site of male domination as well as colonial domination not only over the people but also over their ‘nature’. This becomes all the more important when we see innumerable sculptures and toys where the colonial ruler is killed by a tiger (Tipu Sultan) reversing the symbolic order.
(Kings hunting scene, Colonizer attached by the Mysore Tiger)
Any work of art introduced to a city’s public spaces initially redefines the space to a greater extent. It is never seen from a frontal position, the way we see a work of art in a museum or a gallery or even a film poster. This is always seen from various planes, distances, times and climatic conditions. Each time the work would create a different response in a viewer unlike a work of art would in the case of its display on a neutral gallery or museum wall. In this sense, a work of art in a public space remains impressionistic throughout its existence. Each viewer takes a different mural in his/her mind depending on the time of the day and climatic condition under which he/she has seen the work. As it is the case, it is not necessary that the authorial intent is to be discerned each time; for someone sees the tail of the leopard first and the rest later and someone sees the attacking figures first and the tiger later. Some could even miss the leopard while seeing the flowery forest behind. I sincerely hope people ‘see’ the mural in whatever they like and take an impression of it in their cultural consciousness. That’s the way a work of art grows into the city’s psyche and body as well.