|Artist Sumeshan K|
If you know this truth you wouldn’t miss the works of Sumeshan K, an artist from north Kerala, currently living and working in Chennai. This twenty eight year old artist has a Degree in Painting from the Fine Arts College, Thrissur and a Post Graduation in the same from the SN School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad. Sumeshan has already taken the paths that the other artists of his age would choose in their formative years. He had already had his stint in the Kanoria Arts Centre in Ahmedabad and a scholarship has brought him now to Chennai where he spends his time creating paintings and drawings at the Lalithakala Academy Regional Centre Studios. What makes Sumeshan stands out from the artists of his age is the fact that he has already done his masterpiece. It may be a tall claim from my side but looking at an ‘untitled’ work done by Sumeshan which sits broodingly at his studio in Chennai stands evidence to my claim. All the visitors in the studio have noticed that work and must have thought about it as a masterpiece but may be for the first time I would like to articulate it for the studio is not frequented by many art critics and writers these days.
A masterpiece generally should have a title; a name. But some masterpieces do not have a name to begin with and in due course of time it gets different names from different people and one of them, which is strong enough to compete with the other names would stick and the future would know the work with that name; interestingly that name which is an attribution than an original appellation may go just the opposite direction to what had been thought by the artist during the time of its making. But masterpieces have this tendency to withstand not only time but also misnomers and bad interpretations. Hence, let me make the first attempt to name this work which I think should stick: ‘Goddess as a Flagellator Accompanied by her Snakes and Dog Resisting the Feudal Demon’. This explanatory title has the meaning of the work embedded in it. Sumeshan comes from a tribal family and the historical injustice inflicted on to his own people through thousands of years has condensed in him as a very special awareness about his existence in this society and as an artist he has understood the need for resisting all such injustices. May be as a educated young man Sumeshan himself has not undergone such socio-cultural discriminations; I cannot be sure on this because even in the egalitarian educational institutions in India we find caste oppressions, which obviously comes as a result of one’s physical appearance, linguistic abilities, economics status, family position, geographical locations from one hails and so on.
‘Goddess as a Flagellator Accompanied by her Snakes and Dog Resisting the Feudal Demon’ has a female character in the middle of the painting whose body is bend and her hands (more than two in number emphasizing her ‘divine’ nature) are in a motion suggesting a self flagellation, whose impact is highlighted by the reddening of her own back. The reddened circled looks like a dark pool of thick blood or the color change of her dark skin because of the never ending spanking. The blood spilled from the pool seems to have spread all over her thick and curly hair that has fallen forward covering her face. This redness could also be interpreted as the rise of a red moon whose red light spilling over the cascade of her hairs turning the pain into something eerily romantic. She stands in a special circle (as circles show demarcated spaces or boundaries, the transgressions of which could be detrimental to the existence of the one who is destined to stand inside the circle) full of venomous snakes hissing aggressively at something/someone outside the pictorial frame. Just ahead of that we could see a dog agitated and barking at an invisible presence. There is a dramatic light falling over the protagonist and makes the circle precisely a yellow moon. It looks like a night ritual but a very poignant one. The painting means more than it appears. Sumeshan says that it is a ritual of resistance of his own people or rather a ritual that he has devised artistically for his people who have been oppressed by the feudal lords for many centuries. There used to be custom that a tribal youth had to present his newly-wed bride to the feudal lord before he could consummate his marriage. In the case of agriculture the yield was to go to the feudal master and the tiller had to go with meager portions. Such gross injustice has resulted into socio-political resistance which unfortunately gets curbed by the state machineries that collude with the feudal lords. Therefore, Sumeshan’s painting imagines a ‘bride’ who beats herself up as a ritual of resistance and all her anger along with that of her people and society turns into a pack of hissing snakes and a howling dog that move like a military contingent towards a common oppressor who by default becomes the focus of the painting. The more I look at this painting the more I understand its masterpiece quality and you may find it too.
Korathi is a traditional field worker woman and her name gets smudged as she is often called by her caste/tribe name. But in 1930s and 40s during the political strengthening of the left in Kerala and elsewhere the working class was taken as a unified lot by overlooking their tribal/caste wise varieties and differences. Caste, a defining social ill was overlooked by the leftists and it was replaced by the Class Struggle. In the process, the (lower) castes got romanticized in the propagandist literature and theatre as they were shown as the right owners of land and the rightful heirs of a possible revolution. Symbolism of a sanitized, energized, muscled working class was borrowed from the Stalinist Russia and we could see the same symbolism in Sumeshan’s painting with a major alteration. In the place of the well muscled factory workers, we see emaciated field workers and on their sickle and hammer we could see an owl perched precariously. The meaning is at once cynical and ominous; owl is a symbol of darkness as well as a potent symbol of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. Sumeshan puns these two meanings (how the life of the tilling class has turned dark and how the hope of richness still remains a ludicrous possibility). On the left side of the painting we see a stylized ‘Korathi’ raising her sickle to the sky where a dark moon is seen ‘shining’. The woman’s farm laborer status is highlighted with ‘tools’ and the presence of a stack of paddy. The ritualistic headgear and the dramatic costume take us directly to the famous song from a KPAC Drama (that is the counterpart of IPTA) that says ‘Ponnarivaalambiliyil kanneriyunnole’ (Oh girl, who glances at the golden sickle of a moon). The romanticizing of the farm workers and their integration with the upper castes, we understand from this painting, ironically remains a romantic dream and the possibility of such integration seems to be absolutely elusive. This tableau like painting has a centrally positioned coconut tree (which is a stand in for the Kerala state) and we see a dog urinating on it; I need not elaborate further on this. The choice of the artist to remove the red color from this painting is a great choice in itself; the red revolution seems to have lost its color! But the artist has taken that red to the tribal people and their self punishment for upholding their dignity.
Sumeshan is a wonderful artist and he has to be seen and understood by the people who have a leftist thinking because it is through this aesthetical criticism that the left could correct itself. The chances are not remote that Sumeshan becomes a cynosure of the right wing people simply for criticizing the left for its failures. But that would be simply a hijacking. Sumeshan should be seen, critiqued and celebrated by the people who still believe in democracy and the people’s right to land and justice. Sumeshan is an artist who thinks a lot about the people’s right to have land for living and farming. In one of his untitled works we see the upper portion of a skeleton lying horizontally in a buried position. A closer look reveals that the skeleton is embellished by landscapes and farms. It looks like a skeleton dreaming its land; it is the dream of a farmer who died without owning a piece of land but tilled others’ lands for nothing, for torture and shame only. No political party could redeem them. Their red has lost its color and has become dark. If you are talking about political art, it is high time that you look at the works of Sumeshan and artists like him.