‘Progress’ and ‘Development’ are two foundational principles on which the modern civilizations have built themselves up. The spectacular nature of civilizations somehow camouflages the displacements and damages caused by these foundational principles. In the civilizing and civilizational process, whether the beneficiaries and agents of it want it or not, certain object systems are violently pushed out of use, certain linguistic structures are savagely collapsed and certain noble notions of life are unceremoniously swept under the carpet of vanity. Civilization and its production/productive agencies suck in human beings, mould them, alienate them and throw them into a different object world, ironically caused and resulted by the very alienating process itself, rendering almost all of them into the position of ‘ineffective angels’ who try to withstand the force of history caught into their wings like raging storms.
Madhu Venugopalan, an Indian contemporary artist, articulates this displaced and camouflaged world of progress and development through the evocation of an object/ive world that exists only in memories, sub-cultures and in the underground acts of cultural resistance. In his latest suite of works, Madhu speaks to the audience/viewer, using a different linguistic system, which sounds apparently archaic but alluring, remote and silent but intensely captivating. The objects depicted in these paintings tickle our memories with a sense of familiarity and at the same time they poke at our ignorance, which cannot exactly locate these representational images within a familiar linguistic system. The artist subtly forwards a challenge before the viewer; a challenge to identify the objects and more importantly, the contexts of their existence and alienation.
The objects and their poetic juxtapositions with the very familiar urban imageries connote a system of living that is almost experienced and forgotten by the contemporary world. Seen against this backdrop, Madhu’s paintings trace back to the history of two important junctures of civilization; the agrarian and the industrial civilizations. As an artist, Madhu understands it for sure that these paintings or the evocation of the objects/tools from these civilizational points would not bring back those so called golden moments of history. However, he feels the necessity to highlight those junctures as they could provide the contemporary human beings with a backdrop in order to think about their unmindful and aggressive desire for progress and development.
Without raising an accusatory tone or even without emphasizing on the ‘loss’, Madhu paints this object world with a sort of earnestness and compassion, which he completely believes would ‘reassure’ the role of human beings on this earth as ‘effective angels’ who could withstand the violent storms of history. He calls it ‘Reassurance’. Through the evocation of an abandoned linguistic system, Madhu reassures the possibility of alternative thinking and life styles, which are more conducive for the endurance of qualitative human lives and co-existence with the other beings. Madhu is not an advocate of agrarian economics or primitive industrial technology. On the contrary, he looks at objects/tools/images from those bygone days as an effective contrast to the spectacular lives that we have created today in the name of progress and development.
The apparently innocent looking objects and tools help Madhu to establish two points which are pertinent to understand the contemporary politics and culture. The images that Madhu creates are the images of tools or machineries that were used in the primitive industrial societies where small scale industrial productions helped the workers to earn for their lives either by bartering their products or through engaging themselves into a self contained commercial market. These tools were a part and parcel of their lives and the workers were not alienated from what they used to produce. In the works titled ‘Docile I’, ‘Docile II’ and ‘Sanguine’ we see such industrial machines, simple, accommodative and less aggressive. Madhu, as a young boy had grown up in a situation where these machines were part of his surroundings. People made coir, clothes and organic fiber out of it. Today many people do not even know what these tools were used for.
By monumentalizing their images or giving an iconic status to these objects/tools/machines, Madhu attributes them with the status of a language or the constituting units of a language. And through this monumentalizing, Madhu subtly reminds the viewer of such linguistic systems that we have pushed out of our parlance as we progressed and developed throughout the years. Madhu does not speak just about the displaced languages but for him speaking about it is a ploy to narrate the lives of all those people who have been pushed out of the mainstream societies along with ‘their’ tools/objects. If one looks keenly at the aforementioned paintings one could see, how the artist has very skillfully placed these monumental images against the symbols of urban progress and development such as bridges, buildings that connote power and authority and the industrial landscapes. Through this contrast Madhu makes the difference between these two linguistic systems shrill enough to be heard and heeded.
History tells us how the erasure or neglecting of a linguistic system and the resultant displacement of people to the fringes is a mutual process. When the state that is expected to protect its citizens and their life styles, pushes the citizens to the fringes and the wastelands of the mainstream society, in the name of progress and development, the patterns of life that these people have developed over the periods of ‘civilization’ too get displaced and abandoned. There is a great amount of injustice in this act of the State. Madhu, in his work titled ‘Reassurance’ makes an ironic, witty but poignant statement on behalf of these displaced peopled. In the background we see the simulated image of the Supreme Court of India and in the upper foreground we see a garland of crackers horizontally hung as if it were about to be lit up to celebrate the ‘justice’ handed out to the people.
There cannot be a stronger ironic visual statement than this where the celebration is suggested as the achievement of ‘justice’ but the people who are supposed to be celebrating this victory are not seen in the vicinity. Instead, what we get is a deep feeling of silence; the silence of erasure/of erased people. The precarious hanging of the crackers apparently represents the un-anchored position of the displaced people not only in our country but the displaced and dispossessed ones from all over the world. Either the State is deaf or the people are silent and in both case the justice is delayed, denied and buried.
(Recluse Sonata III)
Madhu has been working on the images from his intimate memories, which are the memories of several people from the social fringes. People from the social fringes do not necessarily stand in for the people who are evacuated from their rightful lands or properties. It could be people who are self-exiles from their own mainstream abodes and live a life from the fringes with alternative philosophies. Madhu as an artist belong to both the categories. He is a displaced one as he moved from his home state in Kerala to
. He is a self-exile as he discarded his mainstream comforts and chose to live an alternative life style. Madhu believes that people like him live in a permanent state of ‘hanging’, sort of unanchored life. They belong and do not at the same time. Most of the works by Madhu show this hanging nature as they are seen horizontally suspended. Delhi
(Recluse Sonata I)
Even within this scheme of images of unanchored life of the self exiles and the dispossessed, Madhu envisions a past where certain social securities held the simple lives of the people together. In the work titled ‘
Inn’ Madhu draws a set of hanging mats, which were once used by the people to sleep. The arrangement of these mats shows how the family is structured; mother and father becomes the base for the children to find comfort and security. Today, they are hung above an urban street where the vehicles are stuck in a traffic jam. When a family unit is uprooted through the obsolescence of their indigenous systems, they cannot but lose their language, land and labor, and become permanently hanging migrants in urban backyards. The poignant and precarious life of displaced people is depicted in the work titled ‘Allurement’ where we see a set of rose flowers hanging above a road jammed by vehicles. The children of the migrant poor become the sellers of ‘allurement’ at the traffic junctions, sans language and dignity. This suspension of anchor is re-enacted in a series titled ‘Vernacular Suspended’ also.
(Recluse Sonata II)
The absence of language is a sub-conscious thrust point in Madhu’s creative life. He undergoes several days of ‘maun vrat’ (penance of silence) as if he were deliberately doing away with the languages he has learned in the process of ‘civilizing’ himself. In the three ‘Recluse’ Sonata’ paintings Madhu uses the surreal juxtaposition of disparate images in order to bring forth the ‘music’ of silence. The base stack of two coconut trees placed in a library, a series of loudspeakers hung from a bamboo pole and two traditional horns hanging against a nursery of coconut plants are the images in these paintings. Sound of silence is incorporated in all these works. This silence should be read out as the silence caused by the erasure of a tongue thanks to the forceful evacuations. And Madhu calls it (ironically and consciously) the ‘Recluse’ Sonata’; the songs of the retreated or the retreat itself?
(Catalogue essay written by JohnyML, reproduced here with the permission of the gallery and the artist)