Saturday, April 22, 2017

Amana: the Visual History of Injustice by Chitrakaran Murali

Chitrakaran Murali T

Chitrakaran T Murali does not call himself an Ambedkarite. Nor does he claim any role in Dalit activism in Kerala or elsewhere. But there is something in his paintings that makes him a fellow traveller of various movements that attempt the Dalit Deconstruction and reconstruction of (dominant) history. Using his research interest and his artistic skills, Murali creates his paintings that speaks of a past from which the articulations of the downtrodden have been expunged and to certain extent till date remain almost obscure if not invisible altogether. Murali's artistic life has certain interesting aspects. 

Murali T aka Chitrakaran (artist/painter) is an artist who does self curating his works. His life is a living gallery and the book that he has come out with is a moving museum of sorts though humble in stature. The story of the artist goes like this: Three decades back Murali joined Trivandrum Fine Arts College as a painting graduate student. Due to familial reasons he had to take up a job as a graphic artist in one of the leading dailies. After a couple of years he resumed his education in the college while working at the newspaper desk as an artist at night. In 1990 he got an opportunity to participate in a camp with the leading artists like Sudhir Patwardhan, Bhupen Khakar, Manu Parekh and so on. As a very young artist he was so awestruck by those artists yet he did not feel like following anybody's style. The painting he did in the camp had the image of a mirror in it. Murali had thought that art should be something that reflected the viewer, not the artist himself.

Twenty long years from 1993 to 2013, Murali kept himself away from the art scene. Perhaps he had his reasons to do so. In 2006, Murali started a blog and started posting his works and narrating the historical background that inspired the images in his works. Then Facebook happened; with this like many others this artist too got a good number of followers that inspired him further to explore what he liked most; the expunged history of the Dalits, Women and the downtrodden. As Murali has been writing his notes in Malayalam the history behind his works remained limited though his works gave the hint of his frustration with the mainstream history and his perennial need for articulating his own analysis of it via visual and verbal terms. 

'Amana' is Murali's art book that serves not only as a book of documentation of his works and writings which have appeared in his blog and social media posts but also as a moving gallery and library; the gallery exhibits his works in the pages of the book and the verbal narratives attached to them functions as the library. This portable library-gallery amuses me immensely because I recognise it, despite my disagreements in certain aspects of his aesthetics as well as the literal interpretations of history, as one of the parallel and subaltern streams of art making and proliferating which have to be recognised by art historians, curators and critics in order to avoid succumbing to the suction power of the glamorous mainstream social history and the history of visual art. Recognising the works of Murali is a way of resisting the hegemony of the mainstream art and it is also a way of the plurality of cultures within and under the blanket term of 'culture.'

The title 'Amana' comes from the deciphering of a Tamil-Brahmi script inscribed on a clay artefact excavated at the Muziris-Pattanam ancient port site. The meaning of the word is 'Buddhist or Jain Monk'. Either it came from the word 'Shramana' or this word was Sanskritized from the 'Amana' word. Murali titles his book/gallery/library, 'Amana' because he pitches his interpretations of history in the Buddhist-Hindu binary. According to him Kerala was a Buddhist state/land and after Shankaracharya's conquest of India philosophically, the Buddhists were persecuted in Kerala in a big way. Murali traces the etymology of several words related to religious and social rituals back to this conquest that Hinduism had over the Buddhism. 

According to Murali Shankaracharya's overpowering of the Buddhist scholars in the royal courts in India was not just intellectual but it had a lot to do with diplomatic coercion, physical abuse and even assassination. In order to finish Buddhism, Murali says, Sankaracharya used distorted logic and he demanded the heads of the defeated Buddhists in return. He says Thalappoli ( the practice of women standing in a row with a plate full of flowers, rice and a full coconut as a part of temple rituals) is in fact the reception of the victorious Hindus with the heads of the assassinated Buddhists. He also asks why the 'Mokaambika Devi' is a mute Devi who in fact is the goddess of learning and education. According to Murali the centre piece of the original idol in the Kolloor temple is that of the severed head of a learned Jain nun. Murali paints his findings in symbolic graphic terms and forwards his verbal narrative as a part of it in the book.

In Amana we see not only the interpretation of socio-religious historical issues but also pure social issues based on caste hierarchy. More than hundred years back in Kerala women were not allowed to wear upper garments. Besides in order to curb the upward growth of the downtrodden the rulers used to impose various kinds of taxes on them. One of the most ridiculous taxes was mulakkaram or breast tax. Depending on the size of the breasts women from the lower castes needed to pay taxes. Nangeli, a woman from the lower caste was the first one to rebel against it. When the court officer came to collect the tax, she asked him to wait, she went to the pond, took a dip and came back only to severe her breasts and place them on a plantain leaf before the officer. She died of excessive blood loss. Her husband jumped into her funeral pyre. This incident had forced the king to repeal the breast tax. This historical incident however finds only a minimal mention in the mainstream history. Murali paints three works based on this in three different times.

Similar was the case of Kuriyedathu Thathri. Brahmin women were supposed to marry very old men and were soon widowed. After that their lives were tortious while the menfolk made temporary alliances with Nair women. Thathri was a Brahmin woman. She was accused of illicit relationship and was excommunicated. Before that there was a long trial and to the shock of everyone, Thathri revealed how she had been abused by many men since childhood. She took out the names of 64 men! Murali paints Thathri as a bold woman. Like this the artist interprets each historical anecdote with critical acumen. No surprise that Murali is never celebrated by the media or by the art festivals that take a lot of pride in being 'political'.

Personally speaking, I have certain differences with the ways in which Murali has critiqued certain myths. I have found over reading for ideological purpose in the myths of Parasurama, Shiva and so on. What I stand for is the reconciliation with the past and resting it for eco-humanistic and cosmo-humanistic purposes. History should be interpreted for not repeating the same folly. Therefore I find the interpretations of Murali quite convincing, gripping and at times quite moving. The paintings have a sense of illustration and graphic art. This may be because of the artist's long professional work as an illustrator and graphic artist. This book, Amana should be seen by all, read by all and above all bought by all for this is an alternative voice in art; whether you agree with it or not, you cannot just ignore it and silence it.

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