Thursday, April 13, 2017

Translating Khasakk into Visual Art - I

Writer O V Vijayan
Thassarack does not look like 'Khasakk', the imaginary land that OV Vijayan had conjured up around half a century back. However, for the cultural Malayali, Khasakk is a real land and very much a reality like the land of Macon in Marquez's 'Hundred years of Solitude'. A fictional work becomes a myth therefore a subliminal reality when the land-setting of it becomes a nation in itself and the characters familiar and quizzically divine. In Malayalam literature, among a few works that have become mythical over a period of time, perhaps 'Khazakkinte Ithihasam' ( The Legend of Khasakk) stands in the forefront along with other works but without vying for prominence. It does not need to do so because the people of Kerala have accepted it as a myth. The legendary success of that work of fiction has been periodically proven by those people who make ' pilgrimage' to Thassarack.

The success of the novel was once again underlined when in 2013 the government of Kerala took the initiative to establish an OV vijayan Cultural Complex in Thassarack. Had the pilgrimage to the place been undertaken only by the literary aspirants from the later generations, who got drunk by the language that has the transparency and potency of country liquor that OV Vijayan had invented for writing. 'Khasakk', today people come there because they just want to be there and inhale the same air that author and the characters who were born out of him inhaled, waked the same paths that they walked and above all feel the love, desire, philosophical and existential turbulence that they felt. That's the kind of influence that Khasakk had and still having on the Malayali psyche. Years ago, N S Madhavan, a contemporary story writer had even made an attempt to find the economic structure of Khasakk. And he did find it out: brewing country liquor.

Writer O V Vijayan
If anyone asks about the impact of Khasakk on the writers as well as the artists, and if one asks who had been hit by it more, there will be a very polemical debate around it. Those who had tried to imitate and draw in the essence of Khasakk in their own literary efforts, felt the sense of failure with the realisation that what maximum they could do with it was to imitate the language and perhaps reproduce certain characters.  Original works are like that; (even Vijayan was accused of plagiarism by citing its similarity with a little known work called Bangarwadi) they remain inimitable. Khasakk remained within its own literary form, refusing itself to be translated into other mediums, interestingly while giving birth to new editions of it, and academic studies on it. There were efforts to make it as a movie but failed many times. Finally the code was cracked with artists taking interest in it.
The characters that Vijayan had created in his masterpiece were already given visual forms by senior illustrators ike AS Nair in Mathrubhoomi weekly where the novel was first serialised in 1968. Characters in Kerala's modern literature became strongly etched in the reader's minds both by the verbal picture and the illustrations made to 'portray' them. Like the characters created by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer who had been immortalised by the artist MV Devan and the character of VKN sent to eternity by Namboothiri, Vijayan's characters too were immortalised by AS Nair.

Book Cover - Khasakkinthe Ithihaasam

Here too Khasakk was different from Basheer's and VKN's works. The readers did not want to limit the visualisation of those characters with what AS Nair had articulated. They wanted their own characters. Perhaps that is why literary critics still attempt studies on Khasakk and the artists try their hand at recreating those characters. More than the writers, in Kerala have a painting to be chewed upon again and again, the artists in Kerala have 'Khasakk' in their minds to create their own repertoire of characters from the novel.

Poster of the drama of Khasakkinthe Ithihaasam
What makes Khasakk a challenge for the visual artists is the enigma of the protagonist, Ravi who comes to Khasakk after leaving his academic career in Princeton University and his girlfriend. This character who comes to a remote village called Khasakk floats in many worlds. Though we have crossed over to the consumerist heaven of no doubts from the world skepticism and existential angst, in every artist or every reader,  Ravi becomes a living entity, a skeptic an agnostic, a devotee, an adulterer. He has many faces as well as phases. And in my view that's the main reason who no artist dares to portray Ravi, the protagonist. He is every man and at the same time the author himself.  If an artist reduces the portrait of Ravi into/ as the face of a young Vijayan, it would be quite blasphemous for the artist himself, for he is so selfish when it comes to Ravi. he wants to be Ravi and if he paints his self-portrait as Ravi, no one would accept it as Ravi. A literary character becomes an enigma first, then a transcendental reality like the godhead that cannot be captured to define contours and if at all any one tries, they could only create metaphors but never the truth. Ravi is the truth of Vijayan and all those who love Khasakk, the novel. That could be one of the reasons why artist revel in creating all who had made Ravi's life possible in Khasakk. In Vijayan's imagination, the autobiographical self of the author himself, Ravi, is a witness. Like the eye that sees does not see itself, Vijayan is helpless in seeing himself ( therefore Ravi too). Hence he sees himself through the characters around him. They are not just village characters, but his own refracted self. When he sees them, he makes his won self out. By describing them using all the efficiency of naturalism, Vijayan makes them transparent and clear. What he looks in them is his own clarity. That's why when visual artists approach Khasakk, they tend to depict the characters in Khasakk, rather than the protagonist.

Young artist Rejeesh Sarovar working on Khasakk
When an artist paints, or sculpts a character from Khasakk, what he / she attempts is to get the philosophical essence of the novel. In other words, what they try to portray is what exactly Vijayan had tried to portray: his own self or the surrogate self of Ravi. No character in this novel whether he/ she is Alla Picha Mollakka, Naijamali, Chukkuravuthar, Mungankozhi, Maimuna and so on is independent in him/herself. They together constitute one character, that's Ravi. Or inversely, what Ravi is nothing but the independent characters in Khasakk. Their social and spiritual relationships with one another constitute the world of Khasakk that is being imagined by Ravi. So he is the creator and all other characters are his day dreams. What an artist does is also a sort of day dreaming about Khasakk. Hence, there cannot be one painting about Khasakk. A painting becomes a part of the multitude of paintings or sculptures created out of Khasakk. In other words, two artists working from two different locales, on the theme of Khasakk could generate same kind of paintings because Khasakk is a myth and the mythical characters gain an archetypal form in the collective imagination. Each artist recreates these forms  using his characteristic style and in this process each painting or sculpture becomes an open ended structure from which the author could always walk out and let another artist take it over through that open entrance. This seems to be the basic nature of Khasakk, the novel itself. The open endedness, despite the definite death of the protagonist like Krishna of the former Yuga, has given birth to a new Yuga, where even his death would be seen and interpreted through the depiction of other characters. This is what exactly we see in the sculpture and painting project in Thassarack.

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