Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Forbidden Truths of Nidhivan: Shine Shivan’s New Works

  (Work by Shine Shivan)

Reverence could be a way to irreverence and vice versa. Deep seated devotion and observation could lead to a sense of critical viewing of the given and also scant respect for something in the long run could change into blind devotion. But there is something in between, a transient zone where playfulness takes over and erases both reverence and irreverence. Then it becomes pure play, a sort of innocent play, a skillful re-enactment of the known and unknown alike without considering the consequences. In transience happens the flashes of innocence pregnant with the possibilities of subversion of the dominant narratives, which only trained eyes could catch.

Wide eyed Krishna figures multiplies in the matrix of common mythology when Shine Shivan, the artist who masquerades himself in curious guises, breezes through the historically and culturally marked out locations where mythology indistinguishably manifests in the daily rituals of the common people. Nidhivan, the forest of Tulsi in Vrindavan, famed to be the place of Krishna’s eternal erotic dances with innumerable consorts becomes Shine Shivan’s point of departure for the body of works comes under the common title, Nidhivan.

When the devotee becomes one with the object of devotion both of them assume the same bhava, nature, expression and trait, and this oneness is a trope that the artist has used in building up a set of narratives that is culturally shared and has become the collective unconscious of the people. Krishna and the characters around him therefore assume the stylized facial expression of the artist or the artist adopts the generic facial traits of Krishna as depicted in various traditional art forms including Nathdwara paintings and Indian miniatures. The cumulative aesthetical outcome in making these Krishna figures is an unforgettable ensemble of self portraits involved in a homo-erotic or narcissistic game.

The works in Nidhivan, for those people who hover around the surficial aesthetical appeal may not look subversive and critical of anything. However, the mild game of subversion shows up when the works are seen against heterosexual and permissible dalliance hailed in the popular mythological and devotional narratives. The emergence of this surreptitious critique is totally depended on the critical views that one can afford regarding the allowance of homo erotic interpretations within the dominant cultural fabric. In a crude political scenario where populist religious monoliths suppresses all the possible lateral readings and understanding, the artistic interventions become tricky and dangerous.

Resorting to allegorical presentations of the popular stories or retelling of the mythologies in an absolutely non-provocative manner could provide a safe interface for subversive narratives. In his works Shine Shivan makes these cute and endearing images as operative tools so that the viewers fall into the set trap of the familiar and the strange allurement of the presentation to the point of buying them even for worshipping. Its from this point of identification of the devotee with Shine Shivan’s works that the flap doors of subversion get activated, may be through an interpretative literature like this one.

Why do Krishna, his consorts, friends and other male and female characters resemble one another? Why do they keep the same facial expression? These questions should find echoes in the very act of looking and seeing. But they remain unasked because Shine Shivan through his painterly and graphic skills keeps the images closer to the traditional renditions of such figures. Their beauty and erotic drive are not compromised and there is always a constant reminder that they are true to the traditional narratives. Even the colors that the artist has deliberately chosen, reds, different shades of saffron and brown, black and blue, are all seen in the textual detailing of Krishna and his consorts  in the popular literature. Even the flora and fauna are depicted the way they should be.

The authenticity of these renderings is further accentuated when one sees the statement that explains how the artist had stayed in the Nidhivan region and studied the local presentations of the Krishna Katha. This adherence to the source adds to the allurement of the trapdoor, of tradition and convention. Each story of Krishna’s games from the local lore is chosen to give his paintings the desired authenticity. The artistic cleverness, however conveys the visual intentions when he sheds the textual baggage one by one and brings the protagonists to a pair in embrace. The multiplicity of the heterosexual orgy becomes a homoerotic intimacy, love and care for each other that subverts the normative and affirms the critique in the subtextual level.

The choice of Kaliya Daman and Govardhanodharan, two popular stories related to Krishna from the Nidhivan region is important in Shine Shivan’s works. They are two strong metaphors for homo erotic arousal and its ultimate relieving after a prolonged play. Krishna lifts the lofty hill on the tip of his small finger. And Kaliya is a vicious serpent that needs enough thrashing so that it could eject Halahal, the strongest poison. In both the cases Krishna does the act of lifting and thrashing; perhaps an extremely suggestive presentation of not only homoeroticism but also autoeroticism.

There is no direct provocation but a poetic nudge so that the dreamy viewers who have fallen for the mischievousness of Krishna could be shaken out of the mythology to face something crucial to the current socio-cultural discourse regarding gender relationships in the country. Shine Shivan does not go in the line of Bhupen Khakkar or Balbir Kishan. Direct touch of Bhupen and the agonized entanglement of Balbir using male bodies as the trope is not used in Shine Shivan’s works. Like the veils over the deities before they are revealed for actual worship, tradition and convention cover Krishnas’ bodies in Shine Shivan’s works. Critical eyes are needed to pull the veil of this tradition down and see the artist’s interpretations. Allegory and retelling work quite effectively in Nidhivan. It becomes more meaningful when we come to know that Nidhivan is a place in Vrindavan where the people still believe that the erotic of plays of Krishna still take place therefore people are forbidden to go there at night!








Sunday, January 15, 2023

Probing the Definitional Biases: Latheesh Lakshman’s New Works


(Latheesh Lakshman, artist)

Great visual communicators are masters of minimalism. For them silence is eloquence. Music makes use of silence but for visual arts silence is constituted by lines and colors. Like the movie makers create palpable inky darkness with a streak of light penetrating from nowhere into the space, visual artists use lines and colors minimally to convey ideas. The graphic quality of this minimalism is suitable to the artists who have worked in advertisement where painterly lavishness and madness are reined in by parsimony and method. Latheesh Lakshman, a Kochi based artist has all these qualities, including his solid experience in advertising.

Art cannot perpetuate itself in time without compelling stories built around it. Seeing is experiential but also it is physical and carnal, together they make a yarn; a story woven around experience and an experience felt around the physicality of seeing and viewing. Narrativizing the experience is not just restricted to the narrative paintings or deep spiritual abstract art. Minimal and graphical art also tend and tempt to tell stories. Latheesh Lakshman is aware of this and one of his latest works is about the possible narratives around a work of art.

(Name me and Make my Story by Latheesh Lakshman)

Visual art, when it is two dimensional and without joysticks, mouses or touchscreens to play with, remains static and allows only ocular forays into its space which necessitates story telling an integral part of its understanding. Latheesh Lakshman says that the very act of looking at his work of art would make it interactive because the moment one looks at the work titled ‘Name Me Make My Story’ a story starts taking shape in the mind. A visual puzzle, the visual image asks for a definition, an appellation and according to the artist, the definition and the following story around it are not a beginning but an end in itself.

Naming is a need for categorization and claiming control over the named. Most of the names in the world are given than self-generated. A name is always attached to a bias. It stands vis-à-vis a historical continuity and carries the burdens that it has accrued along. Opposed to fluidity, the idea of naming marks territories and character traits. Though there is an authorial demand on the viewer regarding the naming of the image, it evokes the subjective understanding of the traits that one tends to perceive in the manifested image before him.

(Aara, Evidunnaa, Engottaa by Latheesh Lakshman)

In fact, Latheesh Lakshman’s image is composite and fluid, cancelling the specificities and emphasizing its kaleidoscopic complexities. But the viewers, goaded by the command/demand enter the narrativizing space and come up with definitive stereotypes, limiting the possibilities of their expansion and containing them within the subjective predictabilities. Perhaps, it is a critique of human narratives that aims at expanding the existential scope but falls into the making of palatable narratives. Also, the critique is directed at the idea of advertising that despite its fluid and unconventional narratives how it contains the narrative within the boundaries of the conventional.

In Latheesh Lakshman’s work there is also a relational field of subjectivities where one acts as the author of the story and the other the subject of it. The faces that come forth in each looking make the viewer an author who is authorized by the self to generate a narrative around the other and hold him within the limits of containment zone. The authorial position of the viewer always gives him this fancy feeling of giving the other full freedom in his narrative but intrinsic censorial acts stop all the possible freedoms the other could take. That’s why the artist says that the narrativizing is not about a beginning but about ending it.

(Aara? Who are You?)

Another interesting set of works by Latheesh Lakshman also probes the relational field of subjectivities in the given territorial limits. There are these curious questions, who are you, where are you coming from and where are you going, always originate in a person or a social group or territorial beings when they come across the others who are deemed to be newcomers or intruders. Strangeness of the other is not defined by his or her strange features but there is something that cuts beyond the familiar human features that give birth to those questions. Seen as ways of befriending and mitigating the fear for the other these questions at once place the other in an ambivalent space, making him not only define himself but also defend his right to be there. Hence, the attempts to befriend create a sense of rivalry that makes even the future relationship with them tendentious.

(Evidunnaa? Where are you from?)

These questions in Latheesh Lakshman’s works take the shape of the other, a cartoonish vision of the other in the eyes of the questioner and also it becomes a mirror reflection of the other in question, together making a sense of absurdity. The inability of these questions to exceed their physicality appears to be comical when we compare similar questions philosophically raised within the field of visual arts. The lines that make the figures in them become the calligraphic representations of the questions in the artist’s mother tongue Malayalam, aaraa (who are you), evidunnaa (where are you from) and engottaa (where are you going).

This comic effect becomes intense when seen against the mural sized painting by Paul Gauguin titled ‘Where do we come from? Who we are? Where are we going?’ Gauguin did this painting in 1897 when he was going through severe depression and personal losses. He was even contemplating suicide. In such a situation one could probe into the very meaning of human existence. One could wonder at this phenomenon called life. The questions raised by Gauguin are not territorial and xenophobic but ridden with the mysteries of life.

(Engottaa? Where are you Going?)

Latheesh Lakshman tells us how we have become lesser beings in our lesser pursuits and how we have become just territorial animals living in constant fear of the other. His lines run against the flat and flashy colors like a line of ink wandering along a field of poppies and tulips. These are the questions held by the artist against each one of the onlookers for telling one or two hard facts about them.