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Sinuous Asides

by Gitanjali Dang

Ratheesh T.'s paintings call to mind the oft-bandied John Berger thought, “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.” The artist's pictorial researches are enhanced by overtures of a magic realism that is intensely localised. His never perfunctory painterly aspirations are coated in the moss green patina of mythology, the raw umber of tonsured earth and the blaze orange of the sun overhead. 

Ratheesh's vocabulary is redolent of the magic realism so eloquently disseminated by fellow Malayali, the author O.V. Vijayan. The artist, much like Vijayan, incorporates an amalgamation of myth, saturated colour and darkly provocative utterances, to articulate a series of introverted dilemmas.   

He uses the tensility and evocativeness of the colour green to furnish the seven paintings that comprise Moving Earth, his first solo exhibition, with a striking multivalency. Green and its eclectic chromatic range are the central tropes in this suite of paintings. In the new body of work, green delivers temporal and transcendental landscapes that are alternately threatened and predatorial.  The artist's imaging of the colour as a contrapuntal subject has been tinged by his lengthy interactions with nature. 

Having spent the majority of his 27 years in the village of Killimanoor, less than 40 kilometres from Trivandrum, Ratheesh has been an avid bystander to the shenanigans of nature, the incendiary ways of emergent demagogues and the connivances of builders. Killimanoor and the other hamlets that inflect Kerala's countryside were, until recently, allied with fertile soil but have lately been soused on feral mortar.  

In 2005, nature did some getting back. A bolt of lightning eviscerated the artist's home in his village. Fragged by an ecosystem he has perennially commiserated with, Ratheesh was arm-twisted into shifting base to Trivandrum. And it was here, in the March of 2006, that Ratheesh commenced work on these towering paintings, in which he conjures vignettes of rural India. For a year and a half, the artist sojourned in a begrimed studio in Trivandrum, where he allowed his intuitive self to preside over an empery of hapless eyes, sinister vines, vulnerable insights and sinuous asides.

In his morosely lit studio, the artist purged himself of the morass of incongruities that have for sometime riddled the seemingly blithe 'n' bovine face of his native Kerala. With very little legroom and elbowroom available at his stunted city studio and with heat lacerating the roof overhead, Ratheesh found himself breathing in hazardous vapours that wriggled loose from diluents, heavily employed in oil painting. No squinting of the brain is required to envision Ratheesh in his cramped studio, timorously manoeuvring his way around the canvas.

In Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001), a cinematic translation of Elfriede Jelinek's novel of the same name, the protagonist Erika Kohut, in one particularly blustery moment simmers, “Schubert's dynamics range from scream to whisper, not loud to soft.” The same could be posited about Moving Earth; like a heavy pendulum it swings and reaches out for polarities. 

Eagles (Hill 1), Immortality, Motherland and Colourless Gods are strikingly claustrophobic, replicating the tenebrous climate of the studio. In these paintings, the noticeable nodes of action radiate a glowing discharge that keeps elaborating itself, with each preceding layer getting encompassed in the one that follows. Family (Hill 2), Silent Revolution and Thicket (A Dream) on the other hand are not compellingly packed, choosing instead to befriend the register of a whisper. 

During the course of one meandering conversation, Ratheesh enunciated the title of the exhibition in an eminently off-the-cuff manner. Moving Earth, the title, is cautiously naïve and yet, pithy. The title sutures the onrush of two anomies  —  the CAT bulldozers careening across and ripping into the topography and the lump of emotion pulsing in the throat of those who encounter the undulating landscapes of Kerala.  

The inundation of global landscapes by the uncertainties of MNCs has evoked a smorgasbord of reactions from Ratheesh's contemporaries. The artist, however, has chosen to root himself in his immediate milieu. In doing so he refuses to go against the grain and follow the interminable process of universalisation. 

Ratheesh is no cartographer, keen on pencilling a map, announcing his affinities on a gantry and his formal successes on milestones. For this selection of paintings, it could be hazarded that the artist essays a part comparable to that of a farrier; in that he equips his paintings with the imperative and allows them to cut loose and realise themselves. The inventory of his imperatives is replenished by occurrences that Ratheesh constantly archives. 

He does not cast his eye on maquettes or dwell on covertly done sketches; he slathers paints directly on the canvases. This temperament of hasty, yet methodical development renders even the most imponderable episodes within the paintings accessible, salient and self-possessed bearers of melancholic logic.  

In Silent Revolution (2006) we are faced with an apocalyptic landscape. An insidious coup has sneaked in, under the lush carpet of Kerala, and is devouring it from within and without. In it a woman's head is ensconced sturdily in her arms with a fetid cut-down-the-centre apple lying on a plate in front of her. A cacophony of burly and gnarled wooden furniture pieces and knick-knacks, including a crate, surround her. Stolid stumps of wood resembling the pugmarks of a marauding ogre mark the earth, beyond the walls of the house. In this cemetery of felled trees, a black cross welcomes layers of dust.

Traditionally, each magic trick reveals itself in three stages. First, there is the 'pledge' where the magician presents the audience with something seemingly quotidian. This is followed by the 'turn' where the magician inaugurates a twist by invoking the extraordinary. Lastly, there is the 'prestige' where a sleight of hand causes the trick to manifest itself in a grand concluding illusion. 

Skewed developmental projects and intransigent usurpation of land are chaperoned by lies that disguise themselves as magic tricks. In Silent Revolution, we body slam into one such trick gone to hell. 

The crate, which darts on the periphery of Silent Revolution, is heavily beached on the foreground of Immortality (2006). This crate, in which Ratheesh received his art supplies, houses his alter ego. Wearing a profoundly hypnotic and insouciant look, he holds a saw to his neck with ladybirds emerging from his mouth like a Biblical plague. Just beyond the likeness of the artist are anonymous skeletal remains invaded by corpulent roots. 

The artist is not beyond reproach. He is fully aware of the role he essays in this blurred and lurid ballet of ecological devastation. His complicity as an onlooker and the subsequent remorse stymie the artist in him. As though in acknowledgement of the same, he turns the septic saw on himself. 

An alternate understanding emerges when we take into account Ratheesh's prominent employment of the raktha sakshi mandapam or the martyr's column in Immortality. Significantly, the crate in which the artist's doppelgänger resides resembles a martyr's column. In doing so the artist obliquely refers to the charred remains of his home. He bleakly proposes that nature, having copulated with deviance, has quashed his moorings and reasserted its immortality. 

In the Kerala of present, Ratheesh feels like an alien riding subterraneous currents, perpetually looking for an escape hatch that opens into the tranquil air of his backyard in Killimanoor.

In another painting, Colourless Gods (2007), knots of architectural disasters gird villages and towns. Ratheesh packs the upper section of the painting with specimens that appease the religiosity of the locals and dumb down their sense of aesthetics. In addition to the wayward construction trends that are after the people's hearts, the work also mirrors the sanguinary religious politics that have gripped the world's largest democracy. 

The appellation could be perceived as suggestive of a firmament and a terra firma swarming with divinities that have been sapped dry of blood and humanity. They have been transformed into a litany of symbols with which any given mindscape and landscape can be saturation bombed into capitulation. Compositionally, Colourless Gods calls to mind Beyond the Heritage (2006). It was in this painting that the artist first integrated what could be termed the cliffhanger device. In both paintings, the ground unexpectedly halts, revealing an artist-made precipice. The device has enabled Ratheesh to divide his paintings starkly. 

Although Colourless Gods is conventionally top heavy, in the lower half the artist convincingly draws on the local, picturing a provocative argument against violence. The normative cat and mouse duel is tweaked to inaugurate the cat and the Indian parakeet tussle. Here, the interplay of virulent colours parenthesised by sludgy waters creates a visuality wherein the sinister is stepped up. The feline strut of the cats is trailed by the bleak shadows of violence. With the nine lives cats are reportedly privy to, their presence in the painting transforms into an allegory of the inexorable curve of violence.  

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Ratheesh grafts the demise of architecture as observed and mourned in Colourless Gods with his enduring concern about depleting greens: in the fraught Motherland (2007). In this formally elaborate painting, the magnified component represents the gradual devastation of the ecosystem. The complex circuitries of mostly pastel coloured vacuous tripe inundate the epidermis of the leaf. Clots of cement clog the stomata. The veins of the leaves are consistently iridescent, as though the red rain experienced by Kerala has been channelled into them. The venation illuminates not just the gullies of frantic concrete activity but also the craters of yawning space left in the wake of anthropomorphic beetles. The yoke of this irregular planning will eventually cause abscission in these leaves. With this ironic title, it is Ratheesh's prescient suggestion that we treat these soon-to-be-abscissed leaves as the new Motherland and construct around them another flawed mythology.

In Eagles (Hill 1) (2006), the purgatorial atmosphere feels as dense and tumescent as boiling tar. Bald eagles ominously swoop down on a copse of mangled wood. In the forefront, a woman, her skin the colour of molasses, hacks into a tree branch. Not too far away a man, his body contorted, ejects butterflies from his mouth. Although his sights are directed skyward, his restive hand clips the toenails of the lady. At some distance, another woman monitors the proceedings with listless eyes. The ground beneath their feet ends abruptly revealing a gallery of the dead. Stowed in the three burial slots are brittle skeletons. Eagles is not concerned with the mere passage of time. It addresses the protracted walk of time across a barrenscape, where scuttling scorpions and bald eagles conspire at junctions where no traffic halts. 

Family (Hill 2) (2006) is atypical because it focuses on intramural activities and not the mercurial outdoors so idiosyncratically read and liberally translated by the artist in the preceding paintings.  Here, Ratheesh steps away from and drops the paradigm shifts rural life has stumbled upon, recording instead an intimate and very telling episode.  A mother, transfixed by the television screen brandishes a remote control in one hand. The other hand she holds to her daughter's mouth denying her the opportunity to slip a word in. In the nearby, her guppy-lipped husband kisses a bottle of country liquor. The young girl succeeds in sucking her father into the goings-on by offering him a chilly, saving him the boredom of being a mere bystander.  Although the painting rues the lengthening shadows of satellite dishes on the Manglorean tile rooftops, Ratheesh has endowed it with a substantial and indubitable sinister undertow. The minatory tenor is, however, unpinnable. This nebulous disposition makes the painting quietly disconcerting. 

The twin motifs of insects and interrelatedness get amplified in Eagles (Hill 1) and Family (Hill 2). The rawly physical connectedness of the protagonists in these paintings is a facet that warrants special mention. These linkages are not sustained by clattering fetters. Ratheesh's pictorial language is punctuated and galvanised by ellipses. They invite the viewer to further the narratives Ratheesh has set into motion. 

The insect motif  — be it the ladybird in Family (Hill 2) and Immortality or the butterflies in Eagles (Hill 1) —  could be read as a long drawn and eccentric process of internalising the natural world by acknowledging one of its more ephemeral creatures. Whenever the insects wing their way into the paintings, they do so from between the jaws of the protagonists. In doing so, Ratheesh expresses a rather elemental and all-consuming yearning to be in unison with nature and enjoying its tactility as and when he can.     

Thicket (A Dream) (2007), the final work in this series, could not have been more dissimilar from the penultimate painting. A soporific work, it accentuates the canopy of quiescence that shields the forest. The peculiar bluish-green palette  — more green than blue  — of this painting was delivered to Ratheesh in a dream. 

A close examination of the shrouded figure in this painting reveals that she is afflicted by skin discolorations. Very likely, she is seeking cover in the few remaining places where majesty and silence interface. The easy forest floor also approves of the reposeful body of a sturdy man, a tangle of serpents coiled around his lower half. The two, however, are not alone and this pictorial narrative is anything but stillborn. An abandoned serpent shrine with graven images of the Nagaraja and his family  — Nagaramma and Nagakanya  — overlooks this mysterious setting. Is it possible that this scene of ostensible acceptance is in fact one of wrath? An unresolved conundrum it will remain. In the mean time, spectral and undecided, a constellation of alstonia flowers ascends off and descends to the ground.

Ratheesh intends to return to Killimanoor. This decision resonates the premise of Girish Kasaravalli's Dweepa (2002). In the film, a family, unmindful of the rising waters of the dam and the intensifying rains that threaten their habitat, decline to leave their island cloister. They fear departure will expedite the dissipation of their identity. 

In the artist's case, an incontrovertible loss is blanching and fraying the edges of a long known and sedate everyday. Despite this, Ratheesh returns like a migratory bird to nourish himself with the linkages of his past, fearing they might snap if not attended to. 

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