BY MOEENA HALIM
ccording to the Rig Veda, when a sage opens his eyes to the world, he
all the multiplicities of the world with that one look. He internalises them and reflects back to the world as much as is taken in. It is this philosophy that lends itself to the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale theme Forming in the Pupil of an Eye. Mumbai-based artist Sudarshan Shetty, who took over as curator of the Biennale last year, has a particular fondness for Vedic philosophy, just as he does for India’s ancient arts. Shetty grew up in a household rich with poetry and music—his father was a Yakshagana artiste—and it is through his works of art that he reflects all that he has internalised.
His latest A Story A Song, a set of films and wooden structures created in association with the Rolls Royce Art Programme, is inspired by a folktale about a woman who holds on to a story and a song until one is turned into an umbrella and the other into a shoe. When her husband returns to find these objects at the threshold of their home, he accuses her of infidelity. It is at the house of lights, when he overhears the lights narrate her tale that the truth dawns on him, but by the time he returns home, his wife has already lost the story and the song she had suppressed.
“The moral: if you have a story, you must tell it,” says the artist. Being obscure is not Shetty’s style. It is important to him that the story and its meaning is understood. Appropriating a lot of conventions of Hindi cinema such as the element of music and melodrama, he tells and retells the folktale through two films which he screens simultaneously on two different screens side by side. He intends that the audience lives it by walking through the two anchoring wooden structures—the woman’s house and the house of lights, where her husband achieves enlightenment. “Watching the films and then examining the structures renders the story secular. The viewer can become part of the story in some ways. It’s like playing with the notion of what’s real and unreal and theidea of myth and the empirical source of things,” says the artist.
Just like the woman in the legend, the folktale had been brewing in the artist’s mind for decades. “I heard this tale when I was a child and it is one that has remained with me since,” he says. His first attempt at a retelling didn’t quite work out, but when the Rolls Royce Art Programme came along, Shetty saw it as the perfect opportunity to go back to it. “What I’ve realised is that you must tell stories any way you can. Retelling over a period of time may alter the story, but I don’t see it as a bastardisation but as a legitimate change, which is the only way it can survive,” he says.
He looks at the past for inspiration but manages to contemporise the stories through his art pieces. His other recent exhibitions,
Shoonya Ghar (Empty is this house) at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi as well as Who must Write these Lines, are based on traditional poetry. “We have a huge treasure of tales and I’ve been working a lot on how to bring these into another space, one that comes with a different set of expectations,” explains Shetty.
At the JJ School of Art, he was taught the specifics and the conditions attached to making and exhibiting art. It is something he began questioning soon after he graduated. “There’s a huge diversity between what’s inside the museum or gallery space and what’s outside. One of my efforts has been to bring that life inside the gallery space, create some familiar spaces and talk about larger issues that might be unfamiliar to a lot of people.
Cinema or dramatics seem like one way to achieve this, in a way that it performs itself in a gallery space that is meant for contemporary arts,” says Shetty. Looking back at the past examining tradition and history, according to the artist, is an important way of looking forward.
Aassimilatessudarshan sheTTy poses aT The house of lighTs (mumBai) , which represenTs The puBlic space in his narraTive The inTeriors of The house, made using reclaimed wood and anTiques from chor Bazaar in mumBai