A Play of Shadows and Reflections that Impresses on the Visual Imagery of Ranbir Kaleka

Kanika Anand attends Ranbir Kaleka’s illustrated talk ‘Skins of Time’ at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Ranbir Kaleka talking about his work
Image courtesy- KNMA, New Delhi

New Delhi: Ranbir Kaleka’s paintings, digital prints, video projections and media works have always fascinated me. They are not only imaginative, but are indeed, a gripping way of telling a story.

Ranbir opened the evening with a slide of his ancestral haveli in Patiala, where he grew up. The image was but a collage of photographs holding the structure up and containing its memories forever. Although not nostalgic of the physicality of his home, Ranbir vividly explained that his sheltered upbringing and childhood interactions, almost exclusively with family members, led him to observe things and experiences more intently. Ranbir’s play was built on tales, mirrors and their reflections, shadows and their movements. He drew comfort in their complexities, a trait that reflects in his work to date.

Ranbir spoke of his family as story-tellers, either inventing or relating stories true to their character and personal fantasies. His imagery does not appear to acknowledge linear order or chronology; events overlap and beings are dense and contorted.

Woman wrestling with Lion (miniature from a set of 10), mixed media on paper and packing cardboard), 1994

Woman and flying insect, Oil on Board, 2000 (From a series of Portraits)

The artist took us through his early paintings, done as an art student, first at Punjab University, Chandigarh, and then at the Royal College of Art, London. Here we see the initial but lasting influences of calendar art, a somewhat sophisticated kitsch, and most significantly the impact of cinema in each painted tableau. The latter became a tangible part of his work in 1999 in ‘Man Threading the Needle’, Ranbir’s first video projection on canvas. The merging of two mediums allowed the viewer to enter a deeper space of experience, yet their incongruity meant the experience was also elusive. Through a series of such works in the 2000s including ‘Man with Cockerel’ (2004), ‘Fables from the House of Iban’ (2007), ‘He was a Good Man’ (2008), ‘Sweet Unease’ (2010) and the like, Ranbir engages us in poignant moments where protagonist identities remain wanting and/or becoming. This is also true of his digital prints, paintings on canvas and series of staged photographs.

A still from ‘He was a Good Man’, video projection on painting, 2010

A still from ‘Crossings’, a four channel video projection on painting, 2005,
Image courtesy- KNMA, New Delhi

Conference of Birds & Beasts, Digital print and painting on canvas, 2010

Lion and the Milk Bowl, digital print and painting on canvas, 2011

It was a delight to hear the usually bashful artist speak of his work. And personally, it was incredibly gratifying to see his early works and note the strains of memory and conditioning in his imagery. The talk, initiated by KNMA, New Delhi, was a corollary event to their current exhibition Crossings: Time Unfolded II, of which Ranbir Kaleka’s 2010 four-channel video projection also titled Crossings is on display.

A rapt audience at the talk
Image courtesy- KNMA, New Delhi

Ranbir Kaleka’s first major exhibition in New Delhi since 1995 was held at Saffronart in December 2011-January 2012. For more on the show,  click here.

Kanika Anand is an art professional and budding curator specializing in Indian contemporary art. She holds a degree in Art History from the National Museum Institute, New Delhi, and has worked in the field for five years with Gagosian Gallery, Gallery Espace and Talwar Gallery in New York and New Delhi. She is currently pursuing the Curatorial Training Program at the Ecole du Magasin in Grenoble, France, in line with her interest to responsibly curate projects towards making art more accessible as well as inter-disciplinary.

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