Nishad Avari shares an essay by Georgina Maddox on artist V. Ramesh’s new gallery-size installation
Mumbai: V. Ramesh’s latest installation, ‘Sanctum Sanctorum: A Corner For Four Sisters’, takes up an entire gallery. The multi-canvas piece debuted at the India Art Fair in February this year in a single-artist booth, and was later shown at Gallery Threshold in New Delhi. Georgina Maddox, journalist and independent curator, writes about this epic installation, illuminating the influences that shaped the creation of Ramesh’s magnum opus.
Paintings in prose
Artist V Ramesh’s fascination for the poetry of four women Bhakti poets has led him on a visual journey that captures their spirit. Georgina Maddox examines his musings over divinity, mortality and corporality.
Sanctum Sanctorum: A Corner For Four Sisters, is a visual journey executed through the prism of devotional passion, fervour and intimacy. In his recent body of work artist V Ramesh appropriates the voices of four mystic women poets: Lal Ded from Kashmir, Karaikkal Ammiyar from Tamil Nadu, Akka Mahadevi from Karnataka and Andal who also hails from Tamil Nadu.
These famed Bhakti poets could not be more varied in their approach to verse. However they have been untied by their act of oral or spoken word poetry that is read as passionate dialogues with the supreme one. Scholars have categorised this kind of writing as Bridal Mysticism: a style that engages with God lovingly, teasingly, plaintively and sometimes with an air of severity.
The Vishakapatnam-based Ramesh has been fascinated and enraptured by the poetry of these women poets because of the transgressive nature of their acts—they all left home to wander as poet-saints, spreading their poetry and musings on divinity.
They eschewed earthly ties like marriage in the face of great opposition often at the cost of their lives, and they challenged notions of modesty and surrendered their conventional place in society as ‘respectable women’ since three of them even revoked wearing garments.
In assuming their tone and voice, Ramesh breaks gender binaries and embraces a genderless position from which to enunciate his devotion. In many ways one could say that each painting that Ramesh creates has so much of himself in it, that it could well be seen as a self portrait—especially in this body of work, and though he uses the voices of others it is really about the self that he is speaking. Extending that logic further, one could view the entire exhibition as a self portrait, though the artist’s actual reference to the self portrait is a single canvas.
“For the last ten years I have been interested in impermanence, not just of life itself but also of people. I’m fascinated by that moment of crossover when a personality goes from being ephemeral and human to becoming eternal and mythological,” says Ramesh.
The exhibition was first mounted at the India Art Fair in February 2013, where the suites of seventeen larger-than-life canvases were arranged in an L-shaped room, changing the viewing of the works to an intimate tête-à-tête with the canvases.
Now the exhibition continues at the Threshold Art Gallery, where the works have been mounted over its two floors. The central image as one walks into the gallery is of a large Banyan tree. The gigantic diptych of the tree spreads its roots and branches onto the ground creating a fortress. “I see the banyan tree as a kind of an anchor that will draw all the various canvases together,” muses the artist. The Banyan tree, inspired by a cherry blossom tree captured by an Israeli photographer Ori Gersht is central to the exhibition because it is the holding image that knits together these various strands of the narrative. The image also leads up to the canvases that feature the women poets.
Flanking the central canvas on either side of the Banyan tree is a canvas with four blooming lotuses afloat on a dark pond of brown, while another emerald green canvas catches crows taking flight. Both these images are indirect tributes to the poets but they’re also a celebration. In most cultures ravens or crows are seen as good omens, godly and even the creator of man. However in the Mahabharata they are considered messengers of death. In Greek mythology the crow is condemned to eternal thirst; Ramesh brings these multiple interpretations to the table in this elegiac work. Further on a sunset yellow canvas captures an emaciated mendicant on a skeletal horse; it may be read a comment on our spiritual bankruptcy as a people.
The women poets engaged with range from the Ash-covered terrifying ‘Rudra Avatar’ of Lord Shiva to the puckish playfulness of Lord Krishna. The women poets have been rendered on the canvas in both figurative and symbolic manners. For the poet Lal Ded he has chosen the motif of a delicate shawl inlayed with the map of Kashmir and laced with red—a symbolic bleeding that straddles time.
Next we are presented with the terrifying image of Karaikkal Ammaiyar over-laid by a supplicating skeleton, a flaming tree and lines from a poem that extols Lord Shiva as the supreme creator. Those familiar with the myth will know that Karaikkal Ammaiyar was known as Lord Shiva’s daemon devotee. She begged for the boon of being seen as emaciated pey (daemon) rather than a conventionally beautiful woman and was freed from the restrictive gaze of men that often imprison its women as beautiful objects guarded like chattel or property.
If the canvas of Ammaiyar glorifies how terrifying devotion can be the canvas dedicated to Akka Mahadevi celebrates the calm and beauty that this poet was known for. Akka appears to float in a sea of blue her face covered in a diaphanous web of tresses, which covered her entire body. A shower of white jasmine flowers stand out in heightened three-dimension in this canvas dedicated to the poet from Karnataka.
The fourth poet in the narrative is Andal, a 9th century Tamil poetess and saint who is considered to be an incarnation of Bhu Devi. Ramesh embeds an entire narrative into a single icon when he paints a large, luscious garland of jasmine and rose flowers, rendered in a photorealist style, with a strand of black hair stuck to it. This personalised garland is meant for the Lord Vishnu / Krishna and was worn by his devotee Andal.
Ramesh’s interest and knowledge of the hagiographies of the women poets and mythologies associated with them is something he does not serve up to his audience simplistically. Instead he nudges one toward examining and pondering the possible narrative behind the images presented.
Ramesh’s celebration of the women poets also exposes the fact that our knowledge of them, as opposed to popular male Bhakti poets like Kabir and Faiz, is very limited. This is because even within the paradigm of a poetry form as subversive as Bhakti, the lens of gender is selective in highlighting the works of male poets. It is not surprising that they occupy the domain of the popular and that it has taken considerable scholarship and research to revive the forgotten histories of women poets. The exhibition at Threshold empowers those who have been silenced over time and through erasure.
Georgina Maddox is an independent critic curator interested in art practices that examine issues of gender, sexuality and marginalization. Her writings have appeared in several magazines like Take on Art, Art India, Biblio, Open Magazine, India Today, Harper’s Bazaar, Man’s World and newspapers like Indian Express and the Times of India. Her essays are published in Articulating Resistance edited by Shivaji Panikkar and Deeptha Achar and published by Tulika Books and the Phobic and Erotic edited by Brinda Bose and published by Seagull Books.