Angst of the times

Print edition : November 05, 2010

Breakdown Survival, Sumedh Rajendran's sculpture in iron and leather, 2005.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Set against a world mired in anxiety and ethnophobia, the sculptures of Sumedh Rajendran engage with the violence inherent in social hierarchy.

KERALA-born and Thiruvananthapuram-trained Sumedh Rajendran is one of the more innovative young sculptors of today. His works take advantage of India's powerful tradition of reliefs, which easily become part of a free-standing monolithic sculpture, as is the case of Mount Kailas in Ellora. Here we find a blend of both the narrative and the iconic, reminding us that such formalist divisions imported from Occidental art criticism are meaningless to understand our contemporary art, which chooses forms in accordance with the ideas and feelings an artist wishes to express when he concretises an art object after its initial sparking off.

This concretisation naturally becomes broader on a universal scale in relation to the extent that the artist is part of globally relevant events and reflects their reality around him and dares to tackle their implications intellectually. This is evident from Sumedh's sculptural ensemble Infant Region Advancing of 2008, which he first exhibited in Berlin, but which I saw on September 30, the day the judgment on the Ayodhya land dispute was pronounced.

SUMEDH'S SCULPTURAL ENSEMBLE Infant Region Advancing (2008) in wood, tin sheet and imitation leather, which he first exhibited in Berlin.-

The work has a statue of Lenin being pulled down by a steel cable, on the top right hand corner, a clear reference to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East European states of the Warsaw Pact. But the series of buildings constructed out of consumer cans contain the clear profile of a Hindu temple with the domes of a mosque by its side, reminding one that the rise of religious fundamentalism and backward-looking thinking in Asia and the rest of the world is also connected with those developments.

And below them, we have a fancy red leatherette dog-coat with a zipper darting across the amalgam of architectural forms. But there is no dog there. It is a fashionable hollow dog-coat, reflecting how the process of de-ideologising society has ended up draining it of its content of social relations, replacing the flesh and blood of the history of ongoing class struggle with empty forms and symbols that eventually lose their meaning as partisan and concrete dualisms battling on the stage of ongoing life. Under the vague abstractions of the compromises one accepts in a consumer-oriented society, where one's choices are strictly limited by the constraints of mass production and blinkered by aggressive advertising, there is hardly any choice or freedom to talk of.

While using these images, the artist is clearly unhappy with them. He said in an interview in 2006: Actually, the very state of human being has a kind of hopelessness and helplessness within. That has always worried me. Not just of all those near me, but also that which prevails all over the world. That is there in my works you don't have a choice of your own. You are forever at the mercy of circumstances. You always negotiate and that process keeps recurring in life. Whether it is with religion, politics or ideology, people negotiate all the time.

SUMEDH RAJENDRAN IS one of the more innovative young sculptors of today.-

Conscious of this, he refuses to be cowed down: When I work, I think of this humanity which is constantly compromising somebody else decides what kind of life you lead, how and where your values are not your own. They are becoming negotiable. That is the tragedy of our times.

This tragedy is spelt out in his imagery of boots, suitcases, trunks, hollow men, means of transport and human beings and animals subjected to a violence they neither resist nor submit to in the last resort. Their dead bodies, like that of the dead horse being devoured by a car, repulse one just as the image of two hollow men inspecting the corpse of a third, who is a heap but not hollow, draws one to the helpless resister. This form of resistance is particular to art and literature, where lost cause imagery awakens one to the consciousness of the need to do something more substantial despite the compromises that this may involve in life.

MOVE LAND TO STAND, stainless steel, 2010.-

There are things, however, that cannot be compromised with. This borderline is clear in Sumedh's work as he is conscious of the duality of things that underpins a dialectical approach to their spinning out and coming to a conclusion over time. Going through his earlier works, Pseudo-Homelands in Lahore (2005), Street Fuel Blackout in New Delhi and Mumbai (2006), Final Call in New Delhi (2006), Chemical Smuggle in New Delhi (2007) and Dual Liquid (2010), again in New Delhi this year, one sees that this persistent duality is a social one, between the visible world of the privileged few and their followers and the underground of the subalterns (a term Antonio Gramsci had to use in his prison writings to describe the exploited and oppressed as a ploy to bypass the censors) who are not the disembowelled hollow men even in death. His explanatory quote in his recent exhibition at Vadheras in Okhla in Delhi describes his work as: set against a world mired in anxiety and ethnophobia, the works engage with the violence inherent in our social hierarchy. This, in our day, is class violence, direct or diversionary. And it is this understanding of divisions that allows the sculptor to take a position in favour of the underdog and draw our sympathetic attention to his condition.

Postmodernist veneer

This he does ingeniously by evolving a postmodernist veneer that covers up for a deeper and more conscious amalgam of man, animal and object that is an abstract icon like those of our gods and goddesses. The interlinkage is not accidental as in surrealism. It integrates elements as in Breakdown Survival where a car driven by a driver's disembodied hand (for, is not a worker merely a hand for an employer?) is being competed with by a dog in a process where integration can only mean death to the latter. This image is a far more demystified version that questions the traditional belief of the soul being unified with the creator at death as a desirable end. Between images that draw one to the underdog and those that question shibboleths, there is a wide range of questions of personal, social and political issues his work has access to as a result of this basic dualism that runs through it.

PEOPLE PAID, wood and tin sheet, 2007.-

He succeeds in instilling it into the mind of the viewer by using leather, iron, tiles, tin and objects of daily use that bring their own baggage of reality along with them, giving his work its comprehensive look. Not a small part of this comes from his childhood and development as an artist in Thiruvananthapuram, where his grandfather R. Govindan Chari was a professor of design and father, G. Rajendran, a well-known artist. In their works he saw the local intellectuals of a small principality reaching out to global trends, as we find in the works of Raja Ravi Varma and later in K.C.S. Panicker. But this reaching out needs to be done by people rooted firmly in their own soil and confident of their position.

If Kerala's universality is in part inherited from the journeys of Malayalis over centuries across the seas, it is also a result of the progressive writers and cinema producers of today. It is no accident that writers such as Amrita Pritam, Munshi Premchand and Rabindranath Tagore are as widely read in Kerala as in their States of origin. This openness owes its origin to the remarkably original and encyclopaedic figures in literature like E.M.S. Namboodiripad whose thinking appears to have affected Malayali life today in more ways than one.

ENAMEL RIVER, COLLAGE, 2010. The understanding of divisions in society allows the sculptor to take a position in favour of the underdog and draw our sympathetic attention to his condition.-

Rooted in that contemporaneity, it is not surprising to see that Sumedh achieves a breakthrough that gives his sculptures a relevance not only in India as a whole but also globally, for our concerns and problems are similar just as they are amenable to a broad-based appreciation and understanding if we take the trouble to be conscious of both the visible and underground events taking place around us.

In fact, our best young artists today are conscious both of the booming economy as also its underbelly of poverty, crime and exploitation. They are also aware that the glib ideology of postmodernist ahistoricism is incapable of communicating this reality deeply without going into the contradictions that have given birth to the conditions we are living in. This is what gives their art the flesh and blood that characterises it.

Suneet Chopra is an art critic and writer.
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