Looking for the enemy

Artist T V Santhosh’s first solo show in Kerala explores war and violence, and what influences our perception and reality
Durbar Gallery in Kochi
Durbar Gallery in KochiPhoto | Nandan R Nair

KOCHI: As you step inside the Durbar Gallery in Kochi, a palpable sense of eeriness fills the air. Each frame inside narrates tales of war and violence. Shades of historical conflicts, the global pandemic, and potential apocalyptic scenarios dominate the colourful frames -- dark and vibrant -- contrasting each other.

Throughout the exhibition, in almost every frame, the bright-coloured floral backdrop persists, juxtaposing harsh realities with seemingly serene visuals.

Set against a vibrant lemon green backdrop, adorned with leaves and a few bunches of jungle geranium (chethi) flowers, the title text of T V Santhosh’s ongoing exhibition stands out: History Lab and the Elegy of Visceral Incantation.

The artist’s maiden solo show in Kerala does not reflect any stereotypical elements of a specific place. The exhibition was earlier displayed at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. His works, irrespective of the medium, generally speak about the human condition across the world. Themes of war and violence are central, with each piece probing why they occur.

“In the history of violence, there has to be an enemy for it to start. The primary question I address is ‘Who is the real enemy?’ Through my frames, I transport viewers back in time to analyse the source of each incident,” explains Santhosh, who has been practicing art in Mumbai for some time.

The artist, who hails from Kaipamangalam in Thrissur, began his artistic journey at the Fine Arts Institute there. After completing 10th grade, the institute helped him sharpen his skills and understand basic art theories, he says.

The time spent in Thrissur also provided him with a profound understanding of art and the societal commitment required of an artist. The 1980s in Kerala saw a cultural revolution with societal activities, debates, and theatre emerging prominently. Despite this vibrant landscape, many budding artists, including Santhosh, faced a lack of knowledge in contemporary art.

“That’s why I moved to Santiniketan in West Bengal in 1989. It was there that I truly started looking at modern art from an Indian perspective. I understood that the idea of modernity is culturally specific and defined by its historical conditions. Today, there is a renewed interest in Bengal school movement and its values in the context of freedom struggle and the process of nation-building. Being in Santiniketan has influenced my ideology and aesthetics. And it was here, that I started specialising in sculpture,” says Santhosh.

His close association with sculpting is evident in the ongoing exhibition. A caged Rs 100 and Rs 5 note displayed at the gallery provoke ambiguity, questioning where the theme of violence might be hidden in the wooden sculpture.

The Rs 100 note reflects India’s recession-era, highlighting the economy’s fragility and vulnerability to external forces. The Rs 5 note, featuring a tractor image, responds to the current Farmers’ protest, connecting to the present scenario.

As you explore the sculpture installation, terms inscribed on the surface reference Kerala’s historical tax system, Valappanam, Changatham, Mulakkaram, Meeshakkaram, and more. “Some names reveal an element of violence. For example, Pulayattu Pennu referred to adulterous women sold by Rajas, and Kozha meant forced contributions during emergencies. Over time, the meanings of words and concepts of morality have evolved,” explains Santhosh.

Humanity in various themes

Santhosh’s paintings not only explore war and violence but also highlight the media’s role in shaping our perception of reality, particularly in works like ‘When World Enters Your Home.’

His work now encompasses a broader reality through sculptures, paintings, and installations. “They aren’t material-specific. The medium is chosen based on how well it conveys the theme and its meaning. Possibility dictates my choice,” explains Santhosh.

He uses watercolours to depict the global pandemic and potential future apocalyptic scenarios, with an LED clock as a recurring motif.

“The LED timer plays a crucial visual role. It can be seen as a countdown to death, like a ticking time bomb or a clock recording the years left, like a world nearing its end,” says Santhosh.

One notable piece is his 2019 painting ‘The Protagonist and His Empty Rat Trap.’ The LED scroll panel and dog invite new interpretations. The LED panel with ‘Blood Faces’ references a 12-year-old Hiroshima survivor’s testimony. “I retained the phrase ‘Blood Faces’ from her testimony,” explains Santhosh.The dog references World War II, where dogs were used as suicide bomb carriers, blending old war imagery with a grim prophecy.

“The painting was completed before the pandemic, and the man is seen wearing a mask—a pure coincidence. Most of my works peek into possible future scenarios,” says Santhosh.

Although his works have political viewpoints, Santhosh doesn’t label himself as an activist or political artist. “I was involved in activism in the ‘80s as a student in Kerala. Today, I’m an artist whose works mix philosophy, politics, and personal ideologies. In short, my works are humanistic,” concludes the artist.

The exhibition concludes on May 20

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The New Indian Express