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Multiples in Focus: an exploration of mythology and surrealism

From Surendran Nair’s surrealistic work to fine art photographer Nandini Valli Muthia’s reinterpretation of Krishna - an ongoing group exhibition in Mumbai features digital artwork that reimagines mythical figures and symbols in unfamiliar settings.

art and culture Updated: Jun 26, 2016 17:36 IST
Sapna Mathur
Chennai-based fine art photographer Nandini Valli Muthia reinterprets her subjects in contemporary settings.
Chennai-based fine art photographer Nandini Valli Muthia reinterprets her subjects in contemporary settings. (Nandini Valli Muthia)


In a picture titled Serenity In His Sleep, Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, lies casually in the middle of a modern swimming pool. In another image — called The Visitor — he is standing inside the same pool, with his blue back facing the camera. There is no flute in his hand. This is the striking fine art photography of Nandini Valli Muthia.

The Chennai-based artist is known for what have been called ‘irreverent’ works featuring the Hindu Gods, Krishna and Vishnu. Some of those artworks are on display at Sakshi Gallery, Colaba, as part of a group show of four artists called Multiples In Focus.

Serenity In His Sleep 2, a reinterpretation of Krishna in the modern world by fine art photographer Nandini Valli Muthia. (Nandini Valli Muthia)

But rather than being irreverent, these photos reinterpret Krishna in a contemporary setting. Two different “actors”, Muthia says, play the two Krishnas in both these images. “The Visitor series is primarily about there being two parallel universes. Krishna is present in both these worlds [simultaneously]. I have used actors to convey the idea of time and space,” says the artist, who considers herself a pioneer in portraying “‘God’ in a series of constructed images of situations on earth”.

The concept of the ‘actor’ has also been a major motif used by Surendran Nair, a celebrated and controversial artist, who is also part of the exhibition. One of his older works, An Actor Rehearsing The Interior Monologue Of Icarus, which featured the Ashoka Pillar, was asked to be removed from an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, in 2000, as it was ‘irreverent towards a national symbol’. Nair is known for his surrealist paintings, in which he juxtaposes a variety of seemingly unrelated elements in one frame.

Last year, for the first time, Nair created digital works by rehashing his old paintings from the past decade. This 2015 work — called the Alibis Of The Cognates series — is on display at the show. However, he does not portray Gods or Goddesses directly. His compositions “allude” to figures and objects from Indian and western mythology. His work is open to interpretation and is symbolic. So, a nude woman with wings may signify, for example, the Greek figure, Icarus (who attempts to escape from an island, only to have his wax wings melted by the sun), or the lifestyle of a modern-day holy man can be showcased with an electric fan that is placed by his side as he seems to meditate.

An artwork called Alibis Of The Cognates X, by artist Surendran Nair. (Surendran Nair)

Surendran Nair creates puzzles that viewers can engage with and derive meaning from. Above, an artwork called Alibis Of The Cognates II. (Surendran Nair)

Essentially, both these artists stage situations that help them extract the ordinary out of its traditional setting and place it in new, unfamiliar territory. They create puzzles that viewers can engage with and derive meaning from. “It’s about taking the paintings (that he made earlier) to a different space altogether. Cut them out of their context, and then they become something else. So I’m playing with that idea,” says Nair.

Also displayed are the digital works of Manjunath Kamath, who makes similar surrealist compositions, and prominent multimedia artist Vivek Vilasini (he is best known for his photographs of Kathakali dancers in staged interpretations of The Last Supper and Michelangelo’s The Creation Of Adam).

Read: Nikhil Chopra: The chameleon-like performance artist

Violet Haze by Nandini Valli Muthia. She says mythology is a great source of inspiration, and it will always be used by artists, film-makers and creative people, among others, to tell a story. (Nandini Valli Muthiah)

Commenting on the politicisation of mythological figures, artist Surendran Nair says that we cannot apply our understanding of mythology to the way we “approach day-to-day objects or people”. (Surendran Nair)

Why mythology is important

“Mythology is a great source of inspiration, and it will always be used by artists, film-makers and creative people, among others, to tell stories,” states Muthia. Nair says these stories help us understand our world. “It’s about people trying to make sense of the world,” he says. But, commenting on the politicisation of mythological figures, he adds that we cannot apply our understanding of mythology to the way we “approach day-to-day objects or people”.

In his new digital work, Surendran Nair stages situations that help him extract the ordinary out of its traditional setting and place it in new, unfamiliar territory. (Surendran Nair)

VISIT: Multiples In Focus is on show at Sakshi Gallery, Colaba, till July 31.