Kochi: On the face of it, there is no link between two themes that Renji Viswanath portrays in his exhibition now on as part of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB). That is only till the viewer gets to know how central Travancore and an eastern Indian pocket have influenced the late artist.
Rituals from Kerala’s Onattukara region dappled with sights from West Bengal’s Santiniketan campus make a fascinatingly contrasting album at ‘Legacy’ which is a KMB’14 collateral show being organised at suburban Mattancherry, four months after the death of the young painter.
If his upbringing around Kayamkulam drew him to the traditional festivals of Buddhist-hangover Onattukara, the image-maker went on to do advanced studies in the vintage Visva-Bharati University rich with its red soil and serene greenery. That was after graduation from RRV Fine Arts College at Mavelikkara — not very far from his native Eruva village.
The current show at Backyard Civilization Gallery has 25-odd paintings of Renji, who succumbed to a brain-nerve complication last October, aged 33. In a nutshell, the 15-day event captures the memories of rituals and places that have influenced the artist.
His wife Shabitha Renji recalls that the artist’s intimacy with his native land and its customs.
‘Chooralmuriyal’, for instance, is a quaint old ritual that uses cane as a symbol of sacrificing children in a bid to please gods. “Renji closely observed the custom and sought to replicate its spirit in his works. The habit wooed him to certain objects, here the cane,” she adds.
This eventually led Renji to do research about Chooralmuriyal and its similarities with ‘Kuthiyottam’ — an ancient dance in the house amid a social gathering before the portrait of a deity. Listed of late by Unesco as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, it features boys with their body pierced with a silver wire, one end of which is tied around their belly and arecanuts fixed on the tip of a knife held high over their head, taken in procession to the neighbourhood temple with the accompaniment of beating of drums, music and ornamental parasols amid caparisoned elephants.
Backed by intense studies, Renji has transformed the moving visuals onto canvas, raising questions on regional identities. Most of the paintings at the exhibition have dominant presence of spiked cane, either spun as a web or forming an important link.
As for the Santiniketan impressions, to cite one, there is a painting where a pack of street dogs look above at a web of spiked cane. “They can be a reminiscent of Renji’s memories” of the dogs at the campus set up by the iconic Rabindranath Tagore, says Shubitha.
Only this January did the state capital witness a show of Renji’s artworks. Held at Vyloppily Samskrithi Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram, its organisers were the artist’s friends along with Shabita.
At this city, the project was inaugurated by Kochi Biennale Foundation president Bose Krishnamachari, himself an artist of acclaim. The exhibition concludes on March 17.