Sunday, August 26, 2012

Off the beaten track

The Delhi-based Ranbir Kaleka’s work is unusual, imaginative, and food for thought  

Photos: A collage of the haveli in which artist Ranbir Kaleka lived as a child; Ranbir Kaleka

By Shevlin Sebastian

The first sight of artist Ranbir Kaleka was a little disconcerting. He was wearing a hat, inside the Children's Park auditorium, apart from a coat. It was his signature dress throughout his Kochi visit.

Right next to him, on a large screen, there was a picture of a haveli in a village in Patiala. It was run-down, and of exposed red brick. At the background a tower could be seen. “I lived in this house for the first five years,” he says. “It was a very sheltered life. I did not know how people lived outside. I spent a lot of time alone. In fact, I did not know the passage of time. Because of the slowness, every little event was a moment of significance.”

So Ranbir would watch how the shadow moved from one end of the courtyard to the other. “Although I could not actually see it moving,” he says. “There were older parts of the house which were closed and shuttered off. My family moved away and I entered these rooms only when I was 12 or 13 during school vacations.”

Once, on one such visit, he used a ladder and went up to the attic and found a little box. “It looked very dirty,” he says. “But inside it was pristine and there was a red velvet background. There were little pockets and instruments for making cartridges. This led to a lifelong fascination with objects and shapes.”

Ranbir was giving a lecture at the 'Let's Talk' event set up by the organisers of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. The Delhi-based artist had come to check out the sites selected for the Biennale.

Meanwhile, his reminiscences continued. “I would draw with charcoal on the walls as a child,” he says. “Sometimes, my mother would say, it is time for lunch. I would tell her I have to finish the drawing. But once my uncle told me that the Italian masters would take years to finish a painting. That had a big impact on me. I slowed down tremendously. Later, in my career as an artist, I would sometimes take three years to finish a painting.”

Ranbir went on to show paintings from his college days. One called 'I am Homesick' is of a pushcart in a railway station. “There was a strong smell of pickle, which reminded me of home,” he says. “I painted this pushcart and put a pickle jar on top with a granny-like figure inside. On the right, there is a figure from the haveli. There were some dark rooms and I imagined all kind of beings existing there.” 

In a mixed media work, a nude man is on his knees and keenly observing a spinning top, while two women stand at the door and are looking outside. It seems extremely real and with its size, 73 x 55 inches, it is a very large painting. If one were to see it in actuality, it would have a stunning impact. 

In a work titled, ‘Lion and the milk bowl’, the animal stands near the door of a room, looking incongruous in that setting. A woman, with an exposed breast is holding a bowl of milk, while in the upper floor, there are several nude men wrestling. The image is so unusual and odd, that you tend to keep staring at it.

Most of Ranbir’s images look strange and unreal with unusual titles like, ‘Ochre Dust in a delusional paradise’ and ‘Man with beard or the itinerant librarian’s dilemma of choice and refusal’. How did he imagine some of the scenes? The art aficionados in the hall were “oohing” and “aahing’. But clearly he will not win any popularity contest with the philistines.  

At the end of the show, there was a video presentation which brought some of the paintings alive. In summing-up, Ranbir is an exceptional artist with a unique imagination and mind-set.  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

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