Subodh Kerkar’s installations are meditations on the colonial past, nature and history where the boundary between art and life stands disrupted. By K. SATCHIDANANDAN

HISTORY is not necessarily or even primarily about rulers and reforms, but about people and civilisations and the dialogues of cultures across boundaries. And art, being a part of this dialogue, can hardly overlook history and what it does to our lives. But art also goes beyond history by establishing organic connections with the larger world of nature. Subodh Kerkar’s installations are a commentary on both history and nature, and “Pepper Cross”, his current show in Kochi, organised by ArtEstate at Pepper House, once a godown for spices, which provides the precise ambience the works on show demand, brilliantly bears this out.

“As an artist, I have a special relationship with the ocean. The ocean is my master and my muse.” This is how Subodh Kerkar prefaces his show. The ocean, he admits, has nurtured his dreams, aspirations and fantasies, his whole creativity: “The ocean is both inside and outside my creations.” In the works on show, the artist explores the ocean’s role as a medium of cultural exchange and diffusion. In a sense, he participates in that history of civilisations which originated and flourished on the seashore and impacted one another by travelling across oceans. Our navigational history goes back to the days of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Lothal in Gujarat had trade relations with the Arabs and the Africans, and the port of Muziris in Kerala, now being excavated at Pattanam, throve on trade with Egyptian and Roman cities right from the 3rd century BCE. It was between the 15th and 17th centuries C.E. that Europeans began to explore Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. They had two missions: one was trade, especially of gold, silver, opium and spices like pepper and cardamom, and the second was the spreading of Christianity.

It was during these voyages of adventure that Bartholomew Diaz from Portugal reached the Indian Ocean in 1488 C.E., voyaging along the Atlantic coast of Africa and Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to land at Beypore in Calicut in 1498. Columbus’ Indian mission, sponsored by the Spanish monarch, that took him instead to America, also happened in the same era, in 1492, when the American Indians “discovered Columbus on the sea”, to follow the Indian perception of the foolish adventure. That was the time when objects, methods, concepts, scientific discoveries and ideas began to travel between Europe and Asia and the first phase of globalisation, followed by colonialism, really began. Subodh Kerkar, in this exhibition, focusses on the exchange between Portugal and India, with Goa at the centre. It was the Portuguese who introduced the art of baking bread, grafting mangoes and of distilling spirits in India as also the many fruits and vegetables now popular in our country, like potato, tomato, chilly, pineapple and cashew, while they took pepper and other spices from India. Subodh Kerkar’s installations are “mnemonic devices of history”, as the artist himself qualifies them. This is by no means to say that the artist is just “representing”, “mimicking” or “reproducing” these objects. He invests them with a unique civilisational and artistic significance.

For example, his series called “Pepper Cross” brings trade, represented by pepper, and religion, represented by the cross, together while also referring to the sea by using the actual hull of a century-old boat and oars, thus making a complex, if tense, symbol of cultural symbiosis. There is also an element of ritual here as one of the crosses is represented as a relic inside a wooden frame that turns it into a little icon whose divinity comes from pepper as well as from Christ, the sea connecting them. No loud heresy is meant here, but one cannot miss a subtle play of humour that hints at the way colonialism worked in an economic-religious matrix by exchanging Christ for pepper, both of which were anointed by the sea and propelled by ambition.

A similar fusion happens when he creates two series of huge chillies, one made with truck tyre and painted red, metamorphosing them into something else as chillies now are transported by trucks moving on tyres, and another, covered with many-hued Indian textiles, indicating indigenising of the imported product. This play can also be seen in installations like “Jezu-Krishna” where Krishna’s crown wears a cross in place of the peacock feather, signifying a conversation between two systems of worship, or “Colonial Rock n’ Roll”, where a toilet paper roll is placed on a swinging frame, representing the impact of colonialism at the other end of the mouth too!

Again, there are the 15 cotton pods made of fibreglass and steel mounted on a wooden podium, one of which has a sheep head on it to remind us of John Mandeville’s perception in 1350 of the cotton tree as one that bears “tiny lambs” at the end of the pliable branches “that bend down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungry”. The artist decorates the pods with patterns of crochet as the technique of knitting and lacework was introduced in India by the Portuguese. There is, too, the typical butterfly-shaped bread, baked for the first time by the Portuguese in the Goan village of Majorda that the Hindus refused to eat in the beginning as the dough was fermented and thus “polluted”. Eating it or drinking from a well where a crumb was thrown was enough to outcast a Hindu and turn him Christian. Subodh Kerkar’s bread sculpture bears on its surface the sea routes of Bartholomew Diaz, Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

“The Chicken Cafreal”, represented by a rooster made from tyre, is again taken from culinary history, as Cafreal was originally a preparation with chicken made by African slaves in Portuguese army camps. It is also meant to remind the spectator of the “Rooster of Barcelos”, a national souvenir of Portugal: the rooster who, after being roasted, stood and crowed in order to prove the innocence of a young man sentenced wrongly to death.

The horse trade of ancient India—the Arab horses were a symbol of abundance and prestige for the royalty and the gentry—is symbolised by horseshoe patterns originally created on the shores of the old Goapattanam, famous for horse trade, with sea shells collected from the same beach. Indigo, another major export from India since the times of the Indus Valley Civilisation, is represented by rocks covered with indigo and also by the Portuguese fruits and vegetables like cashew, chilly, capsicum, potato and pineapple made with indigo.

There are, too, many photographs of installations Subodh Kerkar created on Goan beaches like “The Moon and the Tides” and “The Sea-horse Delivering Crescent Moons”, both made of seashells, and a whole huge circle filled with real red chillies. The “Earth Bowl” (Prithveekund) is another such work, a bowl carved out in a ramp-like rock butting into the sea where water collects during the high tide: water that dissolves all differences and predicts the possibility of one world.

Subodh Kerkar has radicalised public art in India in more ways than one. First, he involves nature and environment in a big way as land artists do. It is possible he has been inspired by artists like Richard Long, Andy Golsworthy, Michel Hazer, Robert Smithson and others; but he creates his own concept of an indigenous art using local materials and the available environment. He uses his art for a conversation with the elements where water and earth are primary. He invests the quotidian with layers of meaning, producing an art that is profoundly conceptual, thus joining artists like Anish Kapoor and Subodh Gupta in reconceptualising the world.

The way he uses materials like wood, glass, metals, seashells, rubber and fibreglass and plays with light in many of his installations—like with the crater he creates on the beach with a copperplate and light inside, creating a mysterious volcanic effect—is very untraditional. The artist de-specifies materials by using them in unexpected contexts and combinations. Art here does not become mere art or mere life. Art and non-art become indiscernible in this new aesthetic practice. He, in fact, disrupts the boundaries between art and other practices of life and unsettles traditional patterns. Art here moves from subjects to gestures. Memory plays a major role in this art, especially historical and civilisational memory. It could even be nature’s memory as in some of his works with wood and cut glass that reflect the memory of water.

Subodh Kerkar also uses his art to make political statements as when he uses hundreds of sarees hung in the sky above paddy fields to draw attention to the plight of the migrant labourers of Goa, the majority of whom are women; when he covers entire trees with newsprint to point to the peril of deforestation or when he creates an installation with 600 Tibetan prayer-flags to make us take notice of the Tibetan issue.

Art with Subodh Kerkar also becomes culture learning as he studies the ingression of alien cultures with their impact on the receiving cultures. Even while being anti-colonial, he tries to objectively grasp the meaning of such influences, looking at them without prejudice and accepting them as historical facts that can hardly be reversed—hence his objection to revivalism that once got him into trouble with the right-wing government in Goa. His is an art that draws attention to the process as much as the product, like in a Brechtian theatre production. There is, too, a strong narrative element in his art which is so evident in the works in this show. Objects here almost become words, working as signs, symbols and metaphors with great contemplative potential.