Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Murugaraj’s manifold manifestations

Gamal Nkrumah is intoxicated by the indulgence of India

Murugaraj’s manifold manifestations
Murugaraj’s manifold manifestations
Al-Ahram Weekly

Murugaraj showcases an India that is multifarious, myriad and multitudinous. The very idea of India flies in the face of everything we presume is Indian. The novelty soon wears off and the familiarity of the continent is discerned, for India with nearly 1,300,000,000 people, motley languages and a mind-boggling array of ethnic diversity and races, is not a country. And, I personally eschew the pejorative appellation “sub-continent”. 

Why does British English diction derisively relegate India and Africa south of the Sahara to the pariah status of “sub-continents”? As the evening progresses, I understand why. Murugaraj conveys the lifeblood of the subjects of his paintings with the drama, ease and innuendo of a vivacious storyteller who revels in his audience’s bewilderment. 

India, like Africa, is exotic in the European perspective, simultaneously alien and alluring. There was a degree of predictability in the vivid colours created by bold brushstrokes. But the masterstroke was Murugaraj’s modesty manifested in his unobtrusive personality. 

An adulatory welcome awaited him at the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture in Zamalek, Cairo. India does not rest on fragile foundations. Family is the bedrock of Indian civilization. The sight of his self-effacing wife draped in a fuchsia sari and his infant son and daughter oblivious to all but their playful pastime crafted an endearing humane character of himself.  

Harnessing the power of India’s eight classical dances: Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam, Odissi and Sattriya, deftly depicting rural life and ingeniously articulating environmental concerns, Murugaraj’s paintings are a feast for the eyes.  

“India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay,” extrapolates a rather morose Shashi Tharoor, the South Indian politician, writer, public intellectual and former diplomat

Murugaraj, too, is a South Indian diplomat, but he is a buoyant painter. Shashi Tharoor is from Kerala, and Murugaraj is from the neighbouring Dravidian state of Tamil Nadu. His high spirits, and his sense of exhilaration so discernible and conspicuous in his choice of colour is palpable in his  . And, the rainbow epitomizes his exuberance. His works are reminiscent of the refinement of Maya Angelou, the late African American author, poet, and civil rights activist. “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud,” she memorably sang. 

Murugaraj’s paintings epitomise Maya Angelou’s rainbow spirit. “I like the colours to speak,” he tells me. But, red looms large in his artistic vision. The dancers he depicts cavort and cut capers with a sardonic sensuousness, skewering all around them with a distinctly unnerving, unflinching gaze.  

“Red is such an interesting color to correlate with emotion, because it’s on both ends of the spectrum. On one end you have happiness, falling in love, infatuation with someone, passion, all that. On the other end, you’ve got obsession, jealousy, danger, fear, anger and frustration,” expounds American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. 

Of the 50 paintings on exhibition, most radiate red, strew apricot and tangerine and scatter scarlet. My favourite painting is that of a seaside Hindu Temple. I am not quite sure if it is the Jagannath Temple, in the capital of Murugaraj’s home state’s capital Chennai. 

Consecrated in January 2001, the shrine is constructed in Oriya style, with black marble from kancheepuram and white marble from Rajasthan, a northwest Indian state. The full moon, gleaming in amber, cream and champagne, hovers over this marvel and the whole is swathed in flaming crimson and carmine. 

Murugaraj is partial to acrylic on paper, his choice medium. Looking back on the two-hour conversation I had with the artist, I came to see this particular exhibition as an expression of the curious diversity and unity of India. The Kupchipudi dance from Andhra Pradesh state is enchanting.

The bridal accessory, the Nethi Chutti varies from region to region, and Murugaraj captures the artistry of the exquisite ornamentation and adornments. The Kathakali classical dance of Kerala is captivating. It is performed my masked men and is basically a dramatic rendition of storytelling. The Bengali classical dance Sattirya is unquestionably engrossing. In India, Murugaraj expounds, there is a clear distinction between the demure feminine dances such as and the Mohiniyattam of Kerala state and the bellicose male Kathakali. 

Yet, Murugaraj does not focus exclusively on classical Indian dance. The Bengali Chhau dance, for instance, is a dynamic tribal martial arts stylized performance and is practiced in the northeastern Indian states of Bengal Bihar and Odisha, formerly Orissa. Murugaraj, likewise, is infatuated with the Bharai folkloric dance of Rajasthan, literally “Land of Kings”. 

The Panch Bhuttas, or Five Natural Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Aether, feature prominently in Murugaraj’s paintings. And, last but not least, so does the Therukoothu, India’s Freedom Struggle Movement from three centuries of British colonial rule. In short, Murugaraj’s exhibition presents the passage from India to peaks of ecstasy in Egypt. 

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