First off, let me begin with a confession: I have not actually seen this show. I am writing this review only after having looked at Shivaraju BS's photographs on the Gallery Sumukha website. I wish I could be there! I do hope to see the photos in person soon. But until then, I figure that since the show is as much about the mass-mediated manifestation of charisma as anything else, the photographer will hopefully forgive my honest attempt to engage with his work through the imperfect medium of our age: the internet.
The exhibition consists of two separate performance/photography projects united by the same conceit: an actor takes on the role of an iconic Indian historical figure and is photographed in unremarkable circumstances. Gandhiji is the first. In one of the first photographs the transition is displayed. This image is a collage of seven photographs, the first and largest, on the left shows the actor unadorned in everyday clothes with a full mustache about to be amputated. On the right side of the image are six smaller panels that portray various stages of the transformation -- the actor dons a dhoti, slips off his shoes, and assembles his accoutrements. Finally, he covers his face in fair or perhaps even golden makeup -- it's hard to tell because the photographs are black and white -- and with circular glasses, voila! Gandhi incarnate.
Shivaraju B S, Gandhi Series, 22" x 34"; Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Sumukha - Bangalore
The actor, thus transformed, takes to the streets. He wanders alleys and rides a bicycle in the company of two burly motorcyclists. In one photograph he takes a rest on a bench in the company of three older men who eye the camera with a mixture of suspicion and tired amusement. I can't help but imagine the same three men congregating at the same bench today still laughing about the odd appearance of the golden Gandhiji and the photographer who took their picture with him. It was this sort of interaction between the actor and the everyday people he encountered on the streets that I found most interesting in the photographs. In one image schoolchildren are caught wide-eyed, and in another, Shivaraju captures a man in the act of bowing to the Gandhiji figure.
Shivaraju B S, MGR Series, 22" x 34"; Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Sumukha - Bangalore
A completely different approach was taken in the photographs of the second figure in the show, M. G. Ramachandran. Rather than wander the streets, Ramachandran was portrayed in the cramped quarters of a humble home -- rendering this larger-than-life icon poignantly intimate, strange, and sad. This struck me as quite a different project than the Gandhi series, as the power of the images relies on the pathos of the actor and his surreal surroundings rather than the reactions of an uninitiated public. I wonder at this choice. Did the actor attempt to explore the outside world? Would his appearance have been somehow controversial? Or, perhaps, he simply didn't elicit recognition? (Doubtful.) He is portrayed in the company of a family, but their relationship is not made clear, and they don’t respond with the range of delighted surprise that the golden Gandhi avatar inspires.
Although Shivaraju is not the first to photograph the performance of Indian icons (think Pushpamala N, among others), his seems an innovative extension of this impulse. I find his project all the more interesting because he is a policeman by profession -- not a photographer. Hence his investment in performativity feels all the more resonant. Well done Shivaraju! I can't wait to see who you take on next!
(Image on top right: Shivaraju B S, Gandhi Series, 22" x 34"; Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Sumukha - Bangalore)