By the time April sets in, the best of the art shows are usually over and it’s “slow season”. If summer is slow then monsoon, particularly the months of July and August, should probably be termed is the “barely-moving season”. (And this is when I’m struggling with backlogs. What the hell will I do come September? Gulp.) Come to think of it, things are more active now than they used to be. I remember a lot of galleries actually used to shut shop for the summer months and came out of hibernation around end-August or early-September. These days, the shows that are on may not be scorchers or by particularly well-known artists, but at least there’s something to see and often, it’s not entirely without promise.

For example, Chatterjee & Lal was showing a video by Ashish Avikunthak for most of last month (if not all of it). While Avikunthak isn’t precisely a poster boy, he’s a well-respected name among those whirling in the art circles. Some of his work had been screened at the same gallery about two years ago (this is a scavenged post about that show) and I really, really liked what I saw. It was such a pleasure to see video work that was technically sound and wasn’t simply bad/amateur cinema masquerading as art. Consequently, I had high hopes for Avikunthak’s show, Katho Upanishad. 

I wonder whether it’s good or bad to walk into a show with high expectations. On one hand, they’re high, which means the work has to pack some serious punch to impress the viewer. If it doesn’t, then the disappointment the viewer feels is crushing, like how I felt when I walked into see Minam Apang’s most recent solo. For someone who didn’t see and adore the works she’d shown before, the exhibition may have been passably interesting. I thought it was dreadful. (Come to think of it, that was also at Chatterjee & Lal. Hm.) However, the flip side of high expectations is that I have more patience. I’m more tolerant of self-indulgence, which is a recurring feature in contemporary art.

So when I started watching Katho Upanishad, a three-channel video installation, I was prepared for the work to be slow, meditative and bereft of a climax in the traditional sense. The film is more than an hour long. Sitting in the gallery, you see three large screens. On the extreme right is an urban scene. It shows a wide road in India that has a fair amount of traffic on it. In the middle, walking on a divider and looking straight at the camera, is a man. While he walks forward, the traffic is moving in reverse. On the extreme left is a screen that shows a forest scene. The same man who is walking in circles. He is wearing a dhoti and roaming around said forest. He finds a pool, steps in, raises his arms to do a pranaam and then the visual loops back to him walking around the trees and shrubs. Both these videos reminded me of Johnnie Walker whisky’s tag line “Keep Walking”.  It suddenly makes sense why I don’t have a job writing about art, doesn’t it? Anyway, the action, if one can call it that, takes place in the middle screen where Avikunthak has two actors enact the dialogue between Yama and Nachiketa, known as Katha Upanishad or Kathoupanishad.

The particular upanishad is not an obscure one. If anything, it’s probably among the most translated of Hindu scriptures. At the heart of Nachiketa’s story is the notion of a god in dialogue with a boy. Not a grown man, but a boy. And the god is compelled to answer questions that he doesn’t want to, simply because of the boy’s persistence. Here’s the story briefly: Nachiketa’s father was performing some ritual sacrifice which involved him giving away his possessions. Nachiketa notices that the cows his father is donating are on their last legs, which suggests Nachiketa’s father was cheating and following the instructions word for word rather than in the true spirit of the sacrifice. Being an annoying teenager, Nachiketa goes to his father and says he too is his father’s possession so to whom will his father give Nachiketa? Father ignores him twice (I think. May have been once) and when Nachiketa comes back with the same question, his father says, “I’m giving you to Yama.” Yama is the god of death and keeper of secrets and not the person to whom one would traditionally send any member of your family (unless you dislike them, presumably). Obediently Nachiketa trots up to Yama’s doorstep. Yama, however, isn’t home and returns three days later to find the boy. He turns out to be much nicer than his reputation and offers the boy three boons. Nachiketa’s first wish is that his father forgive him and accept him when they meet in the afterlife. Check. Then he asks Yama how to attain immortality and finally he asks about life after death. Yama isn’t particularly willing to give up this knowledge. This is the stuff, after all, that distinguishes god from man. However, ultimately he spills the beans. Though not necessarily in a form that will turn any of us reading the dialogue into gods.

All of which goes to show the following:

a) Nachiketa’s daddy was not really a very good sage
b) No wonder the gods left Earth. Imagine going out for a vacation and returning to find a kid on your doorstep that you can’t send back home.
c) Nachiketa probably wasn’t your usual pimply teenager. If he was in class with you, chances are he’d be the annoying first-bencher who always does his homework and asks all the right questions and is the teacher’s pet.

Nachiketa essentially sacrifices himself so as to distract attention from how shoddily his father is performing a ritual sacrifice. His father is the bad Brahmin and Nachiketa, who pursues knowledge even when faced with Yama, is the good Brahmin who is traditionally expected to spend his life in the pursuit of knowledge. This is also interesting because one of the things that is discussed in the Katha Upanishad is privileging the Purusha, or consciousness, over the Brahman, or the supreme universal spirit (not to be confused with the Brahmin, who is the top dog of the caste system). While some schools of thought in Hinduism hypothesise that everything is ultimately absorbed into the Brahman, the Yama-Nachiketa dialogue suggests a dualistic worldview. I suppose if you’re very interested and have a lot of time on your hands, you could draw line from this to modern individualism. Perhaps that’s what Avikunthak intended to do with Katho Upanishad. However, what he has done is simply presented on a video platter selections of the dialogue between Yama and Nachiketa, translated into Hindi from Sanskrit. The handout given to visitors should have included the line: “If the viewer feels so inclined, they may go nuts and start connecting the philosophical dots. The artist wishes you the best of luck.”

A still from Ashish Avikunthak’s Katho Upanishad. Nachiketa is in white and the old man in black is Yama.

Ram Gopal Bajaj and Suvrat Joshi play Yama and Nachiketa. They walk around the forest, speak their lines very slowly and endure long pauses and silences. Sadly, this does not make for riveting cinema. Katho Upanishad dragged, which is not something I expected from Avikunthak’s work. When I’d seen his earlier films, I marvelled at how his imagery sparkled with references and allusions. Not so in Katho Upanishad. The film felt almost uni-dimensional. In the other Avikunthak videos I’ve seen, the pauses are necessary because they give the viewer the time to make the various connections being suggested. Here, the pauses just seemed to draw out something that wasn’t particularly evocative. While it’s possible to draw connections between the seemingly aimless loop of the solitary man in the forest and the Yama-Nachiketa dialogue, showing a man striding on a road with some traffic is not enough to make a connection between the contemporary and the ancient. It looks simply random, like a stray thought that’s been tagged on.

There are interesting concepts in the text of Katha Upanishad, but for the most part, Avikunthak’s film dumped on the viewer the onus of drawing out what is relevant. It falls upon the viewer to decode, understand and apply to contemporary reality. Avikunthak’s film is barely an aid. It may make someone look up the original dialogue but I suspect most viewers will be simply bored. Probably because of my high expectations and resultant patience, I found certain things intriguing. Nature as the abode of Yama, the god of death, was one of them. Also Avikuntak’s Yama is an old man, which isn’t a particularly novel notion, but he’s an old man who seems terribly vulnerable and frayed (who seemed to age as the conversation went on). His shawl is nondescript. His staff seems more resolute than its wielder. As he and Nachiketa walk, you keep worrying about poor Yama slipping and breaking something. Feeling clucking concern for death is a curious thought. Avikunthak’s Yama reminded me of American Gods and the idea of gods losing potency as their worshippers dwindle and the religious schools of thought they embody lose relevance. Can you, in today’s day and age, take the notion of a Vedic fire sacrifice for immortality seriously? What do lines like “Om is the final refuge” mean in a time characterised by right-wingers and gurus like Baba Ramdev and gang? Does the parable of the chariot still connect in an age when “chariot” in reality means those tacky Victorias on Marine Drive, pulled by frail horses? In Yama’s parable, the body is the chariot, the chariot’s horses are the five senses, the mind is the driver, the reins are is the mind and the soul is the passenger. Does that really resonate with anyone anymore?

I don’t think it does and, for me, neither did Avikunthak’s film. Sadly.

One thought on “Backlog: Katho Upanishad by Ashish Avikunthak

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