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When an artist’s work comments on ‘the ills of the world’, I find myself becoming sceptical. I know that too often the sentiments expressed will amount to little more than anxiety-ridden gossip, or worse, a deluded self-righteousness. Against the background of this cacophony a few artists will stand out for the clarity of their vision, and the accurate measure of their assessments. To my mind Ratheesh T. is one of these.

Let us straightaway consider one of his darkest pronouncements: Smiling Land. The painting is a further development from one of his earlier works, Motherland, where the central node of a leaf was the site of unspeakable carnage, blood running outward through the veins of the leaf as through a conveyer channel. But the surface of the leaf, which for Ratheesh has by now become a visual equivalent for the state of his country, also harboured quiet human habitations, and some lively and contented animals.

By contrast his recent work, Smiling Land, offers no such consolation. The carnage now is unrelenting. A huge cat, dark and ominous, licks the gore off the nodal site. Churches, temples, mosques, pour human blood out through their doorways. And the very stratum of the leaf, the supporting base of the country so to speak, is shaken by a seismic tremor that causes it to turn round on itself, thereby flinging the creatures it is supporting into limbo, a space where neither love nor compassion could reach them.

The human beings so tossed off display all the agony of their situation. And cars, buses, buildings, tumble upside down through this groundlessness. This is a multi-faith Last Judgement for a country that has not tried seriously enough to make a humane success of its multi-ethnicity.

The current show is remarkable also for the extension of this dark vision to cover a universal human inner climate. Although the source of the imagery is invariably Indian, its implications are now wider. The nightmare no longer refers to one specific country. It envelops us all. In Green Pond, a row of squatting men are defecating, their excreta filling up the empty craniums of another series of men, thereby gifting them a dubious set of ‘brains’. These in their turn pass on the gift to the next row of squatters, and so on. It would appear that in a world where transmission of information and intelligence has been corrupted beyond belief, the larger number of recipients are helpless, having no option but unquestioningly to accept what’s poured into them.

Religious bigotry, war, destruction of the environment – all of these issues are addressed frontally, through imagery that is direct and convincing.  Even so, let me point to an element in Ratheesh’s work which after all may be the central key which allows all else to happen, gives it permission as it were to say all it wishes to say. Each painting, except perhaps for War Baby (a strongly allegorical work standing unapologetically on its own), carries a number of unexplainable happenings, bespeaking an inner territory where Ratheesh’s private imagery takes over. Before these images there is little to say, we cannot explain them. We are intrigued by them, fascinated by them; and we accept them as we accept all that we do not understand about some of our closest friends. I suggest that it is this mysterious, private realm that successfully offsets the simple, direct pronouncements in other areas of the work; and this realm may actually be the source from where the extraordinary fecundity that is everywhere manifest, takes its birth.

What do we make of Ratheesh’s dark pronouncements, in the end? Has he no solace to offer us? He does, in one quiet painting: in the depiction of a recollection from the past, when he with his mother and his siblings had to flee through a forest in Kerala to avert a family misfortune. Hope and fear alternate on the faces of this group inching its way through the dark, illuminated by a small candle in a coconut shell.

Gieve Patel


March 2011

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