There is no medium that brings you the power of the sea like cinema. The gigantic crawl of the waves, the terrifying sound of submergence or even the bobbing of a boat in the far horizon like a flicker of hope, however distant: it’s all embedded in the grammar of cinema. The way the camera enlarges the obscure and makes it epic. The way it becomes a spy for the eye going into situations that are only possible in dreams.
Ranbir Kaleka uses this grammar of cinema with an ease that’s often out of reach for even the best filmmakers. He is a rare painter whose work has consistently been gravitating towards the moving image. It started with his video projections on paintings that placed a sort of cognitive rupture in the minds of viewers who were used to seeing paintings as works of still life and not works in which people heaved and blinked or got up and started to move around. Kaleka’s works have the ability to engage viewers in the most unexpected of ways. I remember being mesmerized by his ‘horse and a man with hammer’ work at India Art Fair some years ago. It is remarkable how the artist creates poetry by imagining a different course of events for a painting that has been fixed in time. It seems easy but trust me it isn’t.
In his latest solo that is called grimly titled ‘Fear Of A New Dawn’ one is exposed to Kaleka’s growing obsession with moving images and what they can do in terms of recall in an overstimulated world where images—both moving and still—are constantly fighting for your attention. But Kaleka takes you like a hypnotherapist to a place where he speaks to you in the language of dreams, where the viewer is forced to take on the role of an interpreter and not merely a bystander. That is in fact the silent and subtle competence of Kaleka that he lets you wander about and arrive at your own interpretations of his dream on display.
In the work titled ‘House Of Opaque Water’ you are taken from a chai-shop to a village where the sea is gradually swallowing parts of the coast. There is a local villager who’s pointing out to the sea and describing where places used to be: the village school, the church, the mosque and so on. It is a poetic commentary on disappearance, not just of land, but also of those who inhabit it. The sea here becomes a metaphor for time that is constantly eating away and vomitting things back. On another level it is also a slow and gradual nightmare that’s unfolding before us as we watch bewildered in a half-wakeful state. In one scene there is a small pyre burning inside a boat that’s being moored by a villager. It’s a potent image of a ritual we’re all familiar with.
Kaleka’s preoccupation with time is also visible in ‘Fearsome Acquiescence Of A Monotonous Life’ which squeezes your perspective to that of a Peeping Tom, a voyeur who’s watching other people live their lives. And in doing so you also become complicit in the monotony of this other life which as monotonous as yours. It is a hall of mirrors where Kaleka is showing you dreams within dreams as you walk like a somnambulist through a maze of projections and sounds.
The work from which the title of the show is taken is perhaps the more dramatic of Kaleka’s dreams. ‘Not Anonymous-Waking To The Fear Of A New Dawn’ takes all the starkness of mid-20th century black-and-white cinema to create a narrative of slow decay. There is a quality of terribilità, the dreadful fascination people felt on seeing Michelangelo’s sculptures, and it comes in flashes like when an arrow pointed at one side of the screen leaves its bow and hits the ground on the other side. There is also a man uneasily shifting his weight from one leg to the other perhaps in anticipation of an arrow. A mother also appears breastfeeding a baby deer and the bleeding head of donkey pops out of thin air like a dark portent from the subconscious as dark portents often do in dreams.
Kaleka’s imagery is spare like the sea surface and mystifying, as if someone accidentally left behind a running camera. His work ‘Bound’ is a projection on a case of burnt wood, almost coffin-like. The video on it is of a body lying out in a field. Every few seconds the body twitches, as corpses often do when the rotting gases inside them try to wind their way out. Who was this person you wonder and why a screen of burnt wood.
The only still life work in the entire show is ‘The Life Of An Unremarkable Man With Tiffin’ which is a photo-painting collage. It is the surprise element, especially when you’ve wandered around taking in the moving images. The man with the tiffin is smug and unremarkable as is his projected self, standing between him and the street outside. An explosion is going off in the background and the headlines on the newspaper lying next to a sleeping dog are screaming out other crimes. But the man is too busy to notice. It is then that you realize that you’re looking at a remarkable work of protest art.
Dhiraj Singh is a well-known journalist, writer, TV personality and artist who has shown his abstract paintings and X-Ray works in India and abroad.