Big Bong Theory: Pushpamala N at Chemould Prescott Road

And out of the blue, I have a regular column in DNA. It’s called Big Bong Theory (no, not that kind of bong) and while it’s written by a big Bong, I promise there will be very little theory in it. For my first one, I wrote about Pushpamala N’s new show, Avega — The Passion. This was published on Saturday, November 10th.

All In One

Pushpamala N is about 56 and she still likes to play dress up games. Fortunately, when she puts on make-up and costumes, it doesn’t look ridiculous. That’s quite a feat when you consider that in her new show, Avega — The Passion, Pushpamala plays three very different women. “Indrajaala – Seduction” is a video installation in which she is Ravana’s sister Surpanakha, who tried to hit on Rama and Lakshmana and ended up with a sliced nose for her efforts. The series titled “Apaharana – Abduction” has Pushpamala starring as Sita — red sari, open hair and suitably anguished. In “Chala – Intrigue”, a set of six sepia-toned photographs, Pushpamala plays Kaikeyi, the scheming queen of Ayodhya and the one responsible for Rama spending 14 years in exile. How many people do you know who can do a convincing job of portraying a rakshasi, a paragon of virtue and a female Machiavelli?

From Avega, a copy of a Ravi Varma painting, starring a lot of smoke, Pushpamala N and a more tubby Ravana

Avega, which sounds like the name of a new mid-sized family car, is one of those rare shows of contemporary art that don’t need a commentary. If anything, it seems easy as pie and the photographs in the show are much prettier than most desserts. Everyone knows the Ramayana so the moment you look at a photograph, you know where it belongs in the story. Even the video installation makes sense (this is worth pointing out because video art is almost always self-indulgent and weird). There are only a few seconds in the beginning when a viewer might wonder why on earth they’re staring at three little squares that have two masked women and one bare-chested, sword wielding man. Soon enough, it becomes clear that this is the story of Surpanakha. A few seconds of confusion is barely a speed bump in the road to comprehending high art.

Pushpamala has a particular fondness for nostalgia and vintage cinema has inspired some of her finest work in the past, like Phantom Lady and Sunehre Sapne. In Phantom Lady, Pushpamala dressed up as a character that was clearly inspired by the masked adventuress in the 1935 film, Hunterwali, played Fearless Nadira. The gorgeous black and white photos presented a noir story set in Mumbai and looked absolutely authentic. No one would believe they were shot in the 1990s.

For Avega, Pushpamala has gone back to the very beginning of Indian cinema. The photographs, taken by Clay Kelton, could be out of a Dadasaheb Phalke film. Just as those historic films were inspired by the rich colours and theatricality of (Raja) Ravi Varma paintings, so are Pushpamala’s photographs which are about the size of those old oil paintings too. Everything about Pushpamala’s imagery looks familiar: The hideous, curly-haired Ravana, the melodramatic anguish on Sita’s face, the sly expression on Kaikeyi’s face as she corners Dasaratha.

The photographs in Avega turn Chemould Prescott Road from an art gallery into the lobby of one of Mumbai’s art deco-style cinema halls. Walk in and there’s a poster that introduces you to Avega, gives you the details of who’s done what in the show and — just in case you were unsure — declares the show is “magnificent” and “spectacular”. It certainly looks magnificent, thanks to the effort that Pushpamala puts into detailing. From the gloss of the fabric, to the texture of the wig that she wears as Sita, the tones of the painted backdrops and plasticky gleam of the fake jewellery, everything in Avega looks period perfect.

Just when you think there’s no twist in this tale, there’ll be something that will make you pause. Because if there’s one thing that’ predictable about a Pushpamala show, then it’s her love of making mischief. It could be the fact that Pushpamala has arranged one of the shots of Ravana and Sita in such a way that it looks, with all the swirling smoke, as though Ravana is a fireman bringing Sita out of danger. In one sepia-tinted photo, Pushpamala is dressed in full regalia, complete with bow and arrow. Is she Kaikeyi, who was once a warrior princess, or is she playing Rama? Is there a resemblance between the scheming queen and the virtuous prince? Can the same person be both virtuous and Machiavellian?

So it is that as you walk out of Avega, it turns out that the stories of the Ramayana may be familiar but they’re not necessarily simple. Especially when a diva-esque artist who likes playing dress-up decides to tease the viewer by retelling the tale.

“Intrigue/War”, from Avega
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