In A Liminal Age

Interview by Rahul D'Souza

Ali Akbar Mehta talks candidly with Rahul D’Souza about his first solo exhibition, “Ballad of the War that Never Was and other Bastardised Myths” (unpublished)

Rahul D’souza: Tell us about the title of your show “Ballad of the War that Never Was and other Bastardised myths”. What did you envisioned when you came up with the title?

Ali Akbar Mehta: The idea of the title “Ballad of the War that Never Was” actually came from an increasing preoccupation that I have been having with the idea of violence, of how our world is governed by responses that are majorly violent…

The opening line of my Artist Statement says, “Interactions between individuals, communities and nations are driven largely by instinct to establish dominance in territory”. When I considered the title I wanted it to be representative of the whole body of my work. I realised that most of my work had to do with the nature of the violence we experience – consciously or unconsciously; whether it is intra-personal relationships or international events. Since I’m not speaking about the whole idea of a specifically driven war, a specific political context or a social context I thought it would be interesting to call it “The War that Never Was”.

RD: So, because it’s a collection of violence, it doesn’t mean that the war never took place, it just never took place together in the way that you are envisioning it. Things may or may not already have occurred.

AM: I think it gives me an opening, to be able to look at war as a series of events that have taken part in the entire history of human existence rather than one particular war. It gives me a chance to look at the whole universal manifestation of that idea of war as violence and smaller scale violence as war. Even the painting Ballad of the War that Never Was is not based on any specific war, it is the human emotive, what would be conveyed in a war.

RD: Do you feel that the violence, and suffering from violence is caused by human desire to break free from our own earthly bounds, the struggle between the material and the spiritual world, the desire for something higher is a starting point for us to look at violence, even though the works are completely devoid of the cause in the end? Is it the beginning of your process?

AM: Yes, I think war has certain kind of a situation that inherently exists because of a certain lack of understanding of the differences in culture, differences in perceptions, or differences in ideas of what is right or wrong.

RD: … or even a specific Individual difference: whose purpose in life is more important?

AM: Humans have had this condition for such a long period of time, at least a couple of thousand years – as a state of mind, a state of being. I think it is also a reflection on the aspect of our lives that takes these things for granted.

RD: By striping the work of the source of violence are you afraid that the work may portray humans as being violent without cause? Are they separated, does the viewer have to find the context or apply their own context to it?

AM: I think the viewer is free to draw his own references or imagine his own context. I’m not making a qualitative judgement on the state of the human condition. For me at some point in time it becomes important to, purely as a personal engagement, make the work a reflection of how I was thinking, trying to express or understand that aspect of humanity. Although the body of work majorly constitutes this whole idea of war and violence, there are other aspects of human existence that I am interested in looking at which is why “the Other Bastardised Myths”. Originally it was going to be “Other Myths” but this whole idea of Bastardised became very interesting because the notion comes from how designers work as a collective and take a particular logo or a branding and bastardise it; coming up with newer, fresher, contemporary versions of it. That sense of innovation comes from bastardising a branding identity.

RD: It is a strange situation where you are taking something away from its [older] context but you also bring it back into history because it is a progression from the old to the new.

AM: It’s a way of relooking at an existing mythology; there is a certain hybridising of mythology or myth. Here by myth I mean there are certain constructs, they are codified constructs, that we call myths. They were originally constructed, and I’m using the word constructed in a very architecture specific context.

RD: Also, if you are looking at an archaeological site: the mound is constructed, it’s a set of various habitation periods [as strata]; it is very similar to knowledge that is passed on, one layer coming over the other. I think both of them [Architectural constructs and archaeological strata] can be viewed next to each other in this sense, for a more holistic explanation.

AM: Right, and I also feel that stories have that scope of evolving, folk tales have a large scope to evolve but myths are very rigid in their construction because they deal with these very universal ideological thought processes – the right vs. the wrong; the good vs. the evil. A lot of those ideas are constructed in a certain way so that you are meant to think in that fashion alone. It’s a type of feed/feedback that the human species has been generating as a constant. That’s what I think myths are supposed to be - constants.

Now, today in this whole trans-cultural, global environment that we live in myths have broken free of their individual, culture specific context. When east meets west you have something that is completely different, that hybrid space is what I’m interested in. That is the whole bastardising nature of our times.

RD: With the nature of your work, your interest in base narratives – that is where similarities may occur. If, as an example, we revisit the question of violence, it can be found in the myths of many cultures, in fact I would say all popular myths have violence in some form, whether perpetuated between enemies, friends, family, against a woman, or a woman or man against their children, between children and so on. So your work is at this basic nature, beyond cultural examples – it is beyond cultural.

AM: Yes, I decontextualised my work, at some point of time I began to strip the work of these cultural markers because I felt that that is where the whole universal quality of the nature of myth lies. In spite of that, myth has always been looked at very culture specifically; so how do we look at myth today, in this whole transcultural context? How do we look at it without that culture specificity that limits it?

The decontextualising of the images, the removal of the cultural markers, gives it a universal state of being. On the other hand the thin line that I have had to walk is how to not allow it to becoming something that will become very generic? In losing the specificity, the work could become so universal that it stops being relevant. So, the choices of the subject were dictated by the fact that I wanted to keep my work in this universal space; the very archetypal space. I think when I started looking at my work in that space, the whole notion of the archetype started entering my work as conscious attempts.

RD: When you play with the archetype, the completely striped human or animal nature, because some of your works involve animals, you give them human emotion – whether human and animal emotion is separate to begin with is a larger evolutionary debate – you impose your own identity on them through how you want to depict them or even in the figuration – what lines you choose to draw is your identity and it cannot be anyone else’s. Then this becomes an exception to your fear over something becoming so universal that it stops being relevant.

AM: Yeah, the whole style that developed over many years has created a very thin line between what I have said the work and the subject have demanded and what I have enjoyed doing. The composition, the scale, the structuring of the work has happened because the subject has been that larger than life mythic subject. This is how I work. On the other hand it’s not something that meant going against the grain for me. I very naturally enjoy working in this manner. I have felt that it is part of how things develop, very organically, very naturally. It’s not something that I debated about beyond a point in terms of the canvases. Then, of course, there was such a huge jump that happened because of the digital work.

RD: That is another question I wanted to ask you – you speak about this larger than life subject and beyond that the question of style, there is a compulsion to render it in a particular way. Even the necessity to create larger than life canvases in a metaphorical sense, did that require you to go the digital way? Of course this is besides your background in animation. Was there something that digital gave you that a traditional canvas did not?

AM: I’ve been doing digital work for a while on the side because that’s also something that I have very naturally gravitated towards and I have always maintained that the organic nature of oil is very unique and the digital work that I did earlier were in no way trying to compete with the oil. Specifically in this body of work, the Harlequin Series, my reasons for going into the digital state was more than technical. Although there is that aspect – yes I wanted that luminosity, I wanted an illuminated quality from the whole work. With the canvases there is a certain palette that we are used to, that there is a particular way to treat the works, so the digital work became a departure from a lot of that. There is a sense of play that came in specifically with that body of work which actually is intrinsic to the nature and the character of the harlequin.

RD: We have a point of comparison between digital and canvas when we compare the canvas with the harlequin and the hero that you had exhibited earlier with the digital harlequins that you have done. The starkness of the canvas does not restrict the feeling that you are trying to portray in the harlequin and in the hero, but the visual element is strikingly different between the two mediums. Maybe to an uninformed viewer (someone not familiar with the thought process behind it) the difference will be bigger. Are you afraid that the association might not happen easily?

AM: No, not really because in the journey that this full body of work now offers I think what you could look at is the drawing of the harlequin with the hero in comparison we could then also look at the title painting (The Ballad of the War that Never Was) which also has the harlequin and the hero amongst other characters; there is a certain difference between those two works and the digital works.

RD: In the title painting the starkness is not there, it’s almost like a transition between the drawing and the digital work.

AM: More than media I’m looking at three distinct spaces where the canvas, being a very organic, physical space in itself and the digital being this virtual and therefore non-physical, inorganic space and the drawings being somewhere in-between, a no man’s land. The harlequin in the canvas in The Ballad of the War that Never Was is almost like an outsider who is gazing at the group of people, by itself a very carnavalistic group. He is the only figure who is looking at the representative of the group as itself. In a work like Safdar where the hero has been rendered in a digital space, he is very out of his element. He’s being pulled in different directions because he is now in the harlequin’s state, his world, trapped. I think that that idea of space has also got to do a lot with not just a physical but also a mental space or a metaphysical space.

RD: I think you have implied in your notes that the hero in his organic world and the harlequin in a plastic world find it difficult to cross over. The trapping comes from the basic difference between organic and plastic.

AM: Exactly, I think that they are in mutually exclusive worlds, though they might sometimes find themselves in each other’s worlds but would then be the outsiders.

RD: Let’s now explore the harlequin and the hero and where they originate in your thought processes.

AM: The harlequin developed, as a character in my work, as an antithesis to the hero. The hero developed from an idea that he was a physical manifestation of the human spirit. For me the whole idea of the hero was that I wanted to talk about the human condition, the human spirit, and heroic acts. To my mind the human being of today is cast as a hero. We are in a liminal age where human beings are seeking haltingly, imperfectly to transform and transcend themselves. All around us we see acts of heroism and despair symbolic of this process. The human being today is cast as the hero of a myth. What happens if we strip the myths of cultural markings and reduced it to its essentials? I was looking at the hero as a representation of us, a very real representation of ourselves in this mythic scale.

Humanity has reached a crossroads and there is a dichotomy in everything that we are doing. There is a need to assert our identities; there is a need to re-evaluate old notions where we are coming from, whether it’s culture or a certain type of policy or an idea of a nation. Today, an already global, trans-cultural community, there is a certain deconstruction of ideas and ideology that we held to be true. In all of this there is a certain kind of dichotomy; a helplessness that I felt was the mood of the moment. That dichotomy that I was talking about was a physically very strong figure, but caught in moments of helplessness. It grew from that into a certain kind of a metaphysical or mental dichotomy as well.

RD: But then if we only had to look at the depiction there we could see that right there in the archetypal hero that you are trying to depict is a cultural marker that cannot be disassociated from it. If you compare say Indian and Greek mythology and the concept of the hero we find that in both cultures the hero’s destiny is affected by birth, at least the opportunity is affected by it. With Greek mythology heroes aren’t exclusively of high birth as the body too plays a big role in the acquisition of heroism; whereas in Indian mythology high birth is a very important factor in heroism.

AM: In the context of my work everybody is a hero, everybody is a hero of their own story, everybody goes through a certain similarity of processes that form the milestones and markers of any hero in either of the cultures. The context that I’m using the word hero is that there is in the structure of the story there is a character that undergoes a certain metamorphosis. This change or growth is the format of the story. The other characters may or may not have that growth pattern. There is a difference between the sutra and patra, the supporting cast and the hero. That process of being caught in that moment of change is why I’m using the word hero.

RD: Let’s then revisit violence. What can be said of the hero depicted in your work is that he does not rescue people from violence, he takes part in violence so that he can bear the brunt of its ill effects or we create that personality within us that takes the ill effects of the violence away from innocents or people that are not yet heroes or will not become heroes.

AM: Exactly, there is a certain quality of sacrifice that all heroes undergo; this moment-of-truth phase of sacrifice. In that sacrifice is the redemption.

RD: Then this is very far removed from the myth of Sisyphus. This is a real sacrifice.

AM: That (sacrifice and redemption) is actually the title of one of my works, The Identity of Violence Series: Sacrifice and Redemption , with the grey back ground and the red hands.

Ambiguity plays a very important part in my work. How the viewer defines the work for himself and how the viewer is contextualising the work forms in a very fundamental and intrinsic sense what the work would mean to that viewer.

RD: Are you afraid then that the names would lend meaning then to the viewer? You name each of them and assign a meaning and forgo complete abstraction and ambiguity.

AM: I think that titles are very important in my work because what I do with the titles is not to try to give a certain literal context to look at the work. Inherently the titles also have a capacity for multiple ways of looking at the work. What is an interesting exercise for me in terms of titling work is that the title takes you away from what you would have thought the meaning would have been. Sometimes it takes me away from the meaning, allowing me to not have a fixed meaning in my head. It gives a freedom to keep some openness.

My works are very layered and I like people to have multiple meanings. Sometimes people ask me: what is this work about? I always ask them first about what they think it is because I want them to have that dialogue with the work. Let the work speak to them directly rather than it coming through me because that is my interpretation.

RD: It’s then like a film name, where part of the meaning, or the theme is conveyed but not the whole.

AM: What I try to do and why the title of the work becomes so important is that they create a fundamental lens to view the works with but within that lens there is a lot of room for interpretation and a one on one dialogue with the work. The lensing is important because it creates a mood in which to look at the works. The whole idea of the hero may not even be the just the white figure but also the bull, the calf. There are very non-human elements, even the triptych, two panels are human and the third one is not. I very consciously try to not make it limiting in its nature.

RD: That’s an evolutionary debate: are the emotions that we have necessarily human? Do we share them with the greater animal world? The position that we put ourselves in, where we don’t want to associate our emotions with those that animals experience because of an assumed superiority clouds our judgement. Through your work, however, you want your viewer to equate a suffering animal with something that has sacrificed itself.

AM: The way I’m hoping the viewer will look at it is that here is a subject that is not obviously human in its physical construction or in terms of the use of figure actually but there is still a human emotion that is coming through. Emotion in that sense becomes very universal. What you said is true, maybe animals cannot be emoting the way we think that they are emoting.

RD: … or we have trained ourselves not to see it.

AM: But we have also trained ourselves to in the specific lensing of our own emotions.

RD: Let’s go back to the harlequin and look at what role he plays in our lives. Is he separated from humans, is he an implied human emotion or behaviour?

AM: As I said, the harlequin is the antithesis of the hero and his sense of helpless dichotomy in my works. Here is a character which is apparently in control of his environment, his world, he revels in chaos. He’s not concerned with right and wrong; he’s not concerned with fulfilling that implied, apparent destiny. He doesn’t get trapped in the dichotomy because I don’t think that he is concerned with that need to unravel things; in fact the chaos just adds to it. Among other things I think there is a whole range of a sense of play that has entered into this whole character because that is not there in the seriousness of the hero.

RD: While you were saying that I could not help but think that a lot of the music that you and me listen to have a lot of characters in it that are, in a sense, harlequins and even beyond the musicians themselves even the fans, like with Phish or the Grateful Dead take on this persona.

AM: Actually that reminds me, something that became a core reason for including the harlequin in my work was Fellini and his work I Clowns and his entire stated response to this genre, this carnavalist creature of the clown/jester. Fellini said that clowns terrify him and that he can’t imagine how people find them funny. That sense of how the clowns are this twisted macabre dark yet are covered in this very happy, clean slapstick humour but underneath that there is a very dark element of pathos as if they are these very twisted mirror images of society. Their also critics of society, that is very important function of any artist. I think when you are talking about the Grateful Dead or The Doors or Bob Dylan or when you talk of Marilyn Manson or a lot of subsequent artists you realise that they critiqued society apart from creating the next wave of culture. They were also somewhat removed from society. They looked at it [society] from a distance. I think the harlequin also does that.

RD: I guess that that is where human nature cannot differentiate between the harlequin and the hero in itself because, when you think about it, by becoming the harlequin these people have also taken on the role of the hero because they paved the way for broader mindsets in the future. As an example we may not appreciate the freedoms that comedians have today, that Lenny Bruce did not enjoy in his own time, where the consequences completely destroyed his life – he was a harlequin then but is a hero to today’s comedians.

AM: In fact there is a whole sense of tradition among with the whole community of the clowns and the fools. There is a certain kind of carrying forward of tradition, that is very important. I tried to take that element forward into my work, aligning myself to that tradition or at least a visual tradition of how the harlequin looks.

The harlequin finds its source in Dante’s Inferno and that is a very interesting starting point for a character. Dante introduces the harlequin or the hellequin in Inferno where they roam the streets with a band of devils searching for souls to drag back to hell, he is a minion of the Devil; a very dark character.

RD: That’s where society is today. A dark character does not need to be associated with devils or hell.

AM: We have removed the whole supernatural element of it; society has turned into this twisted version of itself. The Hellequin also became a symbol of life in the French passion plays. This was because of his many coloured hues; the range of emotions that he portrays. In contrast the hero is fixated on the singular nature of his existence. The harlequin has that range to play around with. There is a certain sense of menace and malaise that he exudes. For example in Safdar the harlequin becomes the society but in works like To Glory and Self he’s some kind of new monster. Here is a posture that is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Adam but here is a character that is creating his world. His environment emanates from him and he is intrinsically tied to that environment, that chaos and that in turn creates him. Again talking of man as being the creator of its own existence, its own situation and how he himself is positioning himself further down the timeline.

RD: We should move on to how the base narratives of the hero and the harlequin come to us through one of your own influences, the comic book/graphic novel. Also let’s look at which characters in comics represent the hero and harlequin. If we were to name characters we have the Joker and the Riddler as very clear harlequin like characters however this cannot be said to be true for all villains. For example, in Superman, Lex Luther is far removed from the character of the harlequin and is almost a hero like villain with single, long term agenda.

AM: A very black and white situation would then be He-Man and Skeletor, which is also what Superman gets into. On the other hand with Batman and the Joker there is a different dynamic that is operative. The dynamic that they share comes from the whole Apollonian and Dionysian schools of thought, where Apollo is law and order and light and Dionysus is chaos but I would like to believe ordered chaos.

RD: He brings a balance that brings about order. So it is not an intended order.

AM: Right, something that is an order derived from that chaos because we probably do not have the capability to understand the patterns of chaos. So, those whole ideas of Dionysus and Apollo or even in Indian mythology of characters like Karna and Krishna. Where Karna is dictated by his perceived destiny and in that is his dilemma and his dichotomy and the helplessness but the character of Krishna who is free from that destiny because of his awareness of where he is comes from. It is very interesting that an avatar of Vishnu who is the preserver is Krishna who is the prankster, the trickster, brings chaos into the entire situation of the Mahabharata. This is not looking at them as characters that are actors but fundamental characteristics of human qualities.

RD: I think that is very important when you look at comic book characters, especially the ones which are being made into movie characters now. It is one thing to be a particular character, to have particular traits, where the madness or sacrifice or a desire for violence but it is also down to the person who plays the role. What kind of emotion is brought to the screen? This is more important than the dialogue, the spaces in comic books where there is no text and all that the character needs to tell the reader is rendered in figure and colour. Here, it is the actor drawing the comic book and in the movie the actor portrays the character as envisioned by the writer/artist. You are the actor playing the hero and the harlequin as well, in the sense of how you render them for the viewer, whether it’s coming from deep inside you or from a borrowed narrative.

AM: This would actually be a very good time to quote Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God, the opening of the chapter itself where he talks about the suspension of disbelief, that all forms of art must demand from its viewers, whether it is a ritual performance or painting or a theatre performance. Now we are talking about the fact that there is the mask created by the work and behind that I am the actor who is performing but it’s not me, it’s me who has become the character. At the end of the day it is these two distinct characters are becoming actors in themselves. What I wanted to point out through Campbell is that the fact that the mask has been worn makes the actor not an actor but for that particular time he is what he is portraying.

RD: But the actor lends himself to the public perception of the character for the future as well. In the instance of say a very memorable performance, where an actor steps in and becomes the character, using his own personality within the character, then every subsequent actor who performs the same role will be judged in the light of the memorable performance and may even portray the role imitating the performance rather than the writers intention. At this particular moment the actor is as important if not more important than the character.

AM: But what I am talking about is the whole context of the ritualistic performances, not even mythical subjects on television and in movies. The ritualistic performance actually transcends that and becomes mythic.

RD: Then we don’t have to go any further than Kerala where in Kathakali the actor is possessed by the character he portrays. I would still go as far as saying that even in this mysticism the actor still ends himself to the performance and that if comparisons were to be made over time, some would stand out over others. To put it in the context of the methodology, some actors may get more possessed than others.

AM: What interests me is this apparently simple word “becoming”. Whatever degree or capacity or capability that that person has become, the whole idea of that person becoming somebody or something else entirely; the idea of the becoming, the transformation, the transmutation; the fundamental nature of that word becoming has a distinct shift of something that is and something that is no longer. With the harlequin also, this is how I look at the character. You see how it seems to be a painted face and behind the painted face, the ears, the neck are natural. This is very consciously done because I didn’t want to create a face that was like that I wanted it to look as if there was something on a face. I’m interested in how he has become the harlequin; he is no longer a mere mortal. That isn’t his mask but his identity.

RD: Let’s talk about being at a particular place and the transition to where you are right now. When considering the fact that this is your first solo exhibition and you are putting all your work together, stuff that may or may not have been exhibited in group shows earlier marking a particular point in the journey of all your considerations into the human condition and this is what people are going to see. Without trying to create or impose a certain idea on people, what do you hope people understand about your work?

AM: I think what I would like the viewer to take back with them is the idea that over here is a work which doesn’t have a specific social context but it has a very specific human context. Here we are talking about something which is much more fundamental and deeper. It is very primal, the primary image, in relation to archetypes and how it affects us.

I want people to be affected emotionally at first, but they should question the work in relation to themselves and have that kind of a dialogue. Maybe be disturbed or unsettled but then try and find their answers to those turbulences, through this intrinsic idea of violence, of our existence in this particular time.

I want to take the viewers into this world that has been created; it is very different from the everyday reality of their existence. To look into the worlds, to see the images, to take the images into their depths.

RD: So you want the viewer to engage with a deep consideration of the world you have created by making sense of its inner working. You’ve drawn on mythology, particularly its modern version, would you want the audience to go back and consider this deep way of looking at the world which does not instantly strike you as real until you recognise it in its natural environment – our world?

AM: I don’t know if it is a deep thinking, I think that a lot of what is going on in the works now are things that I would attribute to everybody’s childhood. In my childhood, images and sounds and these ideas had a very primary and a greater than everything else significance.

RD: What I mean by deep is that our generation has taken it to imply any type of spiritual, holistic enquiry which would not necessarily be considered deep in the conventional sense though it might be.

AM: What I mean by childhood is a lot of these images that we are talking about, including existing archetypes and myths were created in the childhood of our existence. They have that very raw, emotive content, which we would associate with our own individual childhood – things like good and evil. Why do comics and mythic parallels start affecting us so much when we are children? Why do things like the enigmatic nature of people or the mysteries behind every day, simple, mundane, banal things seem so apparent when we were children because I think we tend to think very differently and it is that sense of childhood rawness that I want people to experience in a sense also?

Another series of works which is there is the whole photographic work where the stated intention is going into a childhood memory, where these characters, at least for me, had a certain kind of mystery, a certain kind of enigma like the golawala or a beggar who came in front of your car window or anyone else who occupies the street. They were there for a fleeting moment and then they would disappear. They became characters. I would always imagine, wonder about where they came from, what their lives must be like.

RD: So you implied the emotion that you feel or you imagine when you think about them through the perspective of the harlequin.

AM: As one grows up mysteries start dissipating, as we start to know things become less mysterious and what also inversely starts happening is that we start losing interest. We start to not see these people. I want to make them visible again and to infuse them with that sense of mystery and enigma. It is this revisiting that I am expecting, on a certain level, the viewer to have.