Naranath Bhranthan (madman of Naranam) is a popular character in Malayalam folklore. He was considered eccentric because he would roll a boulder all the way up a hill, and then let go. As the rock rolled and bounced down the slopes, he would clap and laugh uproariously. By repeating this strange act, he wanted to convey that life is something that can go downhill any time.
Artist Vipin Dhanurdharan, 29, also performs a repetitive act in his work of contemporary art, ‘Petrichor—Collected from Fort Kochi and Mattancherry’. And, just like Bhranthan, Dhanurdharan also conveys a message. It is not a philosophical doctrine about life, but a material reality about water pollution. This is the first solo show of the young artist, and it started on world water day—March 22 at Lulu Mall, Kochi. It is on until April 8.
Dhanurdharan has conceived ‘Petrichor’ as a 35-minute video-installation, combining video technology with installation art, with water as the prime element. The work was developed by him as part of a group show—’Mattancherry’—at Uru Art Harbour, Kochi, curated by artist Riyas Komu.
“As an artist, I am trying to address the issues with our water sources,” says Dhanurdharan. The densely populated residential areas of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry are located on the banks of heavily polluted and stagnant canals. As part of the project, he collected water from under every bridge in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. The water was taken to his studio and stored in one of the four big jars there. Each time he did this, he also sketched water cans on the studio walls. The whole process was videographed. In the video, one could see the puzzled faces of local residents who witnessed his “mad recurring activity”.
Not surprisingly, the water was stinking at every collection point. But, Dhanurdharan named his work “petrichor”—the scent that follows the first rain. “The smell is an element I cannot bring in a video installation,” he says. “But, in all these places I had gone [to collect water], smell was an important element. This is how I am perceiving that smell, unlike someone else who would perceive it as a foul smell.”
Dhanurdharan pointed out how these canals were once providing public spaces. “We are losing such public spaces at a fast pace,” he says. The artist sees this as a microcosm of the worldwide situation. The work was inspired by the conversations he had with local residents. “Their memories of how these canals used to be a commercial trade route, and how they first learned to swim in these same waters, formed the concept of this work,” he says.
The video ends with a sequence where the artist sleeps over the water he collected, by laying a mattress over the water jars. This frame then dissolves into another, showing the artist sleeping over a canal holding onto a water can, resembling a dead body floating. And, the installation ends on this open-ended note.
“I am neither blaming anybody for the deplorable condition of the canals, nor providing a solution for the problem,” says Dhanurdharan. “My only aim is to start a conversation about our water sources.”