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Overwriting as an act of remembrance

Shailaja Tripathi | Updated on October 09, 2020 Published on October 08, 2020

It is decreed: Artist Ravi Kumar Kashi’s ‘Everything will be remembered’, a palimpsest made of copper plates and inspired by the anti-CAA protests   -  IMAGES COURTESY: RAVI KUMAR KASHI

Bengaluru artist Ravi Kumar Kashi uses the niche book art form to record contemporary history

Among the several genres of visual art in vogue, particularly enticing and intimate is the one of book art or artist’s books. These are works of art that utilise the form of a book and are usually handcrafted or printed in limited editions. Some artist’s books take the form of sculptural objects. Well known in European countries, in India it remains quite niche. Ravi Kumar Kashi has engaged with this form for over two decades. Now the Bengaluru-based artist has been named one of the four finalists for the coveted MCBA prize instituted by the Minnesota Centre for Book Arts (MCBA), which promotes book art in its myriad forms and shapes.

Ravi Kumar Kashi

 

Kashi had sent three entries, of which Everything will be remembered, a palimpsest created with 12 etched copper plates and copper wire, was selected. A palimpsest is any manuscript or writing material in which an existing text is erased and superimposed with newer ones.

Kashi’s work draws inspiration from the rajpatra, or royal decrees of yore. And his muse was the countrywide protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) — widely perceived as discriminatory against Muslims — passed by Parliament in December 2019.

“In the light of the anti-CAA protests and Delhi riots [in February this year], I wanted to create a copper plate palimpsest for my time, so that the erasure of our constitutional values will not be forgotten. Normally this kind of document was issued by the king to commemorate a certain decision, but here I am doing it as a citizen; so the power, in a way, has reversed,” explains Kashi.

The copper plates have two layers of text. The first layer has the preamble to the Indian Constitution, which has been scraped away in many places. Overwritten on this faded text are news reports detailing incidents of murder, rampage, arson, shouting of slogans such as “We will enter the house and beat you up” or “Shoot the traitors”. Though the text is in English, the typeface — Samarkan — makes it look like Sanskrit. “It is intended to act as a visual marker for the Indian right-wing practice of quoting ancient texts to gain validation. It is also a simulation of our ancient handwritten palm leaf text manuals,” says Kashi.

The title of the work, “Sab yaad rakha jaayega (Everything will be remembered)”, is a nod to the poem written by anti-CAA activist Aamir Aziz.

As an artist, Kashi feels compelled to respond to the times he is living in. He often makes political commentary through his works. “The work itself may not do anything outside the art world. It won’t create a revolution. That kind of illusion is not there, but I have to witness it and document it otherwise there will be amnesia. How does one remember what happened?” he queries. Last year he publishedFlexing Muscles (Reliable Copy), a Kannada-English bilingual book of essays on the culture of flex banners put up by pro-Kannada outfits and political parties.

A photo-book he is working on, titled ‘Ghar main ghus ke marenge (We will enter homes and kill)’, is his attempt to understand aggression at individual and societal levels. The title draws from prime minister Narendra Modi’s claim along these lines last year, after carrying out surgical air strikes against Pakistan in response to a terror attack at Pulwama.

With a graduate degree in painting and printmaking from Chitrakala Parishath, Bengaluru, and a postgraduate degree from Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Baroda, Kashi (53) teaches fundamentals of design and visual arts at RV College of Architecture, Bengaluru.

A trip to the UK on a Charles Wallace Grant in 2001 opened up to him the world of artist’s books. Its pages can be flipped through. Kashi took to this form immediately, alongside his work on paintings, installations and sculptures.

Given Kashi’s penchant for words and flair for writing, his engagement with the book art form seems natural. “A book builds an argument, it develops a timeline. The sense of time comes through an artist’s book,” he explains.

At his studio in Nagarbhavi, he also makes handmade paper using a mini pulp-beater.

An artist’s book can be sculptural in nature and reference a book form; or it can be a photo-book; or it can be in the form of ‘altered books’, where existing books are modified.

Kashi works with all these formats. “In simple words, artist’s books are an artist’s interpretation of the book. In India, artist’s books are understood to be monographs, but in Europe and America the form is well known and popular. There are artist’s book biennials, dedicated exhibitions. The libraries in Europe are quite open to showcasing art books.”

In 2016, the fourth edition of the European International Book Art Biennale was held in Goa. Last year, ‘The Art Book Exhibition 2019’ was held at Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi and featured Kanchan Chander, Kavita Jaiswal, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Rini Dhumal, Jai Zharotia and other artists. However, such exhibitions are far and few between in India.

(Kashi’s work and the other winning entries for the MCBA prize are on view at an exhibition at the MCBA till January 10, 2021. For the virtual exhibition, visit https://www.mnbookarts.org/)

Shailaja Tripathi is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist

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Published on October 08, 2020
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