While moving from the gallery to the cinema might be very of-the-moment (McQueen, Taylor-Wood and, prior to them, Schnabel), it is unusual to see a practitioner go the other way. However, this is the trajectory of Indian filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak, a regular on the film-festival circuit for over a decade. Avikunthak’s film Katho Upanishad (2011) was shown as a three-channel projection in Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal in 2012. His new work Rati Chakravyuh (2013) will be shown there this spring.
Avikunthak’s films are highly formal meditations on ritual, time and death. They are rooted in Indian religion, philosophy and history, without being about any of these in an anthropological way. Unlike his Indian peers, who use symbols (tiffins, bindis and so on) of their cultural identity in a way that is decipherable for biennial and art-fair audiences, Avikunthak’s works strongly resist being so easily packaged for the new global artworld circuits. Vakratunda Swaha (2010) begins with a piece of footage, shot in 1997, of Girish Dahiwale, a friend of Avikunthak, immersing a statue of the elephant god Ganesha into the sea, before the film moves on to a funeral ritual (Dahiwale committed suicide a year after the footage was filmed). The work then takes a turn for the hallucinatory with masked subjects, including the artist in a gas mask (invoking the elephant god’s trunk), walking against the flow of traffic, before a final appearance of the footage of Dahiwale immersing the statue, as voices chant the Ganapati Upanishad. The effect on a viewer unfamiliar with Indian religion and history is akin to being thrust into a series of rituals without having any literal idea of what those rituals might be about.
This is important. In an artworld where an increasing number of critics are arguing that much globalised art takes the form of hollowed-out visual Esperanto, Avikunthak’s works insist on an Indian epistemology while utilising a rigorously formal visual language that is clearly aware of Western avant-garde practices such as those of Andrei Tarkovsky and Samuel Beckett. These are self-consciously difficult works that are filmed in a self-consciously beautiful way. Katho Upanishad is a dreamily meandering adaptation of a 2,500-word Sanskrit text about enlightenment and nirvana. On the one hand, the work is clearly open to an interpretation that is rooted in an in-depth understanding of the Upanishads, a series of texts that are the source of the key tenets of both Hinduism and Buddhism. On the other hand, there is no prerequisite to have a full grasp of the Upanishads in the same way that there is no prerequisite to understand the complex symbolic system Matthew Barney devised for The Cremaster Cycle (1994–2002) in order to watch those similarly visually lush works
In a recent interview Avikunthak has stated that his films ‘are not codes that have to be decoded or cracked’. Instead he has drawn parallels with visiting a temple, where the majority of worshippers do not have a literal understanding of the ritual that takes place in Sanskrit (a situation analogous to attending church ceremonies that still take place in Latin). There is something wilfully idiosyncratic in this mode of making work that is visually seductive while being on another level deliberately incomprehensible to many viewers. Avikunthak’s work was largely ignored as his contemporaries at art school entered the speculation-driven contemporary Indian art market during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Now that that scene has shot off a cliff and left a bruised generation of gallerists and artists, his belated emergence within the gallery circuit is to be welcomed.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue.