The Phantom Lady Strikes Again
The Phantom Lady takes off from Umesh Maddanahalli’s project with donkeys in Mysore, and ruminates about donkeys in art …
The donkey is seen as a lowly animal, an ass, a beast of burden. It is neither noble like the horse nor as endearing as the dog. The donkey is actually the common man, the subaltern of the animal world: sort of foolish and unattractive, obstinate by nature, and unwilling to be cuddly and pet-like.
Umesh Maddanahalli’s recent student workshop, Name and Form in CAVA, (Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts) Mysore, looked at the donkey bench, a commonly used object for artistic study and practice, as a starting point to connect the study of art to the experience of ordinary life. The “donkey” as we know is a bench with a resting place for a board, used in the classroom for life study, drawing and painting. It has a vaguely animal-like form with a neck and head and four legs. Umesh plays with the meaning of the object by replacing the donkey bench with real donkeys, to look again at art pedagogy and art history as it has come down to us from the 19th century and think about the “journey of art”. He questions whether it is at all important to study a chronological sequence of events, and whether the examination of the art of the past means anything to us today.
Umesh hired a group of donkeys from a village near Mysore and the project was that the students walk them back to their “home” sixty five kilometres away to a place called Santhe Saruguru, also called Kaththe or “ Donkey” Saruguru, which is well-known for breeding donkeys, which are used as pack animals and for manure, or sometimes rented out for film shootings. The group would walk through the day till sunset, stopping to cook and sleep in villages along the way, carrying some provisions along with them, but borrowing pots and pans from the villagers and cooking on rough stone and wood fire stoves made on the spot, spending nights in the village schools. The students could document the project in any medium they wanted and edit the material in any way.
A keeper brought six of the animals to CAVA, situated on the principal street of the city, Sayaji Rao Road, (named after the Baroda Maharaja who was a close friend of the Mysore king) which is the main route for the ceremonial Dasara procession. Umesh and the troupe of thirty students started off in a straggly group with the donkeys the next morning, exciting curious attention from the public, astonished people and vehicles stopping on the crowded street and staring at them. The students were confused about what to say to bystanders; rustic people laughed and told them the donkey was Lakshmi and lucky for them. The students holding the donkeys being unused to handling them could not control them, and either the donkeys would pull them in different directions or stop mulishly, holding them all up. The journey took three days with many adventures on the way, with some of the students dropping out, but most staying till the end.
On the first day one of the donkeys which was loosely tied, escaped and vanished just outside Mysore while they were having lunch. Frantic calls were made to friends to look for it. There was a pall of gloom and though abandoning the donkey and walking on was discussed, the students sat down by the side of the road and refused to move till the animal was found. This aroused great interest on the highway and trucks and cars stopped to find out if it was a strike or satyagraha. Finally someone found it after several hours and brought it back in a tempo to great jubilation, and the donkey which had been unnamed till then, was called Gopala. It seemed that the beast, which by reports had always been a troublesome animal, had by an act of rebellion become an individual. Just two or three generations ago, the lower castes in India had no names of their own and were either called by the day of the week on which they were born, or followed the custom of naming all the children, male and female, in the family god’s name. Even having an individual name is an elite thing.
Several people from Mysore visited the group in the evenings. The CAVA Dean came with art history students, and Mysore artists like N.S. Harsha and Dwarkanath, the theatre designer for the State Repertory Rangayana, dropped in. Dwakanath’s take on the workshop was that the donkeys were just an excuse and not central to the experience. What was interesting for him was the way the students quickly divided themselves into different groups: some handling the animals, some cooking, some washing up the pots. But finally, everything revolved around taking the donkeys back home. They got close to donkey behaviour living with them, saw how they walked, grazed, shat, slept, and their stubborn animal-ness. It was a “life study” of another kind.
Au hasard Balthazar (By Chance, Balthazar) the classic 1966 film directed by Robert Bresson, one of the cult figures of the French New Wave, revolves around a donkey. The film follows the lives of Marie, a shy farm girl and her donkey Balthazar through a life of callous abuse and is described as having “exquisite renderings of pain and abasement” and “compendiums of cruelty”. While some critics have seen it as a religious allegory and a spiritual tale of human suffering, others see it as an existential account of life as it is, or as Jean-Luc Goddard described it, “really the world in an hour and a half”. The donkey’s dumb pliant figure takes us through the indifference, sadism, greed, exploitation, irresponsibility and criminality of humankind, represented by the characters of the village who use it in various ways, told in an unsentimental and minimalist aesthetic style.
The donkey was the pivotal character in Kerala filmmaker John Abraham’s 1977 Tamil film Agraharathil Kazhuthai ( Donkey in a Brahmin Village), a biting satire on brahminical superstition and bigotry. The film which got the National Award, was not allowed to be screened on Doordarshan by the furious Brahmin lobby, and ignored by the press. Critiquing the caste system was an important part of the Indian New Wave cinema of the ‘70s and the filmmaker uses the device of inserting an ass into a place anxious about its ritual purity, with all its black humour. A donkey which strays into a Brahmin village, is adopted by Professor Narayan Swamy who appoints a mute girl to look after it, much to the disapproval of the entire village. It is seen as an unclean animal which pollutes the village, and when the girl’s still-born baby is found outside the temple, the donkey is blamed for it and killed. Later a series of miracles happen and the Brahmins believe that it is due to the donkey’s blessings. When they dig out the skull of the donkey to give it a ritual funeral, the fire symbolically spreads and engulfs the village in a huge conflagration, destroying everything except the professor and the mute girl. It is the Day of Judgement and only the innocents are saved.
The director John Abraham, who is remembered more as a bohemian anarchist, was a revolutionary who believed in the empowering and liberating effect of cinema and tried to create a new kind of people’s film making. He formed the Odessa Collective (named after the port in one of the most important films of all time, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, about the great Russian naval mutiny of 1905 against the officers of the Tsarist regime) which tried to change the history of film production and distribution by going to the villages and directly raising money from the people. His last film Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother), was funded by collecting one rupee each from the audience from screening Chaplin’s The Kid all over Kerala. The film once made was also released non- commercially.
Many of my Malayali artist friends like Madhusudanan used the image of the donkey in their work in the 1980s as a symbol of oppression, possibly coming from the Christian Left. The donkey, being a creature of the desert lands, figures in many Biblical stories. In both Jewish and Christian traditions, the Messiah is described as riding on a donkey. It is a heavily loaded symbol, particularly in Christian legend, seen as a metaphor for Christ’s meekness, humility and poverty, and stands for the spiritual kingdom of god. Jesus rode into Bethlehem on a donkey as the Messiah on Palm Sunday. It appears often in Western painting: in the Flight into Egypt, as also in the manger scene at the birth of Christ when he is recognized as the Saviour, and first worshipped by the lowly animals. In earlier times it appears that riding a donkey indicated affluence as commoners at the time went on foot. Later on when the nobility begin owning horses, riding a donkey takes on the opposite meaning and becomes a sign of simplicity and sobriety. Christ pictured on a donkey came to symbolize forgiveness and peace, whereas the image of Christ mounted on a horse was seen as a sign of judgement and war.
The donkey is also a jackass, standing for a dumb and unthinking foolishness. Manjunath Kamath uses the image constantly in his work to satirically comment on the antics of men. But most famously, Bhupen Khakhar has used the Panchatantra story of the Father, the Son and the Donkey with a wicked twist for his gay “coming out” painting You Can’t Please All painted in 1982. A naked man stands on a balcony, looking down at the story unfolding below in stages like an Indian miniature painting. A father and son set out on a journey to the town to sell a donkey. On the way they meet some people who laugh at them for walking while one could ride. So the boy sits on the donkey and they go on. They meet an old man who criticizes the boy for having no respect for his father, so the son gets down and the father rides on the donkey. Further on they are mocked for the son walking when he could ride the donkey too. Finally, when both are riding the donkey, they are abused for overloading the poor animal. They then decide to tie the legs of the donkey to a pole and carry it upside down on their shoulders. While crossing a bridge on the river, the donkey struggles and falls into the water and drowns. At which, says Bhupen Khakkar, the man watching from the balcony concludes, “You can’t please everyone” and takes off his clothes.
Umesh’s workshop was a miniature form of his larger idea to travel across various parts of India with a retinue of donkeys. He would welcome art students and anyone else who wanted to walk the roads of India in the company of donkeys, stopping to cook when hungry and resting when tired. “The herd of donkeys and its human companions” would visit art schools on their “rambles” and the journey would be recorded on camera. The project may not prove anything or answer any questions, or really help to discover the nature of art history or pedagogy. However, it would raise some questions. He says the premise of Name and Form lies in the last lines of a poem by Gopal Honnalgere:
for the donkey
The Phantom Lady