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Vasudha Thozhur: Narrative and Rhetoric

In this feature, Abhijeet Tamhane reacts to the textual and visual ensemble of Vasudha Tozhur’s oeuvre and comments that they play between ‘narrative and rhetoric’, beckoning the audience to take a participatory role.

The 'handout' of a catalogue was re-placed by 'hangouts' at the exhibition space, when Vasudha Thozhur's works from 2002 to 2007 were shown at the Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai. (April 23- May 5, 2007) What the Gallery offered you to read about the current body of her works was her notes and musings, observations. And one had to arrive at theoretical quantification of her work through these devices. In addition, there were CDs of her 'Oral Catalogue' project, where one could hear a plain-voice, the artist reading her own texts. As one listened, the narrative or rhetoric modes within became 'visible'. While the physical experience of listening-while-watching resembled to an audio-guide tour peculiar to museums. Vasudha's oral catalogue challenged the aura of contentment that audio-guides accrue to the exhibits. Vasudha's recorded talks taught you to look at works as a continuance of decisions in the realm of contemporary cultural practice. The readings necessarily make an eye contact with the moral/ethical choices that are integral to the decisions by a practitioner.

Multiple roles

Apart from the painted and digitally conserved works and the oral catalogue, Vasudha's show had a film (with no script, only an incident of a community, camera by teenaged female members of the community and edited by the artist), her interactive, ongoing project that explored the (de/)conditioning of sounds that constituted temporal memory of a 'global' audience. These works highlighted the role of an artist as an interventionist, educator, facilitator and communicator.

Incidentally, in her painted works, the artist's self-image could be seen in multiple roles. 
'I need a human protagonist… ' said Vasudha when asked about it, 'and it's better to implicate myself in the painting than anyone else'. The protagonist is often seen doing something (painting/writing/ sitting with ease on a funeral pyre/getting head-shaved). Could the frozen actions be seen at par with a 'performance still'?

Narrative : the way in

Vasudha sees to it that the narrative in her work is open-ended. Her painted works, most often, make a connection to her own life-experiences (she recounts most of them in her 'oral catalogues' and 'text collages'), but that would typically be only a part of her multi-pronged strategy to build a repository of narratives accessible en route the canvases deployed for each work. The visual clues to the narrative might belong to shared knowledge based on the information about notions, such as peacock > male> national bird> the nationality of 'Nation' or they might turn to be far more private, codified with an assertion of a private language. More such paradigms of accessibility and visual clues dwell in her paintings. The multiplicity of divergent clues may confuse (or worse, 'just entertain') if the viewer does not go back and forth and pick some direction to enter the painting. Of course, there exists an aided path, which is to read the artist's 'text collage' and to suffice it for the functional immediacy of getting some clues. The other way is to react to the images as if you have rendered them yourself and as if you were taking a second look at them while sipping your coffee… the sanctum would then reveal Rothko, or the 'red triptych' (Vasudha might never agree with the nomenclature) would profusely reveal the persistence of consumption.

Rhetoric : the way out?

The works can communicate if the viewer is both informed and willing. The dichotomy is, if you are 'obedient' to the visual you will feel 'liberated'. If you obey the verbal supplements, you feel enslaved. What kind of an experience is this? A distant context to it may be found in 'a rhetorician of the classical ages'. The argument might sound strange, but the insistence on value-generation and debate that Vasudha retains, calls for a fresh and less degenerated understanding of rhetorician's practice.

I would quote Vasudha from her notes. In February, 2002 when she began working on the new suite of paintings, the artist says: "I would, though the course of my work, make things which could possibly initiate a quest, as extensions of a larger, deliberate event such as a show. For me it would be a quest for a different conceptual space than the one created by mainstream practice, which is an assertive act –I exhibit my work and in a way demand its viewing, demand a critique."


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