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Shoonya Ghar Stuns Basel

Sudarshan Shetty's Shoonya Ghar – an engagement with the dichotomies of life and death, connecting objects with their evocative consciousness through intense performances – deeply captivated the audience at Basel.

Images at Art Basel 2018 showed art aficionados enthralled by the film Shoonya Ghar that was unveiled at Basel's Unlimited two weeks ago. Sudarshan Shetty's multi-channel video installation and large-scale architectural elements made of wood that resembled palatial ruins with a haunting background score was a part of the prestigious Unlimited. In a departure from the usual, the film is shot on the installation ramparts of his own sculptural edifice.

For an outsider, the film was a celebration of the Renaissance ideal of "man as maker". With a vast range of materials, objects and rare artisanal crafts/techniques, the film was a testimony to man's abilities.

Patterns of paradoxes

"I didn't expect people to watch all the way till the end, with rapt attention and concentration," says Sudarshan after his return to Mumbai. The film replete with multimedia effects and elements is an exploration that has many parts – in which, Sudarshan creates patterns of "paradoxes and apparent contradictions" through a narrative that moves between spaces that oscillate between the past and the present.

Known for his poetic, hybrid constructions that interrogate the force of the object and the rituals, themes and movements associated with the loss of and fusion of Indian and Western traditions, the film is a confluence of poetic pensiveness and the power of silence. Sometimes soothing like a brook, sometimes filled with sombre sadness – the film has something for everyone.

Void and formlessness

Shoonya Ghar (Empty is this house) references a poem by 12th-century poet Gorakhnath, a part of the formal Nirgun tradition, on the themes of emptiness, the void and the formless. It refers to the peregrinations of a man in a city with ten doors, symbolic of the openings of the body. The installation stands in an abandoned quarry, an empty and surreal landscape in which the elaboration of a setting becomes the main protagonist, as the characters come and go.

Sometimes when you see the women or the men or even the empty pillars that seem to echo the music that moves with lithe grace, it is as if we are confronting a vast story that weaves into an unending tapestry of thought. The bearded old man sitting on a chair is time's traveller. Short motions of simple humble actions add to the alacrity and the elegance of mood.

Dynamics and dialogue

60 minutes of a narrative hinged on the Goraknath poem creates dynamics in the dialogue and dimensions contained within the fragments of daily life. Nirgun poetry, which originated over 900 years ago, belongs to the Bhakti tradition, a strand within Hinduism that argued for a mystical, passionate and personal relationship with God instead of ritualistic idol worship. For Sudarshan, Nirgun poetry is more than a vehicle of spiritual awakening; it marks a milestone in his artistic journey as it brings on the fabric of humanism in the many dichotomies of time and its being.

The film is an auratic discourse of aesthetic structure, cosmic space, three conventions of cinema as parallel streams building of structure, while the structure is being built around the performance of the actors. The relationship built between the actors is also a design in dialogue. It brings in polarities – the reclaimed wood is new but the structures are old in time – there is an artifice in the setting up, it plays between what is meaningful and meaningless in terms of the fragments and the fragility of time and being.

Fragments and fragility

Set within the structural sculptures of his installation, it unravels as fragments within fragile islands of moorings, and floating in the narrative are symbols of everyday idioms of living – a wooden bed with faded bolster pillows, an antique looking dresser with a photograph on top and a dusty television set mounted on a wall, even a small shelf. In the video, what becomes surreal is the agile grace of the characters moving among the installations, as well as the musicians. In more ways than one, it is the poet of the past who becomes the hero and the sage with a doha – a couplet that transcends time.

Famed anthropologist Vyjayanthi Venuturupalli Rao explains the entire ethos of the film succinctly: "In the space of the gallery, the film is installed and viewed with a set of companion objects – a nine-channel video focusing on the performers' interpretations of the nava rasas or the nine moods theorised in classical Indian dramaturgy; the set reconstructed inside the gallery – a space within another space and a set of photographic images that extend the set into other spaces and times. Each set of objects refers to a different technology and methodology for approaching the world – the intimate moving images of video, the reality effect of photography and the functional aesthetics of architecture. Each medium is differently open-ended."

Hindu Nirgun Muslim Sufi

"What, for example, does it mean to view the film's actors interpreting the nava rasas – is it preparation or something else?" asks Rao. "How do we approach the apparently completed set as an object given our experience of its diffusion throughout Shoonya Ghar? How do we approach the appearance and extension of the film's set into the static realm of a historical photograph? How, for that matter, do we approach the life from which this art comes? The network of connections that evoke events, memories and tastes specific to the artist's life including his encounter of Gorakhnath's poetry performed in the voice of Kumar Gandharva extend far into a public consciousness that is rarely addressed by contemporary Indian art in the early 21st century. These networks extend and connect philosophical meditations on death, time and the void that cuts across, Hindu Nirgun, Muslim Sufi and everyday folk practices. Sudarshan's sustained engagement with the boundary between life and death, with the object world and its evocative consciousness and with performance all come together in Shoonya Ghar. A range of performance of music and poetry in the film, including Sudarshan's own voice, mediates his attempts to break the overdetermined meaning of objects, symbols and rituals opening them to new meanings and experiences rooted in an ongoing engagement with the multiplicity encompassed in cosmic emptiness."

Rao explains that the film's effect of multiplicity is intensified. Even the cinematic work of the camera and its ability to resolve questions of time, to connect narratives and scale itself is questioned by the film. The film's final scenes had enchanted viewers shooting scenes with their phones. No doubt Shoonya Ghar had stunned Basel audiences. The abundance of architectonics laced with poignant poetry and dulcet melodies is what remained long after the 60 minutes were over.

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