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Navel nagar


DIVINE TALKIES: Nandini Valli Muthiah's Vishnu looks as if if he has just stepped off the set of a mythological film

For many years now the name Nandini Valli Muthiah has evoked pictures of a blue-skinned deity looking distinctly as if he has just stepped off the set of a mythological film from years ago. Indeed, that is exactly what 36-year-old Chennai-based UKtrained Muthiah's photographic art seeks to do. Each of her images in The Visitor, her new show in Mumbai, is carefully stagemanaged, with the actor in focus meticulously dressed in jewellery, dhoti drape, crown, blue skin and, er, wings. Wings? Yes, feathered extensions that sprout from the back of what happens to be Vishnu, giving the image the ever-so-unsubtle tinge of a Victoria's Secret fashion show. To be fair though, perhaps this is not what the artist intended.

It all starts soberly enough, with Muthiah revisiting "the theme of incarnated divinity" and exploring its "complexities through the personification of Vishnu". This show is an extension of an earlier set called The Definitive Reincarnate and places Vishnu against various backdrops - in a water body, on a lawn, under a tree. But the focus of the show is the Lord in his natural environment: water. The scene has been staged in the swimming pool of a hotel in South India. With eyes half shut, it could masquerade as a temple tank, but with eyes fully wide, it is totally South Indian filmi, evoking images of the stout and tightly costumed hero and heroine prancing through a garden like celestial beings in dire need of a diet.

The pond is allegorical. Vishnu conventionally reclines on the seven-headed serpent Vasuki who floats in a milky sea. From his navel rises a lotus, in the midst of which sits Brahma, the Creator. Fittingly, Muthiah's star actor stands in the shallow water, lotus pads and flowers floating around his feet, his hands at his waist. In the eponymous The Visitor, the viewer is given a rear view of the character, who stands in ankle-deep water, one arm raised, the well-known weapon, the chakra, spinning on one upheld finger. In A Synchronous 1, the shankha, or shell, used to summon troops to battle, becomes the objet of thought. Unreal 3 is perhaps the most interesting of the digital prints in this show. In this one, Vishnu is standing in the pool with Vishnu, this time in avatar as Krishna, or so goes the explanation. It is where the self confronts the alter-ego, you learn, and you cannot help wondering what they are saying to each other - is it the truth of the Universe or a comment on how their toes are getting pruney? The quirkiness of the images leads to fleeting thoughts that are less than reverent.

God is, after all, the power with whom conversation of all kinds can be had, from awed to casual. So why can't the two deities standing in the shallow water be chatting about cricket scores or what's for dinner? In Asleep, Vishnu is in classic reclining pose, as if exhausted by his divine responsibilities and in need of a nap. One of the most thought-provoking images is The Known Stranger, where Vishnu looks almost sadly into the water, thinking about. . . what? That would best be left to the imagination to figure out.

(The Visitor is on at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, till October 13-12 )

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