A recent show by artist Balagopalan reflects his exposure to life upcountry as a sequence to the formative years in Malabar

At a recent show, artist Balagopalan highlighted the essence of his applied aesthetics: an action by hand and materials in a space with or without concept. The solo exhibition, ‘Ezhuthu’, at Kozhikode showcased select works of 36-year-old sculptor-painter from north Kerala.

The title in Malayalam, simply put, means writing. In a broader cultural context, the word has multidimensional usages: kannezhuthu, mukhathezhuthu, kalamezhuthu and nilathezhuthu, among others.

Some of these involve decoration-centric experiences of the body, with focus on the eyes or the face. Such cases may also involve rituals, songs, dance and percussion — making it a performance steeped in linguistic memory. Oral exchanges are made concrete in the indigenous ezhuthu spaces — through inscriptions in mud, stone, metal, palm-leaf or even printing.

In the February 20-27 event at the Lalithakala Akademi Gallery in the Malabar city, Balagopalan drawings and words blended yet again the result of ezhuthu as a unique process. “I believe my viewers did experience the process of ephemeral motions in the present. These motions are a reflection of my artworks through marks, drawings, sketches, carvings and calligraphy,” he says.

Balagopalan’s organic process of making art is like a feather from the flying bird. Or a yellow leaf from the green tree. They can conjure up visuals of clotted blood in the woods, frozen cement packets or a cave in the mountain after a flood. Balagopalan’s repeated activities in art practices change the structure of his work and its value every time.


Cosmopolitan moulding

The artist, who goes by a mononym in cultural circuits, is a third-generation Malayali. Balagopalan’s great-grandparents migrated to Kasaragod in north Kerala from present-day Karnataka. Prospects of a better livelihood from agriculture prompted them to descend from the Chikmagalur mountain ranges of the Western Ghats.

Even so, for his post-school studies, Balagopalan left for Karnataka. To Mysore, where he graduated from the Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts. That was in 2008. Shortly, he migrated to Delhi, looking for intense artistic engagements.

The broader exposure enabled Balagopalan to engage with a wide range of materials, altered scales and intense discussions with artists. “They steadied my practice, and led me to interact with artisans…even strangers. Besides, I began to go for travels and got into serious reading,” he reveals.

Inspirations, thus, came from fields beyond art. Daya Bai, for instance. The octogenarian social activist living in the forests of Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh has influenced Balagopalan with her karuthal (care) towards fellow humans and nature.

That said, “I don’t know when my attempt gets materialised as a work of art,” he shrugs. “Often they lie in deep sleep like that of a seed in the pathayam (granary)…without air and light.” Like 13th-century Buddhist philosopher Dōgen Zenji’s words on the moon’s reflection in the water, Balagopalan’s works become sounds in silence and motion in stillness.

Not just ‘Ezhuthu’, another series named ‘Coalescence’ draws from Balagopalan’s experience of sahavartithvam (togetherness). The selection and de-selection, along with the arrangements and rearrangements, in that work follows the spirit of give-and-take. Creatures such as the elephant, parrot, dragonfly, butterfly, kite and the rooster are all part of his formative years spent in Kasaragod. They find depiction with references from Hoysala design of the Kannadiga empire that had its hoary days between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Literature and nature

The alphabet, numbers, and decorative elements create hybrid experiences. All these are added with two works of the late Malayalam litterateur Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. The short story Bhoomiyude Avakasikal tries to ‘hug this world’, while another, Anaswara Prakasam,looks at the infinite world. “Both stories become an index for my artworks,” says Balagopalan, noting that Basheerean world is a mixture of imagination and experience, sound and silence and light and dark.

Further, Balagopalan portrays the life of creatures in the anthropocentric universe. The thoughts of Maitri with nature evolve an eco-aesthetics in ezhuthu. The ephemeral death ceremony becomes an inspiration for the artwork titled ‘Revival Through death’. The discussion and search on Para/Apara by reformer Sree Narayana Guru’s Atmopadesa Satakam (One Hundred Verses of Self-instruction) creates a reflection of deep silence in Balagopalan’s work titled ‘One Minus One’.

The work of art crosses beyond the conceptual frameworks with critical practices. The hybridity creates a stillness here. The corporal aspects of the body make arbitrary thoughts. In the sculpture ‘Fate the Nascency’, Balagopalan makes visible the starting point of flying. The sculpture embodies nature, creating an exchange between action and reaction.

Archival history is based on the artefact collected, preserved and displayed in museums. This exercise avoids various vernacular histories. Its absence is reflected in ‘Cogent Arc’. Here, Balagopalan shows the absence of creative labour and vernacular practices through the work that creates a parallel view on institutional practices of art, history and knowledge.

Balagopalan uses objects which produce voice, sound and noise. The action-oriented bodies in his works make performative kinesthetics. The works also create multiple time zones and spaces. The spatiality can be traced from the object rather than the landscape. The design is minimalist.

The artist tries to put the imperfect and infinite experience of the universe which are in between the form of words. The subtleness in making creates his position as a witness rather than a participant.


Abheesh Sasidharan is a researcher and performer. His major artistic works are Bhranthu: A Mediated performance, IoE: Inheritors of the Earth and ZERO ONE: An Interactive Performance Project. He writes in English and Malayalam. He participated in various national and international festivals, conferences, seminars and workshops in India and abroad.

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