On curiously curated apparel, a textile designer paints enigmatic portraits of our complex urban existence.

TK Muraleedharan is a poet-painter from/in/of/by the city of Mumbai, where he has lived and worked for the past two and half decades: “My workshop is the long corridor of the city; a gully where blood, sweat, oil and grease mix and flow. The city is always there inside me like a labyrinth, with its endless corridors of light and darkness, and the ever-spiralling staircases that lure human crowds into its vortex,” he notes.

“Or else,” he adds, “it is a gigantic machine, chaotic and dysfunctional, that offers no specific permutations or possible combinations. The species called the city-man alights from an electric train, travels in an autorickshaw, reaches office, and turns into an exact and functional cog of the machine – as a nut or bolt, or a tiny little ‘chip’.”

A textile designer by profession, Muraleedharan designs and hand-paints dresses, and somewhere along the line, he says, ‘the garments turned into canvases’. These clothes that he paints wear the urban chaos and its teeming biosphere.

The city’s structures, skyscrapers, alleys and highways, birds, animals and objects, all freely fly into these skirts and shirts; trees and branches spread their foliage, birds fly past, crows and sparrows perch on electric lines, peacocks and storks lookout, words and double-deckers trundle by. The painted skirts on the show are all agog with life and movement, the buzz and bustle of the city.

Urban life redrawn

Apart from these garments, a series of city paintings are also in the show. These images transport us to another dimension of urban life, livelihood and architecture. In a way, it is a journey from skyscapes to mindscapes, from looking from without to looking from within. It is a series of paintings of towering structures, dizzying heights and spiralling staircases held or bound together by interconnecting grids that extend beyond the horizons.

A vacuous, grim atmosphere devoid of humans or humanity lingers over everything. Grid-like, interconnected structures that ominously rise up are supported by pillars and walls that enclose and entrap the intricate entanglements within.

In these images time stands still or is frozen while space or spatial coordinates, and structural aspects expand exponentially; they spread and multiply like viruses, looming over and engulfing everything in its relentless growth. They reflect and resonate an eerie kind of worlding with its own irredeemable logic and irrevocable speed. The spatial imagination becomes fluid as it zooms in and out -sometimes enclosing and drawing the viewer into its ‘insides’, and making us look outwards onto faraway skies and landscapes.

Sometimes these monstrous grid-growths take on human forms staring back at us with its vacuous eyes; other times, it envelops, encloses and entraps everything into its fold, gradually shutting out and closing in. What we see within are the bluish sinews and red nerves of the city crisscrossing; the endless, giddying stairs winding their way up and across to nowhere, the long, depressingly pale rows of houses, stuck to each other with the iron grids and bridges looming above, the dark repetitive, crisscrossing lines turning into cityscapes a la Caligari.

While the clothes wear the city on its surface, the paintings are about its innards, the mind that inhabits the city, wearing it and in the process, wearing off. The colour palette of these paintings, in their tonalities, tend towards the toxic yellow, eerie black, uncanny brown, and vicious red – evoking urban chaos that is centripetal in its ennui and centrifugal in its despair.

This poem by Muraleedharan titled City and Me captures the mood in words:

When I rise up to city-heights and look down,
Strewn with festering hamlets of human settlements,
Your naked body,
Some geometric shape that has gone to rust.
Let it by anything, dear,
Where is my space inside you?

(City and Me)

The show is on till November 30. To read more such profiles, click here.


Venkity is a Consulting Editor with India Art Review. Critic, filmmaker and curator, he is the author of acclaimed works on cinema and social affairs. Writes in English and Malayalam.

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