COSTUME DRAMA

Saraswati

Nandini Valli Muthiah defamiliarises "tradition", by taking photography out of its workaday context and into the studio.

A tiny saraswati with a black eye of smeared kohl stands glumly in front of a painted garden backdrop. A miniature tiger drowns in his striped fur suit, while a plump boy in a clingy blue cotton outfit peers out from beneath a peacock headdress. A spaceman in a shiny metallic costume looks like a cross between a beekeeper and a tacky spectre from a B-grade horror movie. And two small Subramanya Bharathis stand proudly together, with their fake moustaches flamboyantly askew. These self-consciously posing children, dressed up for their annual fancy dress competition in a school in Chennai, are the subject of Chennai-based photographer Nandini Valli Muthiah's show Remembering to Forget in Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, which comes to a close this week.

This parade of little poets, animals, gods and public figures, striking awkward poses in their slouchy wigs and ungainly costumes, may charm the viewer with the absurd gravity with which they play-act adult roles and characters. But there is an unmistakable irony about the images of the contrived caricatures that public figures like Vivekananda, Indira Gandhi or MGR become when they get sealed in public memory, and, ultimately, "tradition".

"There is a giggle factor about the series," Muthiah says, "with how the children come dressed as people who made their mark in history books, but are now completely irrelevant to society." Like Vivekananda, the saffron-clad shorthand for spirituality, or Tamil nationalist hero Veerapandiya Kattabomman, whose name only produces the faintest echo corresponding to Sivaji Ganesan's lustrous moustached-and-turbaned enactment of his character in the eponymous 1959 film.

Ever since she began her career in photography six years ago, Muthiah, 35, has been defamiliarising "tradition", taking it out of its workaday context and into the studio with carefully composed and choreographed images which draw inspiration from the formal 19th century studio portraits of Raja Deen Dayal, and the spooky, epically detailed tableaux of American photographer Gregory Crewsdon.

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