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DEEPANJANA PAL
CULTURE MULCHER

Deepanjana Pal is books editor at DNA

Two avatars come to ground — and tell very different stories

Burdened by Nandini Valli

shwin Sanghi's new book, The Krishna Key, is basically a desi version of The Da Vinci Code. It begins with a murder, revolves around an ancient artefact that must be pieced together, has a cult leader whose psychologically-disturbed lackey goes around committing acts of violence, and the hero is a professor. One of the characters in The Krishna Key is a chap called Taarak Vakil. He's buff, brainwashed, heavily-tattooed — thus lending his skin a dark bluish patina — and convinced he is an avatar of Vishnu. (In case you hadn't noticed, Taarak Vakil is an anagram for Kalki avatar, believed to be the last avatar of Vishnu and unrelated to the Bollywood actress whose initials, alarmingly, are KKK.)

Coincidentally, Taarak is not the only modern-day Vishnu to have appeared on the mortal plane of late. The stars of photographer Nandini Valli's new show, The Visitor, are Vishnu and Krishna. Valli's version of the blue god is less bloodthirsty and more perplexed than Sanghi's Taarak. Her models, awash in blue body paint, are bedecked in outfits that would delight fans of mythological TV shows. They strike poses and look regal and pensive in empty, modern spaces. Instead of the universal ocean, Vishnu gets a pool for his anantasayana and Krishna's pastoral idyll of Vrindavan is replaced by a patch of unnaturally green grass that may well be AstroTurf. If only there was a way that we could get Valli's and Sanghi's avatars to meet. They'd probably be horrified by one another and declare the other delusional.

Considered on its own, The Visitor is pretty enough. Shot in outdoor locations, it's a beautifully-produced series with its careful lighting and gorgeous costumes. The emptiness of the locations is eerie and Valli mocks at the grandeur of traditional imagery subtly. In one photograph, the close-up of Krishna's flute reveals it is fake and made of stitched golden cloth. In another, Vishnu lies sprawled on the water as though he slipped and fell. These contrast with the more poised shots, in which the blue god is shown in full regalia and yet, for all the richness of the costume and the benevolence of the gaze, Vishnu/Krishna looks vaguely ridiculous and entirely out of place.

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The Visitor is a sequel, but it pales in comparison. Most of the new photographs lack narrative and drama.

f you've seen Valli's older series, The Definitive Reincarnate, then chances are The Visitor will be disappointing. The Definitive Reincarnate marked Valli's debut and it remains unforgettable. Valli placed the blue god in distinctly modern settings —  in a procession, in a hotel room, in a miniature pool — and the contrast was delightful and often, very poetic. Whether he sat morosely on a bed or posed while being garlanded like a victorious politician, the pomp of Krishna›s costumes made him spectacularly arresting and at the same time, the old-fashioned god was so completely out of place in the contemporary world. The series was funny, poignant and beautiful.

The Visitor is a sequel, but it pales in comparison. Even at a simple, visual level, The Visitor seems less sumptuous than The Definitive Reincarnate. Most of the new photographs lack narrative and drama. And I'm still wondering why Valli added angel wings to Krishna's costume, as though he wanted to audition for a Nativity play. For all the brainwashing, I suspect if someone had told Taarak that he'd have to pin massive wings to his shoulders in order to be Vishnu, that would have been a dealbreaker. Aside from the fact that white feathers are impossible to keep clean and are so not macho, you can't escape the fact that you're delusional when you're a man with wings but need to buy a plane ticket to fly.

I can just imagine the Valli's Vishnu, who in some shots has little flowers painted at the tapering end of his eyebrows, recoiling in disgust at the thought of Taarak going around the country slicing people and writing shlokas using the victims' blood. Presumably Taarak would be equally disappointed to be the doppelganger of this chap in blue paint whose finest moment shows him lolling about in a garden and being showered by rose petals.

I don't usually find myself agreeing with serial killers, real or fictional, but I must confess, in case of The Visitor, I find myself edging towards Taarak's side.

 
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