'The Game'

Gallery Sumukha, Bangalore.

Dream Missives, Ravi Kashi, ‘The Game’: Works 2006-2010

- Ranjit Hoskote

The game has served as an archetypal template for creation in various mythological systems, art-historical accounts and artistic practices. Much sport has its origins in the sacred games of agrarian societies, in which the cosmic battle of the opposing principles of light and darkness was ritually played out with the intention of purifying the social formation and rededicating it to the quest for perfect being. Some branches of Indic philosophy celebrate the allegory of lila, or the play of the gods, explaining that the world was born from this celestial festivity; or that the world results from the continuous playful manifestation of the Divine into material forms.

[1] Following the cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, historians have attended to the crucial role of homo ludens in the formation of culture; that is, the human consciousness at play, in counterpoint to homo faber, humankind in its labouring and instrument-making role (not surprisingly, Huizinga trained as a Sanskritist and wrote his doctoral thesis on the role of the vidhushaka or jester in Sanskrit drama).

[2] Among the Dadaists and the Surrealists, games served as modes of destabilising the accreted and conventional forms of behaviour while providing access to subliminal and intuitive levels of awareness.

[3] With its combination of chance and skill, limiting rule and surprising discovery, the enjoyment of process and the pleasure or pain of outcome, the game offers a fascinating structure through which an artist can explore the complex and dynamic relationship among various alternatives that he has explored over a period of time.

Kashi transits from the austere commandments of the spirit to the pagan delights and agonies of the body in ‘Meeting in Darkness’. The artist chooses to employ dramatic lighting in these photographs, alluding to the realms of fashion and film noir. He floats his narrative around a pair of torsos, male and female, cast as though from sculptures dating back to classical antiquity, released from the museum and positioned within the domain of popular visual culture. These bodies conduct a muted dialogue of temptation and thwarted communion, trapped in wires, exhibited like scientific specimens or commodities in glass jars, hinting at the play of a tortured eroticism that is held just below the threshold of articulation. Classically the token of corporeal presence, the torso becomes a sign of absence, fragmentation and bewilderment in Kashi’s chiaroscuro scenography. Structured by allusion to the glissando succession of images in a slide show, ‘Chest of Secrets’ is a memoir phrased as a detective search carried out in the innermost recesses of the mind. In this video, the artist guides us without comment through shots of drawers that open to reveal sprouts and spikes, soft feathers and ripped gauze, pieces of torn paper and heaps of green chillies, silk threads and a sacred heart bordered with roses, a toy tiger and a toy trumpet, a hand-gun wrapped in newspaper and a deflated heart, green glass marbles and stuffed devil’s tails, torn paper and children’s plastic alphabet blocks. We pass, as though in swift and allegorical review, through a not unfamiliar biographical survey: the annals of a lost childhood, a swiftly passing youth, and an adulthood tinged with regret and self-questioning. Image persists across image, building into a slow release. Every now and again, we are stopped short by particularly unsettling contents that speak to fears and obsessions that we have buried deep within ourselves: a pair of dice, a set of bones, a broken doll stuffed into a drawer. Kashi conveys us to that deep substratum of consciousness where the roots of play and war, lust and affection, innocence and experience, quest and death mingle.

‘The Game’ originates in the artist’s delight in arranging objects to provoke spontaneous auguries. This procedure bears an affinity with the surrealist game of ‘The Exquisite Corpse’, in which collage-poems were developed through a sequence of unpredictable contributions by various hands. Indeed, Kashi’s procedures in ‘The Game’, with their reliance on the deep logic of dream and the deceptively random appearance of chance, have their origins in his continuing preoccupation with the principle of collage. At once lyrical and sinister, ‘The Game’ speaks of the astute gambits of spy-craft and of suits that fall into place by chance, of capricious dice that can change the fortunes of princes as in the Mahabharata, and of that greatest of games, the lila of the gods, from which, as we have noted, Indic myth suggests the world was born. At its core, ‘The Game’ is a relay of missives to the self, articulating the gamble that is self-recognition: To probe deeply into our motives, devices and impulses is a necessary enterprise if we are ever to discern a pattern to our journey through the world; but what is to be done with all the hidden others that we may find within ourselves?

(January-July 2010)


1. For an account of lila, see Richard Lannoy, The Speaking Tree: A Study of Indian Culture and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 19, 360-361.

2. For an account of homo ludens, see Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955; rpt. 1971).

3. For the Surrealist approach to the principle of play and the aleatory and quasi-oracular nature of truth as decipherable through the game, see Tristan Tzara’s recipe, ‘To Make A Surrealist Poem’, part VIII of his ‘Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love’ (1921), in Tristan Tzara, Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries (London & New York: Calder Publications & Riverrun Press, 1992), p. 39. In its entirety, this text goes: “Take a newspaper./ Take some scissors./ Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem./ Cut out the article./ Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag./ Shake gently./ Next take out each cutting one after the other./ Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag./ The poem will resemble you./ And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.” If we look past the defence mechanism of self-irony, we see that Tzara’s high-spirited yet profoundly serious appropriation of such divinatory techniques as that of the I Ching is not accidental.