“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”
He doesn’t exist when I go closer. The star, I mean. Instead, I see multiple faces looking at me. All these faces together make up the phenomenon called Shah Rukh Khan. These faces are from the streets of Lahore, the artist tells me over the phone. It is an old work of his, part of the 2004 Ommatidia series which comprises photo-mosaics of thousands of pixel-like photographs. A metaphor for the fragmentation of our awareness, our fragmented selves. It is the mosaic that carries the meaning. Not in the binaries but in complex meanings of border, gaze and, mostly, love. The mosaics are metaphors too. We stand at the intersection of gazes. Multiple, single gazes. There is him and them looking at us. There is us looking at him and them, and maybe even “us” in a new way.
Rashid Rana, a leading South Asian artist based in Lahore, works with subversion and conflicting realities where he calls upon viewers to re-examine their relationship with history, politics and perceptions. In this oscillation between the macro and the micro understandings, the viewers can see people like themselves. In his approach, there is an effort to transcend patriotic narratives.
When Outlook approached the artist and the Mumbai-based Chemould Prescott Road gallery with the proposition of using SRK’s portrait for the cover, Rana said it would be interesting to see how an image he made using the compound eye analogy of the Bollywood star in 2004 is rethought in the current context. “The hope is that everyone who looks at the image sees themselves in it,” he adds.
An image has its own life. This image is then an interventionist form. Images can be rethought. Hence, the cover image.
“Hero worship is a phenomenon common across continents and cultures, but in the subcontinent it includes several other dimensions. Here people adore heroes from a country that lies politically at a distance, yet geographically and historically so close,” says artist and critic Quddus Mirza on the Ommatidia series.
Back in the days when antennas were installed on rooftops for TV reception, a household in Lahore eagerly waited for Bollywood films on Doordarshan. Rana remembers the time when his relatives came from all over Pakistan to watch Mughal-e-Azam, the 1960 magnum opus starring Dilip Kumar and Madhubala, on the Indian state-run channel Doordarshan. There was Chitrahaar, the delightful melange of Bollywood songs. And there were all these films and they touched him. “The DD programmes used to be relayed from Amritsar,” he says. Rana grew up watching Indian cinema and revisited that relationship in his work later. “You analyse why you are acting in such a way and then you realise you have watched all those romantic films and songs. It is a two-way thing. We act as if we are the characters in these films. In their own way, they affect us in a subliminal way,” he says.
That’s how the Ommatidia series was conceived. SRK was among the three Bollywood stars he depicted for their cross-border appeal. Hrithik Roshan and Salman Khan were the other two. The three heroes came to him instinctively. They had a huge fan base in Pakistan. Rana is also a fan and sang Tujhe dekha toh yeh jaana sanam from DDLJ to woo his then girlfriend (now wife) when she first visited his studio in 2007.
Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan and Salman Khan, the three Bollywood stars who feature in Rashid Rana’s Ommatidia series.
The portrait he selected is a soft one. The eyes seem to smile. It was deliberate.
Bollywood songs have that sweet voice and this translates into the camera, he says. Rana’s artistic practice, especially photo mosaic works from 2002-2009, focus on the notions of duality, paradoxes, contradictions, polarities and parallel reality. Rana says, “I believe that these dualities are very effective as a tool for lessening the drama of presumed absolutes and negating them because they often draw attention to their own absurdity.”
“Shah Rukh exists as an illusion. It dissolves when you go near. He dissolves. This maze of gaze plays. It is the past looking at the present. He exists because of the people,” he adds. “The person looking at the cover will start seeing themselves in Shah Rukh. The third gaze is very important. In this age, everything is art and everyone is the curator. Viewer is the new artist.”
I am an optimist. Like Rana. Art transcends borders, boundaries. It is an expression. We should be free to express ourselves.
In 2013, SRK had written a piece in Outlook called ‘My Name is Shah Rukh Khan’.
“We create little image boxes of our own. One such box has begun to draw its lid tighter and tighter at present. It is the box that contains an image of my religion in millions of minds,” he had written.
That’s why the mosaic, the tiny boxes. To me, the gaze of SRK, the illusionary whole, is the oppositional gaze, a defiant act. The term ‘oppositional gaze’ was developed in 1992 by feminist author Bell Hooks, who said the power is in the looking. The definition of “looking” is also an act of understanding and perceiving. While a ‘gaze’ is a scopophilic act, it has this potential to be a method of resistance. Oppositional gaze then refers to ‘looking’ as a defiant act. Here, we see him and he sees us looking for his place in the ‘new India’.
Khan is a displaced subject but nonetheless, he possesses a gaze here that has the ability to subvert power structures, to force us to look for meanings, to remind us that it is the people who make a star. We live in a culture dominated by visual images. Media theorists use the term “gaze”, a double-sided term, to refer both to the ways in which viewers look at images of people and to the gaze of those depicted in those images.
Remember the myths. Remember the evil eye and the gorgon Medusa, whose gaze could turn any object to stone. Hitler prided himself on his hypnotic gaze. Jean-Paul Sartre in his Being and Nothingness portrayed the state of being watched as a threat to the self. There are all these theories. There is a meaning in the unfocussed. We just have to look for it. With our human eyes.
The image will haunt us. That’s the hope.