A novel with no words

M S Murthy released his `visual novel’ two years back. The book received rave reviews, despite defying the common notion of what a novel should be like. The `novel’, is really a thoughtful assortment of images, sometimes with just a dot, that requires no knowledge of language to read it. Buoyed by the response to Drushya, the artist plans to complete his next book, about women, in a year. He talks to Radhika M B about the path breaking work. Read on:

Why did you call your work, a visual novel? It could have been named a `coffee table art book’ for instance, or a `mobile art exhibition’…for the collection of paintings and photographs that it is.

Visual Novel is very suggestive and an appropriate for the book. I wanted it to reach all sections of the society and not just the ‘fancy elite’. I did have to use language to narrate what I wanted to narrate. All the images in Drushya, are an experience. I have had to sift through thousands of images to communicate ideas. Each image is distinct from each other, and yet forms a pattern. It sets the viewer off on a thought process. The images evoke memory. For me, it was about allowing the reader to use it as `holding a gallery by hand’, or a library.

I am not challenging the literary world. I call it a novel and ask people to read it. If you do not consider it a novel, ask yourself why you think it is `not a novel’. Apply your novel reading experience to this and it will give you a different visual experience.

What is the artist community’s response to the book?

The response was overwhelming. It has reached and been accepted by artists, literary community and common man alike.

Visual novel in popular culture at the moment refers to comic novels initiated in Japan. In the international arena, do you think Drushya has the potential to garner response?

The book ‘Visual Novel’ is all about content & context, I never concentrated on its aspects of reachability in that sense. But it should reach people.

All of a sudden and before the launch of Drushya, you earned the `rebel’ artist tag for objecting to a minister’s remarks on modern art. What happened in the aftermath? Did you face any kind of opposition or boycott from artist community?

For the first time in the art history of my State Karnataka, an artist expressed his opinion so openly and tried to correct a political leader in aspects of modern art. At the said function to inaugurate the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, the minister made statements trashing modern art. I spoke on behalf of the art community…why would artists oppose or boycott?

The world of creativity is rebellious. You break monotony and change form. When you take a different direction or change an angle, you become a rebel. Most artists work their responses to things happening around or statements, on canvas. But then if I think of something strongly, I do not need to just express on canvas. When faced with such a practical problem or situation, I only asked the minister how he could call modern art stupid when he did not know about it. He asked me to get out. The artist community in that gathering was quite. But came out later in force, to protest a fellow artist’s being thrown out like that.

If you talk of artists in history, Picasso never tolerated things that he felt were wrong. Van Gogh suffered but did not compromise. But they all worked at art.

Even in Kannada literature, each literary movement came about when people questioned the previous trend and changed direction. Modern art is closer to life. It transfers realistic life directly into art form. Even modern art is a form of rebellion. My book is also about rebelling.

The connection to native imagery and form has a strong presence in the collection…did you have a conscious idea to promote native culture?

I would say I have the roots of native culture in my personality. And I have transferred the native essence in the form of ‘Visual Novel’. People from India living abroad say its imagery makes them feel nostalgic. They are touched. People from other countries find it interesting, with pictures from India that have a focus. Just like every film is made in a social context, every work of art, is made in a social context of a region. So the native essence or rural essence, persists.

Do elaborate on the extensive use of child art in the sequence of images. What was the reason?

I feel‘any child is a born artist’.  For people who use this medium to express themselves, it will open their journey of visual world the way a child enjoy surroundings as it is….

Years ago, I did my thesis titled `Pictures of a child’s mind’ at the Hampi University. For two decades, I travelled rural India extensively and experienced thousands of pieces of children’s art that I collected and studied. Eventually I concluded, that all children are the same. Their expression is similar, across classes, castes, religion and region. It is we adults who insist on them making `good pictures’, when most of us do not even know what a `good picture’ or painting means. On the contrary, every stroke by a child is poetry. Children’s perception is corrupted by parents who are greedy and only think their children should become big in their profession.

Through the use of child art, I intended to show respect for their work. A renowned professor who took my book home, confessed that he was not able to lay hands on it for a long time, because every member in his family, from children to adults, were busy looking at the imagery and getting lost in thoughts. It appealed to people of all ages.

The usual structure of a story requires a beginning, a middle, and a culmination of that journey…in Drushya, thoughts trail off into different stories, concepts, philosophies and imagination…did you intend to discard the basic format of story-telling? If so,why? If not, why?

In our society, alphabets have overshadowed the very essence of visual sense. All our understanding has developed through the alphabet and word. As a result, our non-linguistic sense is completely ignored.

Through generations, the written word expected every other form to `literally’ follow its course and ensured a state where all knowledge had to be acquired through word alone. It went on to weigh and evaluate music, arts and even life. It did not acknowledge and engage with the expression of other media. Such expressions exist though, in our rural culture, where they have been preserved silently.

Compared to the `literary’ novel, visual images can project a wide canvas. They lend themselves to perennial reading through consciousness. There is no compulsion to read it from the first page to last in a sequential mode, compared to a literary novel. My novel looks like an `absurd’ one narrated through visual vocabulary’s metaphors.

What was the idea behind having so many open ended images even if there was something connecting them?

The thought, behind open ended images, had to do with `seeing’. By seeing, I mean seeing things in-depth. In our fast moving culture, people move past so many images in their daily lives, that they do not really `see’ them. `Seeing’ is a culture. I wanted to give people that experience. This can also be understood as `perceiving’. In the book, each image connects to another. It depends on the reader’s perception though, what connects these images.

Why did it take so long from the idea to the final product?

Some like to communicate their views with the speed of light, whereas I believe in ‘slow walk of visual novel’, to grasp and express things naturally. It took time to finally form a book. It took me five years of active work on it, but it began as a thought 18 years back.

Has there been a response to Drushya that moved you? Can you elaborate on forthcoming projects?

I was moved by the tremendous response from the people of all walks of life who through the book, identified their own images, their own experience, their own story. It confirmed that the ‘visual language’ is powerful and close to heart. On the inaugural day alone, we sold 300 copies!

I published it myself. Many told me that at Rs 750 a copy, it was very expensive. At the bookstores, people did not know where to place it – fiction or art shelves…they later placed it in Fiction section because I called it a visual novel. Some buyers were curious initially, to find pictures instead of words. They kept asking the store folks questions about the book. People still bought it, because they thought the book communicated visually well.

Women & Kama is my upcoming project. If Drushya is about assorted images that had images ranging from ragi (finger millet), birds, dogs and dots, in Women and Kama, I want to explore and elaborate on the subject of women, in the Indian context. The work will be similar to Drushya, but with a different dimension.