Face two face

Note: All images featured in this article are copyright of Cop Shiva.

Cop Shiva’s camera presents deeply investigative portraits of two performance artists, whether they know it or not, says Asawari Ghatage.

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Face Two Face, the debut solo show by Shivaraju “Cop Shiva” BS, drips with binaries of various kinds. Shiva’s subjects are Bagadehalli Basavaraju and Vidya Sagar, two longtime residents of Bangalore, both of who are given to obsessive and elaborate real-life masquerade acts – for many years now, Basavaraju has been known to promenade the city’s streets in guise of Gandhi, while Sagar, to locals familiar with him, has for long appeared convinced that he is an incarnate of the late Tamil cinema idol and politician, MG Ramachandran. In his photographs, which track the lives (and avatars) of Basavaraju and Sagar, Shiva attempts to unravel the real-life characters from their assumed personas, to disengage their true identities from the ones that they adorn. But there’s another level to the art about Shiva’s work, as he goes about capturing the various stages of an identity shift in the two men. In essence, Shiva’s camera paints deeply investigative portraits of two performance artists, whether they know it or not, and whether they will it or not.

Dominated by still frames, Face Two Face is presented as a sort of gateway into the elegant and fine membranes of human identity that its subjects permeate so easily. Hung facing each other on the walls of Gallery Sumukha, the images of the two men are sharply contrasted – one, (Basavaraju’s) vivid and gaily colourful, and the other, (Sagar’s) a report in stark monochrome. As a piece of “documentary”, Shiva explained that the work’s focus was on the inherent passion of his two subjects to personify their role models, and in the process, to capture the inscrutable manner in which they went about dissolving their identities. Between Basavaraju’s systematic modus operandi to transform every day into a version of Gandhi bathed in silver paint, to Sagar’s eclectic life of modelling the glamour of MGR, Shiva’s works capture speckles and flakes of the veneer of two character portrayals. Occasionally, the photographs succeed in breaking through to the actual actors that sit within; in a handful of pictures, of Basavaraju preparing his dhoti, for instance, or of Sagar belabouring his extravagant make-up, Face Two Face excels as a study of unfolding transformation.

Though the two men dissemble as the personalities who inspired them, there is a difference in the nature of their portrayals. Basavaraju, who performs as Gandhi, is restricted by boundaries of time and space, compelling him to step out of the façade after each performance, and go back to being his original self. Sagar, however, who by his own admission has spent a large portion of his life playing MGR, lives the role day in and out, to the extent of obliging speculations over the state of his rationality and judgment.

Face Two Face is presented as a gateway into the fine membrane of human identity.


Basavaraju selects days when he decides to adorn himself with silver paint, wear a dhoti, and don round glasses (they’re only rims), to either walk around town and mingle with people, or to assume a still, sculpted position for hours on end. “Basavaraju attempts to remind people of the ideology of Gandhi,” explained Shiva. “People sometimes treat him badly. They think he does it for the money, and throw a few coins at him. But his resolve to invoke Gandhi is strong, and he endures the reactions anyway.”

The discipline of transformation is an element common to both Basavaraju and Sagar. Albeit, in Sagar’s case, the routine has become a way of life, something he can no longer separate from his own identity, offered Shiva. Sagar started dressing up as MGR in his teen years, and has been at it for about 45 years now. In due course, habit turned to lifestyle, and his fixation reached the point of no return.

Sandhya Annaiah, the curator of Face Two Face, explained that she had to consider the spaces that the two men inhabit in real life, in order to rightly contextualise their portrayals. “Basavaraju performs in the public eye, and so, to show him in a public space was important,” she reasoned.  “[But] There’s no public involved when it comes to Vidya Sagar,” added Annaiah. “He doesn’t do it for the public. He does it for himself. It’s a very private and personal thing, so we portrayed him in his private and personal surroundings.”

For an added curatorial aspect, the distinction of colour was in fact derived from the acts of the subjects, observed Shiva – where Sagar fictionalises the blazing splendour of a former movie star and Basavaraju strives to embody the era of his idol. “Nobody will accept a Gandhi in colour,” noted Shiva. “That is not how we think of Gandhi. The monochrome is true to his time, and it is important to accept Basavaraju as a form of Gandhi in entirety. That is why he puts on the silver paint, to ensure that the audience does not see his true self during a performance.” In its muddled prospect, thus, Face Two Face surpasses itself as an exhibition of photographs, by impelling one to look beyond the visible and apparent, and query what is hidden from sight.

This piece was originally published in Time Out Bengaluru in May 2012 as a preview to Cop Shiva’s exhibition ‘Face two face’.

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