Playing Doubles

The inspired art of a man with two lives

Bagadehalli Basavaraju in his Gandhi incarnation, as captured by Shivaraju BS. © SHIVARAJU BS
01 July, 2012

VISITORS TO AN EXHIBITION of photography in Bengaluru this May were greeted with what appeared to be a shot of a life-size statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. But on closer scrutiny, details of the black-and-white photograph emerged—there were pores on the subject’s skin, and the statue was, improbably, standing in the middle of the road. As one moved along the row of photographs on the wall, the statue seemed to move as well: now balanced on a cycle and now mid-stride, walking through the backyard of a house.

The photographs were part of an exhibition at Gallery Sumukha titled Face Two Face, the debut solo show of a man famous in Bengaluru for his fascinating double life: Shivaraju BS is a constable with the city’s police who has a parallel career as a photographer. Ironically, it is in the latter life that he is known by his snappy nickname, Cop Shiva.

Shivaraju’s life took a defining turn in 2007, when he moved into an art gallery in the city named 1 Shanthi Road, a space for alternative art practices, run by curator (and Shivaraju’s cousin) Suresh Jayaram. Shivaraju’s father was undergoing treatment for cancer in a nearby hospital and Suresh offered him accommodation in the gallery. He didn’t quite have the space to himself, however. Sharing it with him were sculptures fashioned from trash by a Sri Lankan artist, part of the show running at the time. “I was shocked. I didn’t know art. What was this?” says Shivaraju, recalling his first impressions of the art on display. Taking up residence in a loft above the gallery space, Shivaraju, the son of a farmer in Bannikuppe, a village near Ramnagara, continued with his job as a constable but in his spare time also pitched in to help Jayaram run 1 Shanthi Road.

His proximity to art began to inspire him and soon Shivaraju felt that he wanted to participate in the art world beyond his role as gallery coordinator. He started by taking photographs because, he says, he felt a natural affinity for the medium and because it allowed him to interact with people.

Shivaraju’s approach to his photography is instinctive. “I take a picture of someone, give it back and see their reaction—for me that’s what counts. That happy moment, that’s what I want to enjoy.” As a policeman used to working in crowded areas, shooting in public places didn’t daunt him in the least.

The subjects of Shivaraju’s first solo show resonate powerfully with the fact of the artist’s own divided life. Bagadehalli Basavaraju and Vidyasagar are both individuals who spend considerable chunks of their days garbed and made up as other men—the former as Mohandas Gandhi, the latter as the legendary Tamil film star MG Ramachandran. Some might describe them as “celebrity impersonators”, and yet there is something stirring about their stories and the moments of their lives that Shivaraju has captured through his lens.

A school teacher in Chikmagalur, Bagadehalli has spent his free time for the past 12 years touring villages and towns, dressed up as Gandhi, often standing in one pose for as long as five hours. Shivaraju first saw him while on security duty at a festival in Bengaluru. Bagadehalli’s aim, says Shivaraju, is to spread awareness of Gandhian ideology. “He wears silver paint for the whole day,” says Shivaraju. “I’ve told him it’s dangerous, but he believes that the silver paint makes him look 100 percent Gandhi. People throw coins at him, think he is mad. But he is doing something special.”

Shivaraju’s other subject is 62-year-old Vidyasagar, who since the age of 18 has dressed and made himself up to look like MGR because, Shivaraju explains, “he really really likes MGR movies and MGR”.

Through the long process of capturing images of the two men—Shivaraju has followed both of them for two and a half years—an intimacy developed between the photographer and his subjects. He recalls Vidyasagar confiding in him about visits to a ladies beauty parlour, into which he was allowed because the staff were MGR fans. Unfortunately, Shivaraju adds, the repeated perming he underwent caused Vidyasagar’s hair to fall out. But he persists in his role-play, now wearing a curly wig to keep up his resemblance to the actor. “Without makeup, Vidyasagar refuses to leave his house. He feels sick if he doesn’t,” Shivaraju says of the man’s consuming passion.