The secret of death

A dhoti-clad Nachiketa walking into the depths of a jungle; a conversation between Nachiketa and Yama (The God of death); and Nachiketa walking forward on an urban street as things move behind — these were the three scenes that were projected onscreen from three different projectors as the riveted audience sat at the Chatterjee & Lal Gallery in Colaba. The projections were part of a video installation created by Ashish Avikunthak on the Katho Upanishad, a sacred text of theHindus.

While the first and the third projections were looped, the middle segment, which is the most important, was an enactment of the conversation between Nachiketa and Yama (the God of death), where Yama reveals to him what happens after death. Yama tries to provide solutions to the spiritual seeker inside Nachiketa as he tells him the route to escape the cycle of life and death.

“I have been reading philosophical texts from a young age. I started reading the Upanishads when I was in High School and read the Katho Upanishad when I was 16. I always wanted to make a film on the Katho Upanishad,” says the 40-year-old Avikunthak, who has been making films for 17 years. He made a film titled Katho Upanishad, which was released last year and now, he has taken on the subject once again, with this video installation. “The film was made in three shots and the entire conversation was taken as one shot. The three shots have been projected as three simultaneous projections in the installation — the seeking, the part where the knowledge is imparted and after attaining enlightenment,” Avikunthak elaborates.

Stills from Katho Upanishad

The conversation between Nachiketa and Yama dealt with the story where Nachiketa goes in search of Yama and looks for him in the forests for three days and three nights. As Yama left Nachiketa unattended for three days and nights, he grants him three boons. The three boons that Nachiketa asks are: May my father’s rage be calmed; give me the knowledge of the fire element which is the gateway to heaven and lastly, what happens after death? After granting the first two boons, Yama is reluctant to grant the third, but gives in after seeing Nachiketa’s persistence. His replies form the crux of the Katho Upanishad.

Yama explains that the supreme spirit resides in one’s body and when one realises that after the soul leaves the body, nothing remains. When one comprehends the state of supreme bliss, one can escape the cycle of life and death. The artist admits that the film and video installation are a result of his own quest for answers: “When I ask myself the meaning to life when you know you are going to die, I find the need to look for answers.”

So, did he find any answers through his journey? “I may not have the answers but the Upanishads have shown me a path. It says one must cross a river but it doesn’t teach you to swim. It tells you that the cycle of life and death can be escaped. If you are looking for enlightenment look within yourself as God is within you,” he concludes.

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