Chameli, of Chinese origin, talks about life with the noted artist, A Ramachandran, a Padma Bhushan winner
Photo by Ravi Choudhary
By Shevlin Sebastian
During the introductory meeting of art students at Shantiniketan, West Bengal, in 1957, two people stood out. One was Chameli Tan Yuan, who was of Chinese origin. The other was the tallest person in the room, the Malayali artist A. Ramachandran, 6’2”, who was dressed in white shirt and trousers. Their eyes met.
“I think he got attracted to me instantly,” says Chameli. “But, later, when I saw his work, I was bowled over. I realised he was a genius.”
Chameli still remembers one particular work that affected her deeply: it was of a mynah in a tempera medium. “It was simple, beautiful, and impressive,” she says.
The couple would meet occasionally. Ramachandran would show Chameli his ongoing compositions. Slowly, they became friends. “We used to go for walks in the evening and talk about art, culture, and Malayalam literature. He used to talk about what a great writer [Vaikom Mohammad] Basheer was.”
Incidentally, Chameli was born in Shantiniketan because her father Tan Yun-Shan, a scholar from Hunan Province in China came to India in 1928 to teach Chinese at Shantiniketan, at the invitation of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Eventually, her father lived in Shantiniketan all his life, and died at the age of 85 in 1983 at Bodh Gaya. As for Chameli, she was born as Tan Yuan, but it was Tagore who gave her the Indian name.
Meanwhile, Ramachandran and Chameli carried on their courtship which lasted for 10 years. “It was not easy for us to marry because we came from such different backgrounds,” she says. “He was also a struggling artist.”
But, eventually, they had a registered marriage on June 2, 1967. And right from the beginning, Ramachandran's mother, Bhargavi Amma, accepted her whole-heartedly. “Amma was an extraordinary woman, and so different from other Malayali women,” says Chameli. “She never treated me badly even though I was not a Nair or Malayali. Instead, Amma gave me so much of love that I can never forget her.”
After 46 years of marriage, Chameli can also never forget Ramachandran. “He is a great artist,” she says. “I am not saying this because he is my husband. Ramachandran is a gifted person and his involvement in art is total.”
She also admires his honesty and straight-forwardness. But there is a drawback to this. “Ramachandran will say whatever he feels straight to your face,” says Chameli. “He is too blunt. Many people have misunderstood him and felt upset and angry. Some have called him rude and arrogant. I used to feel upset about this. Sometimes, I would go into shock. Because we Chinese have been taught to be polite at all times. We follow the Confucius way of thinking.”
But Chameli gradually got used to it. “Ramachandran told me that it is his nature,” she says.
Soon, the couple had two children, Sujatha and Rahul. But life was tough. “In those days, there was no art market,” she says. “For many years, we had a difficult time. The market opened up only recently. But his passion for art never diminished. Ramachandran would teach art at Jamia Islamia Milia during the day and work in the evenings and night on his art.”
Despite the difficulties, there was not much stress between the spouses. “We have always been friends,” says Chameli. “And we are professional artists who worked together writing and illustrating children's books. Because of our love of art, we were able to live harmoniously. It has been a strange, yet beautiful relationship.”
As for the Delhi-based Ramachandran, all the hard work has paid off. Today, he is a much-respected artist and was conferred with the Padma Bhushan in 2005. And when he goes around, people recognise him.
One day the couple went to see an ophthalmologist. In the waiting room, there was a mother and daughter. “I could hear the daughter say, 'That is Mr Ramachandran and his wife,'” says Chameli. “Then the mother said, 'Shall I ask him for a work?' But the daughter said no.”
Not surprisingly, there are people who come to the studio to see his compositions. “But Ramachandran does not like to entertain too many people as he would like to work,” says Chameli. “He prefers them to go to the gallery.”
On any given day, Ramachandran gets up at 8 a.m. Thereafter, he has a cup of tea and reads newspapers for two hours. After a bath and breakfast, he will go up to the studio on the first floor and start work. He will come down briefly for lunch at 2 p.m. Then he continues to work till 9 p.m. After a bath and dinner, the couple watches TV. “When we were younger, we would go out,” says Chameli who is 73, while her husband is 78. Both the children have flown the nest. While Sujatha lives in Toronto, Rahul is in Alabama, USA.
Asked for tips on a successful marriage, Chameli says, “A harmonious marriage does not happen just like that. Both spouses have to work at it. We were lucky we had similar likes and dislikes. Conflicts happen only because of disharmony. Find the common interests between the two and focus on that.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)