Monday, September 28, 2009

Straight from the heart

Narayanan Namboodiri, living in rural Kerala, draws on everyday life with simplicity and sincerity

By Shevlin Sebastian

Last year, painter Narayanan Namboodiri read a book, ‘Athu Jeevitham’ by Malayali author Ben Yamin. It is a story of a young man, Najeeb, who goes from Kerala to a Middle East country and is forced to work as a slave in a farm where goats are being looked after.

When the Arab beats him, Najeeb begs for mercy but the former is unmoved. Once when Najeeb was having his bath, he got a kick in the back from the Arab who told him the water was not to be used for his personal needs.

Narayanan was so moved that he did a few sketches, in abstract style, on the scenes from the book. This was later published in the Sunday supplement of Deshabhimani newspaper which carried a review of the book.

“For me, art is instinctual,” he says. “It is a language that communicates easily to people. I don’t want to speak to people through my mouth, but with my brush and paints.”

Narayanan has been a painter for the past 20 years. And he has used all sorts of medium: sand, charcoal, acrylic, pencil and oil.

Although his favourite medium is oil, he has problems with it. “In the rainy season fungus forms on the canvas,” he says. “One reason is that the quality of the materials is not good. I tried a lot of methods to prevent the fungus, but it did not work.”

Customers used to call up and complain that the paintings they had bought had been ruined. So Narayanan uses acrylic these days but it does not give as much satisfaction as working in oils.

Art lover M. Kamruddin who has been following Narayanan’s work for many years, says his strong point is a photographic realism. “Narayanan is also good at drawing figures and, unfortunately, that skill is declining these days,” he says.

Kamruddin says Narayanan does not belong to any particular school. “He is producing original work,” he says.

Art promoter M. Asif Ali feels that Narayanan’s strong point is his simplicity. “He draws about events from everyday life, and as a result it has a wide appeal,” he says. “I have sold quite a few of his paintings.”

Narayanan says that, apart from nature and drawings on childhood, which has been inspired by his job as a school teacher, sometimes, he embeds a social message in his work.

For example, he has done a painting where a group of people are standing next to each other, in varying skin tones and holding flags of different colours. “What I am trying to say is that people still look at each other through the prism of caste or colour,” he says. “This sense of discrimination exists within every person.”

He has done a painting of Mahatma Gandhi, talking to a young man with his wife Kasturba lurking in the background, while at the side there is an image of Indians and British policemen fighting against each other.

“I always felt that the focus was on Gandhiji when we talk about the freedom movement, even though Kasturba has also played a very important role, both in her husband’s life and in the freedom struggle,” he says.

There is an elegantly simple watercolour of a few cows and a bullock cart: a typical village scene. “The beauty of the village is fading as more and more villages are becoming towns,” he says.

Narayanan, a soft-spoken person, lives in Mundur, 10 kilometres from Thrissur, with his wife, two teenage daughters and widowed mother. It is an idyllic landscape of trees, thick grass and fields. From his small studio on the first floor of a sprawling bungalow you can see wide swathes of greenery.

He gets up at 4 a.m., goes to the nearby temple for prayers and then works for two hours. Then he sets out for the Vannery High School in Perumpadappa, a 90 minute journey by bus to do his job as an art teacher.

“It has been difficult for me to make ends meet,” he says. Narayanan has not been able to sell much of the 2000 paintings he has done in the past 20 years. But recently he had a bit of good news. A Greek collector, Phainie Xydis Karneadou dropped in to his house and bought several paintings. “She liked the realism,” he says.

Indeed, realism is Narayanan’s forte. And he knows that most people prefer it to abstract art. “That is why the most popular painter in Kerala in the past 50 years has been Raja Ravi Varma,” he says. And even though the going is tough he smiles while reclining on an armchair in the verandah on a placid summer morning and says, “Painting is a passion for me and I am enjoying every minute of it.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)


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