Monday, September 02, 2013

Going Back Home

Noted artist and Padma Bhushan winner A Ramachandran holds a retrospective of his works for the first time in his home state of Kerala

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

I have never missed Kerala,” says noted artist A. Ramachandran. “In fact, I regard myself as a world citizen. Whether in your native place or a foreign country, people are the same – some are good, while others are bad. I am a bird that was hatched in a nest, and then flew away.”

Ramachandran left Kerala 56 years ago. And he has no regrets about it. “If I had not left, the artist in me would have died,” says Ramachandran, who lives in Delhi. “Kerala society has no interest in what artists do. The people don't care about art. They will not stand in front of a painting because they are more interested in light music and films.”

Nevertheless, thanks to the initiative taken by the Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery, Ramachandran's first retrospective exhibition in Kerala has been held at the Durbar Hall in Kochi. The works, from 1964 to 2013, which has been curated by Prof R. Siva Kumar, the principal of the Kala Bhavan at Santiniketan, West Bengal, are a mix of paintings, watercolours, etchings and sculptures. 

Kerala, of course, has had an impact on Ramachandran’s artistic development. When he was a small boy, he lived close to nature. In the family property, at Attingal (32 kms from Thiruvananthapuram), there were mango and coconut trees, apart from tapioca and jackfruit. His mother would accompany 

Ramachandran to the nearby river for a bath. Sometimes, she took him to the Krishnaswamy temple. “That was where I saw mural paintings for the first time,” says Ramachandran. “It had a lifelong impact on me.”

Even as a child, he had a deep interest in art. Ramachandran would draw on the walls of his house, much to the chagrin of the members of his large joint family. When he was ten years old, he did a watercolour portrait of the family servant, Narayani.

When Ramachandran grew up, and finished his MA in Malayalam, he received a scholarship to study art under the noted sculptor Ramkinker Baij at Shantiniketan in 1957.

Ramkinker moulded me. He was a man with a vision who encouraged me to find my own way. A great artist, he taught me how to become one,” says Ramachandran, who won the Padma Bhushan in 2005. “Ramkinker spent his entire life trying to capture the mysteries of nature and the universe.”

The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore was on the same path. Once when Ramkinker was doing a portrait of the writer, Tagore said, “Ramkinker, whatever you see, capture it by the throat, and don’t leave it till you have got the complete vision. But once you have got it, never look back.”

Ramachandran has also followed the same dictum: he has never looked back. His early work had been dark, morose, urban-oriented and influenced by European art. But this changed, following his 1986 masterpiece, 'Yayati', a 60 ft. by 8 ft. painting. It is based on a story from the Mahabaratha and, for the first time, Ramachandran used bright Kerala mural motifs and images from the Ajanta Caves. “I got rid of all foreign influences,” he says.

Thereafter, Ramachandran has been on a unique path, producing works that are striking and thought-provoking. And the one new motif that has occurred often is the lotus. “The lotus is a beautiful flower,” he says. “In Buddhism, Hinduism, and Indian philosophy, the chakra and the mandela are depicted like a lotus. So this ordinary flower has a transcendental position in Asian art. I have observed the lotus pond in the early morning, noon, and evenings. The colours keep changing. It is never the same.”

Which is what you can say about Ramachandran’s work. At age 78, and 6' 2” tall, this silver-haired artist walks with a straight back and an easy smile. In Kochi, he was accompanied by his Chinese-origin wife, Tan Yuan Chameli. Asked about the reaction to his work by Malayalis, Ramachandran says, “I really don't know. Even if they don't like something, I am not going to change my work, because art has always been an expression of my soul.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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