What is it like to strike a balance between art and art administration? Divya Kumar finds out from Rm. Palaniappan, recently appointed director of the South Zone Cultural Centre

Rm. Palaniappan sounds harassed when I call to set up this interview. In addition to his role as regional secretary of the Lalit Kala Akademi since 1997, he's recently been appointed director of the South Zone Cultural Centre — one of the seven Zonal Cultural Centres (ZCCs) that support folk and tribal arts in India — right on the eve of the ZCC's 25th anniversary celebrations in Chandigarh. And then, of course, there's the artwork he produces, which has made him one of the country's most respected graphic artists over the last several decades.

“Sometimes administrative work is very stressful,” he admits when we finally meet, late Saturday evening, at his Lalit Kala office. “Many artists don't like it; you have to balance your artistic instinct with administrative rules and regulations.”

But he's found a way to do it, working on his personal art at his studio in Kodambakkam till 2 a.m., and keeping the day free for his administrative work. “I have a very clear ethic. I never do art during official time,” he says, adding with a touch of pride, “And I've never sacrificed my art — I've produced as many works as other artists.” He pauses and then laughs, “Maybe I have a bit of a dual personality!”

Indeed, if you've only ever met Palaniappan in an official capacity — as I had till now — for pragmatic purposes such as the opening of art shows at Lalit Kala, it's a revelation to hear him speak about his artwork. The quiet administrator, who looks perpetually careworn, transforms into a passionate artist when he speaks about lines and abstraction, time-space and metaphysics.

Even in his art, you could say Palaniappan works with a dual perspective — that of a mathematician/astronomer and an artist. His minimalist abstract works — whether intricately etched prints, spare drawings or avant-garde mixed media creations —reflect a lifelong fascination with flight, movement and space.

“From when I was young, I was very focussed on mathematics and astronomy, and was keen on looking into universal space, to see what lay beyond the stars and galaxies,” he says. In 1970, at the age of 13, he saw a World War II film in his hometown of Devakottai, and the flight of war planes left a deep and lasting impression, one that influences his work until today (“I saw their movement as if it was a drawing”).

But it wasn't till the final year of his studies at the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Chennai that these interests found their expression in his art. In fact, he reveals with a smile, his nickname until then was ‘Rembrandt': “I was very good at rendering realistic images; I wanted to be an old master.”

All that changed when a senior inspired him to let go of real-life references and to turn to his imagination instead. “That's when I began to play with my perceptions of flight and movement in space; that's when my journey into abstraction began,” says the National-award winning artist.

Over the years, his work has evolved along these themes — whether it's his ‘Document series', inspired by scientific documents and flight plans, or his ‘Alien Planets series' which explores both the mysteries of space and our psychological reaction to it. His visual language has grown more and more philosophical, often containing riddle-like titles and code-like text which, he says, speak a language of their own, documenting the time and space in which they were created. But his core preoccupations remain: “I want to fly, to create a three-dimensional picture in actual universal space,” he says dreamily. “But I can't, so I create all of this conceptual art.”

Such flights of fancy in one breath, and in the next, Palaniappan is speaking quite prosaically about the numerous other projects he's undertaken over the years, from curating national exhibitions to producing major art publications, from travelling on cultural missions to Australia, France and Germany to giving lecture demonstrations at universities across the U.S. But it's all in a day's work for this 55-year-old. Well, sometimes much more than a day's work.

“There have been times when I've worked 60 hours at a stretch, without a break,” he says ruefully. “I stretched my time extensively. But age doesn't permit that anymore.”

Indeed, he has started to slow down a bit in the last couple of years, since his wife's death, and hasn't produced works at quite the same pace. And as much as he says he enjoys his administrative work (“it has given me cultural wings, to see India's art as one”), the time has come when he'd like to return to his purely artistic roots.

“I'm ready to switch over completely to my artwork, to spend two or three years just seeing what's inside me,” he says. Whether the organisations he's steering will be willing to let him go is another question. But there's no doubt that this artist still has many hours of flight left in him.

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Arts, Entertainment & EventsMay 14, 2012