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Updated: February 5, 2010 15:29 IST

Master of symbolism

LAKSHMI VENKATRAMAN
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This painting by Rajam denotes the month of February.
This painting by Rajam denotes the month of February.

His figures were delineated with strong and flowing lines giving a rare elegance to the characters.

“Painting is representing nature and not reproducing it,” said Anand Coomaraswamy and S. Rajam, the multifaceted artist, had a firm belief in that statement. He declared that he was interested more in the gracefulness of form than realism; symbolism and suggestive representation were more difficult than photographic realism. Almost till the end he painted, bent over his table at his home in Mylapore, with the same dedication, his favourite medium being watercolour.

When he was studying in the eighth class, Rajam was drawn to art by his classmate Lingaiah; when he joined the School of Arts & Crafts, Rajam too joined the institution. His uncle, who worked in a bookshop, used to get him imported books on art, while his neighbour gifted him a Reeves colour box. Rajam never forgot these two gentlemen who set him on his artistic journey. He was of the opinion that Indian culture should be promoted through painting. He sketched on the spot the frescoes of Ajanta, Sittannavasal and Sigiria in Sri Lanka. When he learnt that the frescoes were painted by monks, he realised that art had to come from within and was not to be gained just through training. He used to travel to Mahabalipuram with his friends by bullock cart or by boat through the Buckingham canal to sketch the sculptures. He had over 300 sketches of the monumental sculptures.

Rajam had a special technique of washing the paper after every layer of colour, which helped the colour get fixed on the surface of the paper. He also painted on silk fixed on plywood, the texture accentuating the tonal effect. Plywood treated with egg white was another surface he chose.

It was not as if he could not paint in the academic style. “In the Indian style importance is more for subject rather than perspective; it is not as if we do not know perspective, it is just that we do not attach importance to it,” he said once. Even the house where he lived in Pallavaram was known as ‘Fresco House.’ His interest in music never was in conflict with his dedication to art.

When he was employed with AIR, his duty was only in the evening; his morning was devoted totally to painting and reading literature relevant to his art. “I painted till four in the afternoon in natural light, as there was no electricity in Pallavaram where I lived; the rural atmosphere gave me peace of mind to read and paint a lot,” he commented. He had painted hundreds of scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Saivite and Vaishnavite themes as well as Sangam literature and Thirukkural. This meant that he had to read them carefully in order to incorporate all the facts in detail and also absorb the moods. The main theme or character was shown prominently and the connected events and persons were painted in a smaller size in the background with less sharpness. His figures were delineated with strong and flowing lines giving a rare elegance to the characters.

Besides deities he painted various other characters such as Navagrahas, Ashtadikpalakas, nine most important Vaggeyakaras, etc. His depiction of the Carnatic Trinity decorates almost all music institutions and worshipped. His painting of Muthuswamy Dikshitar was used by the Indian Postal Department for a stamp, though he was not given the credit for it. In recent times he also illustrated the Panchbootha Kshetra Kritis and Navagraha Kritis of Dikshitar, the Melakarta Raga Chakras.

‘Periyapuranam’ brought out by him with illustrations was later published in English and Hindi. He was commissioned by Sri Jayendra Saraswathi to paint ‘Vishnudhyanam,’ ‘Brahmadhyanam’ and ‘Sivadeeksha’ each with over 30 works. He was sought after by Corporate houses for calendar illustrations and Tamil magazines for special issues. Even his letter head had his drawings. His publication, ’Musings on Music,’ had drawings and paintings on Swaradevatas along with notes on Carnatic, Hindustani and Western music. Some specially created paintings were acquired by the Hindu temple in Hawaii.

Though Rajam had won several honours and titles for music, he did not receive any recognition for his art from organisations, though he did have admirers all over the world. His passing away is indeed a great loss to the world of Indian art.

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