With “Bapu…On the Serrated Road”, Kesav Rao throws light on the many facets of the Mahatma

Mahatma Gandhi, with his humanity, sensitivity and spiritual aura, has been a favoured subject with many artists. His dynamic character has been brought alive in a visual language that varies from realistic to quasi-abstract.

Seminal artists of the pre-Independence era such as Nandalal Bose, Mukul Dey and K. Venkatappa have rendered with insight and sensitivity the persona of Bapu. He has been celebrated post-Independence too — by artists such as K.M. Adimoolam (he rendered in pen and ink the crucial events in the life of Bapu, to celebrate his birth centenary in 1969), Alphonso Doss (he engaged with the philosophical dimension of Gandhiji's persona) and contemporary artist Atul Dodiya (he used the shutters of Mumbai shops as the backdrop to paint Mahatma Gandhi).

Adding to the galaxy of Bapu's portraits is Kesav Rao, a Hyderabad-based artist, with his “Bapu…On the Serrated Road” at Lalit Kala Akademi.

The works are primarily rendered in black and white using charcoal and pastels on paper, creating stark contrasts. The works are mainly portraits derived from photographs. But, the similarities end there.

Each portrait frame is a narrative, containing a story or an important event from the life of Bapu. Consequently, within the gallery space, there emerge the myriad moods of the Mahatma — solemn, serious, cheerful, laughing, smiling, contemplating, engaging.

Kesav Rao, with his few coloured and primarily black and white sketches does not attempt a staid portrait gallery of this national icon; rather, he depicts Gandhiji's preoccupation within his political, social and cultural sphere.

There is no psychological insight as the artist has had no personal contact with the great man, but he has assiduously read the political, cultural and social speeches of Gandhiji delivered on various occasions, and reading between the lines, conjured the persona of this freedom fighter.

Rao captures the imagination of the viewer through his artistry and the medium. Though rendered in black and white, power emanates from his works because of the manipulation of the element of light. The strident play of contrasts is tenebrist in nature, inspired by the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the two Dutch artists who played with light. The emotional content of his sketches, therefore, articulates the vibrancy and vivid potency of the subject through nuanced shades of gradation using charcoal or pastel stick.

Thought process

The backgrounds in certain works are menacingly dark but positioned to evoke stage setting, or convey the churning thought process as Gandhiji walks lost in his feelings; turbulent slashes of vortexed lines and shades reflect his mental state.

At the other end of the spectrum are images of Bapu on a stark white background. In a creative twist, Rao's approach is expressionist, as evidenced in the distortion of form, semantically conveying the psychological power of Bapu that pushed him to perform such courageous feats.

Interestingly, technique and form are not binaries in opposition; rather, they integrate to convincingly project an energetic and vibrant persona. And, Rao's prowess in drawing, draftsmanship and understanding of light comes to the fore in the show, on at Lalit Kala Akademi till March 28.