Lines, colours, canvas, paper and ink gave shape to C.N. Karunakaran’s imagination. His works were a celebration of love and life.

The dignity of living as an artist was a distant dream when C.N. Karunakaran started his career as an artist in Kerala. There were no private or public agencies, or sufficient employment opportunities for a person to sustain his life with creative work. The period of more than 20 years of his life in Madras [Chennai] – from the stage of art education which started at the age of 12 in 1952 to the early 70s – that made him learn from different sources and the return to the native land was adventurous in every sense.

M.V. Devan, who invited him to join the Kerala Institute of Arts, Kochi (later known as Kerala Kalapeetom) as a teaching faculty, warned him not to expect much as an income from this occupation.

Karunakaran’s return to Kerala in 1970 was not with much pecuniary expectations but with a passion to live in Kerala. Since then he touched on all forms of design including illustration, poster, logos, book covers, layout, printing and publication and the like. Among these various media in which Karunakaran marked with his own signature, it was the illustrations that stamped his entry into the cultural arena of Kerala.

Style of his own

Karunakaran created a distinct style of visualising stories by integrating different sequences and multiple images into a coherent structure with his finest lines. His earlier illustrations appeared in Malayala Nadu Weekly and in special annuals of other periodicals. They brought a fresh outlook and were distinct from the expressionistic preoccupations of pioneers such as Namboothiri and A.S. Nair. Both in structure and form, Karunakaran’s illustrations of this period retained some features of his favourite painting, Guernicca.

It was also a period of the flowering of modernism in Malayalam literature, a period which appropriated all types of new trends in storytelling, poetry, criticism and layout and in publication. From major journals to college magazines to pamphlets, the trend demanded visualisation and execution from an artist and Karunakaran became an unavoidable presence though he was only partially rewarded for these works. Among the various media he handled in this period, it was the short story illustrations that marked his entry into the cultural arena of Kerala. It was in the late 80s and early 90s that C.N. Karunakaran emerged as a fulltime painter and pioneered solo exhibitions in Kerala where there was no art market or professionally run art galleries. The impact of these exhibitions created an enthusiasm to procure paintings from Kerala among art buyers who, till then, had gone to Mumbai or New Delhi to purchase paintings. This period also witnessed the growth of solo shows of young artists in various parts of Kerala in which Karunakaran’s solo exhibitions played a decisive role in creating confidence among the new generation.

The image making process of Karunakaran on canvas was viewed with great enthusiasm by artists who belonged to diverse aesthetic preoccupations and different generations. The magnificence of his palette and the inherent poeticism in imagery has been widely admired. In his fairy world, women appear as a central image and multiply into various forms wandering in a celestial romance which never fall into the terrain of eroticism. He was also particular in avoiding thematic narrative as it is a pure organic world inhabited by women, plants, full blossom trees, birds and other living beings of natural and unnatural origin. They are neither human beings nor superhuman but imaginary beings who carry the romance and serenity of a life that is impossible in the immediate environment.

Apart from this idealised figurative dream world, Karunakaran was also a painter of brilliant Kerala landscapes. He retained and re-defined the rhythms and vigour of early KCS Panicker landscapes to vibrant, passionate spaces of impressions. With his elegant patches of colour Karunakaran created a large body of landscapes over the years especially at art camps. It will be a meaningful contribution to the art of our times and to the painter himself if this significant body of Karunakaran landscapes is presented in a curated exhibition.