Meet Artist Padmavasan, for whom art is a form of meditation

The little boy dissolved into tears of frustration, as he was unable to capture the exact hue of a succulent mango. Surprisingly, his doting father let him cry. “These tears will plumb the wellspring of your creativity. Yearn with your whole being and you will find what you seek.”

Eminent artist Padmavasan (nee Giridharan) recollects the incident with a smile. Father Muthukumaraswami, a Sangeetha Bhushanam from the Annamalai University and a disciple of Dandapani Desikar, was and remains his greatest source of inspiration. “He ensured that not a single day went without my sketching something. Through me, he realised his dream of nurturing an artist in the family. Just like my grandfather Shanmugaratnam and uncle Sivasubramaniam. His credo? Passion for art coupled with hard work attains excellence. Come payday, he would reach home late, stopping en route to buy a new set of colours.”

At home, almirahs were reserved for back issues of Deepavali Malar carefully stacked in mint condition. Jewellery and valuables were kept outside!

Silpi left speechless

“I began sketching when I was two and a half and experienced the joy of discovery within the illustrated pages of these magazines. Master artist Silpi (P.M. Srinivasan) became my manasiga guru. His intricate drawings of temples and deities beckoned and had me sketching day and night to achieve perfection. Thus, the genre chose me.”

Meeting his idol for the first time in 1980, a wide-eyed 15-year old Giridharan laid out his sketches. It was Silpi's turn to become speechless. He had found his successor. “You have already learnt all that I know. Sit by my side and observe me.”

Giridhar was rechristened Padmavasan, combining Silpi's name (Srinivasan) with that of his late wife Padma. A month later, Silpi passed away, happy in the knowledge that his artistic legacy lived on. “He was orthodox, and lived a life of utter simplicity and dedication, even cooking his own meals. His original paintings were kept in a bundle wrapped in a yellow cloth. An instinctive artist, he recognised that quality in me. His counsel was, ‘Measurement should be only by the eye and not by scale. And choice of colours should flow from instinct, not planning'.” Padmavasan's signature style attracted assignments galore. Aval Vikatan's series ‘Nimmadhi Tharum Sannidhi' that revisited temples, was complemented by his iconography. “Knowledge of silpa sastra and a high degree of exactitude are essential. In this genre, one cannot take liberties.”

Special place

Depiction of Ganesha occupies a special place in his collection. A smiling avatar with laughing eyes, nestled behind a peepul leaf and another imposing Halebid sculpture-inspired form are testimony to his creativity. His drawings are also regularly showcased in Ramakrishna Mission's illustrated publications of the Mahabharata, Ramayana, children's tales and parables.

Padmavasan's portraits of M.S. Subbulakshmi (available as greeting cards) delve beyond the persona to capture the inherent grace and dignity of the doyenne. For six years, (1997-2003), Kalki's serialised epics ‘Sivagamiyin Sabadham' and ‘Ponniyin Selvan' sprang to life in a visual treat through Padmavasan's illustrations. Avid readers thrilled to the romance, valour, drama and intrigue of statecraft of a bygone era in the flickering light of wall sconces, shadowy figures, dark conspiracies, secret trysts and passageways. Contrasts abounded in vivid vignettes through the interplay of textures and emotions -- the tender curve of a woman's cheek glimpsed through a diaphanous veil against a grainy stone column, the muscled strength of a general's arm brandishing a sword with a chased silver hilt… He made history come alive! A single line would set off a train of thought. For instance, Kalki's description of a royal ceremonial procession would list the animal hierarchy – ‘first the bulls, followed by camels, horses and elephants. Finally, a glimpse of the king himself, swaying gently atop a magnificent caparisoned elephant. “Sketching into the wee hours, the intense concentration on fine detail caused a temporary strain on my vision.”

Padmavasan's works have found their way into the collections of connoisseurs worldwide. Recognition followed and included the NCERT Award. Two visits to Bulgaria (1980-81) to participate in the Banner of Peace conference at the invitation of the Government stand out in memory.

Soft-spoken and a man of few words, Padmavasan becomes animated when he talks about the Paramacharya of Kanchi, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi. “I am fortunate to have been touched by his grace just as Silpi was. It was from the acharya that I learnt about a temple at Surutapalli where a rare deity of Siva in sayana is enshrined. Within the near-empty mandapa, I sketched the vigraha during pradosha kala. When the article was published, the public flocked the sthala.”

Mentors Madiyoli Saraswathi (Nandalala Trust), artists Gopulu and Maniam Selvam have been sources of encouragement. Supportive wife Rajeswari ensures that he works undisturbed. Young sons Pranav and Priyan are budding artists.

His favourite artist? “Michelangelo. One look at his ‘Pieta' will move anyone to tears. Every line of the sculpture captures the pathos.” Padmavasan sees art as a form of meditation. Old Hindi and Tamil songs set the mood and time ceases to exist as he immerses himself in work. “It's my world and complete in itself,” he muses. “Divinity powers my faith which in turn guides my art.”