Artist Jitha Karthikeyan talks of why she paints the man on the street
In the quiet of a moonlit night, a young lady paces the length of her terrace. She has paint stains on her clothes, hands and feet. A little room to the side bares telltale splatters on its concrete floor. Within, stacked canvases cushioned by bubblewrap line the walls. Fisherfolk, migrant labourers and indigenous tribesmen stare through the plastic, their piercing white eyes demanding a longer gaze. Their creator is Jitha Karthikeyan, one of the few contemporary artists in the city and the first Coimbatorean to be offered a solo exhibition at Contemplate Art Gallery.
A light bulb dangling from the centre of the steeped studio roof illuminates a work in progress — ‘Crises of Belonging’. Against a black backdrop, six men line up, their arms tied to each other by white rope. They are fishermen captured for trespassing into a neighbouring nation’s waters. “We write about ‘vast oceans’ but there’s nothing vast about them! They end where our imaginary borders are drawn. We have divided land, air and water. Then we expect people like fishermen, to whom the sea belongs, to abide by those divisions,” she says.
What the world calls diplomatic conflicts are, in Jitha’s mind, wars fought for individual identities. “I paint about prevalent issues. Something I’ve read in the paper or seen on TV sticks in my head and there’s no peace till I’ve painted it out,” she says. Jitha explores these issues through the stories of the average man on the street. “I’ve always been fascinated by people. As a kid, if my father took time at a store, I’d never mind, because I could watch everyone around me longer,” she says.
Crowded railways stations are, therefore, Jitha’s favorite haunt. She spends hours on the platform bench where the unreserved compartment halts, ‘to watch India pass by’. “When the train stops, everybody has this blank look on their faces and I’d wonder, ‘Where are they coming from and where are they going? Are they sure of jobs in the places they’re going to? Are they convinced life will improve once they get there?’”
These thoughts soon led to a series of oils, including ‘The Enigma of Arrival’ and ‘Unreserved Third Class’. Both feature men with sunburnt skin, in clothes that reveal distant cultures, all their belongings tucked into a gunny sack. Weeks of reading and poring over photographs go into every story Jitha paints. “The Indian Railways website will never show the unreserved compartment; so, it depends on how keen my observation is,” she says. From the common checked shirt to the exact brown of a well-worn suitcase and the casual lungi fold, every mannerism is thought through.
Some of the men Jitha saw on these trains once stepped off in Coimbatore to build the colony she now lives in. As the homes took shape, she absorbed their lives. “I didn’t know their names, but I did know that the near future wouldn’t host them in the kind of houses they were building. They came and went like ghosts,” she says. Thus was born her series on migrant construction labourers — ‘Ghost Workers’ — paintings of life-size, solitary men against the grey buildings they built, the skies above crisscrossed by black tangled wires. Hers are always unsmiling men, their large white eyes insisting on eye contact. “My paintings aren’t pretty pictures and the issues I confront aren’t to be smiled about,” she explains.
The world around wasn’t always Jitha’s subject. Her earliest paintings searched for answers to queries existence threw up. “After four of those, I didn’t have anything more to say. So, I began questioning lives outside mine.” With a father who painted to pass time, the brushes and oils lying around the house laid Jitha’s artistic foundations. “I always wanted to paint. Whether happy or sad, I’d rather paint than talk to people. Even drawing in school records or birthday cards made me happy. But school doesn’t tell you there’s a career in art. When children know who Newton, Einstein and Galileo are, why not Ravi Varma, Van Gogh or Leonardo?”
So, after degrees in psychology and a short stint as a fashion designer, Jitha reverted to her first love in early 2000. Under the guidance of Raviraj from Lalit Kalakshetra, Jitha began sending out her work. Her distinct style and content was soon welcomed into contemporary art circles outside Coimbatore. In the city, Contemplate’s Rajshree Pathy saw promise in her. The gallery backs Jitha. “Without art school, you take longer to find your voice. Experiences as a self-taught artist make you grow, though. Now, I can say of my work: ‘This is really me’.”
Jitha’s den on the terrace has been her space for growth. After long nights there, she tiptoes down two flights of stairs to a silent house and sleeping children. In the dining room hangs ‘I’ve Seen Enough’, a painting of an abused child with dishevelled hair against a blood-red background. “I’m not a social worker fixing the world’s problems, but I feel the need to tell people’s stories. As long as there’s life in me, my eyes can see and my hands can hold a brush, I will paint.”