The Written Word is a thought-provoking collection of works that will engage both art and language lovers

Where do visual art and language intersect? How are Indian artists using script in their creations? The Written Word, the on-going exhibition at the Apparao Galleries provides some fascinating insights into these questions.

The exhibition features the works of both senior Madras Movement artists and younger up-and-coming artists; works that depict everything from verses from our epics and symbols from our temples to A-for-apple charts, Biblical verses in Braille and destinations etched on ticket stubs.

The standout piece would have to be the large diptych depicting The Mahabharata by the late Reddappa Naidu. Borrowed from a private collector for this exhibition, these beautiful paintings glow from within in rich warm shades, reds, yellows and oranges. His rounded, minimalist abstract drawings effortlessly depict hordes of elephants and fighters on the battle ground, and all through, delicately lettered lines of poetry flow across the canvas, evoking some of the most important scenes of the epic.

Three senior Chennai artists’ works tread familiar terrain — C. Douglas’ stark, ravaged yet boldly striking pieces packed with dense metaphor and poetic allusions; K. Muralidharan’s beautifully textured abstract renderings of mythological creatures — in this case Airavata, the white elephant vahanana of Lord Indra — etched with scripts from our ancient temples; and Rm. Palaniappan’s abstract imagery of topography and flight, which use language as a code, a cipher for events of our everyday life. In each case, the written word is integral to the painting, holding the key to a deeper understanding of the artist’s intention.

Intriguing creations

Perhaps the most intriguing series of works are those of N. Ramachandran and N. Prasanna Kumar. The two series, displayed side by side, couldn’t be more different. Ramachandran’s works are a celebration of kitsch and colour; Prasanna’s, spare and ascetic. But both challenge the viewer in their own way, making us question the power words hold over us. Ramachandran uses cheekily mislabelled alphabet and parts of body charts — those ubiquitous, garishly coloured grids that adorn every preschool and toy shop — to make us question the assumptions we make about word-meanings, and really look, at the world around us. So A is for ice-cream, and the eye is labelled ‘wrist’, but you’ll miss it the first time, so certain are we that A must be, of course, for apple.

Prasanna, who began his career as a photographer, puts together a series of pages and print plates in Braille, which turns on its head our reliance on sight for imagery. Just as the visually challenged students he worked with couldn’t immediately access his photographs, we, as viewers with normal eyesight, can’t immediately access the content of these pages. But, as he says, these pages too contain visuals — images conjured in our head when we finally read the text. That the text is from John, Chapter 9, about a visually challenged man, adds another layer to this subversive series.

George K.’s remarkably life-like, finely detailed fibreglass sculptures use words to explore the fleeting nature of our existence. The figures are clad in a skin of newspaper, their tiny black print representative of the ephemerality of human experience, thought and activity, while the meditative, joyful postures of the sculptures represent a celebration of living in the present.

Abstracts and more

All of these merely scratch the surface of this exhibition, which contains numerous other gems, including Bhavna Sonawane’s softly glittering pastel abstract landscapes of trees, buildings and flowing words on life and love; Sunil Kumar Sree’s fascinating series of ‘calendars’ composed entirely of railway ticket stubs and ink drawings, representing movement in time and space, and both inward and outward journeys; and Srinivas Reddy’s delicate watercolours of rupee notes superimposed with self-portraits that speak of the good and evil that money can do. You also have a number of single pieces by talented artists such as Jitish Kallat, Navjot Altaf, Farhan Mujib, and more.

This is an engaging, thought-provoking collection of works, bustling with ideas. A must-see for lovers of both art and language. The show ends on August 30.