Chicago-based master colourist and non-figurative artist S.V. Rama Rao lived in Delhi to create a body of work to be showcased here. He talks about how his language assimilated different influences to mark a departure in his style

The beauty of S.V. Rama Rao’s art is that you can gaze at his canvas for long and still not get enough of it. A cursory glance might mislead you to believe that the forms occur and recur, but only upon looking closely would one read a different story each offers. A river becomes a bird at times, a flame in another instance, a powerful line elsewhere, and then an aroused kundalini. And only a master with a fine hand can weave such a powerful tapestry. Veteran artist S.V. Rama Rao, with a luminous career spanning 60 years, is showing in Delhi for the first time. His exhibition, “Nature’s Abstract Glory”, is currently on in Dhoomimal Gallery. Living abroad — he is based in Chicago — he has never exhibited his work in the Capital, where he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2001.

“Since 1962, I have never exhibited in India. I thought that it was a moral obligation to showcase in the Capital what I have learnt elsewhere. After all, my country gave me the Padma Shri. To create this body of work here itself was also a conscious decision because I wanted to assimilate my experiences of living here in my art and see how my language expands. I wanted to absorb and feel the pulse of the land,” says Rao. The experience has resulted in 100 paintings that he describes as one of the “most complicated work in the abstract style I have ever done.” A non-figurative artist, Rao says that symbols never appeared in his work before. “It was completely abstract. One is obviously influenced by his surroundings, so there my language was different. I wanted to excel at Western art. I felt that art, saw that art, met up with Western artists. But when I started to work here, I wanted to include symbolism, which is such an intrinsic part of our system,” states Rao.

To go beyond the norm was innate to Rao’s nature but the technique and ways in which an artist can experiment was something that Rao witnessed abroad when he won a Commonwealth fellowship to pursue his post graduate studies in Slade School of Fine Arts in London. Before this, the Vijaywada-born artist had studied art in Madras College of Fine Arts. “When I looked around I realised what I had learnt was the ABCD of art because there, back in the 60s, so much of experiment was going in the genre of non-figurative art.”

Revering the legends like Picasso, Miro, Dali and Pollock, he set out on a journey as a non-figurative artist, constantly pushing the boundaries. His desire to innovate and excel brought him enough fame. His lithographs were bought by eminent art historian Herbert Edward Read, Tate Gallery in London, and Museum of Modern Art, New York. Rao also has the distinction of exhibiting with masters like Picasso, Miro, Dali and Braque.

Another departure he has made to his oeuvre is his return to the two-dimensional approach. “Our miniature paintings are two-dimensional, and since I am of Asiatic heritage I wanted to reclaim it.”

At the gallery hang 28 heavily populated canvases dotted with identifiable and unidentifiable shapes rendered in luminous oils having a water colour-ish effect. Impressed by Rao’s art, former President APJ Abdul Kalam, who inaugurated the show, expressed his desire to have one of his paintings to grace the cover of an upcoming book. “I never painted fish earlier, or these seeds that you see in my works. Yes, the river Krishna was there from day one, but how it has evolved is fascinating. I think I am now moving towards surrealism and symbolism.”

Rao describes his work as a blend of various influences. Decorative Indian art too finds its traces, as does the wood engraving of Japan. “The lines in my work are so lithographic because of my training in lithographs at Slade. In my application of oils as water colours, I was influenced by British artists.”

Talking about Delhi, where he is currently based, as a specific influence Rao reveals the clutter and chaos of the metropolis reflects in the busyness depicted in his canvas; its mayhem, development, crowd, barren land, suffering ecology find an expression in his voice. “For me it is not about creating a good or bad painting. Artists make statements.”

(The exhibition is on at Dhoomimal Gallery, G-42, Connaught Place, New Delhi, till May 20.)