C.N. Karunakaran created a new artistic and physical space for artists in Kerala with his artistic oeuvre and insistence on living and working in Kerala.
The Tree of Life, the ever-present motif in artist C.N. Karunakaran’s works, has been uprooted. The celebration of love and life in his canvases also ended, Saturday last, when 73-year-old C.N. passed away.
What will never be forgotten is the richness and harmony of colours, the full bosomed, hourglass figured maidens, flaura, fauna and other forms of imaginary lives which peopled the canvases to capacity and a gentle bearded man who stood by the frames, as if he was merely an onlooker.
Success never went to C.N. Karunakaran’s head. That was the singular quality that made him an endearing human being to his family, friends and admirers. This winner of the Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram for 2009, and two-time Chairman of the Kerala Lalitakala Akademi, said during an interview some time ago, “My aim is to reach abstraction but the road is not easy. One cannot will it, it has to come on its own.” His take on changing styles in an artist: “The style has to change and it will, like life. Only, it is gradual. And like life, there is no going back to the past.”
Simple he may have been, but C.N. aired his opinion fearlessly, and was not one to seek favours, therefore, he could speak his mind. Though he was close to his peers like M.V. Devan, Akkitham Narayanan, K.M. Vasudevan Namboodiri and tutored by the illustrious K.C.S. Panicker, C.N. disagreed with the Cholamandalam Artists Village venture, which some of them promoted, and said so. He was never part of it. He worked tirelessly at his studio behind his house at Mamangalam, Kochi, and he was perhaps the first artist to make Kerala his home, work here and yet make a living from art, in the days when artists made a beeline to Delhi or overseas.
For art was C.N.’s calling, hobby and love. In a career spanning more than half a century, lines, colours, canvas, paper or ink gave shape to his imagination. In the brief intervals when he let go of the brush, movies took over – the art direction of films made by close friends like K.R. Mohan. Both Aswathamavu and Purushartham, which won State awards, had C.N.’s art direction. Also Chinta Ravi’s Ore Thooval Pakshikal, K.N. Sasidharan’s Akkare and Alicinte Anweshanangal by T.V. Chandran. Chandran made a documentary on Karunakaran early this year.
Chennai and Kochi were the adopted cities that nurtured C.N.’s talent though it was Brahmakulam, near Guruvayur, where he was born. At 11, he took ill and the library became a favourite place in between his treatment. Reading about K.C.S. Panicker and his love to draw inspired the teenager to board a train to Chennai to learn art. Karunakaran earned first class diplomas in both design and painting and won the Government of Madras’ Gold Medal for the best outgoing student, in 1956. But he found the going tough at first, for an artist. C.N.’s first work sold for Rs. 250 in the late fifties. He narrated the incident once: “T.K. Padmini, my junior, sketched it and I painted the figures, a couple of girls wearing bright coloured skirts. We shared the money and used it to buy art material.” Today, his works sell for around Rs.15,000 per sq foot, says T. Kaladharan, who runs the Nanappa Art Gallery in Kochi.
In the early days, he painted just landscapes and was not ready to do figures. Of his buxom women who fill his frames, he had just this to say: I don’t go by anatomy…they are more abstract!” The mural style wedded to contemporary formed the mainstay of his works, the women roaming all over his canvases, amidst celestial forms, their dominance unquestioned, their age not a day older than when they were first conceived. The men always played second fiddle, in drastically fewer numbers. The joie de vivre of the subjects is palpable. Like them, he always thought positive.
Failure and bad times failed to destroy C.N.’s enthusiasm. While in Chennai, a German art critic took 26 of his works to Germany but not even one was sold. He did not even get them back. It was given to some institution in Germany.
“He used to paint sea shells and sell them once upon a time while in Chennai,” says Kaladharan, who has known him from the time C.N. came first to Kochi as an art instructor in Kalapeedhom in 1970. M.V. Devan had called C.N. over to Kalapeedhom then. But C.N. wasn’t satisfied with doing just that. So he started Kerala’s first private art gallery, Chitrakoodam in Kochi, which wound up in 1977. He was not a good businessman, he admitted. But he refused to go outside Kerala. The thermocol mural he made graduated to a cement one at the Port Trust building, and, later, the mural in front of FACT Technical Office in Ambalamedu was made with tiles.
The Gopika series, in enamel paint on ordinary plywood, began sometime then, in 1980. Why Gopika? “It was Guruvayur from where he came and he had the privilege of renovating some of the mural panels there after fire ravaged them, in 1970. And he used to call his wife Gopi in those days,” remembers Kaladharan. The proverbial woman behind CN’s success is certainly Eswari, who was like his shadow. She was not just his wife, but his friend, chauffeur and above all, Muse.
Blessed with a clutch of awards from Lalithakala Akademi, a body of work that is the envy of any artist, and sticking stubbornly to an Indianness that celebrates tradition, Karunakaran did what he loved, drawing and painting, to the last. He had shows all over the country and in the United States, Brazil, Vienna, Kuwait.
In his later years, it was mostly acrylic, not oil that he used. Space got more attention than form. The very many bright colours gave way to families of colours that connected and the accented lines gave way to compartments of colours. The lines slowly got erased...
And the Tree of life? Sometimes the leaves got dispersed, they got bigger at times and traces of the tree emerged from between figures…..now they are all out of the frame.