C.N. Karunakaran, winner of the Ravi Varma Puraskaram for 2009, begins his second term as Chairman of the Kerala Lalitakala Akademi.
For C.N. Karunakaran, who celebrates his sapthathi (70th birthday) next month, 2010 will be an unforgettable year. His birthday is on May 6. He has just been awarded the Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram and his second term as Chairman of the Lalitakala Akademi has just begun. His solo exhibition at Suryakanthi Art Gallery in the capital concludes today. Karunakaran is an artist who has till now, lived by art alone, a prospect that was well nigh impossible till a decade ago.
“I have not done any other work, to this day,” he said, sitting in an arm chair, in his house at Mamangalam, Kochi. His small studio behind his house, has just the essentials – an arm chair, easel, table, a TV and of course colours and brushes. For half a century, he has been at the easel, creating a make-believe world on canvas, never moving out of Kerala, though there have been several visits to other places.
Karunakaran started the first private art gallery, called Chitrakootam, in Kerala in 1973. He remembers selling a KCS Panicker painting belonging to the ‘Words and Symbols' series for Rs. 1,000 then. It wound up in 1977, as he found “he was not a good businessman.”
His first stint at the Akademi was as vice-chairman in 2001. Of his first three-year period as Chairman of the Akademi, from 2007, he felt happiest about the new reference library that has come up at Durbar Hall Art Centre, Kochi. Books on art and architecture fill the shelves kept temporarily at the centre till the three-storeyed building that is a research centre, is completed on the compound.
“The ground floor of this building is a hall that can be rented out too. The idea is to make it self-sustainable. This library also has CDs of classic world films which schools, colleges and film societies can make use of. We had a number of camps and seminars which got sponsorships from several firms. We used all this money to help fund the library. When the new building is completed, the entrance will be shifted to the back,” he said.
Another worthwhile achievement, he felt, is the transformation of the monthly newsletter, Chitravartha to a quarterly comprising serious art literature and good production values, which can compete with other art periodicals in the country.
“My contribution was to take the team along, and create an environment in which people could work without hassles, that is all,” he said, modestly. There have been several recognitions for his work, right from 1956 when Karunakaran won the Government of Madras gold medal for the best outgoing student.
The first work he sold was in the late fifties, for Rs. 250. “In fact, Padmini, who was my junior, had sketched it and I had painted the figures, a couple of girls wearing bright coloured skirts. We shared the money and used it to buy art material.
“In 1958, an art critic, a German woman, took 26 of my works for a show in Germany. No painting was sold and all were donated to some institution because there was a customs problem, and they could not be sent back to me,” he remembered.
Mural style of painting
Today, after getting awards from the Akademis in Kerala and Chennai and solo shows in many countries, Karunakaran shows the same enthusiasm when he begins a new work.
He adopted the mural style early in his career and continues in the same genre, but the girls with skirts have evolved into full bosomed women with thin waists; bright colours have given way to sober ones; the lines are blurred and the ever present tree of life has taken many avatars, its foliage thinning and leaves getting bigger, the green or brown turning pink or blue. Oranges and yellows now appear less frequently while blues and greens, the lighter shades, dominate. There are more mixed tones.
“I use both acrylic and oil, but mostly acrylic.” Today, the accent is on space, not form. While earlier, the background and protagonists of the work would be blended with colours, lines and connecting links like plants and animals, today, the clothes that the protagonists in the frame wear have few embellishments, their eyes do not get prime space and the background is not thick with figures. Nature has scored over the human and animal figures, but the beast is there, in all its fury and majesty, beside the winsome beauties, as also the celestial birds. What has not changed is the age of his beauties. They are as they were 50 years ago, as graceful and sexy. There is more depth, fewer details. The few men in his canvases are as unobtrusive as they have always been.
“My aim is to reach abstraction but the road is not easy. One cannot will it, it has to come on its own,” said the veteran artist.