Preetha Kannan's mammoth work, inspired by Monet's Water Lilies, is at once a celebration of and a concern for the environment.

The centrepiece at Gaia, Preetha Kannan's recent show in Mumbai's Jehangir Art Gallery, is a 42 ft x 6 1/2 ft massive forest-scape. An exhibit this huge should overwhelm. Instead, it is so benign and inviting that one feels drawn into its fold, surrendering to the filtered daylight and the soothing shade, subconsciously expecting the crickets to chirp any moment.

Joy of nature

Juxtaposed with the bustling city outside, this painting is like a vision of a haven, like a dream. “I wanted people to feel that they have walked into a dream when they see this work. I want them to realise the joy of nature,” says Kannan of her work.

Kannan has opted to paint nature, specifically trees that are the ultimate symbol of the ever evolving nature. The theme may be age-old, but Kannan infuses new interpretation to it with a technique quite her own. She uses the phenomenon of pixilation in digital technology to explore textures and colours. “For me, colour is the basis of life,” she says. With her deft dots of acrylic on canvas, these transform into a picture of serenity.

Kannan admits that the huge panel is inspired by Claude Monet's famous Water Lilies. “It was my ambition to create something that monumental after him,” says the artist. Kannan relocated to a factory in Navi Mumbai that offered the kind of space needed for a work of this dimension. It took her over a year to complete this work. “There was this factory with constant activity and noise on the ground floor. Then there was the first floor where I worked and there was solitude, a world in complete contrast to the one below. I knew this contrast had to be captured and it was in a video film,” says Kannan. The video clip played at the entrance of the show offers an insight into the creative process, into how an alluring landscape was created in the four walls of a factory.

Kannan's work is part impressionist in its layering of colour, it is part pointillist in its dab of paint. It is in great part photorealism. Yet Kannan tries to go beyond the immediate subject to share her concerns of an idyll fast eroding. Her landscapes are so realistically recreated that they can easily be mistaken for photographs. A closer encounter, though, reveals the imaginatively layered minute dots of many hues to create a 3D effect. Like in the rich patterns of a Persian rug where the strands of warp stand apart but the colours blend effortlessly in the pile creating the Gestalt effect. In Kannan's works, the whole is far more than the collection of its parts.

The three separate panels in the centrepiece create a unified whole. Then, dramatically, she introduces the anomaly – the rail track. “I want people to be disturbed by what development is doing to our environment. I want them to pause and think,” says the artist whose environmental concerns made her take up water resource management in a Madhya Pradesh village in the 80s. Born in Chennai in 1959, Preetha Kannan graduated in Fine Arts from Stella Maris College in 1979. She followed it up with a Diploma in Fine Arts from the College of Arts and Crafts, University of Madras, in 1984, a Post Graduate Diploma from the same institution in 1986. She received the Bombay Art Society Award in 1982, and was chosen by Lalit Kala Akademi as the first painter to work in their newly inaugurated painting studio at Chennai in 1985-86.

Around the time, the stir against the Narmada Valley Project was gaining ground and pitted the environmentalists against the establishment. Working in tandem with social activists and environmentalists Baba Amte and Medha Patkar in the verdant valley, Kannan became acutely aware of a niggling suspicion – does development have to be at the cost of environment? She does not quarrel with development per se but seeks a balance with environment protection.

And balance is what she strives for in her works. Through the careful selection and controlled application of the colours on her palette, the subtle play of hues with the white of the canvas. Each of the dozen 3x4 ft on display, not to mention the piece de resistance, is a study in Kannan's quest to find that elusive balance.

A canvassed story

Be it the trees bathed in the orange-yellow-ochre light of dawn or the mangrove reflected in the stagnant waters, Kannan's hues blend in quiet harmony. It goes to show the dexterity of the painter that these exhaustive works are made to look so deceptively simple. Kannan has previously held ‘ Dreamweaver', a solo show at Gallery Beyond, Mumbai, in 2007. She has also showed at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, in 2007; and at Gallery Beyond and the Museum Art Gallery, Mumbai, both in 2006. This show is dedicated to Baba Amte who had a lasting impression on the artist. Those who see Kannan's work will share and hopefully take away with them her ecological concerns.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012