Once called the ‘best-kept secret’ of the art fraternity, V. Ramesh is showing at a solo exhibition in Bangalore.

V. Ramesh’s disarming warmth and graciousness at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) Bangalore, set the tone for the discussion of his solo exhibition, the first ever solo show by a living artist at the museum.

Consisting mostly of large canvases painted over a decade, Remembrances of Voices Past communicates Ramesh’s transcendental concerns of faith, devotion, and the essential oneness of being.

The artist’s unusual subject matter explores the idea of modern faith intertwined with ancient scriptures. Borrowing from mythology that describes human distraction caused by desire, his early series titled A Thousand and One Desires uses figuration to depict his ideas. In the painting A Thousand and One Desires, 2003, the central figure in the garb of a monk is surrounded by multiple gesticulating hands to denote greed and avarice. At the bottom of the painting is bold red text from American novelist Kurt Vonnegut ‘Grab much too much’, to denote blatant capitalist acquisition.

Yet, important as it is that a contemporary artist recontextualises and reiterates the essence of human values, Ramesh’s early figurative work falls short of narrative punch or engagement at a deeper level. Straightforward allegory in this work and in Building Castles in the Air, 2012, based on a Persian painting, seems less conducive towards evoking multiple layers of interpretation, or an awareness of who one is not in order to see who one might become.

Ramesh’s recent series Sanctum Sanctorum: A Corner for Four Sisters is inspired by four female figures. Hailing from different geographical and historical periods, these poet-saints come together through their renunciation of worldly ties. Here, one is not only fascinated by the artist’s retrieval of these long-forgotten figureheads and their defiance of tradition as early as the fifth century in their search for a higher truth, one is also moved by the subtlety and depth of Ramesh’s interpretation.

Karaikal Amma, 2012, pays homage to the Tamil saint whose sketchy, skeletal figure seeks a boon to appear as an ugly woman and be released from corporal needs. Covered with Tamil poetry and the hint of a more full-bodied female figure in the background, the painting encourages a discovery of meaning that begins the process of self-discovery, even self-transformation. Similarly, Remembering Laila Moj, 2011, is layered with different colours that suggest movement beneath the densely packed surface that’s filled with an English translation of the 14 century poet’s Kashmiri poetry. The technique of layering becomes paramount to the endlessly interpretable quality of the work.

The layering is best communicated in The Poet’s Passion series made up of four watercolours and four oil canvases. Alluding to 8 century poet-saint Manivachakar, the paintings alternate between joy and sorrow, earthly desire and spiritual realisation. Deep reds and oranges and the faint outline of female goddesses evoke the earth tones and intricacy of Ajanta and Ellora paintings.

In the diptych titled The Woods, 2012, two brightly-lit single-point perspectives suggest illumination at the end of the path of inquiry. Reminiscent of a forest, though not clearly defined, the multiple layers of thick brown and green paint convey the metaphor of impenetrability. Uncluttered by undue imagery, these works serve well to lure the viewer to go beyond the physical presence of the painting. In Untitled, 2006, Ramana Maharishi’s face is visible as the rest of his body merges with the landscape. As Gayatri Sinha points out in her informative essay in the catalogue, the painting is “emblematic of non-duality and the advaita of man and his natural environs”.

Ultimately, Ramesh’s oeuvre raises important questions about his place in contemporary Indian art. His body of work focused on spirituality certainly creates a locus of identity, and reflect his belief to “root myself in specific cultural and geographical location”. Although some of his allegorical canvases appear less successful, his denser paintings divested of pictography allow viewers to be provoked into testing the validity of their own ideas. At the end, Ramesh’s place will be determined by the ceaselessly contestable and interpretable aspect of his art. Remembrances of Voices Past: The solo show by V. Ramesh will be on till March 30 at the NGMA, Bangalore