K. Muralidharan, one of the stalwarts of the Madras Movement, speaks to Divya Kumar on how the masters moulded him, cities inspired his canvases and art redeemed him

It’s hot, burning hot, in K. Muralidharan’s white-walled second floor studio. But still I linger, taking in the colours glimmering off the beautiful canvases in the noon-day heat. Elephants and monkeys and deer in burgundy and violet, mythical beings all in ivory and gold against a deep-blue celestial ocean, goddesses on a glowing golden yellow canvas…

“Colour is an endless joy for me,” says the senior artist, one of the stalwarts of the Madras Movement, as we retreat to the cooler lower floor of the house. “Any combination can be played with.”

That, of course, is one of the hallmarks of Muralidharan’s famous abstract figuratives — bright, playful colour, sometimes kitschy, sometimes earthy, always eye-catching. The other element that makes his works instantly recognisable is his use of mythological and animal figures and motifs.

“Indian mythology is like an ocean,” he says. “Each time I dip into it, it gives me something new.” He adds, “I grew up surrounded by mythological stories and folklore at home. It all came back to me later when I began working on my art.”

Cities and canvases

His current burst of inspiration, visible in these new works in his studio, however, come from a different source — the time he’s spent in Kolkata on and off since 2008, when his wife was transferred there in her public sector job. “At first I hesitated; Chennai was my home,” he says. “But going there was a boon. It’s a place steeped in art and culture, and once you live there, it engulfs you slowly.”

He spent his time there absorbing the art scene (“so lively and fresh”) and getting to know artists such as Jogen Chowdhury and Shuvaprasanna Bhattacharya. “It was like the conversations I’ve enjoyed with the artists of Cholamandal here; it rejuvenated me, sharpened my vision.”

Earlier this year, the artist returned home to Chennai, and has been working on a new series of large-scale works, with a 3-D wooden and bronze sculpture component worked in. His experiences in Kolkata are especially visible in his explorations of the feminine form — a blend of the contemporary and the mythological — and in a fresh fascination with texture and textile-like designs on his canvases.

But experiment though he may with texture and installation art, his primary focus remains the drawing, which, he says, is his gift from the masters of the Madras Movement. “Right from our days at the Government College of Arts and Crafts (he graduated in 1970), we learnt from the great masters such as L. Munuswamy, Alphonso Arul Doss and A.P. Santhanaraj not to lose sight of the drawing. It was always our forte.” He pauses. “That was truly the Golden Era of the Madras Movement.”

How it all began

Muralidharan owes his career in art to his elder brother, who, he says, wanted to be an artist himself, but wasn’t able to, due to family obligations. “When I finished school, he put me in the College of Art,” he says. Later, when the young artist gave up his job as a lecturer in the college (“I resigned within one week!” he laughs) and the entire family was furious with him, his brother was steadfast in supporting him. “He was so happy when I started getting recognition later on,” he says. “My sister too allowed me to stay with her when I was struggling… I’ll never forget all of their support.”

His turning point as an artist came with a scholarship to Sweden in the 1980s, when he was exposed to artists from around the world. “I realised the importance of creating work that reflected my experiences, and that was taken from our own soil,” he says.

Still, he struggled with finding a visual language that captured his thoughts. All that changed when he visited Hampi at the end of the decade. There, amongst the majestic religious ruins, he found “a new vision” for his paintings. “That is when I began the ‘Mystic Valley’ series, one of which won me the National Award in 1994,” he says.

And he’s never looked back, going on to exhibit internationally to wide acclaim. It was only recently, in 2010, when tragedy struck his family, and he lost his only son to cancer, that Muralidharan found himself unable to create. “It was a fatal blow to us. I didn’t work for nearly two years. Then I created a darkly personal set of works I’ve never let anyone see,” he says.

Back in the city which has always been his home, Muralidharan and his wife have been picking up the pieces of their life. She has devoted herself to religion and charity work, and he, once again, to his art. “Now I am a karmayogi,” he says. “I work 17, 18 hours a day, and don’t have time to think about anything else.”

“I live moment by moment. When I work, I’m happy. Art gives me a purpose for living.”