Painting is an all-consuming passion, and colour, a vital force for Achuthan Kudallur. The master of abstract art gets chatting with Shonali Muthalaly about his life and work and his latest show in the city

Achuthan Kudallur is an old-fashioned artist. Equally thrilled and tormented by his talent. Scathing about the art market, with a secret hankering for the days when he could barely afford to buy canvases. Determinedly low-profile. He's a world away from the tirelessly networked, PR-friendly, Facebook-ing artists of today.

It's been ten years since his last show in Chennai, and the Vinnyasa art gallery is vibrant with his paintings, with their decisive, shrewdly manipulated colour. Yet, he seems disgruntled. “When you called about the interview, I decided to tell you all the negative things,” he grumbles. However, under that crusty exterior, there's genuine warmth, and feisty honesty.

Besides, no matter how hard he tries, he can't keep from eventually breaking into a smile. “You like that painting? Humph. I shouldn't have put it there. It's stealing the show,” he says, rolling his eyes. Finally settling down in a chair with a cup of tea, he talks about why he spent the last three months gathering his best work for this show. “I wanted to show in my home town. Where people have seen me grow. Where my friends are.”

Most of the work displayed was created between 2009 and 2011, though there are some earlier paintings too. “Quite a few oils are new. The yellows and greens. I don't get the proper strength of colour from acrylic. With oil you can go on saturating the surface.” Gazing at his latest piece, he says, “I have more control in these canvases. I took time and separated the shades. There's more open space.”

“I want to do very large canvases next,” he says, adding, “they are difficult to transport, and there isn't really a market. But I don't depend on the market. You just need to sell 2 or 3 paintings a year to live. What is important is your work should continue.”

His breeziness about money stems from rebellion. “My father was a school teacher. He used to keep accounts every day, sitting with us under the lantern and filling columns — rupee, anna, pie. Now, I hate accounts. So, I don't even count money. I sometimes remember cheques two years after they're given to me. I don't need the money. What do you do with it?”

Early years

Born in 1945, Kudallur is one of the country's most prominent abstract artists. He's won many awards, including the National Academy Award in 1988, and travelled around the world attending art camps. Yet, at heart, he's determinedly that small-town guy from a house on a river bank in Kudaloor, Palghat. “My father couldn't afford to send me to college to get a degree in Physics, which is what I wanted to do... Art came to me. Now people tell me, ‘Oh you have achieved so much.' The truth is painting took me by its own strength. Success took a long time. For 15 years, I didn't have anything. Artists weren't respected then. People only had sympathy for us — and I didn't want that.”

In 1965, he came to Chennai to study for a diploma in civil engineering. In need of pocket money, he got himself a job in the railways. “They hired me on their ‘labour roll' as a surveyor. I had to put my thumb impression to get my salary! I did it for 9 months at Rs. 130 a month.” In the Sixties, jobs were scarce. “A lot of post-graduates were unemployed — many worked as typists.”

He was writing Malayalam short stories then. “I'd like to be a writer more than a painter,” he confesses, “I have a great admiration for writers.” After joining evening classes at the Madras Art Club (Government College of Arts), he replaced his pen with a brush. “I began with macabre themes — all connected to death,” he chuckles. “Some of them were good. I don't disown those works now.” His first one-man show was in 1977. “I didn't sell anything. That's when I decided figurative came too easy, so I moved to abstract work. Bringing colour onto its pedestal.”

He adds, “I'm sometimes afraid that my sensitivity to colour will be lost. It happens to artists. Hemingway was so prolific, then the words just stopped coming to him.” Right now, Kudallur's considering a break. “I am thinking of stopping painting for a while. I will keep quiet, and then what comes to me I will do… Art is just chemicals on a surface; it's not a substitute for life. As a metaphor, it merely exists.”

Even now, he says, good work doesn't come easily. “There's no guarantee that a painting will be successful. At one point the painting takes over. Then it controls you — that's a beautiful moment.” He still wonders, however, if the sacrifices he made for art are worth it. “My father and I had a cold war for years… Art is like a curse sometimes — when I'm working I can't stop, I can't sleep. Maybe colour is a vital force in me.”

(Achuthan Kudallur's paintings are on display at Vinnyasa Art Gallery till January 20.)

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