When A.V. Ilango speaks of art as therapy, he isn't referring to some abstract theory from a psychology textbook. He's speaking from personal experience, as a man whom art has rescued and made whole, over the course of a lifetime.
“My childhood was very traumatic, and it left me with a lot of emotional distress,” says the artist when we meet at his studio, Ilango's Artspace.
“The person you see before you today is almost settled — that happened through art. I realised it only later on.”
He adds quietly: “After the recent loss of my wife, who was a great support to me, art is what has helped me carry on. If I've recovered a bit, it's only because of painting.”
Ilango's journey as an artist is filled with strange ironies; so much so, it's made him a believer in the ‘grand design' of Nature. For instance, those childhood years of being left behind by his parents in his native Gobichettipalayam, may have been some of the toughest of his life, but it was from them that the inspiration for his unique brand of art — vibrantly folksy, with rural and bovine motifs – arose. The very art that eventually healed his troubled mind.
“In the 1970s and early 1980s, my works were realistic and impressionistic, with rather melancholy themes that increased my restlessness and anxiety,” he says. “I had so many anxiety attacks at one point that I needed to have six months of psychiatric treatment.”
Then, he says, for reasons he doesn't quite understand himself, he turned to doing joyful images of dancers and drummers (which, of course, went on to become part of his famous ‘Utsav series'). “As a young boy, I would go along with the dancers and drummers at the Mariamman temple festival every summer in my native… it was so much fun,” he recalls. “All that imagery started pouring out through my drawings.”
And, other assorted imagery as well — the tuition master's cattle he used to take for grazing, the powerful, restless stud bulls he could see from his hostel window as they grunted and pawed the earth… “I used to keep watching, and I came to understand the bovine sensibility,” he says.
“I sometimes think everything happened as part of that ‘grand design' — if I hadn't had those experiences, I wouldn't have come out with these paintings. It all started at Gobichettipalayam.”
Though art itself came easily to Ilango — one of his early memories is sketching a portrait of his grandmother on his slate and wiping it off — his route to becoming a professional artist was again, somewhat troubled.
For years (until 2006, in fact, when he took voluntary retirement), he was the ‘reluctant college professor' who taught mathematics when he'd rather be painting.
“I was the eldest son of my family — I had to take care of my parents, help my two younger brothers settle down, and I couldn't depend on selling paintings for income,” explains the 60-year-old.
Right from the start, his father, an Air Force officer, wouldn't hear of him taking up a career in painting. And, his in-laws couldn't understand his penchant for sitting for hours on end, sketching and painting at the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai, where he settled after marriage.
“They started saying I was spending most of my money buying canvases and colours, and my father-in-law was upset, thinking, perhaps, he'd made a mistake getting his daughter married to me!” he smiles at the memory. “But, my wife understood my art and supported me.”
That support paid off — he shifted to Chennai in 1979, started exhibiting across India by the late 1980s, and, by the turn of the century, established himself as an integral part of Chennai's art scene and an artist of international repute.
Today, in a funny inversion, he's a painter who loves mathematics and plans to take up doing riders again, for the fun of it. “The logic refreshes your mind,” he says.
A teacher at heart
And, of course, he remains a teacher, of art, something he's been doing for over three decades. “I had art students even before I had my first show — I don't know how; they just came to me,” says Ilango, a firm believer in the Indian ‘guru-sishya' tradition.
In 2003, he formalised his ‘gurukulam' of many years by registering Ilango's Artspace, which has since taken on a life of its own: “Every month, we invite artists to come and talk about art; we have regular summer workshops by visiting artists, and we're also planning art appreciation programmes. Artspace keeps taking on different dimensions, and I simply assist.”
That, in a sense, encapsulates his attitude towards life. “I'm merely a witness of my own life,” he says.
“Nature has got a grand design, and the appreciation of that design is my art.”
Utsav: Energetic images of festival drummers and dancers Bull: ‘The Bovine Principle' series reducing the bull to its essential lines Women: Robust, rural women engaged in everyday activities
Chennai: Colourful snapshots of the chaos of Chennai traffic Odissi: Performers at the Sutra Dance Theatre in Malaysia Utsav Energetic images of festival drummers and dancers Bull ‘The Bovine Principle' series reducing the bull to its essential lines Women Robust, rural women engaged in everyday activities Chennai Colourful snapshots of the chaos of Chennai traffic Odissi Performers at the Sutra Dance Theatre in Malaysia