Alexander Devasia and Sylvie Bantle from Punnapra are chroniclers of our art and culture.
Thirty years ago, the sea-side village of Punnapra, near Alappuzha, was inhabited by some typical characters. There was Palani, the pensive thinker, with his half-shut eyes, there were the sisters Elsamma and Ammini always found sitting on the steps of their house, there was Karthikeyan weighed down by life, and his brother... Then there was in the College of Fine Arts campus in Thiruvananthapuram the maverick poet Varma who pinned his poems on his clothes and people read them off his body.
Three decades later these characters live on in the charcoal drawings of veteran artist Alexander Devasia as he celebrates the lost life of his youth in his eponymous show now on at Gallery OED, Mattancherry.
Documentation of history
Alexander with his stylish handlebar mustachio says, “Drawings are a documentation of history. For me it is a diary of my daily life and therapy.” In the show, ‘3 Decades’ he has chronicled primarily the daily life of his village in all its rustic charm and with the quirks of the characters who lived there. Thirty years ago, after he was suspended for a year from college, Alexander stayed in his village and drew furiously. Even today drawing remains the artist’s first love, something that he does round-the-clock.
The 79 sketches mainly of Punnapra, a narrative in black and white, tell the story of a time when life was slow and people were simpletons. It was before the sea wall came up, before the coconut orchards gave way to new construction, before the nooks of the village changed forever.
“These scenes do not exist anymore; 30 years ago you could see a person selling beedis. This lifestyle has vanished from Kerala,” says Alexander, who returned to live in his village after a gap of 15 years when he painted and held shows in Mumbai and Europe. Married to German writer and filmmaker Sylvie Bantle the two have started Sylviander House Art Museum in Chettikad, near the village, a modern art museum, where besides hosting workshops, they conduct classes on art for village kids.
In their artistic togetherness the couple teach the kids the nuances of fine arts - of painting and dance. Sylvie came to India many years ago, “We don’t know why fate pulls us somewhere,” she says about the 36 years of her life that she has spent in India and Kerala. Sylvie is interested in the psychic and in the life beyond. Prophetically she had placed a photo of Gandhi above her bed as a nine-year-old and later in 1985 found herself learning Kathakali under Guru Gopinath. Travelling with a typewriter in tow she met Alexander on the sandy beaches of Thiruvananthapuram. The two complemented each other’s interest in art and culture. With his assistance she researched on the folklore community of Pakkanars of Pandalam and brought out a book and a documentary, Searching For The Dancing God in (2006) on their dying dance form, Pakkanarthullal. Earlier, she had published Happiness of The Fools, a review on 20 years of travelling in India. They, together, made a trilogy of short films – Mortuary Joseph, Shanti Bhavan and Chakara - the first one winning an award at the Tokyo Film festival (2000).
Rural life has caught up with Sylvie. Charmed by the land, she wrote a fiction, in 2008, Nothing Happens in Punnapra. Currently she is part of a group of 12 German writers writing on India. She is also penning short stories- Shabdam in God’s Own Country, dealing with “incredible noise pollution” in the fragile environs.
Alexander and Sylvie straddle two cultures eloquently finding their voice amidst changing social scenarios. Alexander who had earlier rebelled against existing art practices and co-founded the Radical group in MSU, Baroda, remains sceptical. He says, “Art is not being reflected in our social context. We are forgetting our roots. We have spoiled our ground water, our environment. This angst is reflected in my works because I draw people.” And art he says can help people. “It is cathartic. It can heal”. And his people? “Palani, I know is no more and Karthikeyan too has passed away. I don’t know what happened to poet Varma. Art would have eased their pain.”