The retrospective of Alphonso Arul Doss’ works on in the city reflects the power of light and composition

A retrospective of works from the 1960s to 2013 by veteran artist Alphonso Arul Doss of the Madras Movement opened at DakshinaChitra, officiated by Kyungsoo Kim, South Korea Consul General, Chennai. Exhibition curator Gita’s film Golden Flute captured Alphonso’s long and fulfilling career with grace and equity. “It is so important for people to carry impressions of art. In places where many come, impressions can be made,” Arul Doss said, reminding us that art lives through people. He credits his teachers for their vigilant guidance. In turn, he nurtured dedicated students, always encouraging passion for art rather than demanding perfection. This former principal, Government College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai, was drawn to art from childhood. “I grew up in Bangalore and was educated at St. Joseph’s School. Various forces drove me. My involvement in many church-related activities influenced my art. Looking up at the stained-glass window of a Gothic church, I found myself dazzled by the light transformed into patterns. The contours and colours attracted and motivated me to look at creating forms like a gemstone reflecting many facets.”

Biblical inspiration

Alphonso’s early portraiture of people and places was simpler and evolved into more complex imagery layered with symbolism, mingling Indian themes with Western influence. But why do contemporary Indian artists look to the West to formulate our art? “It is natural. During colonial rule, the British set up our schools and museums. Much of the orientation came from the West. Temple iconography is different, but then, I did not study traditional Indian art. In school and art college, we were bound to take inspiration from Europe. I was particularly impressed by the work of the Dutch masters.”

For instance, Alphonso has re-interpreted Rembrandt’s painting of Christ And The Woman Taken In Adultery. “I loved the work for its light and composition. I abstracted it and brought in Indian elements. My painting had Gandhi at a temple.”

Alphonso’s oeuvre is spurred by the moral dilemmas that bring out the bifurcations within our selves, of good and evil, right and wrong. In his 1965 painting Solomon, King Solomon presides over two women fighting over a baby, each claiming it is hers. The king known for his wisdom and discernment sits with his sword, meting out the judgment that the child should be split in half, one part for each woman. “I wanted to show divisions within the painting with light and shade. I emphasised character and emotion with colour.” In the background, two men come close together appearing to be double-faced. Even Solomon’s head seems to be splitting. The envious woman is painted green. The story about divisions is itself visually divided by Alphonso’s faceted technique, enhancing the conflicts between humans and within individuals in splits, cubist hues and bursts of colour.

Time and space

So, what connects his works from different periods of his life? “Anjali Sircar once commented that the universe changes every moment: this is seen in light and colour, and influences the mind. I was always painting about light and time and space.”

Tell him that in his paintings, fingers become a potent force — as in Christ’s fingers healing the visually challenged man and at a gathering raising a finger calling attention, and he replies, “I was taught to observe the European masters. In Michelangelo’s paintings, often, the hand draws you in. There is no use concentrating on the face alone. Feet, hands, even the tip of a finger has power.”

And, how does he create similar refractive effects in pencil and charcoal works as in painting? “I never erase. In a figure drawing of a youth when something went wrong, I created textures and shades that overlapped. But I did not erase any line.”

As pure white light scatters through crystal and stained glass and takes on many hues and facets, Alphonso Arul Doss’ paintings exemplify multifaceted earthly forms. As in real life, truth exists in his art, between fine lines. Nothing is erased.

(The exhibition is on at DakshinaChitra till April 26, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday holiday)