An artist and a woman, a potent combination that begs a label, but T. Rathi Devi prefers autonomy. Any form of labelling limits and Rathi wants freedom to live, which translates to the freedom to paint. She is that rarity, a woman who is a professional artist too.
Sitting at her home-cum-studio, which looks more studio than home, near the Peruvaram Mahadeva temple in North Paravur she is in her element. She is relaxed since she is on her turf, the place where she was born and brought up; her art too. She stumbled on drawing rather late, while in Class 8, when her father passed away. The drawing that started then, “was probably, a result of the shock” she says.
People bought whatever she drew. She recalls painting deities on huge hardboards with enamel paint, 10 feet by 12 feet panels which were used at the Siva Temple in Aluva during Sivarathri. “Those were huge. I would draw gods, goddesses and the panels were put up there…” She retains a liking for big canvases. The diminutive Rathi, in all mock seriousness, attributes it to her size and then says, “I like the space that a bigger canvas affords.”
She was known as that ‘girl who draws'. She says she would just copy any ‘picture' that came her way. It was then that somebody gave a book of paintings, something besides the regular Ravi Varma reproductions she was attempting. “The book had works of Rembrandt. I started copying those,” she laughs at the memory of her younger, frantic self. Then she reached a point when she got ‘bored with the gods.' When the time came for higher education, in 1985, it had to be Government Institute of Fine Arts, now known as Fine Arts College, Thrissur.
Everything changed at Thrissur. Reading ceased to be just reading, there were new meanings, politics became an ideology, ‘red burning bright'. “What an exciting time that was….there was Sasi Maash (K. K. Sasi, a faculty member) who gave us direction, then there was Civic Chandran and the Kerala Varma College which was the hotbed of Leftist ideology; Sara Joseph's works; there was a different kind of music that I was exposed to. I became so much more aware, it was THE turning point of my life.” The four years spent at the Institute of Fine Arts mark an important phase in the evolution of her artistic idiom. Those were the days when the Radical Group of artists was changing the artistic idiom, and shaping thought processes and ideology. “We were exposed to people like Krishna Kumar and Anita Dubey!”
It was a time when artists worked with a purpose, “not galleries, gallerists and collectors.” The afterthought comes immediately, “one needs them too.” However, the disconnect between artists and common people bothers her. “There are all these groups – Baroda school, Fine Arts college, Shanti Niketan…and complete disconnect from what is going on around. It is like painting when somebody is being killed, how can you do that?” Art can exist or have a history only as a by-product of human history, she says.
Rathi is a veteran of many paintings and exhibitions, starting from 1987 with the annual exhibition at the Institute of Fine Arts. In 2007, she got a State Award from the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi. Somewhere between 1987 and 2007, Rathi did commissioned work for the Indian Army (painting portraits of war heroes etc) and taught art at the Kalabhavan International Residential School for nine years and at Corpus Christi (now Pallikkoodam) for three years before settling down to being a full time artist.
If one were to take a roll call of contemporary Keralite artists, women working in the State are few. And that is where artists like Rathi and her contemporaries such as Sajitha Shankar and Sosa Joseph become important. After all, a woman's idiom and artistic expression is bound to be different. Rathi doesn't want to be hemmed in by a particular ideology, feminist especially. She feels it might be relevant as far as certain issues are concerned but otherwise has fad status.
Having said that, Rathi's works are ambiguous gender-wise neither does she tom-tom ‘gender' issues nor does she embark on the ‘gender as/is my identity' trip. She sees herself more as a human being then an artist. It has been often said about Rathi's works (most of them) that one can never tell whether it is the work of a woman or a man: A comment that she considers a compliment. Being an artist involves, in common perception, a certain degree of maverick-ness so if the artist is a woman is that allowed? “I haven't had a problem. My being a woman who is an artist hasn't come in the way, at least as far as men are concerned!”
Rathi says she just reacts to what happens around her, that she cannot cut herself away from her surroundings and work in isolation shorn of all stimuli. She sees painting as an act of social responsibility, of sorts. Therefore ecology, politics (occasionally gender politics too) find a very visual expression.
Therefore she is open to inspiration which could come from any source, media too. Her ‘Password' series was inspired by television grabs of people being arrested and their almost instinctual covering of their faces when faced with television cameras. “It was a time when television channels were airing news reports of people were being arrested for something or the other. The moment they register the presence of a camera they would just grab any piece of cloth and attempt to cover their faces.” The act of self preservation struck her as tragi-comic and resulted in the series and raises many questions.
The ‘Password' series comprises portraits with their faces covered with a luminescent piece of fabric. It was a series that got her a lot of attention. As an extension of the series she has painted an Obama with the veil-like fabric on his face, taking an oath (of office?). A photograph which appeared in The Hindu set her thinking. It is a “pucca political statement which was the distillation of the thought process which questioned the idea of a terrorist or rather what United States of America thinks of as a terrorist.” Her ‘Golden Flagstaff' series for instance, is a socio-political statement – there are the ‘kodimarams' (golden flagstaff), elephants. She manages to make aesthetically and visually striking statements through her works.
As of now Rathi is busy with her work and is looking forward to an art residency. And after that there is the Kochi Biennale….in short Rathi's canvas is full.