Achuthan Kudallur talks about his childhood joys, passion for writing, MT, and, of course, art

He is articulate. There is more stuff than style in his statements. “I am more comfortable with English than Malayalam,” says renowned abstract artist Achuthan Kudallur, in heavily-accented English.

Achuthan speaks English as he learnt it, way back in his childhood, at Kudallur, in Thrithala High School. He prefers English, for all his adult life, he has lived in Chennai. This lack of artificiality comes through when you speak to him.

Engineering harm

Art came in accidentally into his life, in his youth, and it found a permanent refuge in his heart, mind and very being. But the harm that an engineering diploma did to Achuthan took a long time heal. “Those intervening years were wasted, and I hate to even be reminded of it,” he says.

And, he narrates how M. T. Vasudevan Nair was indirectly responsible for that ‘tragic period': When Achuthan topped his school in the Class X examination, it was MT who suggested to his father that he be sent to study a diploma course in engineering at Thrissur. “‘He will certainly get a job',” he told my father and even bought me the application form.”

While Achuthan loved theoretical physics, he hated the subjects taught in the diploma course. After that, he was sent to Chennai to study for AMIE.

But, fate willed otherwise. His friend Mohan Rao wanted to join a course conducted by the Madras Arts Club, functioning in the Fine Arts College.

“My friend developed cold feet when he saw the senior artists there and backed out, but I joined. He paid the fees for me as I had not brought the money. This course, for which there were no examinations or a duration, changed the course of my life. It gave me focus and introduced me to something I enjoy doing.”

The first painting he did for a contest held at the British Council got him the first place. “It was called ‘Snowscape', and was in red, blue and yellow,” he remembers.

One of the first works he sold fetched him Rs. 300. “It was an yellow abstract. I don't know if the buyer still has it,” laughs Achuthan.

In 1977, he held his first show at Max Mueller Bhavan, the first in a string of shows that covered the world over.

Writing is something that Achuthan has done throughout. While still at school, his poem, ‘Pravaham' about the Bharathapuzha was published in Mathrubhumi.

He continues to write in magazines and newspapers. “I want to write more,” says Achuthan, who sports a big emerald ring, something that will bring in the muse, according to a friend.

“Am I superstitious? Well, if it works, good. Otherwise, it's okay,” says the man who is wedded to art and confesses that he is still single, “because he was a total failure in love”.

The artist does not like accumulating works, and is not in favour of a fancy price tag too. “The highest I've priced my works is Rs. 6 lakh,” he says, adding that quoting unrealistic prices is not a healthy trend.

On whether the signature of an artist counts more than the work, he agrees it is true, but adds that if the work is not good it reflects on the integrity of the artist.

“Today, people execute a work and sign on the canvas without fail, but look at the wonderful sculptures and murals you find in temples. Nobody knows who did them. There are no signatures.”

Smitten by Nature

Though he does only abstracts now, forms and Nature do have a place in his heart. In Kudallur, in the very area where he used to walk to school, Achuthan bought an acre of land where he wants to plant the trees that he was fond of as a child, such as the ‘parakam', which had leaves like sandpaper, and other unglamorous trees that nobody is bothered about.

“The joy of seeing trees is something that money cannot buy … like the banyan tree at Kalakshetra, where Rukmini Devi Arundale used to take classes,” he reasons.