A look at Adam Khan’s nature paintings in his studio in Kodaikanal where his inspiration is his garden. His paintings capture the changing foliage of the seasons and all the birds, butterflies and animals that visit round the year. Each work, he says, is a sketch of everyday life in his garden.
Adam Khan, an English artist living off his paintings in the Western Ghats, has been capturing the many facets of nature for the last 32 years. His dimly lit studio-cum-home in Kodaikanal breathes life into his art.
“Look at this, this is live art. When I started this canvas it was a sapling,” he says. What is on the canvas is truly amazing, an antler horn fern growing out of the frame!
Adam is extra happy today because the skies opened up after a dry spell. “You have to see the colour of the washed blooms and trees after the rains,” he says. He points to a huge painting of a bison. “This fellow was right here in front of my eyes as I sat in the verandah and drew him.” Even as he says so, we are face to face with a real bison and her calf just outside the verandah.
“Remain calm, it won’t do anything,” says Adam. “Bisons, cobras, leopards and a variety of birds are my regular visitors.”
Sure enough, the bison nibbles at the tree and walks off as we wait and watch.
Adam’s idea of ‘live art’ came out of a chat with a friend. In an experiment, he spread a thin layer of fevicol on his canvas and sprinkled sieved sawdust on it. He then filled a small jute pouch with soil and stuck it to the centre of the frame. In the pouch he planted the fern that, today, hangs from the frame.
“As the plant sits there,” says Adam, “it's being built up with other natural elements that are absorbed over time. Within a few months, the solidified image of what I wanted to make but wasn’t too sure is ready.” Adam sprays the jute pouch with water daily. “It breathes, it lives,” he smiles.
Adam is now promoting live art for dry regions. He has already found buyers in Dubai who want to bring this kind of miniature greenery into their rooms. “It is sort of an intimate relationship to the urban environment,” says Adam.
He wanted to become an artist from childhood. His parents felt he was taking too much of a risk. “But I have a heart, brains and hands that can create beautiful works,” he told his parents as he left home with a rucksack and 20 dollars in his pocket.
He hitchhiked his way from England to the Continent and hit the Isles of Capri near Naples, Italy. There he apprenticed himself to sculptor, painter and ceramicist David Rawnsley, the founder of Chelsea Pottery in London.
Adam’s interest in archaeology also took him to Greece, where he worked ‘underground’ in Athens Art Gallery creating original reproductions of Old Masters. “It was something like art forgery,” he winks. Whenever he didn’t have work, he made pieces of jewellery and other decorations out of nothing and sold them on the streets and trains. Once, he recalls, he made a fancy ring with a wire, attached some coloured sea pebbles and volcanic ash lava to it, and sold it to a lady for 1000 Lire.
“During my journey across continents I met many artists and good people who helped me and I realised God always gives you what you need in life,” he says. He learnt about “paying it forward” in Libya when a stranger helped him when he had absolutely no money. “I asked for his address so that I could return the money, he said pay it forward….It is something I practise even today,” he adds.
Adam studied pharaonic art in Egypt and later travelled all over Africa holding exhibitions before arriving in the Indian subcontinent in 1972. Keen to learn Tantra paintings, he arrived in Nasik and learnt yoga and meditation with Sadhus and did a series of 20 paintings on India’s Vedanta in comparison to Western philosophy. His works sold out in Nasik, Bombay and Goa.
He did not expect ever to be grounded, but when he returned to India in 1979 he got a new name – Adam Khan – from a swami in Agra. “Till then my name was John Maurice William Robin,” he laughs. It was also the time he was recovering from a broken marriage. The swami told him to listen to his inner voice and draw what comes to his soul.
It was then that Adam realised he wanted to specialise in “impressionistic realism”. “I wanted to capture the light and colour around me”. He did not want to be restricted by the demands of the market and so chose simply to paint whatever he wanted to. “If people like it I feel happy. If they don’t, my works remain with me,” says Adam. Nevertheless, his paintings fetch anywhere between Rs.3,000 and 75,000. Adam is now content using painting as a support and process of self-discovery.
To feel his paintings better, he often uses his fingers rather than brushes on his canvasses. But his real inspiration is his garden. His paintings capture the changing foliage of the seasons and all the birds, butterflies and animals that visit round the year. Each work, he says, is a sketch of everyday life in his garden.
Adam has also taken a fancy for recycling “hopeless” materials like old packing boxes and turning them into useful and beautiful objects using maida, paints, lacquer and old newspapers. Some of his customers have asked him to redo old pieces of furniture. “There is a buyer for everything. You have to believe in your conscience and have a quest for knowledge,” he feels.
Painting on an antique treasure chest from Rajasthan with exquisite wood inlay work, he says, “I am giving the royal item a makeover for a Chennai customer.” “Art is all about taking an idea and making it concrete”.
His style continues to evolve, he says. “Every artist explores differently, using their psyche, experiences, nightmares and sensibilities. I can never force anything that has to do with the experience of the viewer with the work.”