For Kodaikanal-based pointillism artist J. Nath, life’s canvas offers myriad possibilities

Many in Kodaikanal admire J. Nath’s physical agility and mental clarity at 80. “How do you stay so fit, Mr. Nath?” a young man quizzes him. 

Every morning, half an hour after tea, Nath does 45 minutes of yoga. He spontaneously breaks into an old melody or ghazal, ready to oblige a request for a song. Sometimes he is off a level, but his effortless song has more character than those who always sing in tune. At Atvampatti I turn into Senora Gardens where a rocky road curves up to Nath’s home for 24 years. The slope of the roof inclines as steep as the mountains behind. Past the yellow wicket gate, on the short white door, is inscribed J. Nath, Artist. He greets me outside. “Jaya and I lived in this house while we built it. An architect friend from Bombay, a Parsi gentleman Nari Gandhi, helped us make the plan. He had actually studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. I asked him — how can we be sure of carrying out your idea? What if the house falls? And he said — if it falls, build it again! And guess what? The house fell!”

In those days, the construction was stone-packed with mud. As the main support wall was being built, it rained non-stop for six days. The Naths were sleeping in the loft of the half-finished house, when Nath awoke to a thundering. The wall had collapsed. “I thought it was a huge earthquake. The villagers said it would take seven years to construct the house if we did not finish. Jaya believed this space had good energy and we must make it work.” They rebuilt the wall, this time with cement and stone. The roof was initially covered with coconut leaf mat with hay sandwiched between rafters. “We got lemon grass in bundles, brought on horseback, 4 annas a pile”, recalls Nath. Devoted to Jaya till her recent passing, he credits her for their simple life. 

Mid-1950s in Bombay, Nath was introduced to the Artist’s Aid Centre. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit purchased one of his early landscapes. He was practising graphic design besides painting and drawing. In 1960, he married Jaya, a teacher. Tired of city life, the Naths moved to Kodaikanal in 1984. Here, his first commission was a calendar of Old Madras etchings. Nath recounts, “The Carlton hotel manager liked the calendar displayed at Indian Bank. The bank manager told him – it’s by an artist in Atvampatti. The Carlton group arrived promptly at my studio and bought three watercolours. The next day, a car came to pick me up. I thought they were going to settle the bill.” 

Instead, Nath was shown many empty walls at the hotel. He made 24 paintings for The Carlton in acrylic on canvas. From then on there was no looking back. 

In India, for eons, traditional art forms have emerged with clarity without fudging or ambiguity. Yet in symbolism and depiction, there is much to discern. Nath’s painting derives from this way of seeing, following that line where a pot, parrot, man or woman is seen for exactly what it is. But art must be what the artist sees and the schisms of necessary doubt slip in with Nath’s representation of reality. “This is one of the first I did in Kodaikanal — the lake with Perumal in the background.” I frown trying to picture the spot and he smiles. “I put the row of eucalyptus here along the lake. It doesn’t really look like that.” He pulls out another painting of an agraharam with a temple gopuram, architecturally juxtaposed for a pleasing composition. A group of heads of women: in profile, full frontal, heads turned, some real, some imagined. The scenes are his, like a designer conjuring a film set or a writer turning experience to fiction. Houses appear rhomboid and perspectives false. They are drawn from both left and right, optically elusive as in Indian miniature paintings, a trait from Nath’s years as a draughtsman. Even his house poses paradoxes like that. One staircase ends at a wall. Nath’s technique of pointillism, derived from his printing experience, demonstrates his command of colour and consistent effort. Dots pile up side by side, blue next to brown, other vivid hues filling well-defined shapes. Shadows are subdued, almost latent. A crowd assembles around Guru Nanak under a tree. “The Siddh Gosht, a gathering of ascetics,” Nath explains. We see the backs of heads and faces turned, the seamless biographies of different faiths tuned to one reason. Nath’s many points have come closer together making the separate indistinguishable. Art and life were never separate for J. Nath, parallel streams meeting infinitely.