We are talking about vandalism when N. Ramachandran says, “You know the malai across from the airport? Sometimes when the plane circles before landing and goes to the other side, we can see the hill was largely mined and much of the rockface is removed. The hill only appears complete from the main road. Is this not vandalism?” 

Ramachandran questions mankind’s contradictory actions, development versus conservation, cities in flux. Then again, this is not just any hill. It is named after one of the oldest habitations of South India, Pallavaram, where tools from the Paleolithic age were discovered by a British archaeologist in 1864. Quarrying was eventually stopped. The much-coveted charnockite rock was formed by sudden high temperature or pressure. Can art similarly make an impact to bring metamorphosis in mankind, where millenniums have failed?

N. Ramachandran’s addiction to the visual language has led him to hundreds of experiments. His works are large and constructed with an almost regimental design. He says, “Once an Austrian asked me – ‘Your work is so ordered. You must have learned a lot from Western culture.’ I responded, why do you think Indians are not ordered? I learned to organise right from my mother’s anjarai potti! The way I see it, every human being has a sense of place. The body in itself is a miracle. This is not Eastern or Western. My grandfather, a farmer was perfectly ordered. The architecture of an ant hill? Even more amazing! Now, I’ve never seen any human equal to ants.” 

Ramachandran was drawn to a corner shop vendor with superlative abilities to organise. Working from the early hours of morning till late in the night, the shopkeeper multi-tasked, serving 10 customers simultaneously, handwriting bills faster than a person equipped with a computer and printer. Yet, he shared a special relationship with each customer. In “Living Together” Ramachandran portrays the vendor in his potti kadai with cascading sachets of supari, shampoo and toothpaste capturing the voluble graphic language of merchandising and packaging, not altering it, purposefully retaining its complete essence. Like the Rosetta Stone, there are three scripts to the story. One portion of Ramachandran’s 71 inch x 71 inch artwork is made with aggregated strips of newspaper. “I had newspaper collected and couriered in packages from all over India. I wanted to physically embed this in. I used oil paint, removing the pigments, substituting newspaper for paint. Newspaper is a symptom of society. I wanted to see society, not paint.” 

Ramachandran’s concluding sleight of hand is concealed in abstract calligraphic elements fashioned from newspaper. They are not readable or recognisable. By this, he deftly demonstrates how we attribute meanings to letters but they can, equally, have no meaning. 

Different continents can foster similar thoughts. At Lalit Kala Akademi earlier this year visiting French artist Thomas Henriot said the very same words to me – “Newspaper is a symptom of society.” Henriot’s 22 meter long piece about the Cuban newspaper published by the Communist Party unravels in graphic black and white, grays formed by texturing. Thomas talked of poet and writer Reinaldo Arenas who rebelled against the Cuban government and finally fled to America living his last days in abject poverty. 

“In 1980s Havana, you carried a newspaper to show your affiliation to the Communist Party. There were no plastic bags. Newspaper was used for everything. When newspaper becomes an object, it still holds words. It is an interesting place for words.” Known for his unusually large ink and brush depictions of cities from New York to Benares, Henriot literally immerses himself in place, letting people watch him paint. His willingness to let go directs the flow back to him manifesting an organic order. 

“The space of painting has become the human space,” Thomas says. This preoccupation with the fundamental conflict — what the individual wants to be and what society lets him become — is common to both artists and their seeking through art. Both relate body to art. Both examine cities and societies. 

For Ramachandran, it is a simple process of looking at the self and how choice determines identity. With a measure of abstract entering his very real representations of experience, he negotiates his shifting choices to provoke inquiry. “Choice determines identity.

Today’s choice – the world will see that as you.” When we go closer to the strips of adhered newspaper, we see details and when we go far, just the texture.

As within the sea of bobbing heads from Mumbai’s Churchgate, individual identity is eclipsed. Constantly shifting between introspection and experience, by provocation and dialogue, these artists engage the viewer through painting and engage society with our present times.

Now when I pass the Jennie Shop in my neighbourhood, it’s no longer ordinary. And when I pass Pallavaram, I feel the pulse of life from centuries past, a city elsewhere.

Chennai Canvas links art to design and culture through an inside look at the city.