The year was 1976. Free-spirited artist Paris Viswnadhan was lying comatose on the surgical table at a hospital in Germany following a serious accident. But soon, he began to writhe in pain as the scalpel literally touched a raw nerve.
“‘Are you alive? Who are you? What is your name?’” the surgeon’s words sounded as if from another world. In my semi-consciousness, I realised I had touched an unknown limit,” recalled the veteran artist, who was on day’s visit to the city to do spadework for a project for the forthcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB). He was accompanied by his wife and artist Nadine Tarbouriech.
The surgeon’s queries sent him on a transcendental inquiry into the collective identity that shaped his being. Once out of hospital, he wrote to filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan saying he wished to tour the length and breadth of India. “Adoor came along and we did a cross-country touching Dwaraka, Porbandar, Somnath, Gangotri etc. as I collected sand from these places. Adoor was filming the visit. I think it was artist Balan Nambiar who asked us, ‘so you are working on the elements?’ And here we were, coming up with a quintet of lyrical films, creative documentaries, on the Panchabhoota [the five elements]. While Adoor shot earth, water and fire, the rest were shot by me and Vinod Raja, nephew of famed cinematographer Mankada Ravi Varma.”
Several years later, in 2009, he retraced the trip to document the changes that had come over these landmark destinations and produced ‘Return to the Elements’. “We travelled along the coastal roads of the country extensively during the trip. I’ve now edited the rushes and made a film, ‘India on Road’. The KMB team is interested in screening all the entire series at the Biennale,” he says.
Originally from Kadavoor in Kollam, Viswanadhan’s migration to Paris in 1968 was accidental. Studying art under KCS Panicker and working with him for the establishment of artists’ village Cholamandalam, which he rues has been hijacked by vested interests, Viswanadhan owes it to his friends for suggesting that he see the world. Money generated from an exhibition his works funded his travel to Europe. “As I reached Paris, I was asked if I wanted space for doing painting. They had known me through a work I had exhibited at the Paris Biennale. Gallery de France took a liking for my work and we decided to work together. The artists’ house became my home.” He continues to be an Indian citizen, but doesn’t know if he will ever come back. His idea of journey, it appears, doesn’t involve the concept of return.
Abstract geometrical shapes inspired by the Tantric-style painting characterised Viswanadhan’s works during the early stages of his career. From oil medium, he moved to acrylic, but the problem with acrylic is it dries up as soon as the paint is out of the tube. “It wouldn’t go with my temperament and so, was very expensive as precious paint went to waste. So I did some research and stumbled upon a new medium, casein made from milk protein which doesn’t dry for a few days after mixing. I’ve been using it for the last 25 years.”
The artist feels that geometry defines human walk or movements. “It is the base and my effort has been to extend it to capture inner movements as well.”