“All artists are outsiders looking in from beyond some kind of a fence,” says artist V. Viswanadhan. “The distance gives you a different perspective that helps you appreciate the value of things,” adds the Paris-based Malayali artist.

Viswanadhan, 73 years old, is a world renowned artist. He found success in his late 20s and his fame has grown steadily since. Yet, an outsider is what he found himself to be – throughout his journey from his hometown in Kollam to Chennai and then to Paris.

Born in Kadavoor, a small village in Kollam, in 1940, Viswanadhan grew up drawing the images he saw on calendars. He landed in trouble at his college in Kollam thanks to what he calls a “childhood habit of trying to fix the world.” He was part of a student strike against the college’s decision to disqualify students who did not have the necessary attendance. He was one of five students dismissed for the strike.

“It was like the future had stilled. I just wandered without knowing what lay ahead,” he says. The setback at Kollam took Viswanadhan to Chennai, where he enrolled at the Government College of Arts and Crafts.

He was among those who helped set up the Cholamandal artists’ village near Chennai, an artists’ commune fully funded by the artists themselves. “When we started, it was just open land facing the sea. It was quite a romantic idea,” says Viswanadhan. Young artists needed a space to work without worrying too much about patronage or outside influence.

Cholamandal gave them the room to practice their art independently. “I lived there for a while. A friend then told me, ‘This place is heaven. But you have to travel,’” says Viswanadhan.

With help from his friends, the artist managed a one-way ticket to Paris. Travelling around Europe, the young Viswanadhan learnt more about art, while also finding great recognition for his work. Inspired by the ritualistic drawings of Kerala, his abstract paintings experimented with geometric forms and Indian pigments.

His experiences in Europe also led him further along his journey towards finding his identity. A car accident while on the way to Germany in 1976 changed the course of his work. Viswanadhan remembers lying on the doctor’s table after the accident. A prick of the surgical needle awoke him from his comatose state, a gasp of pain escaped his lips and the doctor’s voice broke through the numbness: ‘You are alive! Who are you? Where are you from?’

The questions stayed with the artist long after he healed and led his artistic vision. With his friend Adoor Gopalakrishnan, he travelled along coastal areas of India – Dwaraka, Porbandar, Somnath, Daman and Diu – and collected sand from these places. The trip fuelled his experiments with materials in art.

“Material is the base of the spirit. A sculptor working in stone has a feeling for the stone. Even the Pyramids of Egypt were an experiment at taking a material from nature and internalizing it, moulding it.”

Today, Velu Viswanadhan is a known face in international art. A Malayalam magazine bestowed on him the moniker ‘Paris’ Viswanadhan, by which he is known in the State today. In 2005, the French government awarded him the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.

Though he is based in Paris, he often comes to Chennai and Kerala. His work was part of the first Kochi Muziris Biennale. He was in the city on Saturday to take part in a visual presentation on ‘Kadavoor-Chennai-Paris,’ a journey through 50 years of his work, organised by the Kochi Muziris Biennale Foundation. What has remained with the artist through the years are the questions he asks of everything around him. “Some good has to come out of having a brain, doesn’t it?” he says.

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