While renowned artist A. Ramachandran talks to Riyas Komu of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation Nidhi Surendranath tunes into their conversation

Artist A. Ramachandran has to his credit Padma Bhushan, chairmanship of the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi, and over 15 solo exhibitions. The 79-year-old artist, who was born at Attingal in Thiruvananthapuram, also faced adversity many times in his illustrious career. His shift from ‘modern’ style to works inspired by the murals of Kerala and mythology was seen by much of the art world as a betrayal of the modernist movement. His attempt to bring in reform when he took over the as the head of the Akademi in 1991 also met with stiff resistance. As his retrospective opened at Durbar Hall art gallery in Kochi on Sunday, Riyas Komu, renowned artist and secretary of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation, caught up with him for a chat.

Riyas: This is your first solo show in Kerala. How does it feel to be back here, showing your work to the people of your State?

Ramachandran: It feels like good old days when I was a small child and my brother took me to primary school on the first day. That is the first experience of going to school, holding his hand. He asked me to sit in a class with so many other unknown faces.

Riyas: Many Malayali artists who leave Kerala don’t come back and do exhibitions here in a regular fashion. Was it that you never felt the need to come back?

Ramachandran: No, that is only because most of the artists, like Paris Viswanathan for example, had the stamina to take his works and bring them here. I’m useless about all these things. Maybe because I’ve been spoilt by these galleries. I started my career with Kumar Gallery. Now, Vadehra art gallery looks after me. Like the child that was taken to primary school, Vadehra has now brought me to Kerala.

Riyas: You left Kerala more than 50 years ago. Now everyone talks about the world moving towards a cosmopolitan identity. In your art practice, though you started as one of the modernists, but went back to art that is very vernacular. How did the shift happen? Was it a very strong decision led by an ideology?

Ramachandran: It is. I believe the identity of a culture is born in intimate surroundings. Like Kerala, for example. After so many years, why should I come back to a State that never accepted me, in a sense. I’m neither M.T. Vasudevan Nair, or Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, or O.V. Vijayan, or anybody accepted in that sense. But still my heart comes back to this place. For 30 years I worked on Kerala murals and produced an academic document explaining why that art is great. All this made me rethink what is actually Indian art, or modern contemporary Indian art.

For me, this was a great challenge because I’m a student of art history. I started looking at the context in which I became an artist. I started questioning the grammar of the language we use. Grammatical structure, the syntax is the basis of a visual language.

I studied Indian art history, right through the early period of classical art of Ajanta, moving to the miniature traditions that were to some extent influenced by Persian. All this is Oriental art from countries which had a culture different from Europe.

Unfortunately, we went under British rule. They started art schools everywhere and that was one of the most damaging things they did to our culture, especially visual culture. They needed craftsmen who could carve and do meticulous work according to the European tradition. Macaulay, when he introduced education, said that Indian craftsmen did not know how to paint as he saw. He thought it was necessary to train them to create the art and craft product. Create for whom? The British. They were making them competent to paint botanical diagrams and such things. That is the beginning of our art education today. That itself is a suicidal system we inherited.

We are all products of that, you and me. We know more about European art than Indian art. Shantiniketan. They gave me some clue about the thinking process of Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar, Binode Behari Mukherjee. They looked at art from an entirely different point of view from Husain, Tyeb, or Ramkumar. That distinction I was trying to understand. I’m not saying they are bad artists. I’m only talking about the movement.

When I went to Japan to do illustrations for children’s books, I used all the folk traditions of India. I found that tribal and folk art are the easiest understood visual language in the world, especially to children.

So I started using Madhubani and Warli painting, I studied these traditions very carefully. I spent most of my life studying different cultural traditions of India. I did my earlier works when there was an urge to do political things and statements. Later I started thinking, why can’t we have a language of our own that is distinctly different.

Riyas: In your artistic journey, you believed so much in the vernacular, in your own tradition and inheritance. You’ve achieved success by taking a route different from what many others of your time chose. Do you think you’ve proved yourself?

Ramachandran: It is for art historians to assess whether I’m good or bad.I leave it to time to prove whether I’m good or bad. I’m not ambitious that way. I’m surprised even people like you are taking interest in me. I’m not in the mainstream in any sense.

This cynical reaction is because when I did ‘Yayati,’ the kind of reaction I got was absolutely drastic. I faced prejudice and rejection at the time, even from my own friends. They all thought that my work had become decorative … the word they used was ‘decorativeness.’ But decorativeness is a part of Indian culture. It is the Europeans who used that derivative language and called Indian art ‘decorative.’ To us, decorativeness is the life force. The whole surface of the picture is pulsating with life because of the decorativeness. That is a point they missed.

Riyas: Do you think they missed the deep mystery that is at the heart of Indian aesthetics?

Ramachandran: I saw Kerala murals for the first time when my mother took me to the temple. Even today, when I do my sculptures and paintings, I feel it is a ritualistic act. To me, the great pleasure of doing a painting or a sculpture is if I can evoke that feeling. A man who is doing kalamezhuthu does not think of the canvas. He is thinking of how the Goddess’ spirit is going to descend into his work.

Even today they don’t realise that mystery. Painting is not a successful product. That is the wrong word to use. ‘What a good painting you’ve done,’ is a very flat statement.

Riyas: You’ve proved that the vernacular can be very successful. M.T. Vasudevan Nair is someone from your generation. He became very successful even as he played with the idea of myth. But why do we artists fail in Kerala when we take up myth? Is it that our society does not understand visual art?

Ramachandran: Strangely, our visual culture for painting is dead. I think there has been an overdose of Ravi Varma here. He has settled like dust on the surface of every visual culture. I respect Ravi Varma. I did a huge retrospective of him. But why should I sit and talk today about only C.V. Raman Pillai and forget all other writers like Basheer, or Vijayan, or M.T. Vasudevan Nair. Even in the 21 century, we still talk only about Ravi Varma. Because your eyes don’t want to move further.

Riyas: You were also interested in working more closely with some institutions in Kerala. But your efforts never seemed to impress anyone enough here.

Ramachandran: That is because people here resist everything. In Rajasthan, people may not understand my work, but they are tolerant. We are an intolerant society. We are against anything new. Even if our breakfast is not just right, we get angry. We cannot break the rule.

When I came here as chairman of Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi, there was hardly anyone I could speak to. I came with a fantastic project of setting up small art galleries in different districts. I wanted to bring out monograms of all our artists because we have a reading public. I wanted reproductions to be sold. Every district should have at least one gallery where the younger artists can show their work.

All said and done, young artists of Kerala are always better than young artists elsewhere. They are more educated, more conscious.

Riyas: A few years ago, you had also proposed setting up an art education institution that would revolutionise the art system and visual culture in Kerala at all levels. But the project met with strong opposition and your plans had to be shelved. What went wrong?

Ramachandran: That project was extremely serious. Kerala has wonderful students. But all of them have to go to Baroda, or Shantiniketan or other places to get master’s degrees. Why could we not give them a good institution here?

I suggested an institution, not taking away the jobs of artists of other art schools. That is a terrible misunderstanding. That was not the idea. The idea was that 21 century art was going to be very different. It is not just oil painting. Students should use photography, televisions and other electronic devices. I don’t practice that, but I don’t mind students experimenting. Why can’t we develop an architecture of our own? Why can’t we design our own magazines and books in Kerala? You can do a lot of experiments with typography.

I was not just thinking about artists, but a revolution in terms of visual culture in Kerala. Unfortunately, it was misunderstood.

Riyas: Can the project still be revived?

Ramachandran: Of course it can be revived. But it needs a lot of work.

Riyas: Had you also proposed a sort of museum to archive the art work produced?

Ramachandran: No, my proposal was an exhibition of three major artists – Ravi Varma, Madhava Menon and K.C.S. Panicker, in Delhi. I wanted to publicise Kerala artists nationwide and show why they are different.

Riyas: But you were almost beaten after you did the Ravi Varma show in Delhi.

Ramachandran: More in Delhi than in Kerala. Artists from Husain downwards signed a petition saying Ravi Varma was a calendar painter and the Government of India should not spend so much of money to bring an exhibition of this quality and put it in the national museum.

The experience of the exhibition really shocked me. You know, I lost my eye because of all the tension. I still can’t see with my right eye. It was a very tragic experience. I was rushing like a mad dog from Delhi to here. Going to everybody, getting things cleared, sending the work, and on top of it they gave this statement in the paper.

Riyas: You can see that there is a rigour in you. You are a perfectionist in your work and you are ready to fight for it.

Maybe, yes. I wanted to do the exhibition properly. It was like your Biennale. You did not sacrifice the Biennale even though it was difficult. I lost my eye and I suffered terrible tension. I did not know what to do and I was alone. But I did not sacrifice. I proved my point. After so many years, today Ravi Varma has been reinstated into the historical sense.

Riyas: ‘Yayati’ was a turning point in your art practice, wasn’t it? It marked your shift from your earlier political work to themes of mythology.

In my ‘Nuclear Ragini’ series, I took images of Rajasthani women and interpreted them against the background of the nuclear tests we did in Pokhran. That was showing how a beautiful place like Rajasthan got distorted when something bad happened. In Japan I saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki and I met some of the greatest artists I have met in my life. Iri Maruki and Toshi Maruki, husband and wife, they spent their whole lives working on Hiroshima and anti-war paintings. They have a museum where I lived with them. These things that inspired me to do something different. From that set of paintings I moved away and asked how I could become authentic. So I started studying the Nathdwara tradition of miniatures. Also the miniature paintings in Udaipur palace.

If we take the grammar of Indian visual culture and re-interpret it to our own times, then perhaps we can do differently. ‘Yayati’ was my first step in that direction. I brought in my experience of seeing kalamezhuthu rituals the whole night, my recollections of temple pujas and big lamps, the murals – I wanted to create the ambience dedicated to a temple – a temple dedicated to a modern man. Yayati is a man who is constantly searching for pleasure.

Riyas: You can see the Yayati syndrome in abundance today.

Ramachandran: Human beings are developing and destroying the world simply to enjoy themselves. It’s consumerist and aggressively self-centred. That is dangerous.

You asked me earlier why I changed. When I was in Kerala, I had never seen really gruesome things. I only visualized them from reading Dostoevsky, Mahabharata, or reading about the World War and gas chambers. We never experienced such things in Kerala. What I really saw was the ’84 riots. I saw 20 people chasing a sardar in front of my house. And they killed him. That is the first time I saw how gruesome man is towards another man.

I started introspecting on the real function of art. When I paint, when I sculpt, I’m ultimately making that gruesomeness into beauty. I thought, ‘Is it correct to make rasagollas out of human tears?’ But the Bhils, who are extremely poor, still live in harmony. I realized that human beings are only a part of nature. That made me think differently again.

Riyas: What I found very interesting about ‘Yayati’ was how you used the character of Yayati to critique manipulative men, but through the images of Bhil women from Rajasthan. You could read the situation in Attappady as a parallel to your experience of nature with the Bhils.

Ramachandran: Maybe I’m political without being obviously political. I don’t know myself, frankly speaking. I’m only an artist. If I start using my logic too much I won’t be an artist.

You talked about Attappady. When I was young, I used to go to Kolathur, where they’ve now established the Thumba space centre. That used to be a fisher village. From University College, if I missed the bus at night, I had no alternative but to go with the fisherwomen who were going back with burning torches.

Working class people are, to my mind, the most graceful people. They are the models of classical Indian art. If you go back to the Bagh Caves, or Ajanta, they were actually making the images of working class people.

I look at the tribals, there is an inherent shape which is the model for Ajanta and Ellora. That is where I discovered classical images. A boy’s high cheekbones, flat nose, slightly slanting eyes and forehead – how precise they are for a sculpture or a painting. I’m like a bee, collecting honey from the beehive of the Bhils.

Riyas: You have a strong interest in being a cameo in your own paintings. My interpretation is that it derives from how you have used a lot of myths in your art practice.

Ramachandran: When I was doing ‘Yayati,’ I had an urge to include myself in that vast panorama. It was like my own recognition that I was trying to force upon the canvas. Then I remembered the Gandharva images in Kerala murals. Gandharva is like a celestial being who narrates stories – like a soothradhar. Once I did that, to my surprise, I found my hairstyle and my drooping moustache were interesting motifs that I could transfer to my work. Once I started I found endless avenues – I could be a bird, a bull, I could be anything.

More In: Kochi