A regular at art camps and informal gatherings organised by Mr. Kaladharan at his Nanappa Art Gallery, C.N. was humility personified.

Artist C.N. Karunakaran, who was as frugal with words as his lifestyle but eminently prolific on the canvas, died at a hospital here following a brief illness on Saturday. He was 73.

He is survived by wife, a daughter, and son Ayilyan, a cinematographer.

The funeral will be conducted at Ravipuram crematorium with State honours on Sunday.

C.N., as he was fondly called by peers and friends, led an art renaissance of sorts in Kerala in the 1970s when he turned his back on overarching European influence to break new ground by reinventing the rhythms and patterns of murals in his works.

Born at Brahmakulam, near Guruvayoor, C.N. secured diplomas in design and painting from the School of Arts and Crafts in Chennai, then Madras, under the inspiring tutelage of masters D.P. Roy Chowdhury and K.C.S. Paniker. Veteran artist M.V. Devan brought him to Kerala as an instructor of the Kerala Institute of Arts, an artists’ enterprise that became the reputed Kalapeetom before closing down.

Soon, C.N. launched Chitrakootam, Kerala’s pioneering private art gallery. The experiment was short-lived and C.N. moved to Dubai in search of greener pastures. But he did not stick around there for long and returned to live and work in Kerala, taking the art scene by storm with his signature illustrations and calligraphic headlines for serial works in publications such as Deshabhimani, Chintha, and Malayala Nadu.

“Whether it is his illustration, book cover, designer card or calligraphy, his inimitable style emanating from a rare understanding of the patterns and blend of murals stood out,” recalls artist T. Kaladharan, C.N’s disciple, friend, and long-term associate. “His ‘tree’ motif gathered a distinct identity,” he says.

A regular at art camps and informal gatherings organised by Mr. Kaladharan at his Nanappa Art Gallery, C.N. was humility personified. He would not have any qualms coming down to the gallery to spend a day with children even when he headed the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi in its troubled years.

Their last journey together was to Uttarkhand in May this year to take part in a camp, soon after which disaster struck the region. Mr. Kaladharan also remembers C.N. as someone who made many public works of art, including those on the Goshree bridges to Vallarpadam; the relief on the wall of the Cochin Port Trust; and at the technical office of FACT at Ambalamedu. “At a time when artists made an exodus from Kerala to make a mark, he stood his ground and was able to evolve an original style that inspired our generation,” says Mr. Kaladharan.

Mr. Devan says even the illustrations of C.N. bore the stamp of his style. “He Indianised contemporary art by ringing in the cadenced pattern and colour scheme of murals.”

A perfectionist to a fault, C.N. did art direction for films such as Aswathamavu (which won him a State award), Ore Thooval Pakshikal, Akkare, Purushartham, and Aaleesinte Anweshanam.

Auteur T.V. Chandran made a documentary on the artist, while Prabhat Book House brought out a book on him.

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Artist C. N. Karunakaran passes awayDecember 14, 2013

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