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Canvases of harmony

In an earlier period, while guns, barbed-wire tensions, and politics appeared in S.G. Vasudev's paintings, today he is more at peace, says UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA. An exhibition of his new works, already on show at the Sakshi Gallery, Bangalore, will open in Mumbai on September 7.

"Worship", oil on canvas

ONCE upon a time — and it seems like a long time ago — Bangalore used to name its roads for flowers, trees and gardens: Sampige, Margosa, Lal Bagh. Today, the city's roads are named for their width: Eighty feet, 100 feet. And they are crowded nevertheless. Koramangala is a maze of outer and inner ring roads. I look out for an Aishwarya Stores: today's role models are also today's landmarks. We pass a crowd of excited women waiting, for water to emerge from a municipal pipe. Their water pots are a sudden burst of colour against the dusty grey of the road. And then we pass a Mariyamman temple, all deep yellow and blood-red. I glimpse, fleetingly, a billboard for a fruit drink called "Slice": "Pyaar karas barsaye", it says in an unlikely lime-green. We nearly drive headlong into a clutch of autos, and nearly back into a scooterist. The traffic screeches and scolds around us; the trees whisper above. I wonder if there's been an accident. No, there hasn't. It's only — a goat. A skinny brown goat emerges calmly from the confusion in front of us, unmindful of the chaos he has caused.

Suddenly, surprisingly, we are there. Vasudev's house, where he lives with his journalist wife Ammu Joseph and their black-haired spaniel Lara, is an oasis of calm in the clamour of the surrounding roads. Light streams in through the windows as we climb up to the third level where he has his well-organised studio — but the noise remains a vague hum outside. Lara runs up, a doggie-chew in her mouth, eager to inspect the visitor.

Vasudev at 60 looks much the same as he did at 50. Dapper, smiling, pulling at the sleeves of his "Fab India" kurta, ever ready for a conversation — but all the while, from the corner of his eye, wondering when he can return to his canvases.

He looks the same. But a decade has gone by, and it shows in his work. Vasudev is now in his fifth decade of painting. His canvases have always been brilliantly alive: now they have an almost meditative happiness, and a compelling tenderness, about them. They are joyous and exuberant, seething in the warmth of their colour. Elephants, birds, monkeys, trees dancing on waves — all these fill the canvases. Nature is in song.

S.G. Vasudev

"Sixty," he says, almost wonderingly. "When Panicker was 60," he tells me, "all of us used to look up to him. But now that I am 60, I only feel that I still have such a long way to go."

For the boy who was born in Mysore, Karnataka, it must have looked like a much longer way to go when he won a national scholarship to the Government College of Art, Madras, and to the guiding presence of K.C.S. Panicker. Art could not have been an easy road to follow in those days, in the 1940s, when its marketability in this country had not yet been discovered. But the young artists found that solidarity made things easier: and so they set up the Cholamandal artist village, where they supported their artwork with experiments in craft — creative batiks, terracotta, ceramics, copper reliefs.

Vasudev's late-1980s move from Cholamandal back to Bangalore brought him back into the midst of a diverse creative community, including playwrights, journalists, filmmakers, poets, actors, and above all, activists. People who, like Vasudev, believe in dissent and protest, and don't hesitate to come out on the streets for what they believe is right. Today it's reassuring to see the painter's faith in the world we live in. It's a faith that has deep well springs, from folktales told by his grandfather, to stories recounted by A.K. Ramanujan; from working on a series based on Girish Karnad's "Hayavadana", to doing art direction for films. And after all, the Tree of Life, that great vehicle for philosophy and fantasy, appeared on his canvas after Vasudev encountered Bendre's "Kalpa Vriksha Vrindavana".

Five decades of work. The He and She paintings, full of their passion and pain; the Tree of Life, spreading its roots and branches; the Maithunas, wrapped tight in their embrace; the huge, sweeping Earthscapes; and the tumultuous "Theatre of Life" series. There has been anger, irony, even viciousness, two-facedness and tragedy, depicted in his art. There has been the jagged line, the sardonic edge. And always, the subtle, moody, thoughtfullness, with their jerks and bends, their curves and tendernesses, forming the scaffolding of his construct of reality. These have made up these five decades of entering the blank spaces, daubing away, gazing at the white canvas and gazing inside the imagination, looking for that unknown, elusive thing called meaning.

"Hanuman", oil on canvas, S.G. Vasudev

But Vasudev's paintings also come from the real world outside, from just looking out of the window at the living, vibrant, noisy world out there. In an earlier period, guns, barbed-wire tensions, and politics appeared in his works; today he is more at peace. The trees appear in his canvases, their thin brown trunks like ballet dancers shrouded in green, their branches like arms raised in supplication or joy, or outstretched in blessing, linking the sky and the earth. Villagers watch television, a sea of heads turned towards the little television screen at one end of the room: a frame inside a frame, a picture inside a picture. Here, on this canvas, are men, birds, water and trees in an excited tangle, merging to achieve the ultimate state of togetherness.

In another, is the Buddha seated under a tree, a serene halo around his head, with simple faces turned towards him. And here is a Biblical imagery of fruits and birds in an Edenic garden. Here is Hanuman striding along, carrying an entire mountain range in his hands. And now, here are the silk tapestries, with their own delicate complexity, created in collaboration with master weaver Subbarayulu since some nine years, exploring yet another medium for its power of expression and its ability, literally, to weave the fabric of this vast celebration. Witnessing the play of life and the living, of history and spirituality, the painter imbues the colours and forms that appear on his canvas with feeling, energy and a deep optimism.

The canvas is the stage of life, and the play is the vast, celebratory drama of living. Curling waves, animals, fruits, berries, humans and even floating forms that look almost angel-like, all are woven into this grand canvas. Masklike faces, stoic, dispassionate, gaze calmly into the distance, while all around them there is the swirling vortex, the animistic turbulence, and the colourful chaos of nature. Of being wildly, wonderfully in love with this thing called life. Sometimes the faces are framed in fierce coronas of sunlight; sometimes, in a wreath of leaves, berries and flowers; always, in a blaze of warmth.

Sometimes the face floats on waves, or watches a bird, or a branch; and sometimes it grows into a landscape, becoming one with the mountain face. Now the face is inside a tree, and a child gazes at it from the world outside. In profile, the faces carry on an unspoken dialogue. In the midst of this great chorus of the natural world, where the human form is one among the rest, among the birds, rocks, fish, snakes and peaks, the face no longer remains human, but becomes rocklike and eternal. It emerges out of the mountains, out of light, out of darkness, somehow like a familiar face seen in very, very old, crumbling, sepia-toned family photographs. For this is the family of life, and the face is the face of life.

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