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Cry of an injured, universal spirit

Artist Mutthu Koya's life story matches the surrealist mode of transpositioning. The aches and wounds open up at will, and quite naturally, into a series of images.

Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

Mutthu Koya: `Beauty does not mean painting smiling faces alone.'

The simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.

Andre Breton, Second Manifesto of Surrealism

PARADOXICALLY, MUTTHU Koya, the self-confessed surrealist artist, comes across as a simple yet complex person. His demeanour is friendly, stance earthy, and oration smooth. But his eyes and gaze are narrow, sharp, troubled — simmering, as it were, with a deep-rooted restlessness and wrapped-up disturbance.

Koya's works — probably, if partially — reflect his being. Innocence sprinkled with a tinge of bewilderment. Childish playfulness changing into a terror-stricken freeze. Festivity marked by bereavement. Curiosity covered with sneaking fear. Anger that is dynamic, forceful, yet palpably impotent.

"The whirling, kneaded, mangled figures and masks in my paintings and drawings are the emissions of the steam which has built up my psyche," writes Koya. "My thoughts and works are analogous to the modern surrealism of the West in purely external sense only. I owe no ideology or philosophy to post-World War I Dadaism or to the disintegration of old social order. Nor do I owe my style and mode to Dali. My works are purely my own individual expressions of my own strictly personal perceptions."

Notwithstanding his disclaim of the sway of surreal masters on his works, one cannot miss the lurking presence and impact of a Dali or Breton in Koya's visual and verbal propensity. Floating figures and objects, pygmified human forms, distorted landscapes, deformed parts of human body, vicariously smiling lips, stretched out faces, hanging clocks, imperfect reflections, fire-spitting animals, falling edifice... all staple diet of any diehard surrealist cannot be missed in Koya's works.

To be fair to him, the ruffled pages of Koya's life story are wrenched and warped to aptly suit the surrealist mode of transpositioning. The aches and wounds open up at will — and quite naturally — into a series of images that "sprout from a creative energy that boils within me". Koya does not need much prodding to make him unfurl events of his life.

Starting with a star-crossed childhood, a formidable student life in Madras to a steady and well-paying government job, which he voluntarily left years ahead of retirement, Koya has seen all the ups and downs of life. "You know," says Koya, "experience is itself a matter of choice. Like food, we digest, internalise, and retain our experiences. The choice of food and the experience is entirely ours. As an artist, I unconsciously attract prompters that have come to live within me."

Probe him on the darker shades of human existence and behaviour that swamp his canvas, and Koya simply says: "There is nothing like positivity or negativity in art. Beauty does not mean painting smiling faces alone. In fact, often beauty lies in the so-called negativity."

Koya hastens to clarify that style is something he has not consciously attempted or cultivated. If morbid and macabre aspects of life occupy centre stage in each of his works, it is simply because his inner boiling anger comes out naturally and leaves its colours on the canvas.

While one could empathise with his predicament, one could also feel suspicious whether the artist has become a sort of willing prisoner of his own thoughts and predilections. Haven't we seen great artists and performers zooming over mishaps and agonised experiences to create works that are not just reflections of their own internal landscapes but expanded reality of life itself? Should one forever remain cocooned in one's own past and its imperfections? Can one not decide to don the creative wings and fly to heights that offer a broader space and vision? Isn't it worth trying to break the shackles of one's own captivity? Is life nothing more than an act of sabotage and lurking shadows of daunting, unfailing memory?

One cannot escape these thoughts as one watches Mutthu Koya, seated by the window of his somewhat crammed apartment at the National Games Village, giving finishing touches to yet another of his surrealistic creations. These are his last days in Bangalore, the artist reveals, with a tinge of regret. "I came with the intention of settling down here in Bangalore, but that is not to be. I will shortly be shifting my base back to Delhi."

As one leaves Koya to enjoy his remaining days in the City, one realises that whether it is Delhi or Bangalore, essential isolation of the artist is unlikely to change much.

Painting his own portrait

How he came to be a surrealist: No straightforward answers to this question. If I remember correctly, I was scribbling on the sand at the age of four, which accidentally resembled the frame in which Muslims carry their dead. It was just after the smallpox epidemic in Kannur area in the mid-'40s, which killed a large number of people. My elder sister was one of them. I barely escaped, though I was almost given up for dead. I used to watch the bodies being carried in procession to the graveyards sitting on the portico of our house. Our house was just on the roadside....

On childhood and adolescence: I saw mostly unpleasant things... Parental neglect, ill treatment from public, injured self-respect, all beyond my forbearance... Extreme poverty, rigorous theological discipline, hunger, and impoverishment kept me constantly angry at my plight... As I grew into adolescence, I was already a mental wreck. Self-centeredness and daydreaming lowered my performance level in the classes while I would sit alone thinking of girls, rich houses, beating my tormentors black and blue, tasty sumptuous food...

Born in an artless, semi-primitive environment and having gone through experiences that retards human development, I cannot produce works of art which conform to high aesthetic order and social moorings. That is why my works look a bit strange...

Early days in Madras: I had only Rs. 5 in my pocket after spending on cycle rickshaw and buying art material for the entrance test (for admission to Madras Art School)... When the test was over, I was wondering as to how to pass the night... As if from nowhere, my high school chum Raghavan materialised. He had a petty food shop in Sydenhams Road and his customers were workers... The portico of a tannery yard with dust and smell of drying hide was our common bedroom after midnight. Dirty filthy public toilets and roadside taps served as my bathroom...

When nothing to do on holidays and no friends around to spend time with, no room to relax over a book, the benches in the vast Ripon Building garden and the flat-topped parapet walls lining its boundary were my resting place during hot afternoons. The siesta, however, was not totally undisturbed. I had to put up with lathi-wielding police constables, pestering homosexuals, and anti-social elements besides itchy sultriness. Stray dogs gradually became my comrades in loners. Dogs are excellent communicators. They began appearing in my works.

On his works: Being a victim of a decadent social order and an artist at the same time, I am afraid my creations will automatically reflect my tormented thoughts deep within. These thoughts, once processed through my works, acquire characteristics of universal representation of tormented humanity... Call it surrealism or not, my works do echo the cry of an injured, universal spirit.


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