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Back home, painting brush intact

Balagopala Varma is Kerala's prodigal, artistic son. He is gearing up for an exhibition in Kochi, his longstanding wish, he tells K. PRADEEP

BALAGOPALA VARMA is back to his native State after three long decades. Not surprising then that very few recognize him. When a practicing artist is sealed away from public gaze it is natural that even those who knew him and his art so well may take time to remember and recognise this talented artist.

Mr. Varma

During the late 60s `BG,' as Mr. Varma is popularly referred to in art circles, was in the thick of things here. Those were the years when he was just back from the college of arts at Hyderabad and was straining to give colour and shape to his creativity. A whole, rich crop of cartoons in the `Malayalarajyam,' the very popular comic series titled `Uddannanum Kazhuthayum,' in the `Malayala Manorama' weekly, plenty of other sketches and caricatures in various other publications leading up to the job of art director in the magazine `Yatra' brought out by V.T.Nandakumar, made `BG' quite a busy freelance person.

"The turning point came when in 1972 I joined the Shankar's Weekly. Quite surprisingly I was not even interviewed for the job. It was a hard grind, struggling to find an identity among so many talented artists. Shankar never said a work was good or bad, but always insisted on toiling for perfection. Soon I was handling the popular The Man of the Week column, which was a caricature of an important personality on the first page of the weekly. After three years with the Weekly I moved over to the Children's Book Trust (CBT), where I stuck on till I decided to come back home in 2001. Of course, in between there was a brief, very uncreative phase at the Arabian Printing and Publishing House in Bahrain," reminisces Mr. Varma.

Shankar's towering talent cast a spell on Mr. Varma. He was awed by his extraordinary oeuvre, followed a direction, only to break to form a style of his own. It was a style that stood out in his numerous illustrations for more than 500 titles for CBT and many other publications like the National Book Trust and the NCERT. Mr. Varma experimented successfully with various techniques, some of them his own, like using the toothbrush, the ordinary shaving blade or the often-used technique of the palette and knife. His illustrations also found its way into many other magazines like the Woman's Era, Champak and the Children's World. His illustrations for children's books have fetched him national awards instituted by the Ministry of Information and in 2002 Mr. Varma won the Lifetime Achievement Award for his works.

An illustration of a CBT book.

Along with all these accolades, Mr. Varma and his colleagues at the CBT have also received brickbats. These illustrations have been criticised as being old fashioned, repetitive and not in keeping with the trendy, modern times. "We know our job. It is not that we are not comfortable with the new trends and techniques. We at the CBT were always trying to reach out to the children. They were our target group. Using different techniques is quite okay, but shapes cannot change, like we see in some of the modern illustrations. A child must be able to recognise a crow or a peacock. His eye first falls on the pictures, which must be colourful, something which he easily identifies himself with, and only then is he tempted to read those books. It is difficult to draw for children. For that the artist must turn into a child, imagine like him," argues Mr. Varma.

Though widely known as an illustrator of children's books, Mr. Varma could channel his creativity with equal facility into sculpture, oil painting, ink drawings, caricatures, cartooning etc. He has designed two postal stamps, on the voluntary blood donation scheme and the other brought out in connection with the Munich Olympics; held six solo exhibitions of his paintings in New Delhi and some of his portraits adorn the Supreme Court library.

The Munich Olympics commemoration stamp designed by Mr. Varma

"An artist need not be academically trained. Of course, formal training will help in understanding the great masters and also to learn about the history of art," feels Mr. Varma, who believes he inherited this talent from his father. "I only have very faint memories of my father, L.A.Kerala Varma. He was an executive engineer posted at Karachi, where my sister and I were born. He died when I was hardly four years old. He used to paint, sing, play the violin and loved a game of tennis. My mother used to tell me how I used to go around scribbling on the walls of the house, while my father encouraged me in this pastime," Mr. Varma, who belongs to Nedumbarath Kottaram, Tiruvalla, recollects.

Now settled in Thripunithura along with his wife Gayatri, who retired as a teacher from Kerala School, New Delhi, Mr.Varma even now illustrates for the CBT. But he is fully immersed in fulfilling a long cherished dream of his.

One of his caricatures that appeared in The Man of the Week column

"I always wanted to conduct an exhibition in Kerala. I have never been able to do so before. Now I'm almost ready. I have been working on paintings patterned on the European tradition of classical art and also the vibrant articulation of modernity."

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