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Tales of Panchalipuram

IT'S EASY to miss Yousuf's Art Gallery in busy Jew Town; it's hidden between scores of kiosks trying to peddle Indian crafts to an unwary visitor. Once located you wonder what artist T. A. Mani's works are doing jostling for space in this tiny coffee shop. There's not enough room for the substantial oeuvre and he hastily pulls out framed canvases from under the tables to complete a story that is started on the walls. Clearly the focus is on commercial activity that so defines this precinct.

At a time when artists are being propelled by contemporary styles, Mani's works hark back to an enjoyable ancient tradition of narration. Panchalipuram is a city that took birth in the artist's mind; and for the last couple of years he has chronicled its events and happenings in his paintings. Mani uses his abounding library of myths to create an unusual visual genre. In this part of the world women dominate and are in turn revered. Strict adherence to hierarchy helps to separate the chieftains from the hoi polloi; green is the colour reserved for them while the others are bathed in browns. Their regal bearings are unmistakable in stance and posture, amply complemented by their bejewelled bodies and coiffures.

Even as the artist deflects any attention to it, shown mostly in profile with their distinctive hair-dos these women echo an Egyptian style of painting. Mani employs a host of tribal symbols; auspicious markings are tattooed on the bodies or form a running border along the panel.

Mani breaks up the composition into vertical layers, with a story being narrated in each unit. This division of the pictorial plane is a remnant of the Blavelippattu scroll painting tradition of Kerala, knowledge of which is privy to the artist. He uses some motifs from this style as compositional devises so that even a complex incident is depicted in a direct and economical manner.

The objects in the background are crisply defined, giving the compositions a flattened look. Even as all necessary details are easily accommodated they are carefully orchestrated so that our attention is riveted to the narrative.

The artist makes efforts to create an archaic setting; this is largely achieved by the mixed media at his disposal. Crayons, watercolours, acrylic and fabric paint are deftly deployed to create an etched surface that looks weathered and scoured.


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