A beautiful chaos

Sameer Kulavoor’s quirky mural at The Grid, a creative workplace, brings together elements as diverse as matchboxes and flowers in perfect cohesion

Instagram bios make Mumbai-based graphic artist and illustrator Sameer Kulavoor nervous. Why? Because it means having to limit himself and his work to one line. And if there’s anything he fears more than being boxed into a summary, it’s probably his cat jumping on his oil paintings before they dry.

Kulavoor is in the city to paint a mural on the walls of a soon-to-be-opened creative co-working space called The Grid in RA Puram, run by Justine de Penning.

As he steps off the scaffolding, forgetting to remove the bright green harness, he laughs off the farmer’s tan he’s developed, courtesy the Chennai sun. “Painting a mural is harder than anything else because you’re so close to the canvas. And you don’t have perspective from up close,” he says, adding “You think you’re drawing a straight line, then you step back and it’s a curve! But it is great exercise,” he adds. This is Kulavoor’s fourth mural, previously having done ones in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Auckland.

Against the grid

Although his mural is being created for The Grid, Kulavoor has decided to rebel against the imagery the name creates. “I discussed with Justine the idea of creating organised chaos and the non-existence of any kind of grid or gravity,” he explains. “The space itself acts as an avenue where different artists can interact and collaborate. There’s a lot of overlap when you feed off others’ ideas through dialogue and discussion. So the idea was to bring together unrelated elements and create chaos, which still has a certain beauty.”

The mural, painted on a grey-blue background, is a melange of many images. A Cheetah matchbox (one of the first things Kulavoor and his crew spotted after landing in Chennai), bougainvillea flower petals that look like they flew off the tree at the gate and Lego blocks, in addition to leaves from the park next door and banana trees: the mural is chaos that seems to work together in perfect cohesion. A lot like the mind of an artist? Perhaps.

Hidden somewhere in the artwork is a paper plane made out of a sheet of grid-lined notebook paper. Kulavoor says it is symbolic of the Grid: in that there are ruled lines, but they don’t have to be used in a prescribed way. “I like to keep my eyes open and observe my surroundings and that finds its way into my work — that’s what keeps it exciting for me. And that makes this mural unique to Chennai, since the city has influenced it.”

According to Kulavoor, other than pointing out which wall to paint, de Penning left the entire mural to him, a rare occurrence by far. “The great thing is that she didn’t give me any guidelines or suggestions and that is something that she does with all aspects of the Grid, which will be a key highlight of this space,” says Kulavoor, “because when you have someone like that curating a space, it is the most critical thing for an artist to thrive.”

“All my work is usually with a limited colour palette, but this is the most colourful work I have done,” says Kulavoor of his fourth public mural. “I’ve used many colours, put a sophisticated palette, no black anywhere, with a nice tonal value and unobtrusive to the surroundings — which is quite important, I think.”

Artistic process

“Image-making approach” is Kulavoor’s term of choice, since it is a wider term that covers a lot more than just drawing with pen and paper. “I don’t want to be slotted” is a constant refrain while talking to him, and it shows in his work. From black-and-white sketches to oil paintings (which, he says, he didn’t think he had the patience for) to décor design for music festivals and larger-than-life murals, trying new mediums and letting places inspire him is how Kulavoor keeps his art fresh and alive.

A beautiful chaos

“I observe and make notes to absorb things and that’s where my art comes from,” says Kulavoor, “from observing what is beyond the obvious. For example, that’s how his award-winning book of illustrations, Blued, came to be.” From the simple observation of how standard blue tarpaulin sheets are used across the country, celebrating India’s spirit of jugaad, he created art using just two colours — blue and black. “In Kerala, I saw blue tarp being used as a sail on a boat; in other places, they used it to waterproof roofs when it rained. A friend mentioned that blue tarp over the slums of Dharavi is the first thing you see when you land in Bombay — I found a common pattern in things like these.”

Chennai connection

While this may be his first piece of public art in Chennai, Kulavoor has worked with the Chennai-based publishing house Tara Books for This Truck Has Got To Be Special, written by Anjum Rana and illustrated by him.

The book, published in October last year, highlights the culture of Pakistani truck art, where vehicles are exuberantly decorated and treated like prized possessions. Saying that in Pakistan trucks are decorated with great sentiment, much like a bride before the wedding, he says, “We may have colourful trucks and the ‘Horn OK Please’, but in Pakistan it is a cult thing, to bling out their trucks... The book was such a great learning experience for me, and Tara is showcasing folk art in such an accessible way that people like you and me can discover it,” he says.

Refusing to say anything other than that he’s off on a holiday right after this, Kulavoor is emphatic that he doesn’t want to reveal future plans, so that he is free to change his mind at any point. It is intriguing that the artist painting in a place called The Grid is so careful about not staying within the lines.

(The Grid is located at New No 14, Central Avenue, Kesava Perumal Puram, RA Puram)

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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 7:28:39 AM |

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