Karuvatta Mana Vasudevan Namboodiri, beloved to readers of Malayalam as Artist Namboodiri, passed away in the early hours of July 7 at Kottakkal in Malappuram.
Artist, illustrator, cartoonist, art director and sculptor, he was at home in many realms of art and was master of all. With his passing, a glorious and indelible chapter in visual art of Kerala, nay India, comes to an end.
With his trademark ponytail tied with a black strip of cloth or a scrunchie, large spectacles, slender body and gentle demeanour, Namboodiri embodied grace. He was a people’s artist. His distinctive, evocative lines brought alive several memorable characters created by Malayalam litterateurs such as Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, MT Vasudevan Nair, Uroob, VKN, Punathil Kunhabdulla and so on.
His lithe, sweeping, flowing lines created the early images of immortal literary characters. The big-bosomed, wide-hipped women with large eyes, and men with lean torsos, broad shoulders and angular features who peopled his world seem to have been inspired by the sculptures he saw in the Sukapuram temple near his home.
Born on September 13, 1925 at Ponnani in Malappuram, Kerala, he was the eldest son of Parameshwaran Namboothiri and Sreedevi Antharjanam. At an interaction at a youth camp at the Aluva YMCA campus, he once told this correspondent how he could not stop doodling and drawing on walls and on sand.
Eventually, he joined the Government College of Fine Arts in Chennai where he was influenced by the greats of the erstwhile Madras School of Arts, then led by stalwarts such as KCS Panicker and Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury.
Writing in The Hindu’s FridayReview, on the occasion of Namboothiri’s 90th birthday in 2011, Manoj Vyloor, Principal of Raja Ravi Varma College of Fine Arts in Mavelikara, wrote: “What mainly interested him was the linear representation of human mass and volume on the flat surface of paper or canvas, yet attributing an illusory depth through the use of perspective... He soon got inducted as an artist into a leading Malayalam weekly and later became a much-sought-after artist....”
The artist’s stint with Kerala’s Mathrubhumi magazine started with a pocket cartoon, ‘Naniyammayum Lokavum’, then he became the chosen illustrator of Jnanpith awardee MT Vasudevan Nair. From 1960 to 82, Namboothiri worked at Mathrubhumi, becoming one of the most popular illustrators among Malayalis.
While working at Mathrubhumi, auteur G Aravindan reached out to Namboothiri during the making of Uttarayanam. In 1974, Namboothiri received the Kerala State Film Award for art direction for the film. He also worked with Aravindan in his movie Kanchana Seetha and designed the character of Gandharvan in the late auteur Padmarajan’s swansong, Njaan Gandharvan.
A great aficionado of Kathakali and theatre, Namboodiri had painted several scenes from famous Kathakali plays in water colours and charcoal. As a homage to legendary playwright and theatre director Kavalam Narayana Panicker, he sketched scenes from Kavalam’s famous play Avanan Kadamba in 2015.
The artist’s copper relief works on scenes from the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana became collector’s items. He had also created few large sculptures for Cholamandalam such as ‘Modern Family on a Scooter’ and ‘Maithuna’. One of his significant metal relief works is in Nani, a restaurant in Kollam.
In 1982, he joined Kalakaumudi, a Malayalam magazine from the Kerala Kaumudi group, and worked there till he shifted to the magazine Samakalika Malayalam. MT’s classic novel Randamoozham was illustrated in 1984 while Namboodiri was working in Kalakaumudi.
Filmmaker Akhil Sathyan who directed a documentary Gandharvan — Two Legends and A Painting (2021) , on a meeting between the late artist and actor Mohanlal says he cannot think of the novel without recalling Namboothiri’s distinctive images.
Mohanlal, an ardent collector of Namboothiri’s works, had commissioned a piece on a verse from Adi Shankaracharya’s Soundaryalahiri. Namboothiri had told Akhil that it was a remarkable work as it was quite different from his usual style of working with an economy of lines and curves.
A great aficionado of Kathakali and theatre, Namboodiri had painted several scenes from famous Kathakali plays in water colours and charcoals. As a homage to legendary playwright and theatre director Kavalam Narayana Panicker, he sketched scenes from Kavalam’s famous play Avanan Kadamba in 2015.
Over the years, several awards, including the Raja Ravi Varma award (2003) and the Kerala Bala Sahitya Award for best illustration for his work in Kuttikalude Ramayanam came his way (2004).
All his life, this gentle genius had been a friend to all those he encountered. Age or status did not matter to him. For Artist Namboothiri, more than the awards and the approbation, it was the appreciation of his readers and viewers that he valued the most.