‘I find yellow to be a brave colour amidst blacks and blues’

Artist Pradeep Puthoor

Artist Pradeep Puthoor   | Photo Credit: S Mahinsha

Two-time Jackson Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellowship winner artist Pradeep Puthoor’s works are reflections of society

Change is the only constant in contemporary artist Pradeep Puthoor’s paintings. While at first glance a repetitive pattern dominates the canvas, a closer look reveals the myriad paths that are embarked on to surrender an idea before an audience, ranging from the amused to the discerning. An artist is born, he firmly believes, only through innovative creations to call one’s own. And in that, the internationally acclaimed artist most certainly has walked the talk. As if concurring with his stance, this constant reinvention has fetched him the prestigious Jackson Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellowship for creative excellence in the field of painting a second time — the only Indian artist to have won it twice.

The first was in 2003 when he was the only artist from Kerala to have bagged the fellowship. It is no easy win, the selection process entailing scrutiny by a panel of expert artists, historians and curators, which extends over several months.

“It requires having to apply again with new works and is a tough wait of one year. The selection process usually takes at least six months,” he says. The Puthoors have set up house at Vattiyoorkavu, Thiruvananthapuram, with the upper storey functioning as a studio.

Pradeep’s works have always been a reflection of the scenario we live in, at certain points even ahead of our time. It takes some prodding before he modestly divulges that it was his progress in art over the years that the foundation found most worthy of awarding credit.

Artist Pradeep Puthoor

Artist Pradeep Puthoor   | Photo Credit: S Mahinsha

The works also undergo Pradeep’s own dissection. Sometimes, works that require months of labour are done away with at the last moment. “I evaluate my works every year. There are some I don’t even feel like showing to people. It might end up being bought by someone later on but still I am hesitant.”

New paintings take up space across the walls of his studio, and by new, Pradeep means works in progress for the last five years or so. “There are times when I rework a painting that would have been completed years ago. I am never really done telling what I want to say. Maybe that is why they extend to several canvases.”

Subjects of relevance

His most recent work revolves around the theme ‘Decay’ and so the paintings take on a sombre tone, a stark contrast to his otherwise exuberant usage of colour. “The series explores the state of the world today, from terrorism to the resilience that follows,” he says.

From large panels to pen drawings on small rectangles of paper, the series seems to have taken up space in Pradeep’s mind more so than any other of his past explorations. Human greed was the focus of the last series. Not that ‘Decay’ was absent before, but as with all his narratives, the subject has gained a new relevance.

“The content is vast, offering scope to retell themes in varied dimensions. That is how it becomes contemporary,” he notes. “If it is to please someone else, then a poster takes shape, not an authentic work of art.”

Pradeep was never one to conform. Hailing from Puthoor, Kottarakara, as a child, his love for art found resonance with his father, Sukumaran, an Ayurveda physician who made sure he was never short of materials and never thought twice about packing him off to participate in competitions. At the age of 13, he won the Shanker’s International Children’s Competition prize for painting. Pradeep remembers friends and tutors taking note of his distinct style that stood out even then. To him, it meant he had something of his own to share.

There was a traumatic spell before that though — a brooding lad, Pradeep was mistakenly punished for the mischief of an older cousin who was living with the family. She would set the furniture on fire and snip clothes for which an unsuspecting young Pradeep took many lashings. This went on for two years. Looking back, he says the mental agony may have surfaced in his works later on too.

On completing a degree from Government College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram, from where he passed out as a rank holder specialising in Applied Art, a brief period of work with advertisement firms and a Malayalam daily followed. “I had enough of advertising and never touched it again,” he says.

Deciding that his living would be made from painting, come what may, he embarked on a difficult journey. Pradeep went on to travel and exhibit his works in cities across India. The artist points out that a style cannot be chased or willed to sprout abruptly but comes from rooting oneself in continuous practice.

In 1992, the Kerala Lalitakala Akademi’s first national award went to Pradeep for his painting ‘Air Airy’, depicting the negative side of life. The next year, he won the Junior Research Fellowship for painting, instituted by the Human Resource Development Board.

With the family
  • Meeting his wife, Raji, changed little of his quest for more as an artist. She was only too happy to fit into his world. “It opened up a whole new space for me, one that I found interesting and engaging,” she says, eyes widening with wonder.
  • They two daughters, Sneha and Megha, who also dabble in art. World issues dominate discussions in the house, Pradeep adds, and prioritising art has also meant not having enough time to socialise. But criticism does not bog him down. “Reacting is a waste of our precious time and energy, isn’t it?” he asks. “There is a pleasure in the struggle to leave your mark.”

He had a short stint as a teacher at his alma mater where he found talking to students a better mode of reaching out rather than ladling out instructions. Parents who approach him with wards inclined to art are asked for an hour on the phone with the child instead. “Talk to them about what art is. Then, let them grow on their own. Of course, it is necessary to remove any confusion that they might have. While technique is important, so is what an artist wants to say and how. Students of art should also study the lives of master artists, all of which is accessible now on the Internet.”

People think many of today’s children have been led astray, Pradeep says. But he disagrees. “I think there is much to learn from millennials.” He adds: “There is change in how art is viewed but this mode of instruction is not enough. It isn’t just about teaching light and shade techniques or so. In the West, children are exposed to the masters and their works through trips to museums. It takes us decades before such an opportunity arises.”

New pastures

It was winning the British Overseas League Award in 1997 for his painting ‘Mangled Mother’ that took him to London. The painting is now part of the Singapore High Commission’s collection in the UK. “Former President KR Narayanan took a special interest, which allowed me to stay longer on a residency in London,” he recalls with gratitude. The experience brought him up close with works of greats like Picasso, Van Gogh and Dali.

He also exhibited with contemporary artistes such as Damien Hirst, Spencer Tunick and Peter Blake along with whose works his ‘Beloved Tiger’ in watercolour was later auctioned at Christie’s.

“Seeing the works of the masters first-hand energises you with a renewed confidence,” he says. “One needs to think about what and why we draw before dwelling on how to present it differently. I think over time, I have developed a style that resonates with a global audience.”

Pradeep’s works have held visitors spellbound in galleries around the world. In 2005, he represented India in the Florence Biennale where he was honoured with a diploma in painting. The next year saw exhibitions in Berlin and Potsdam, Germany, after winning a scholarship.

His abstracts, an interplay of anatomical detailing and imagination, surreal in their presentation and throbbing with colour, have continued to evolve much like the artist himself. Layers of precise lines, remotely human figures not to mention the staring eyes, zoological and botanical patterns reminiscent of views in a science lab, it is like another ecosystem that has been magnified and laid bare on his canvas. “People whose works I may have critiqued years ago come back to me saying it did them good but I apologise as it was not in my place, while still a student, to have done so. I wouldn’t do something like that today. I continue to learn.”

Dates fail his memory. His wife, Raji, is the point of contact as she doubles as manager. Sheets of paper and canvas, kept precariously in many stages of completion on tables, reveal a side to Pradeep that is constantly working. It is a contradiction to his calm exterior that gives little away, now dreamy and then lighting up, almost childlike.

“There is no rest for me. I am on this high-speed trip. No matter what I am doing, I have art on my mind. It is conditioning now. Call it selfish even, but it is always there, hovering, on the lookout for where inspiration might strike from. I may be anywhere, even hanging out with friends.” Tubes of canvases lie ready to fly to The Noble Sage Gallery in London for a show in December where he exhibits works on a regular basis.

The ‘Decay’ series also sees the appearance of colours Pradeep has not used in the past. “I find yellow to be a brave colour amidst blacks and blues.” It becomes apparent that these are decisions employed with the intention of presenting a subject in its most powerful form. “There is no space for glorifying what is around us. Instead, if we reverse the dimension, what we see is the pain,” he says referencing his earlier works like the catacombs-inspired ‘Temple of Yellow Bones’ and ‘Animal on the Ramp’.

It is time for a short vacation, his girls remind him. “We love to travel. It can be anywhere, from North India to maybe just Fort Kochi. There is much to see.” And see he will, in ways unmatched by any other. For those who avidly follow his art, it means seeing the world through Pradeep’s eyes.

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Printable version | May 23, 2020 11:47:55 PM |

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