Rarely seen works of late artist K Ramanujam on display in Chennai

The artist’s work is dominated by Vaishnavite symbolism

The artist’s work is dominated by Vaishnavite symbolism   | Photo Credit: special arrangement


K Ramanujam’s iconically surrealist works of art have been curated from across India for this exhibit

Whimsical motifs and bizarre shapes, mystical creatures on clouds, and the artist himself donning a hat, lounging on a crescent moon — the late K Ramanujam’s was a distinct world in itself. This world, dominated by fragments from his wild, bizarre, surrealistic imagination, housed markers that easily distinguished him from his contemporaries. A late find of the Madras Art Movement, a diligent student of KCS Panicker and once a resident of the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, Ramanujam left behind an impressive body of work — many of which have still not been traced despite incessant trials, art historian Ashvin E Rajagopalan, co-founder of Ashvita’s, tells me — before he took his own life in 1973. He was all of 33 years.

K Ramanujam

K Ramanujam   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Ramanujam’s work is now spread across the world with connoisseurs of art and in museums, but is seldom accessible. So, On The Other Side of Life, a non-commercial exhibit of some of his rare original works, collected from across the country by Ashvita, invokes a sure sense of intrigue. All the more so for those who are familiar with the artist and his solitary life, guided by traces of mental illnesses.

Needless to say, the concept of the “tragic artist” has always had takers. And Ramanujam’s work is an honest reflection of the various fragments — picked up from his childhood days in Triplicane and carried on through his formal education in art — that dominated his imagination. In fact, one of his earlier works, from ’65, is done on a piece of paper, with a letterhead that reads ‘S K Swami, Philatelist’ with the address as ‘T P Koil Street’. It leads one to believe that his spontaneous thoughts often shaped into casual sketches.

Ramanujam’s work is now spread across the world with connoisseurs of art and in museums, but is seldom accessible

Ramanujam’s work is now spread across the world with connoisseurs of art and in museums, but is seldom accessible   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

In the vast expanse of Ashvita’s recently opened gallery, under carefully adjusted lights (many of the originals are delicate and hence perishable), are a few framed works, small but noticeable. “He is an artist’s artist. He has created an imagery that no one has ever tried before. That imagery is his world of fantasy, unique to himself,” says Ashvin, as he moves from piece to piece for a closer look. Ramanujam’s work is widely spoken of as Outsider Art or as belonging to Art Brut; a school of thought devised by French artist Jean Dubuffet, to describe art created by those who belong outside the shackles of professional practice.

“A few years ago, when we heard historian Pradeep Chakravarthy talk about poet Nammalwar’s idea of 13-day ascension of the soul to Vaikuntam, a lot of the imagery in Ramanujam’s work made sense. Chances are when he was a child, he was forced to learn about this active Vaishnavite practice, as was the case with most people at that time. We believe that this story has caught his fancy.” This resulted in a marriage of Vaishnavite symbolism with techniques he picked up from his seniors and contemporaries, like that of the ink wash style. Figures and motifs make repeated appearances in his narratives, mostly done with pen and ink and oils — among which seemingly religious angel-like figures, a dragon-like feathered creature and a reptilian texture ridden with scales and patterns (winged-Garuda, snakes) are hard to miss. Additionally, a Western, “civilised” version of himself, sporting a hat, probably manifests his efforts to fit in. “He committed and put himself there — literally — in every single piece he has done.”

Ramanujam has created a distinct world through his work

Ramanujam has created a distinct world through his work   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

“There are a lot of characters that he has built in his stories. Interestingly, he is never inside these structures as well. The hands that aide in ascension also appear often. In that particular work,” Ashvin points, “he is seen on the palms that help him ascend to heaven.” Sketches of clocks also suggest his trials of bringing in the concept of time, showing his mental scale.

Ramanujam’s life has been speculated over by many, through years. The amount of primary material available about the artist too, is very limited. Which is why Ashvita’s plans to get the Cholamandal artists who knew Ramanujam up close, together to shed some light on the artist’s little known everyday life. A session solely aimed at explaining the Vaishnavite symbolism in his art, is also in the works.

On the Other Side of Life: Rare Works by K Ramanujam is on display at Ashvita’s gallery, 2nd street, Dr Radhakrishnan Salai, till January 9. It is open to all.

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 6:12:20 PM |

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