When artistic inspiration blooms, as Mahakavi Kumaran Asan's painting

‘The Fallen Flower’, a portrait by Antonio Guzman Capel, which was commissioned by Sujit Sivanand

‘The Fallen Flower’, a portrait by Antonio Guzman Capel, which was commissioned by Sujit Sivanand   | Photo Credit: special arrangement


Management consultant Sujit Sivanand celebrated Malayalam’s beloved poet Mahakavi Kumaran Asan by commissioning Spanish painter Antonio Guzmán Capel to paint his portrait from an old black-and-white photo of the poet. The painting was unveiled in Canada


Poet, social reformer and entrepreneur Mahakavi Kumaran Asan (12 April 1873 – 16 January 1924) continues to be one the best loved poets in Malayalam. Over the years, many have paid homage to him in different ways. Recently, Sujit Sivanand, a management consultant and former KPMG partner, honoured the great poet by unveiling a one-metre wide portrait in Canada. The portrait by Spanish hyper-realist painter Antonio Guzmán Capel is titled ‘La flor caída’ or ‘The Fallen Flower’, after one of Kumaran Asan’s best-known poems by the same name, ‘Veenapoovu’.

Sujit commissioned the work in 2009 and worked closely with Antonio for months. The two worked in tandem although they lived in two continents - North America and Europe. “It is not easy for an artist like Antonio, coming from a different ethnic background, to fully grasp the facial features of a foreign subject,” explains Sujit in an email interview. So, he helped Antonio get the likeness perfectly right by sending him images of paintings with Indian subjects, and digitally reviewing and comparing minute facial features with existing black-and-white photographs of the poet. Excerpts from an email interview with Sujit...

Sujit Sivanand

Sujit Sivanand   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Where did you get the original photograph from?

The original black and white portrait has been in the public domain for many decades now. A large framed print of it was at the Asan Memorial School in Madras (Chennai), back in the 1970s. The same image (in a smaller format) was published in The Asan Album, a collection of photographs published in a booklet form by Sharada Book Depot (the publishing company that Asan himself had set up).

Although the original photograph was shot in a studio background, it has some sort of enchantment in the setting. The subject (Asan) was set on a 1/3rd of the frame—following the popular ‘rule of thirds’ in photography. Somehow the original photo itself was not sharp, as the subject had moved while the exposure was captured on slow-speed film of those days. So one side of Asan’s face was blurred and distorted in the photograph.

Any idea where the photograph was taken?

No. It is surely a studio photo, as is evident from the painted background. The foreground has real furniture and properties on the table.

How did you locate the artist, Antonio Guzmán Capel?

The idea of turning the old photograph of Kumaran Asan into a work of art came to my mind about 15 years ago. From that point onwards, I was on the search for an artist who had the skills for realism in portrait art and also the ability for impressionistic textures in creating the background scenery. It was about 12 years ago that I noted Antonio Guzmán Capel’s art on the Internet, particularly his painting of Spanish matadors and bullfighting. His usage of colours was vivid, but overall it was all earthen and very Spanish-terracotta hued. His scenes had cobbled floors, which I liked. Overall, I like his style of texturing and usage of colours, so I began following him closely and observing his works in detail. Finally, around early 2009 I contacted him and shared with him the idea of a portrait of the early twentieth-century celebrity poet from Travancore. He knows only Spanish but Google translator has worked seamlessly to foster our friendship and exchange of ideas to create this work of art.

Artist’s take
  • Antonio Guzmán Capel explains what were the challenges of completing ‘La flor caída’...
  • The picture of Kumaran Asan was commissioned by Sujit Sivanand about 10 years ago. There were pleasant moments of inspiration at the beginning and even more while finishing the work. However, having to solve the portrait of the poet from a black and white photograph of very low quality sometimes made it difficult for me to work on the composition, since I had to include other elements on the table (objects not in the original photograph) that during the years would have changed in their form. I could not just do those elements without convincing myself (of their original form a hundred years ago). The same happened to me with the garden and park in the background. After that, it was easy for me to finish it with the help of Sujit in terms of details such as the flower on the books, the checkered floor—to get more depth, and the photographic close-ups of the portrait Sujit sent back to me to be able to succeed in all his (Kumaran’s) facial expression. In the end what we have is a very consistent painting where changes in the original objects are not noticeable. It has been a pleasure to paint such an important poet in India. And I am very grateful to Sujit Sivanand for choosing me to paint Kumaran Asan.

What were your instructions or requests, if any, for the artist to follow?

Firstly, I created an online album of photographs of Asan’s portraits. Asan’s granddaughter Nalini Vijayaraghavan and her son Krishnan helped me with compiling the photos. I added Spanish language descriptions to each photograph and shared the album with Capel.

Secondly, I created a detailed document of (bi-lingual) instructions on the imagery to be depicted on the canvas, which I wanted Capel to create based on the old photograph. These instructions included the creation of a realistic outdoor setting of a floral garden (Pushpavaadi is also the title of a collection of Asan's poems).

Also about five years ago, I had sent Capel a copy of Parsram Mangharam’s book Raja Ravi Varma: The Painter Prince. This was to familiarise the artist with the attire and skin tones of the people of Travancore about a century ago. Capel treasures that book and he has told me that he keeps that book in a very special place in his house in Palencia, Spain.

The toughest part of the portrait was to get the subject’s facial expression in the way I wanted it. The original photo has some distortion of facial features, which had to be corrected using other portrait photos of Asan. Also, we wanted to add a very subtle smile as well as melancholy on the face, something like Mona Lisa's expression, where the observer does not really know if the subject is sad or happy. There needed to be an expression on the face based on the way the observer looked at the painting —for those who seek sadness they see the sadness, and for those who seek the smile they see the smile. This is the part that took the most amount of time between Capel and me to get it perfectly right. I appreciate Capel for his patience and willingness to do those minute corrections, after each time I analysed the picture on digital screens and went back to him asking for changes. Capel is a true ‘maestro del Arte’ and a perfectionist too, so he was fine with doing corrections no matter how many times.

Spanish artist Antonio Guzman Capel

Spanish artist Antonio Guzman Capel   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Would you describe how people reacted when they saw this painting of the poet?

People were initially getting to see just the photograph of the painting that Capel and I shared on social media in mid-November in 2019 when the painting was completed. Only Capel and his wife, Marian Lopez Aguado, also an artist, had seen the real painting until it was shipped to Canada. The painting was installed in my home in Canada just before Christmas time, and more people are getting to see the real painting. Those who are seeing the image now are captivated by the hyper-realism in the portrait, which is the ‘likeness’ to Kumaran Asan's facial features and the very mesmerising outdoor setting of the floral garden. Capel says it's his Christmas present to me and my wife, Binu.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 7:47:51 PM |

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