The tragedy is that art has become vocal: A. Ramachandran

In pursuit of pure art, A. Ramachandran talks about his abiding romance with lotus and how literature informs his craft

Updated - December 01, 2018 10:44 am IST

Published - November 30, 2018 12:33 pm IST

Enchanting vision: A. Ramachandran continues to create new milestones

Enchanting vision: A. Ramachandran continues to create new milestones

Unlike the densely populated lotus ponds on his canvas, it is easier to navigate A. Ramachandran’s mind. On a balmy November afternoon, the veteran artist turns to his background in literature and music to take one through his distinguished career where he swam against the tide to create an Indian idiom in modern art. We meet at Triveni Kala Sangam where Vadhera Art Gallery is holding an exhibition of his works at the Shridharani Art Gallery. With a walking stick in hand, the 83-year-old took us to the lotus ponds of Ubeshwar, Nagada, Jogi Talab and Ekalinji near Udaipur to explain their changing moods.

“I was fascinated by the Bhil tribe and during my journeys to Rajasthan, I discovered these ponds,” informs Ramachandran. “I used to go three or four times a year and spend a week there. I would start in the morning and start sketching. The more I sketched, the more I understood. As an artist, I could see the contour lines – I always use contour lines. When you see the rhythmic lines, you notice the decorative patterns of nature. Nature is more decorative,” he insists as you would discover later. “I used to take a boat. The leaves would give me passage and when I would cross they would close again. It was like mother’s womb, wet, slimy and full of insects. The patches of skyline above made it a visual delight,” exults the Padma Bhushan who learnt his craft at Santiniketan under the watchful eyes of Nandlal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij.

NEW DELHI, 23/11/2018: Artist A Ramachandran at his studio in New Delhi, November 23, 2018. Photo: V. V. Krishnan / The Hindu

NEW DELHI, 23/11/2018: Artist A Ramachandran at his studio in New Delhi, November 23, 2018. Photo: V. V. Krishnan / The Hindu

Photo: V.V.Krishnan

“The way of teaching in Santiniketan was to ask students to go out and sketch. It was not like the British academic system. The student was expected to look outside and start drawing himself without a static model. They wanted students to observe nature and sketch whatever they liked. That practice has stopped but if you can achieve it, you have the freedom to become an artist of your own stature. You need not borrow concepts from somebody else or copy some other artist’s style. This way your work will be your own interpretation of the world.”

After studying at Santiniketan, unlike his contemporaries, Ramachandran didn’t go abroad to find his artistic moorings. When he came to Delhi, he started working with contemporaries like Krishen Khanna and Tyeb Mehta and later joined Jamia Millia Islamia as a faculty in Fine Arts department. “After some time, I had a feeling that I have something different and distinct in my genes as a Malayali.” A post graduate in Malayalam literature, Ramachandran was in touch with most of the progressive writers of the language including Vaikom Mohammad Basheer. “They changed the Malayalam literature from a highly Sanskritised form to something that talked about social realism in a colloquial form. In the same way, I felt that if I would paint my realities, the appeal would be universal. You need not follow European trends to show that you are making modern art. Of course, I had used them in my early works when my concerns were more political, but I gradually gave that up. Like pure music, I wanted to do pure painting. Art carries much more authenticity when you handle things which are intimate to you.”

Despite the efforts of his teachers, Ramachandran feels that we never really developed the Indian way of teaching art. “We are so overawed by Picasso and Matisse that we are importing ideas and exporting products. Malayalam writers did draw from Maupassant and Flaubert but once they looked around their own life they developed a new idiom. Basheer only wrote about his family and Muslim community in colloquial language. That’s the modernism of Malayalam literature. I am looking for that kind of modernism in Indian art. You not only have to look inward but also be authentic.”

Excerpts from a free-wheeling conversation:

You were also inspired by the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky...

Yes, but you cannot put Dostoevsky in pictorial form. I had to have something else. Even Dostoevsky had to open the Bible before he wrote ‘Crime and Punishment’ and that lends it a spiritual quality. To me, art is not political journalism, which is very temporary. Today, if you make a painting on Emergency, it carries no weight. Even Partition has been erased out of people’s memory. Such a calamity should have produced great works. Artists like Krishen Khanna and Satish Gujral did create some works but not like what Manto did in literature.

So you don’t like socio-political messaging through artworks?

Van Gogh didn’t do any political work. His ‘Sunflowers’ is greater than Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. ‘Guernica’ didn’t end any world war. There is still a war going on. It worked because some features of war in it functioned very well in a political way. Hariprasad Chaurasiya doesn’t utter a word but he is a great musician. Music has its own status. Similarly, I feel, painting has its own status. It need not carry message and slogans on the surface. It need not shout at a high pitch. A quiet work can affect you as well.

When I watched slaughtering of goats in the Kamakhya temple, I was shocked by human beings turning into animals. Even a child there had tremendous violence on his face. Around the same time, there was the Naxalite Movement where young, bright students were being killed by the State. In that background, I made “Kali Puja” (1972). It was a political statement. But, today, my lotus speaks far better.

What does it stand for?

It speaks for something greater in life. It shows the world that we have got is so beautiful; it needs to be preserved. When I first visited Udaipur, it was an untouched land. Now after 40 years of my travel, I find it hard to find wild lotus ponds. Many of them have been cleaned up and made into bathing ghats with marble steps.

Also, as an artist the more you contemplate in nature, the more you understand that there is another universe where we are superfluous. I cannot explain it in an urban environment. It is a spiritual feeling that you get when you are in nature, looking at not just the lotus but also its leaves, the insects that make them their home, the fungi in the water...we don’t have that kind of perception. We only want to cut flowers.

Why did you move away from realism to mythical forms?

In 1984, I saw the anti-Sikh riots in front of my eyes. I saw a Sikh person being chased by 20 persons. In Kerala, I had not seen social violence. I realised it is very nice to read grotesque things in novels but actually encountering it is a bit too much.

When I saw it, I told myself what I have been doing is making rasogullah out of human tears. After all, a work of art is a beautiful object. That day the individual asked the artist what is the use of doing it. If you want to change society, you should become Baba Amte or Mother Teresa. If a writer or an artist thinks that he can solve the problems of the world, he is living in a fool’s paradise.

Perhaps, that was the time when your works were described as decorative

It is decorative. I was trying to create a new language which was suitable for modern India because of my training from a school which started working on this visual language in the pre-Independent period. Nandlal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij were trying to create an Indian visual language. It was not an extension of what was happening abroad. I wanted to take it closer to my home in Kerala. So I did a thesis on Kerala paintings. I started realising that the grammar of Oriental art is totally different. There is no realism in the way you understand it in Europe. There, you don’t go beyond the skin, here you create a parallel body which is not there but creates a beautiful feeling. It is like Malayalam language grammar is different from that of English. If you don’t know the grammar, you cannot play with the language.

Also, people forget that decorativeness is part of Indian psyche. We see it in our temples and churches and in our music and dance. The word was used by Europeans to describe our work in a derogatory sense when they failed to come to terms with Oriental art.

You mastered this language with ‘Yayati’

I did a very close study of Indian miniature and wall paintings. One must understand that I never painted gods and goddesses. In ‘Yayati’, what I did was what Girish Karnad achieved in ‘Tughlaq’ – using myth to interpret something else. In the present day context., ‘Yayati’ is a painting which deals with a modern man’s endless search for pleasure. Now it could be a telephone or a lift – a modern man’s desperation to live as perfect as possible. This has brought us to the level of complete environmental degradation.

Were you the first one to make this shift?

No, Nandlal Bose did it. Abanindranath did it. They were my heroes. To move away from the British influence, the Constitution and Padma awards were designed by Nandlal.

How was your experience at Jamia?

Jamia was good for me. At that time, it was outside the city. There were very enlightened people in the administration. I did ‘Kali Puja’, headless and nude images in the studio but nobody said anything to me. Artist Abul Kalam, who brought me, was a student of Nandlal Bose. There were no jarring notes. As I was a practising artist, I could come to the city and show my work at Kumar Gallery with other major artists.

You also like to make an appearance in your paintings

That’s because of the Malayali sense of humour. We have a sutradhar or a narrator who connects scenes. I appear as insects, birds and even as a bat, which signifies that I am neither contemporary nor ancient. I am neither a bird nor a beast.

As a sculptor, what is your take on the proliferation of statues?

Most of them are portraits and have a ‘gudiya’ approach. They are not artistic. In comparison, Pushkin’s statue, in front of Rabindra Bhawan, stands out. It has movement and action. You see, great monuments are made by great patrons.

Does an artist have a retirement age?

After retirement, I decided that I would devote my life to painting. I go into my studio at 10.30-11a.m. and come down around 7.30-8 p.m. I have a good library and a good collection of miniatures. I am not the only one Nandlal Bose could not walk but still would do one painting every day. I believe every artist should work very hard. There is no point in waiting for inspiration. There is nothing of that sort. You have to work like a daily labourer. Once I finish I don’t even look at it. I put it in storage and it goes to the gallery. I move to a new challenge. If you ask me to copy my work, I can’t. People think there is a formula, there is none. Even if I apply the same colour again, I will not get the same effect. I may be going and sketching but there is no lotus like these. They are born in my mind....

On Chameli Ramachandran

She made me and protected me. It was because of her support that I survived those 10-15 years when no gallery touched my work. She said you do your thing. Thankfully, I had a job. Within a year in Delhi I found out that I can’t make friends in embassies over a glass of wine and that I can’t run after collectors. We have lived a very modest life. The money has come only six-seven years.

On auctions

We borrowed all this from western culture. After the royal patronage, there was nobody to take care of artists. In China and Japan even a poor person likes to buy at least one original painting. We don’t have that culture. Till yesterday, even the richest people would buy only calendars. Today they are buying a Raza or a Husain because they know what they are buying for two rupees will be sold for 10 rupees. I don’t call it art appreciation; it is only investment. The galleries introduce you to artists whose works bring you five more rupees. It is not about art.

On art education

We have reached this stage because children are not taught art appreciation from a young age. Our text books are horrible to look at. During art competitions, organisers ask them to paint jawans and tricolour or a scenery. Once should not give any theme to children. Only thing that you should provide to children is sufficient colours and let them do what they feel like. There used to be a school run by an English lady. She used to teach art and psychoanalyse what the child did in the class. One of my friend’s son was there. One day the teacher called her to say that she asked about her relationship with her husband because the child always paints his father in black colour. When she asked her son he said all other colours are taken by other kids so he is always left with black colour. That is the reason people are unable to look at paintings. They look for captions to get an insight into the painting. The tragedy is that art has become more vocal. Some artists who are not well-educated become dependant on curators. They tell the artist what he is doing and the poor artist believes.

“The Changing Mood of the Lotus Pond and Insignificant Incarnations” is on at Shridharani Art Gallery, New Delhi till December 2

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