This veteran Chennai artist explores mythology and the absurdities of life


Artist D Venkatapathy’s retrospective presents 60 of his artworks, exploring how mankind has constantly created magic from mythology

At DakshinaChitra, on the way to Varija Gallery, a group is performing to a captive audience, twisting their bodies into contorted poses, one of them dancing on stilts.

It is a precursor to veteran artist D Venkatapathy’s Meditating Different Realms, a show that narrates how mankind has constantly created magic from mythology, pushing the limits of our bodies through the power of imagination.

Line, rhythm and grace

An artist’s outer appearance often belies their inner reality. Soft spoken, mild-mannered and gentle, veteran Cholamandal-artist Venkatapathy, conceals a fiery inner spirit.

Typical of the Madras Art Movement, his line is his strength, after late art critic Anjali Sircar’s apt observation —“He is actually drawing while he is painting.”

Large canvases of pen and ink, meticulously rendered, show his mastery over light and shade — tiny cross hatchings, dots and stippling rendered in a controlled frenzy.

Settled in Cholamandal since 1967, the evolution of Venkatapathy’s linework could also be linked to batik works and sculpting, where light and shade are necessarily created by varying the intensity of hatching.

There is an intense vibration created by his textures, using specific patterns as identifiers — for instance, trees are jampacked with petal shapes and the ground with squiggles.

Often, we find an unreal use of shading not corresponding to what is deemed natural, such as an intervening column of light in his work, Avatar. These licenses he takes, define the poetic nature of his craft. He took to color only after his first love, drawing. His rhythmic sensibility is also seen in his clean compositional style as in Kishkinta, where brown monkeys caper about on a pink background.

The human condition

Venkatapathy’s retrospective brings together his cumulative exploration of themes of mythology, totems, masks and landscapes in over 60 artworks — all infused with his warm appreciation of the human condition.

His series inspired by Mexican and African totem poles, explore the power of becoming marvelous beings by going beyond physical constraints. As humans, we are limited, but a totem represents multiple organisms by stacking many bodies, heads and limbs.

Beyond this, it is Venkatapathy’s remarkable exposition of the emotive landscape that strikes a deep chord. He renders each figure with sensitivity and grace: poignant scenes from The Ramayana, where Hanuman is the hero; the monkey army and Sugriva. His characters look puzzled, thoughtful, sometimes unsure, exploring the essential quandary of life — what are we doing here?

Venkatapathy’s compositions are starkly minimalistic and purposeful, yet playful and lively, showing a lack of inhibition. In Woman with Bird (1965) the woman squats, legs apart in risqué abandon, while a bird stares at her inquiringly, making us wonder if they are conversing.

In Woman and Saint (2000), a nude woman reclines in the foreground nonchalantly, while a hermit meditates in the backdrop: on the side, a horse gazes at the woman. These surreal portraitures present an underlying layer of the artist’s commentary on life’s absurdities.

Form and imagination

In a collection that largely sources from mythology and iconic indigenous symbols, two large pen and ink works, Stream (1980) and Cave (2001), made decades apart, stand out as contemporary experiments of texture and mass.

You start to ‘see and imagine things’ in the depths of their shadows. On first sight we may not draw a line of comparison, between the mythic totem forms and these abstract landscapes. But, Venkatapathy is leading us into the very heart of how we see, subtly challenging us to consider how we create forms in the first place. Form, he seems to suggest, lies in our perception. Whether the ten-headed totemic Ravana, or illusory shapes the mind’s eye excavates from the frothy river — it is all about imagination.

“Sincerity is the most important virtue for an artist,” says Venkatapathy in curator Gita Hudson’s film ‘Occult Images.’ At 85, the Vellore-born artist’s body of work induces a strange lightness of being: one that can only come from a deep passion for perfection.

Meditating Different Realms is on display till February 10 at Varija Gallery, DakshinaChitra, Muttukadu.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 12:10:47 PM |

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