It was to be a great collaboration but it never happened. So, artist S.G. Vasudev decided to convert it into a tribute. After all, poet, writer and translator A.K. Ramanujan came to be one of the most powerful influences on his life. In 1995, the Bengaluru-based artist made a lot of art based on Ramanujan’s poetry and exhibited it in different parts of the world. To commemorate Ramanujan’s 23rd death anniversary that fell on July 13, Vasudev brought out the works to tell the story once again. He shares the story of the enduring friendship.
How and when did your friendship with Ramanujan begin?
I met him through Girish Karnad in the 60s. I had just come out of Madras’ College of Arts. Our love for art, literature and Kannada language brought us together. He asked me if I could do the cover for his collection of short poems Hokkulalli Huvilla (No Flower in the Navel). I read the book and then I did a dark grey cover with white illustrations. Seeing it, Ramanujan asked ‘Don’t you want to use some colours?’ I told him your poetry doesn’t need colours. The art inspired from his writing should be just that… basic and minimal.
What led to this body of work?
In 1990, Ramanujan asked me to design the cover for Kunto Bille (Hopscotch). I had done a lot of drawings before I had reached the final work. He had come to the studio and there he saw the series of works and asked me, ‘Vasu, you have to do so much work for one drawing?’
See, the thing with Ramanujan was, he knew everything but pretended to not know anything. He was an encyclopaedia but he wouldn’t show it. I have not seen a more humble and simple person than him. I am sure he must have edited and re-edited his poems several times before he arrived at the final verse. Once, he was reading his poetry out aloud and suddenly turned the page and said ‘I can’t read this because there are no words.’ The poem is ‘The Silent Sonnet’ and has syllables as dictated by guru-laghu in Sanskrit poetry.
He asked me if we could collaborate, where I would exhibit my works and he would read his poetry. But it didn’t happen. He passed away unexpectedly in 1992. I didn’t do anything for one year because I didn’t know what to do. But in 1993, The Hindu published a few drawings. In 1995, I selected 40-45 poems of Ramanujan, made drawings based on them and requested Girish Karnad and other writers and poets to join me. I had shows in Bengaluru and Chennai, followed by Delhi, London, Chicago and New York. This is the same set of works.
How many of his poems are part of the show?
There are 30 poems from the books Hokkulalli Hoovilla , Maathi Ithara Padyagalu , Kunto Bille , Hymns for the Drowning , and Striders . On July 13, Girish Karnad read out some Ramanujan poems along with theatre and film actor Padmavati Rao and poet Pratibha Nandakumar. And on August 6, we are going to have a short seminar with speakers like Sadanand Menon and Girish Karnad. We are also inviting young poets and asking them to respond to my drawings.
Usually, artists respond to poetry, but what happens when the process is reversed? I feel if Ramanujan had seen these images, he would have written poetry based on it. There are two works here that are my tribute to Ramanujan.
What drew you to his poetry?
He was a very visual poet. Of course, the words were evocative of vivid imagery but it was also how he wrote it. One line would go right and then the next sentence would travel to the left. That he was a master translator and storyteller also attracted me to him. He didn’t translate literally; he retained the essence and gave it something more. In the 60s, I was battling the issue of Indian identity in my art and was impressed with how he addressed the issue. He remained situated in the global world and yet remained rooted here. He told a folk story to Girish Karnad and Chandrashekhar Kambar and asked them to turn it into dramas. Both of them churned out such brilliant and different works. While Karnad wrote Nagamandala , Kambar wrote Sirisampige . U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Samskara became international because of Ramanujan’s translation.
(On view till August 9 at Galerie De’Arts, Bengaluru.)