Collage of life on canvas

An expansive repertoire: Alphonso Arul Doss with his earlier works at Sarala Art Centre. Photo: K. Pichumani

An expansive repertoire: Alphonso Arul Doss with his earlier works at Sarala Art Centre. Photo: K. Pichumani  

Alphonso Arul Doss takes time and space in his painter’s hands and bends them like putty. He pulls symbols of universality and eternity from across centuries and civilisations, plugs them into his distinctly Indian vocabulary and invents an artistic language that sees the world like light shooting through a prism.

From his schoolboy days spent fascinated by classical Christian imagery at Sunday school, to his rise to Principal of Government College of Arts, Madras in 1992, and now established as an artist of International repute, Alphonso, at 75 years, has a lifetime’s worth of stories to tell.

Amidst rows of his framed pieces at a retrospective show of his works at Sarala’s Art Centre, Alphonso sits across one of his earliest watercolours — Spencer’s junction at M.G. Road in his hometown, Bangalore. It was in the silence of Bangalore’s cathedrals that Alphonso was first drawn to art; as sunlight distilled through the stained glass paintings on windows above him, his little fingers tried to capture that brilliance and luminescence on paper. His father eventually urged him into formal art school, and in 1958 Madras, under the tutelage of masters such as D.P. Roy Chowdary, K.C.S. Panicker, A.P. Santhanaraj, and S. Dhanapal, he learnt of the importance of space and line, achieving opacity and transparency through different mediums. “The expression of art was supreme to my teachers; the subject matter itself was secondary,” he says.

But for Alphonso, deeply influenced by the Italian and French artists in Catholicism, the mythology and philosophy of art meant as much as its style. And thus he delved into the study of art history and visual language, increasingly convinced that as much as one drew from the European doyens, an artist was meant to “communicate with his own land and environment”. From the caves of Ajanta and Ellora, for instance, Alphonso learnt of the rhythm and geometry in human form, and used this technique in his painting of Solomon the Biblical king professing judgement on his populace, every muscle of Solomon’s body taut with power shown in thin, distinct, arched lines. Similarly, from Rembrandt’s Christ and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb, Alphonso recreated the composition of light to paint Mahatma Gandhi comforting the downtrodden.

Alongside these early experiments with form, Alphonso played with technique too. The walls at Sarala feature his attempts at etching and printing, numerous charcoal portraits of his many students at the Madras School and even a self portrait from 1960. It’s a black and white inconspicuous piece of an oil lantern with its light sharply split in tracks of refraction that notes Alphonso’s marked shift in style. In 1983, at the Gem Gallery in Washington’s Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Alphonso was struck by the throw of light from a spotlit solitary diamond. “I saw the entire universe in that moment. I knew then that I would spend the rest of my life recreating that depth of vision through my art.” And the lantern portrait was the first of Alphonso’s pieces that would, over the next three decades, establish his trademark ‘the world through cut-and-broken glass’ style, where the canvas’ white shows through his patches of colour.

Through these eyes, Alphonso revisited his preoccupations with religious imagery, expanding his repertoire now to symbols from Buddhism and Hinduism. For years he dwelt on the Nataraja, meditating in repeated paintings on the form that he was convinced mimicked the swastika and how it symbolised the universe. While in one piece, Nataraja, his entire body composed in triangles, tramples over evil-doers; in another his image superimposes the swastika, and in a third he stretches in full frontal view, compared against Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

Alphonso paints Jesus too, first washing his disciple Peter’s feet and later, seated with commoners, farmers and shepherds feeding them fish. It is Jesus’ spirit of universal acceptance that Alphonso channels into his many paintings of village folk. Through extensive travels through villages with his students, Alphonso looks at rustic life through “a sympathetic eye”. From men playing flutes, to portraits of women adorned in sparkling jewellery, Alphonso emphasises the natural sensuality and love for colour he says simple people exude.

“Our ultimate reality is the space where the world outside and the world within us meet,” says Alphonso. His personal world now features little active art. He’s come a long way from his youth spent sleeping beside his paintings, waking up to them in the morning, searching deeper and deeper for that exact artistic expression of the ideas in his mind. Age has caught up with his hands that never erased a line once drawn. They faintly tremble today, but can still hold a brush with confidence, resting quietly on the experience of a lifetime spent in the arts.

The show is on till October 15.

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2020 4:16:46 PM |

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