Every inch of the crammed, asbestos-roofed studio at Lalit Kala Akademi bears traces of the artists it hosts. The worktables offer insights into the minds of the men and women who use them. While mud figurines crowd about one, another has dusty stacks of sketches from long ago. Yuvan’s table is easy to spot. Where there is paper, there is Yuvan Bothysathuvar. His workplace is strewn with bundles of old magazines and strips of paper — the material that defines this artist. Yuvan is currently exhibiting his works at a show titled ‘Shifting Paradigms: Learning from Life’ at Gallery Veda.
“I learned important lessons from life,” begins the 40-year-old, who’s a student of the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai. “During college, I learned more by observing and listening to what my seniors did and spoke, than in class.” Yuvan was born in a village near the temple town of Tiruvannamalai. Even during his childhood, “art was everything” to him.
“Nothing was planned. After school, I worked with a sign-board painter,” he recalls. Yuvan was never the kind who dreamt big. “I would aspire to do things within my reach. When I was a sign-board painter, for instance, I would yearn to paint names on cycles. It was a matter of pride to me, then,” he grins.
Following the trail of the grand cinema banners that arrived in Thiruvannamalai from Chennai, he came to the city and found a job as an assistant to banner artist J.P. Krishna. Yuvan was 17 years old then. “I worked in a set-up that was like a gurukulam . I was fed, given a place to stay and was taught on the job,” he remembers. “My dream then was to draw the signature line of our company at the bottom of the banners we created,” he says. “If our boss let us do that, it meant that we had earned his trust.”
Then, college happened. Yuvan initially did figurative sketches, when in 2007, the paper took over his life. “I wanted to do something unique,” he says. That was also the time his son was born with Down’s syndrome. A helpless young father, Yuvan took refuge in art. For some reason, he chose to express the havoc that gripped his mind, by using paper in geometrical forms.
His ‘papier colle’ technique of pasting fine strips of paper on mount boards is unique in the city’s art scene. In a work titled ‘Wall’, he has used bits scraped from cinema and political posters. Much like how layer after layer of posters are pasted over the other, he has stuck four to five layers as uniform vertical lines on a mount board. The effect is striking.
For Yuvan, every piece of paper has a character born out of virtue of what is printed on it. In one work, he employs the pages of war books, in another, aptly titled ‘After life’, the encyclopaedia. The pages of a dictionary, yellowed magazines from long ago, neon strips from glossy foreign journals… all of them turn works of art in Yuvan’s hands. Using them, he talks about his observations of the world around, his anxieties and interpretations of people and situations.
He spends a lot of time scouring the city for material. “I know all the places that have old newspapers and magazines. At one particular shop in Ambattur, for instance, they arrive by the truckload. I also visit the Book Fair regularly for specific stalls that stock these,” he observes. “I’ve been collecting magazines from my days as a banner artist,” he adds.
“The colours, pictures, and layout fascinate me.” But his end product, for which he marries paper with cardboard and ply wood, is far from the original character of the material employed. Yuvan says this is intentional. “I want to give it a new dimension; make the observer curious and talk about it, ask questions.” Yuvan also works with collagraphy, a printmaking technique.
His works sell for lakhs, and have takers abroad as well. But his family refuses to understand why he invests hours in this back-breaking work when he could be doing something else. Yet, Yuvan refuses to embrace anything else but art. He says that for some in the art world, he is “just a signboard artist”. He shakes his head: “They refuse to see me beyond that label.”
‘Shifting Paradigms: Learning from Life’ is on at Gallery Veda, 4/22 Rutland Gate Road, 1st floor, 5th Street, Nungambakkam, till September 2.