A photograph in the ongoing retrospective of artist A. Ramachandran’s drawings in the Capital is strange for two reasons: First, because it’s the only photograph in an exhibition of around 1,200 sketches and studies made by the New Delhi-based artist over 56 years (this selection is about a fourth of the drawings he has carefully preserved through the years). And second, because from a distance it looks like an undifferentiated green glob.
Look closer and the mass starts to break up into many lotus leaves. A shock of white hair in its midst draws the eye. This, then, is a photograph of the artist himself entering a lotus pond that has been his inspiration for 20 years.
Even as we talk in his car, on the way from his studio in east Delhi to the Lalit Kala Akademi that is hosting the retrospective as well as an exhibition of his works from 2009-14, the Einsteinian hair stands out against his black turtleneck and oceanic-blue scarf.
Ramachandran has represented this hair several times in his paintings—as stylized waves and clouds, even teasing it out on either side of his head to resemble twin peaks. As in Summer Wedding, a triptych in the Bahurupi series of 2009, where he observes a marriage procession from two vantage points—from below, as a snail with a human head, and from above, as a flute-playing composite human-parrot figure. Or in the bronze sculptures Day and Night, where the artist’s head is perched on the body of an owl that in turn is sitting atop the head of a slight tribal girl.
The comical self-portraits have become part of his lexicon, a personal art vocabulary he has been chiselling since he went to Santiniketan, West Bengal, in 1958 to study with Ramkinkar Baij. “I want my art to be approachable,” says Ramachandran. And humour acts as a great ice-breaker, an entry point to his art, which references Indian traditions from the miniatures of Rajasthan to the wall paintings of Ajanta-Ellora and the temple murals of Kerala.
Of course, his art wasn’t always this approachable or even as colourful. To the casual observer, Ramachandran’s 56-year career might look like a diptych, with a clean break down the centre. At Santiniketan, and for years afterwards, Ramachandran felt compelled to depict the misery and human suffering he saw around him. A trip to the Sonagachi red-light district in Kolkata in 1961 inspired him to do a very different kind of self-portrait, where he stands naked in the street as heavily made-up prostitutes beckon.
Ramachandran read a lot in those days. He had studied Malayalam literature, and was a regular at the Trivandrum Public Library, as it’s still known, before taking up the formal study of art at Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan. Writers like Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Saadat Hasan Manto and Fyodor Dostoyevsky heavily influenced his work. “I thought I would paint like Dostoyevsky wrote,” says Ramachandran.
A consummate storyteller as well as artist, Ramachandran describes the influence Dostoyevsky had on him in the two-volume memoir, A. Ramachandran: Life And Art in Lines, released alongside the retrospective.
“My involvement with Dostoyevsky’s writings, which had forever haunted me, was the backdrop of most of my creative works of that period (1965-75). There was always a kind of despair, cynicism, and often an angry outburst of a young man revolting against the injustices of society and the world,” he writes.
In Ramachandran’s imagination, the squalor he saw in the Kolkata of that decade was similar to that described in Dostoyevsky’s St Petersburg in Crime And Punishment. He applied the Russian author’s idea of common participation in crime to a series of paintings on Christian themes, like Last Supper.
Here, Ramachandran writes, “I painted a number of headless men around a table with their hands raised as if they had agreed to their action in total. Under the table lay the emaciated body of Christ, who also served as their ‘footrest’. At the top corner, I introduced a pair of wringing hands as if trying to intervene.”
The apocryphal imagery of headless, bloated bodies matured as Ramachandran left Santiniketan, where he had stayed on to complete a doctoral thesis on Kerala temple murals. In the 1960s, he came to New Delhi, where Virendra Kumar of Kumar Gallery had offered him a monthly contract of Rs.500, a kingly stipend considering Ramachandran had not believed he could make money off his art. Works like Anatomy Lesson grew directly out of first-hand experiences like visiting the concentration camps in Auschwitz, Poland. The End Of The Yadavas series, where demonic heads from the Tibetan thangkas were stitched on to his headless bodies, continued the dystopian strain in his works.
Then, in November 1984, something changed.
“I saw one man being chased by 12,” recalls Ramachandran. At the time, he had been living in east Delhi’s Bharti Artist Colony, his current home and studio, for two years. “They killed the Sikh man like a dog right in front of my eyes,” he recalls. The sight turned him off painting squalor and human deprivation. “Why coat it in rasgulla syrup and ensconce it in painting?”
So around the 1980s, the headless, bloated bodies that had dominated his art practice started giving way to voluptuous figures and a search for beauty. The Yayati series of 1986 heralded this break. It depicted the mythological story of a man so dogged in his search for pleasure that he would steal his son’s youth to enjoy life again.
The breakaway wasn’t easy. Art critics and practitioners punished him initially for disrupting their notions of what his art expression was. “Tyeb Mehta’s face was ashen,” says Ramachandran, now 80. Ramachandran counts Mehta among his friends. “He (Mehta) looked at it and said, ‘What have you done?’” recalls Ramachandran.
In Yayati, as in the works that followed—notably the Urvashi series and the Bahurupi paintings—Ramachandran was looking inwards to develop a keenly Indian modernist art vocabulary at a time when the influence of European masters like Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse was still strong. He was inspired by Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, who too were reviving the indigenous arts to give expression to modernist ideas. Starting with Yayati, Ramachandran unabashedly “decorated” his art, painting in vivid yellows and blues, reds and greens. Studies of real people like the Gaudiya Lohars of Jamia Nagar in New Delhi and the Bhil tribes of Rajasthan became the basis for his artwork.
“It was the English, people like Thomas Macaulay, who pejoratively used the term decorative to describe Indian art. But if you look at our visual sensibilities, everything from our textile designs to our jewellery is decorated,” says Ramachandran. His bright colours and voluptuous figures lost him some friends in the art community, but gained him new audiences.
The final product is a personal style that marries traditional Indian techniques with modern art practice. There is a strain of humour and wit that runs through the second part of his diptych career—the part where the self-portrait also changes to become a stylized fly-on-the-wall with wildly contoured hair.
The wit, he acknowledges, is a relic from his days as a literature student, when he was still reading copiously and meeting many of Kerala’s progressive writers, including the inimitable Basheer.
Even after 50-odd years, Ramachandran vividly remembers the first time he met Basheer. A friend from college, the novelist N. Mohanan, knew all the famous writers—his mother was author Lalithambika Antharjanam. Ramachandran travelled to Ernakulam for a writers’ conference with Mohanan, stopping at Basheer’s bookshop on the way. The satirist was planted behind the shop counter. They asked Basheer why he wasn’t attending the big writers’ meet. Basheer replied with characteristic humour that he was only a humble bookstall keeper, and had no business in a large writers’ conference.
“When a Malayali is born, they give him a taste of chillies instead of putting something sweet on his tongue,” says Ramachandran.
A Retrospective: Drawings, Sketches And Studies, 1958-2014, is on till 25 November, 11am-7pm, at Lalit Kala Akademi, Rabindra Bhawan, 35, Ferozeshah Road, New Delhi.