The art of myth-making

A retrospective of drawings, and an exhibition of new works, by A Ramachandran

The Monsoon Flowers: This is one of the works on display at the Lalit Kala Akademi.
The Monsoon Flowers: This is one of the works on display at the Lalit Kala Akademi.

Climb up to the first floor of the Rabindra Bhavan gallery at Lalit Kala Akademi. As you enter the exhibition space, notice how artist A. Ramachandran reclines on a bed of flowers in a diptych. A vine connects to his navel like an umbilical cord. This self-portrait is part of the Ekalinji Fantasy exhibition, which shows the latest paintings and sculptures by the 79-year-old artist.

Now, climb up further, to the second floor, to understand Ramachandran’s artistic process. To know the thoughts that ran through his mind as he created some of the most stunning works in his repertoire, visitors need only read the accompanying text.

Authored by the artist himself, the notes begin with the memory of a sunset he saw as a young boy with his grandfather, at Attingal in Kerala. They recount how his mentors at Santiniketan inspired him to always carry a sketchbook; they capture how he came to draw the Baul folk singers of West Bengal and even sing with them; they show how he travelled through India from Manipur to Udaipur and made drawings everywhere he went; they unpack how a trip to Japan helped him arrive at a better understanding of himself and of India. The notes unveil some real-life inspirations that manifested in his works, like the
jamadarnis or sweepers he observed in New Delhi’s Jangpura—the wheelbarrows they pushed became a part of works like Entombment.

Curator and exhibition designer Ranesh Ray says, “The drawings are graphic records of both core and transforming ideas—his raw or ‘source materials’ of people, landscapes, flowers, trees, plants, and environments that he has assimilated to transmute into painting and sculpture.”

If ever you’ve wondered whether the artist’s intent matters in how you perceive the artwork, this exhibition is an argument in favour of knowing at least where the artist is coming from, his
cultural context and politics.

Far from dimming the mystery of Ramachandran’s large, mural-like works, the 1,200 drawings in this retrospective, by making the process accessible, make Ramachandran’s genius more admirable.

Art historian R. Siva Kumar explains that there are two clear phases in Ramachandran’s art that visitors will be able to see in this exhibition. The first, till the late 1970s, is when the artist was interested in portraying human suffering, when the expression of his politics was strongest in his art. It was also around this time that Ramachandran painted his Nuclear Ragini series as a response to the nuclear test at Pokhran, Rajasthan. This series was inspired by Japanese artists Iri and Toshi Maruki’s work on the Hiroshima holocaust.

The second phase, Siva Kumar says, was triggered by the fear that he might partially lose his eyesight. “Can you imagine what that would be like for an artist?” Siva Kumar asks. Ramachandran had a tubercular infection in one eye. For a brief period, no one knew what would happen. It gave Ramachandran a sense of urgency, to record the beauty in the world around him—the lotus pond became a recurring motif. The works in Ekalinji Fantasy, created from 2009-14, are a continuation of this phase. The flowers, vines and butterflies in these works are all drawn from real life, but somehow transformed in the artist’s imagination.

“Ramachandran is a great storyteller and myth-maker,” says Siva Kumar.

This exhibition unwraps part of his myth-making process.

A Retrospective (drawings, sketches and studies from 1958-2014) and Ekalinji Fantasy (paintings and sculptures from 2009-14) are on display till 25 November, 11am-7pm, at Rabindra Bhavan, 35, Ferozeshah Road.

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