Take a jet flying at 40,000ft. It appears to leave in its wake a straight line in the sky. But it is only ice crystals suspended in a cluster in space. The distance from the cluster is what determines its shape as a straight line. This is the principle—fractals, and the energy within lines relative to space—which shapes the work of Chennai-based artist A.V. Ilango.

Dancing lines: Ilango’s Raja-Rani (2008).

“This show is not specifically recent works, but in the new works I am exhibiting, I have changed my rendering," Ilango says. While the artist earlier used a palette knife on canvas, he has now begun to work on canvases laid out on the floor on which paint is thrown. “This has brought more of a spontaneity and flow to the works," he adds.

Ilango’s style is characteristic of lyrical abstraction, in which the line is of prime importance. “When a line widens, it becomes a shape, a form. When it narrows, it becomes thinner until it disappears. This creates space. Space expresses itself in line and conversely, space retreats into its being. When you bend a line, the stress and strain create energy. It creates strength, which is dependent on and vibrates off the space around," Ilango says.

He also uses the yin-yang principle to create balance. Visual energy shifts from the positive to negative spheres. The positive Swastika (as opposed to the negative one used by Hitler, he is careful to distinguish), used commonly in temple sculptures, creates a flow of positive energy. His figures occupy exactly two-thirds of the canvas space, and he uses sharp angles to denote movement in the turn of the line. These principles of space and line division punctuate his work. Between the interplay of these two is where the realms of mathematics and art meet.

What supports this playground of art and math is the spiritual dimension to Ilango’s thought. Thus, when a line sits seductively, it becomes a woman; when it sits heavily, it becomes a bull; and when it dances playfully, it becomes a dancer in his works. All his art is expression of, or a retreat of, linearity.

Art was necessary in his youth, he says. It helped him focus and overcome a traumatic childhood. It also helped him recover from the loss of his wife, which made him turn to teaching children art. “I taught adults mathematics for 38 years. Now, I want to teach children. Art calmed me when I was very disturbed. I used to suffer from severe anxiety attacks when I was in my 20s, and I know that it can do the same for others," he says. To this end, he began his venture Artspace in 2003 at the Lady Andal School premises in Chetpet in Chennai. With around 60-70 students, it has a gurukul system and uses art to heal children with a variety of ailments—from physical to mental disturbances ranging from schizophrenia to multiple personality disorder. But even those children who just want to paint or sculpt go too.

“Even the most restless child can sit for hours if allowed to immerse himself in art," the artist says. Children are taken on after a one-on-one chat with parents, but the space is not advertised as a remedial centre because Illango says parents and children are able to go there without any stigma being attached to them.

Mumbai: Rhythms 2011 is on display at the Jamaat art gallery, Colaba, Mumbai, till 7 January.