Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why I Did Not Become a Painter?- To My Children 9

You wouldn’t believe it. I could have become a painter! If I had started off as a painter, today I would have known as an ‘artist’ because an artist is someone who could do anything in any medium, not necessarily ‘oil on canvas.’ The moment I say or hear oil on canvas, I remember what the veteran painter, A.Ramachandran said about installation art in 1990s. That was a time when gallerists in India despised the idea of installations like plague and the ones who propagated such ideas, one of those embodied pestilences that would appear on the day of apocalypse. Ramachandran has always been sympathetic to young artists who dared to experiment with new mediums, provided the said artists were convinced of what they had been doing.

He said then, “You may do installations. But the medium should be oil on canvas!” Yes, to survive as an artist in those days you had to have worked in the medium of oil on canvas, which was the only art medium understood by most of the art promoters in India. Today things have changed for good. Perhaps the tables have been turned during the last few years. You would be treated as plague if you worked in oil on canvas. Your only shield is your former reputation as a saleable artist and a modernist par excellence with ample amount of grey hair on your head. Recently, I overheard a few young people who came to visit two shows simultaneously happening at the Lalit Kala Akademy Galleries in New Delhi, commenting on the predominantly painting based show in the first floor, ‘Oh…paintings. Let’s go upstairs.’

As a young boy I opened my eyes to two portraits of my father done by graphite on paper, neatly framed and hung from the walls of my ancestral home. Like any other young boy, I used to think that my father was extremely handsome with a pair of big brooding eyes, expansive forehead, long nose, a thick jet black moustache, shapely lips and a chin with deep sexy cleft. And the painters have taken special care in highlighting his face with a special halo of white, which is exquisitely possible when you work with graphite as your medium. As my father appeared very handsome to me, I used to spend several hours looking at these portraits and the ways in which the lines formed into a shape and graphite powder highlighted deep and dark shadows. The most interesting thing in both the portraits was the sharpness of the collars with no suggestion of lines. The white shirt shined as if it were lit from inside.

In those days, any middle class family would have a row of photographs at the verandah or the drawing room. They would be neatly framed and kept in an angle so that a person could admire the contents of the photographs while standing just below it. Also this way of display dispelled the possibility of light reflecting directly on the glass, which otherwise would mar the way of seeing. Albums came much later. During those days, photographs were mostly studio photographs of family members, young children, degree holders’ convocation pictures both single and group. There would be some rare family photographs with the eldest members occupying the central space and children on the front row on the floor and the rest of the people as per their status and position within the family. At times you would see the photograph of any one of the vibrant members of the family standing with some celebrities who visited the village on some occasion. The celebrity could be a film star, a writer, a theatre person or a politician. I had seen a photograph of my father standing with the then superstar of Malayalam filmdom, Prem Nazir.

Having a painted portrait of one’s own was considered to be many times bigger an accomplishment than having a photographic portrait. Interestingly, most often these portraits are done out of existing photographs as there used to be no custom of ‘sitting’ for a portrait. I believe, the artists of those times as well as the commissioning household person did not have enough time or resource to do several ‘sittings’ to do a portrait. So they mostly depended on existing photographs. Perhaps, a portrait made out of an existing photograph was the then way of ‘photoshopping’ an image. The portrait artist could airbrush the wrinkles, moles, warts and added a bit more black to the thinning facial hairs, an in total they could make the person in question several times better than the living one or the one in the photograph. That must be the reason why my father, like me liked to spend sometime every day to admire his portraits. He treated his own image with a lot of reverence as if it belonged to a different person. Even today, even if I could call that behavior as Narcissism, I don’t dare to do so because as a writer I know how important that feeling is to live in another’s image or how important it is to feel like living in a borrowed body.

Perhaps, in those portraits my father was seeing his own self, which he could not articulate thanks to various reasons in a proper way, projected the way he wanted it to be and the admiration for those images came from his respect for the imaginary one within him who he believed to have manifested in these portraits. But in everyday life he was not vain glorious to spend time in making himself up for his own consumption or for the consumption of others. The maximum make up he used was Cuticura talcum powder that came in a cylindrical package in a standardized color scheme of orange and white with black typography. As this was the only powder that everyone used at home, after a shower, when they emerged from their dressing rooms, the all smelled alike; the smell of Cuticura powder. The other luxury he used to make himself up was my mother eyebrow pencil. He used it every morning to darken his graying moustache. When he went outside, he always wore a shade and he was the first man in my world in those times who wore Ray Ban glasses.

The portraits had affected him a lot, I believe. They had affected his way of looking at himself rather than any photographs taken during the same period did to him. Recently, in the Delhi Airport, while I was spending my time browsing through the books, I saw a photographic biography of the King of Pop, late Michael Jackson. In this book, for thr first time I noticed how he was affected by a promotional picture of him done for his BAD tour in 1980s. In this picture, you see a young Michael in sharp black leather outfits and with a white T inside, with a strand of curly hair tumbling over his forehead while his accentuated cohl lined eyes penetrated the viewer. In his eyes you see a wild man and a young boy with a lot of unfulfilled dreams. Today, when you look at that picture you realize how much airbrushed it is. No skin is shown; everything on him is a sheen except for his eyes. These pictures appeared in million copies all over the world. From the Mexican shanties to Trivandrum, from Los Angles to St.Petersberg Michael became a rage. Rest of his life, he was living that portrait; that portrait was the one in which he found the real MJ, the one Michel Jackson who wanted to be. He tried his best to be that man/boy/animal.

During my childhood portrait makers did not find too many patrons as the middleclass was struggling to make both the ends to meet in a post-Nehruvian economy. They used to be signboard painters, banner makers, poster makers, slide makers and occasional portrait artists. Most of them were trained under the same master or they were trained by someone who was trained by a commonly accepted master in a particular region. Their ability as portraits were put to use when a locally important person’s portrait was unveiled in the village library or reading room or school, or they were invited to do portraits of political leaders during the election days. It used to be a custom when a man was in his death bed, if his progenies were doing well on the financial side, they would invite an artist to make a portrait. Most of such portraits are done posthumously based on some vague and moth eaten black and white family group photos were this person appears in the central row.

Old people, as they believed that photographing often took away part of their soul, refused to be individually photographed. The result was a partially resembling fine portrait with a lot of artistic inputs posthumously. No children of a man challenge an artist for making their father more handsome and less like himself. Who wants to show off a more resembling but ugly portrait to the world? In that case my paternal grandfather saved his soul and body, I should say. No photograph or no portrait exists carrying his self. So when he died, before him being carried away to his final resting place, some perceptive person in the village found out a way to capture his ‘image’ (or that must have been a custom). They brought a lot of sandal paste and smeared it on the soles of the dead person and took the impressions of his feet. This was later dried and preserved in a corner of a room on a pedestal where he was worshipped as a family deity. Whenever there was a feast at home, the first portion was brought and kept before this wooden plaque. We believed that he would eat it though later on other people shared this. So my impression of my paternal grandfather used to a sandal paste smeared wooden plaque that had the privilege to eat all food before any one of us could.

My fathers portrait were done by two people; actually three, which I would explain later. One is done by my eldest uncle and the other one is done by artist Prabhakaran, who was a student of my uncle. In the portrait that my uncle did my father looked a bit old (middle aged. May be as old as me now) but with an energetic thrust of the body and a beautiful smile. In the second portrait, my father looked many times younger; he must have been in his early thirties then. That means, the second portrait came much later as my father was ageing and he wanted to see his real self reflected in one his portraits. So he commissioned the artist. My uncle had studied art under a famous local artist and photographer, Sahadevan sir. Sahadevan Sir studied art in Trivandrum under Govindan Achary. Govindan Achary belonged to the Raja Ravi Varma School and was trained under Raja Raja Varma. Artist Prabhakaran had apprenticed my uncle.

My uncle recently passed away. His name was Natesan and he was an interesting artist and man. He used to be known as ‘Baby Annan’ (Baby Brother) and he was Baby Annan to all. After trained as an artist he got a job in a government job in a school in Kerala. But he was a man of rebellious thinking. He resigned his job and went to Singapore. After spending a few years there he came back to Vakkom and settled there for a few years. From there, he shifted the family to Varkala, a near by town and established his atelier there. They called it workshop. But in retrospect I would call it an atelier. He outdid all the other painting studios of the town through sheer skill and dedication.

‘Baby Arts’ was the name of the atelier. During those days there was not a single film theater in the region that did not show the advertisement slides by Baby Arts. We used to count the number of slides came from Baby Arts, when we went to watch movies. Technology was changing fast. My uncle had a lot of ideas. He did portraits, banners, posters, sign board and every thing. But time was changing fast. Soon he developed a local technique to do screen printing. And Baby Arts was the first to have a screen printing studio in Varkala. Soon he started a school for spray painting. He bought a Morris Minor car to teach the spray painting techniques and in this vintage machine we used to have some joy rides. While my eldest cousin drove the car while sitting at the wheel on a small folding chair, he was happy to stuff the car with kids as he found in them the right pushers for his mean machine that stopped at every other five minutes of running.

And my tryst with art starts from Baby Arts. May be it would be appropriate to say that it started very early with my close association with my Baby Uncle’s youngest son who although three years elder to me, grew up with me and taught me the primary lessons of drawing and painting. His name is Shibu Natesan, now one of the most noted painters in India. We grew up together and we had ample amount of time to do so many things. Shibu used to be a child prodigy, I should say. He could draw anything. He used to draw on the mud walls with a twig in his hand. When I asked him to draw anything I wanted, he obliged. At that time capturing the resemblance of a man or woman was a proof to the ability of an artist. Shibu could draw and paint any man to his finer details. On small cardboards, with the enamel paint picked up from his father’s studio he drew the images of many personalities, instantly and spontaneously. His father, my uncle used to allow us to tamper with his paints and brushes.

While in Upper Primary class, Shibu’s father decided to send him to Sahadevan Sir’s studio for the formal training in art. After the class he came to our home and shared all what he had learned there. I too wanted to learn painting! I told my desire to Shibu and he agreed to teach me. He was in his high school those days. He asked me to do basic shapes and gave me a free hand exercises. I drew and drew. The more I drew the more my envy for him grew as I was hundred times less competent than this genius craftsman and artist of his age. Still I persisted in attempts and could ‘imitate’ things to certain levels. While I noticed things changing in Shibu’s life. He was no more interested to capture the resemblance of any person on thing. He did not want to draw the way the teachers taught him. During those days Kerala’s magazine illustrations were very vibrant. Former Madras school stalwarts like M.V.Devan and Namboodiri ruled the scene. The illustrations of A.S.Nair, Madanan and Prasad also were interesting. Shibu had already shifted his gear and had gone to a drawing style, which at that time I found absurd.

Even in his high school days Shibu was a rebel. He made sculptures in clay, painted them over with enamel paints and many people took them away to worship in their local shrines. We too had a Krishna painting and Ganesha sculpture by Shibu from his high school days. When he reached the school final, Shibu stopped making idols or portraits of gods and goddesses. His interest for portraiture lingered for a while only to wane soon. He was changing fast and my admiration for him was growing day by day. Shibu used to take his enamel painted clay sculptures to a near by hill for rolling down from the top. It gave him immense pleasure and seeing these and knowing these excited me.

Along with my writing practice I was encouraging myself to draw also. One day, I wanted to join a painting competition conducted by a committee which celebrated the birth anniversary of Kumaran Asan, one of the legendary poets of modern Malayalam literature. It was in our neighboring village, Kaikkara where Kumaran Asan was born. I participated in all the literary competitions and won praises and prizes. That particular year I wanted to participate in painting also. They would give few lines from Kumaran Asan’s poems and we should paint that scene. I wanted Shibu also participate in that competition. But with very stern voice he told me that art was not or not about competition. I was hearing something very new, strange, threatening and yet fascinating. Though I participated in that competition, did something and got a third prize that was the last time that I thought art was for competition and for proving ephemeral talents.

I have a lot to tell you about Shibu and my relationship with him. We had lived life together, shared things and at one point we used to imagine ourselves to be Van Gogh and Theo. I should talk about all those things at length to do justice to our relationship, which later on strained and welded back off and on at different occasions, however all the while we kept our respect for each other.

You remember a third portrait of my father mentioned before? Yes, it was an oil on canvas version of the second portrait and was done by Josh PS, another emerging artist who lives in Delhi, almost twenty years after my father’s death. My mother wanted to have a portrait of my father in oil on canvas and she commissioned Josh, who hailed from the same village, Vakkom! Today there are two lights always blinking on these portraits while the first one is removed from its frame and pasted in a huge family album.


waswo x. waswo said...

You touch on everything wonderfully...the old family portraits hung at an angle on the verandas...screen printing and spray painting (I used to do both, so I can relate). You do have a touch of nostalgia in you Johny, and in my book that is not a bad thing. But I would never touch oil on canvas. Much prefer the feel of paper.

pramod said...

Dear jony, hi, U said too good, come on boys......

Sekar Ayyanthole said...

Dear M L J, ayan likes u and u r life notes Very this Kerala Drawing Teachers, same of ayan s.thanks..10 th nots ?

saba hasan said...

i prefer plaster and sand on canvas or board, or leaves, or paper, or thread or nails or does it matter ...why confuse the message for the medium ...
so well written, johnny...

Fingertree said...

A bit bewildered still : Why did you not become a Painter?