When you look at the works of Yuvan Bothysathuvar, exhibited at the newly opened Art District xIII, Lado Sarai, New Delhi, the feeling of finding a new and exciting artist embraces you. Yuvan is the winner of the Bestcollageart/Glenfiddich Emerging Indian Artist Award for 2013. A prize carrying a purse of Rs.10,00,000 and a three months residency at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Scotland is now considered to be one of the highly coveted art prices for the new Indian artists. Yuvan’s works, made out of carefully shredded papers by hand impart a new experience. His art could be called collage art yet they are not collages in the conventional sense; the paper pieces are not cut and pasted to create a particular form, but to create a feel and from taking in this feel into one’s system of aesthetic understanding is the first step to enjoy Yuvan’s works. As you see the works along with the artist who speaks no other language than his mother tongue, Tamil, you are thrown into a dilemma; are the works more interesting or the artist himself? Give a little time and have a little patience, soon you recognize that both are equally interesting.
A digital image of Yuvan’s works may not impress the viewer as the flatness of such images eat way the nuances that the artist creates on his pictorial surface, which is predominantly a thick plywood board. It would have been a near miss for Yuvan had the jury not been given a chance to see the original works during the process of selection. Same would be the case of a general viewer who sees a Yuvan ‘painting’ on a computer screen; the way Yuvan would have missed the prize, they also would miss the ‘works’ completely if they do not see them physically. Yuvan’s choice of materials, plywood surface and paper shreds, comes from an economic necessity. In his earlier avatar, Yuvan was a hoarding and banner painter, mainly catering to the film and political clients. But the heavy dose of academic realism that went into the making of hoardings and banners, after a decade of professional practice, slowly started disturbing him. He abandoned his commercial painting altogether and joined the Fine Arts College, Chennai, for pursuing a BFA and later MFA in Visual Communications, at the age of twenty eight, where he honed his skills to use different materials other than enamel paints. Shredded papers were the natural and easiest choice to begin with but he did not abandoned his favourite surface, the plywood on which most of the hoardings were created and his perennial love for the enigma that the posters had generated in him.
Does it sound too close to the story of the legendary artist, M.F.Husain? But nowhere in Yuvan’s works one could see a trace of Husain like modernism as the similarities between these two artists separated by time and geography, language and experience end in the fact that both them had once painted hoardings. Yuvan’s followed the call of papers. When he shredded them using hand and machine, he realized that not only the pieces but their rugged edges also could create tonal values and put them together skilfully, using visual communication faculties, could generate painterly effects. In his Glenfiddich sojourn too he had asked for locally available paper, which turned out to be the old brochures and other stationary materials of the company. As a master illusionist, as most of the hoarding painters are, Yuvan too started making illusions of spaces, landscapes and experiences using these shredded paper. In this exhibition, which comes as a part of the prize package, Yuvan presents a few works that he had done in Scotland and many others done in his studio at Lalit Kala Academy studios in Chennai. The experiences of Scotland, however do not dominate the show though there are a few works that directly elaborates the Scottish countryside, Scottish walls and Scottish landscapes. Yuvan was there during last winter; perhaps a time when everything is seen in a gloomy grey. But Yuvan sees the colours of the life there through the shredded papers and their painstaking arrangement on plywood.
‘Dilemma’ is a work that captures the attention of a viewer as he enters the gallery space. From one side it is a green painting and from the other side it is red and from the front it is an illusionistic mixture of peacock blue. But you are not a naive viewer; you know that it is the technique used in the ‘blind’ advertisement where the blinds have images on the both sides. As a former visual communicator and advertising painter, Yuvan has skilfully used this technique in his painting. He tells me a small anecdote and perhaps ‘Dilemma’ is a tribute to that anecdote. Once while working with the famous advertising company in Chennai called J.P.Krishna, Yuvan created a huge film hoarding using this static blinds. From one side people could see the face of one film star and from the other another one, and from the front yet another emotional filled face of the star. Upon installing at a street corner people gathered to see this ‘magical’ hoarding, which caused a couple of major road accidents. The local authorities asked the agencies to pull down the hoarding and that was the end of that ambitious advertisement feat. In Dilemma, Yuvan subconsciously touches upon that incident.
In a work titled ‘Poster’, Yuvan creates the impression of a street wall on a course of constant dressing and undressing by film and political posters. The technique, as you look on, comes out to be very simple; on a cleverly created corrugated surface, Yuvan pastes a lot of posters and runs a cutter along the grooves, leaving a hollow strip between each protrusion. From a distance the work gives the impression of a wall or a shutter stripped off of its ‘own’ posters. Yuvan says that the inspiration for this work comes from a ‘still on’ real life incident. In Chennai, the ‘poster’ boys go around and paste film posters all over the walls and shutters. Metro authorities come on the next morning and start peeling them off. The charade is repeated endlessly, leaving the surfaces with a permanently scarred look. For Yuvan they are memory traces of visuals; maybe one could just visualise the whole poster from a trace, from an eye or a calligraphic letter, without seeing the poster as a whole.
Experience and practice have helped Yuvan to create eye fooling illusions. He creates a white and off white background on a plywood surface and then makes black and white figurative drawings. These drawings are later shredded as per his visual needs and paste on them like ‘painterly’ lines in order to create an illusionistic space and movement. This technique he repeats in many of his works, which from a closer look would reveal that is a combination of textural and textual materials. The printed texts on the shredded papers give an additional visual quality to the works; they are like minute brush strokes, blobs, patches and daubs and drippings. One of the works that I found quite emotionally charged is titled ‘Experience’. This work is in a vertical glass case with its interior covered with papers shredded from a Tamil literary work that Yuvan had taken along with him to Scotland to read. Right in the middle of the box is a Glenfiddich bottle suspended upside down with its cork falling a few inches down from its mouth. Yuvan says that it is an exclamation mark; the wonderment that he felt at the distillery, in the strange Scottish environment and by the strangest of weathers. But I would say, projecting Yuvan as a grand illusionist will cause trouble for him in the long run.
A few words about Yuvan’s life are quite important to understand this artist and his work. Born and brought up in a remote rural area in Tamil Nadu, Yuvan spent his childhood with his mother’s eldest sister. They were eleven sisters, says Yuvan. So he never spent his childhood with his parents. As it is a custom in the villages, elderly couples take care of children and they in turn give them a sense of fulfilment and protection. This elder mother was a great story teller and Yuvan was a great listener. Perhaps, he was destined to listen to more and more stories. A military returned gentleman offered to teach our young Yuvan some ‘English’. Instead of English, Yuvan heard a lot of stories from this military man. “Through these stories, I thought I came to know the world much more than the kids of my own age,” Yuvan says. He was sent to study in school in the holy town Thiruvannamalai where he spent almost twelve years in hostel. Thiruvannamalai had a lot of film theatres and all of them wanted posters and banners. Skilful in painting, Yuvan started making banners for them. By the time he finished his school he was a locally famous advertising painter. Confidence took him to Chennai where he approached the famous J.P.Krishna company that excelled in making huge hoardings, cut outs and banners for film stars and political leaders. Seeing his skills, Yuvan was absorbed into the team and it was his entry to the world of spectacular hoardings. They used projectors to do the tracing, that too part by part. The final impression was seen only when the hoarding went up. For Yuvan a thirty feet hoarding was a half day job. Speed was the USP of any hoarding painter especially in a place that produced around an average of three hundred films in a year.
Even if you try to hide your talent, someone looking out for it would definitely find it out. Yuvan was not deliberately hiding his talent but his hoardings were telling about it to the world. Literally the world came in search of him. When Belgium initiated a project at Brussels’ new bus terminus, they invited Yuvan and few other hoarding painters from Chennai to Brussels to paint the portrait of national celebrities there on the walls and other public buildings. It was in 2004. And even today, every year, Belgium authorities commission Yuvan to make portraits of their national leaders. A few years before, Yuvan was invited to finish a mural scale painting in Dubai, which he finished within fifteen days with a fellow artist and spent rest of fifteen days ‘enjoying’ life in Dubai. While in Belgium, he travelled all over Europe. However, he says Scotland was a different experience. Before I wind up my interview with Yuvan, I ask him a question about his very special name. “Yuvan is young,” says Yuvan. “Bothysathuvar means Bodhisatva, Buddha.” I am a bit confused as I could not find such surname in Tamil Nadu. Yuvan smiles. “I was Sivakumar. That was the name my parents had given me. After my life as a hoarding painter, when I joined the arts college, I thought of a name that set me free, free from numerological humbug, godly associations and parental tyranny. Then I chose the name Yuvan Bothysathuvar.” I am not surprised; he has the strange alchemy of turning papers into paintings. He used the same alchemy to change his name. And I am sure that is working for him.