Through the large windows, the foliages and tree top freshly washed by the mid summer rains that shred the crystal blue sky into thousands of shining shards I see three medium sized owls, sleeping calmly. The artist smiles at me. “Look, what do they need?” I keep silence. I want the artist to speak. He continues, “They just need a place to sit and sleep. At night they fly away to hunt. They come back in the morning. At times they look at me turning their necks in impossible angles.” I strain my eyes at them. As if responding to a cue they open their eyes in unison and look at me. ‘It’s eerie,’ I think but do not say a thing. I know Gopikrishna, the artist and when he speaks of the owls, he is not just putting up an act. The trees out there, the greenery, the foliage, the creepers and vines that adorn the self designed studio-cum-residence of Gopikrishna are carefully cultivated by the artist himself, patiently and steadily. His works, often qualified randomly as ‘surreal’ or ‘Brueghel-esque’ have a lot of trees and foliages in them though most of them seem animated by their ‘unnatural’ extensions into creatures and species that are seen perhaps only in the imaginations of George Louis Borges.
(A recent painting by Gopikrishna)
Born in Sreekaryam, a suburban town near Trivandrum city in 1965, Gopikrishna has always been a devotee of the ‘remaining patches of nature’ in and around Trivandrum city. Ask any friend of Gopikrishna about his personal traits as an artist or an art student many years back, they would all say one thing: Gopikrishna was a loner and he remains the same. There is a reason for the loneliness of this artist. This loneliness was a choice when he was a student in the Trivandrum Fine Arts College in early 1980s. The students then were an agitated lot. Each student who joined the college then was fresh and normal like any other teenager. But within a month into the course they all started turning into some different beings, always talking about revolution through art and the social purposes of art. For Gopikrishna, seeing the metamorphosis of his fellow students perhaps was the initiation into the world of magical transformations of beings, which has been manifesting in his works for the last three decades incessantly.
(a painting in Gopikrishna's studio)
Gopikrishna’s works have a protagonist or a few protagonists in them, all in many ways, resonating with the characteristic traits of the artist himself, at least in the looks. They are all loners even when they are engaged in apparently absurd group activities. The early dissociation of his individual self from the collective ideological process(ing) of art during the student days comes to take many forms in this dissonant metabolism that we seen in Gopikrishna’s paintings. Loner as he was, instead of making art through collective discussions and for a common end, Gopikrishna looked for the fast fading green patches in and around the city. Pedaling through the asphalt laid paths under the blazing sun, with his drawing equipments in tow, Gopikrishna went to these places, sitting there alone, captured the varying moods of nature, hundreds of birds visiting the tree tops, bees humming around and the insects and frogs trotting here and there. Drawing them was a pleasure, which took him to the ultimate sense of ‘losing’ it (the ego) and the meditative experience that he experienced from these weekend sessions was much more alluring than the socially ‘responsible’ art that brewed within the crucibles of library, canteen and classrooms of the Trivandrum Fine Arts College. Gopikrishna did not discount his friends’ art but he was simply not interested.
(A painting by Gopikrishna)
A.Ramachandran, senior artist, who gushes praises for Gopikrishna does it for the right reasons. As a nature lover (as a rightful descendant of the doyens like Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ram Kinkar Baij and K.G.Subramnyan) Ramachandran has always painted directly from the nature. While Ramachandran devoted himself in developing a naturalism that is peculiar to the mural traditions of India, by adding a lot of realism to it, Gopikrishna chose a different path of developing his realism as perceived by his inner eyes. In his words, “I do not have any explanations for the incidents that take place in my works. But they are from there. They happen exactly the way they are seen in the paintings. I cannot force them to be different.” Hence, Gopikrishna’s early exercises in drawing directly from nature could be called the internalization process of the external world and the alchemy of aesthetics that occurred in him during those days must have created a different world of reality for him, which one of the early judges of his works commented upon as ‘painful paintings’.
(a painting by Gopikrishna)
This comment, ‘painful paintings’ came in the year 1995, when Gopikrisha was finishing his MFA in Painting at the illustrious Delhi College of Art. After passing out in 1988 from Trivandrum Gopikrishna had spent almost six years at home, painting from a fairly large attic studio created for him by his father. Then he thought of continuing his studies. During the annual display, one of the campus combers came from a reputed gallery in Delhi and looked at the works of both Gopikrisha and Aji VN, who too was a student there then. The gallerist looked at their works for a long time, which gave them goose pimples. They thought that they were going to be picked up and raised to the level of professional artists by offering shows or commissioning works. Nothing happened; he moved on and selected one of the students whose works both Gopikrishna and Aji thought ‘not up to the mark’. Later, they asked the chosen one about the secret behind his works. He did not say much but simply commented, “You have done painful paintings. They need happy paintings.”
(a recent painting by Gopikrishna)
Looking around, I understand that Gopikrishna has not learnt a lesson from that boy artist who was selected by the gallerist in 1995. Sometimes being adamant and learning no lessons pay better than making adjustments with one’s won soul. Both Gopikrishna and Aji held on what was closer to them tightly. We do not hear much about the other artist but we do hear about these two artists even if it took more than a decade for recognition to come. In Delhi too the image of Gopikrishna being a loner followed him. But the artist has a different take on that. “Most of them who knew me or tried to know me missed one point. There is not a single place in Delhi and its surroundings where I hadn’t cycled around. I used to go to all the green patches, parks and the ruins of Delhi. Sitting there I experienced the histories and stories that made Delhi. I was not alone because the spirits that made Delhi were with me. And I kept on drawing and painting them.”
(a painting by Sreedharan Nair, Gopikrishna's father)
Here we think of Gopikrishna as a child prodigy. “I have never been one,” Gopikrishna asserts. He started taking art seriously only when his father suggested that he could be an artist. The suggestion was not vague or casual for it came from an artist himself. Sreedharan Nair, Gopikrishna’s father was an artist himself. Born in 1920, Sreedharan Nair was closely related to the Travancore Royal family and also got trained under the Raja Ravi Varma ‘school’ of painting along with the then masters like Devaraja Aiyar, Govindan Asari and OV Velu Asari. They all painted in the Ravi Varma style, taking inspiration from the already established themes and also from the secular as well as mythological narratives. The palette more or less remained that of Ravi Varma. Sreedharan Nair was slightly different from these artists. Nair studied the Western Renaissance art closely and also was keen in copying several western masters including Michael Angelo, Da Vinci and Raphael. Besides, Nair collected a lot of Oleographs came out of the Ravi Varma Press, and took a special interest in developing a painterly style based on the oleograph representations than the Ravi Varma paintings themselves. When Nair told his son to study art, he knew that his son could even if Gopikrishna had not shown any interest in pursuing art as a career.
(a painting by Sreedharan Nair, Gopikrishna's father)
A strangeness came to Gopikrishna’s mind when he was too young to understand the ways of the world. One day he was told that his mother was dead. Orphaned at an early age, with a young sibling and a father trying to negotiate his financial problems, Gopikrishna found himself in a peculiar island of loneliness. Nair, who wanted to be a professional artist, finally had to take up a job in the Transport Department. Gopikrishna was trying to tell something to the world though he did not know which medium would help him to express himself. And when he started working on paper with pencils, the initial formations were just doodles. Then he found images and themes evolving out of those doodles. It was a Tagore moment for Gopikrishna and he was seventeen years old. When Nair told him that he could join the Trivandrum Fine Arts College, Gopikrishna knew that if he did, he could as he had already seen images coming out of his lines convincingly, exactly the way Tagore might have found the images while making doodles, smudges and erasures.
(work by Gopikrishna)
The evolution of an artist could be traced by the stylistic developments that his works show over a period of time. However, it is not necessary that one should see the same kind of style in the formative years of an artist and later. In the case of Gopikrishna, the ‘surreal’ feel of his works was always there from the very early drawings to now. He says that this persisted because the style or thematic was not forced. It happened in him and his job was to get it out on paper or canvas. That does not mean that the artist is a weirdo. If he should, then most of the artists in this world should be weird creatures giving birth to non-existing worlds and creatures. The normative ideologies do not have any place in the scheme of Gopikrishna. As I mentioned elsewhere, Gopikrishna did not like to involve in any of the group activities in the college and preferred to work from a dingy little room in the men’s hostel which was kindly given to him by a fellow student, as Gopikrishna was a day scholar. Painting from the dark hostel room did not fill darkness into his works. The predominant yellow in his works connotes not only the affinity for the ethereal but also for the sun; openness and freedom.
(a work by Gopikrishna)
The centrality of figures, the multiplicity of limbs and heads, and the liberal habitation of beasts and eerie birds speak a lot about the aesthetics of Gopikrishna. The careful cannibalism of the oleograph structures, images and aesthetics created by Raja Ravi Varma seems to be the basic foundation for the feverish imagination of Gopikrishna. The beautiful gods and goddesses with multiple limbs, heads and other attributes, consorted by female entities or beastly or avian entities, flanked by heavenly flying beings and the encryption of benevolence and good omen that populate the oleographs, transform into different male, female, beastly and avian imageries and create a new ensemble of actions and happenings at times, taking them to the lowly stations of life and at times to the royal existence of the feudal lords. There are the glimpses of divinity and monstrosity in the same frame. The embellishments of the conventional oleographs are cannibalized to create a new ornamentation that allures and repels the viewer at the same time. Along with the lowly and royal lives, one could see the emblems and symbols of colonial presence, and the struggles of the erstwhile royalty in the face of extinction.
(Gopikrishna in studio)
Remove your shoes just outside the steps that lead to the veranda from the granite paved courtyard. You get the feeling of entering into a museum. The drawing room is a high ceilinged spacious atrium which has antique furniture running along the walls. Each item there has a touch of history and suddenly you realize that you have seen all of them in one or the other fashion in the works of Gopikrishna. The cherry red tiled floors reflect the white washed walls on which the artist has displayed many number of original oleographs collected from various sources, including that of his father and the original works done by his father. This home does not look like a museum of innocence, but it is more like a museum of memories (which museums definitely are), more like a museum of pain or a museum of dreams. But the home itself does not carry the memories of pain though the energy flutters with the softness of a smile or a pair of butterfly wings. Gopikrishna’s wife, Indira welcomes you with a smile with the room lights up. Gopikrishna’s son is Anantha Padmanabhan, who is a Integrated Psychology MA student at the Hyderabad Univeristy and daughter Sumitra is a tenth standard student in Trivandrum.
(a corner in Gopikrishna's study)
Gopikrishna collects all what he could from the city of his life. He is full of Travancore history. And Travancore history is full of coups, conspiracies, abdication, love, revenge, chivalry, loyalty, magic, horror and war. C.V.Raman Pillai, the most eminent author of historical novels had caught the history of Travancore in all its moods in his famous works such as ‘Marthandavarma’, ‘Dharma Raja’ and ‘Rama Raja Bahadur’. The coups and conspiracies that made and broke the modern Travancore also tell us the history of its resistance as well as subjection to the colonial forces. Trivandrum developed a cultural character of pleasing and connivance by extending the royal activities into the lives of the common people. Gopikrishna intrigued by these conspiracies that still make and break the city, creates his paintings which seem to resonate with the stories from the history of Travancore. Raman Pillai was a creative genius who said he could imagine a sea of fire and still write about it. He made this statement almost in the same of Turner. Enamored by the narrative skills and the linguistic variations shown by Pillai in his works, Gopikrishna also seems to say that he can imagine a sea of not only fire but also life and the life beyond. As a true devotee to the master history teller, he got his children named after the characters in C.V.Raman Pillai’s novels.
(an early family portrait by Gopikrishna)
The old wall clock which is wound everyday by Gopikrishna himself strikes twelve times. The disinterested, detached, grave and matter of fact ringing brings in the memory of Travancore within the four walls. We climb the stairs to the first floor where his sprawling studio is set up. Along the hallway that leads to the studio and along the sides of the stairs framed oleographs and the ‘much maligned monsters’ of Indian gods and goddesses ogle at you. The studio has all what a studio needs. Through the large windows southern wind wafts in. The table tops and cupboards are filled with antiques that he has been collecting ever since. The chairs are woven with cane; a skill that is fast fading due to lack of demand. Gopikrishna believes that a good life means getting the nature back into life which include the old skills of making and using things from the surroundings. “I collect all these because I just want to live with their naturalness,” says Gopikrishna. From the walls, his protagonists turn around and look at me. To understand his paintings it is necessary to know a bit of local history; or at least the history that goes beyond a hundred good years. Who said history is dead? Let’s us forget him. But I know who has said, the regional is the new global. It was said by K.G.Subramanyan, a decade back. If so, Gopikrishna is a global artist without using sawed off cadavers, pickled fish or prosthetic largesse or shiny surfaces.
(a family moment, Gopikrishna with wife Indira)
From the comfort of a low chair, sipping the sugarless tea that Indira has brought along with a few pieces of ripe mango and a local delicacy called ‘Ilayappam’, I listen to the stories of Gopikrishna and the making of Gopikrishna. After his graduation in 1988, Gopikrishna went on painting at his attic studio, which his father had prepared for him. Nobody bought any work and nobody even cared to look at his works. As the young artists do even today, Gopikrishna also did send his portfolios to many galleries in Mumbai and Delhi, which came back with not even a note of thanks. Aubrey Menon, an Indo-Anglian writer and a decaled gay writer was living in Trivandrum in those days with his friend Graham Hall. Both Gopikrishna and Pradeep Puthoor were regular visitors to their home for ‘spirited’ discussions on art and literature. Aubrey Menon liked the works of these two artists and it was Menon who wrote about them first in the then famous Illustrated Weekly of India. Gopikrishna shows me the Olivetti portable typewriter of Aubrey Menon, who had gifted to the artist many years later. It sits pretty on an antique stool, like the tools that have created monuments in granite.
(Gopikrishna with Aubrey Menon's Olivetti portable typewriter)
In the year 2000, Gopikrishna did a solo exhibition titled ‘Gates to Decivilization’ at the Durbar Art Gallery, Kochi. Anoop Scaria of Kashi Art Gallery happened to see this show and was hugely impressed. Anoop was the first one to give a sponsored solo at his Kashi Café Art Gallery in 2002 and 2004. By that time Indian art market had boomed. Solos followed in Delhi’s Palette Art Gallery and in Mumbai’s Art Musings. Gopikrishna, the recluse artist, however remains the same after his market success. “Market has not changed the pace of my working. I do not do commission works. Whatever sales happened so far has happened either through solo or through group shows. I cannot do works based on demands. I do not make calls or pick up calls for selling my art. I am an ordinary householder, cleaning my house and studio everyday with my wife, purchasing vegetables, tending plants and trees, looking at nature and listening to any kind of music.” Gopikrishnan does not affect anything and I could see it. The energy in the studio is meditative and one could spend hours together looking at his works here or looking at the number of mangos hanging from the tree at a hand’s distance over his terrace.
(a work by Gopikrishna)
The more one looks at the works of Gopikrishna the more one gets to feel a sense of crime and punishment. Gopikrishna, though is not guilt ridden or remorseful like a Dostoevsky-ian character, his works seem to be an outcry for justice. At the same time, the bestial presence reverses the logic of the human world. There is a bit of madness in these works. The metaphor here is ‘vishamam’; the syncopation of two disparate images, narratives or incidents. The repetition of such disparities, Gopikrishna creates a world where justice is delivered even through the cruelest of the ways. The impossibility of transformations is presented as the easiest formations. Pain is tinged with an erotic pleasure as a release or cathartic effect. Fertility and eroticism together tries to overcome the difficulties of barrenness using the images of fish, snake and sprouts. In Gopikrishna’s works, if anything is mocked or lampooned, it is the human beings because according to the artist, human beings are the greatest errors in the earth. The errors are to be erased either through correctional methods or through pure allowance of the grotesque.
(portrait of young Gopikrishna by NL Balakrishnan, photographer and actor)
In the district of Trastevere in Rome in central Italy, sometime in November 2015 Gopikrishna stood in front of a Raphael’s mural depicting Psyche and the Triumph of Galatea. In Villa Farnesina, Raphael had created one of the most beautiful and intriguing paintings in the world. It was Gopikrishna’s first trip to Europe; a trip lasted four months, aided by the scholarship instituted by a friend, Gopikrishna traveled in Italy and France. He visited most of the iconic art works that have been celebrated in art history. “I had a book at home which my father had collected. In childhood I used to look at them every weekend. In this visit I was standing in front of them, in real. This was a moment…” This was a moment that brought the mental image of Gopikrishna as a person and artist together. That was a moment of apotheosis for him. The artist in him and the person in him became one and the same. “The conflicts, if at all there were any, all had gone in that one moment,” says Gopikrishna says. He walks me into the other two rooms of his studio; one has a high cot, from one of those royal houses. The other has got an easy chair. And on the cupboard there is a small portrait of Gopikrishna as a young child, taken by the ace photographer N.L.Balakrishnan, who was a friend of his father.
(JohnyML with Gopikrishna in his studio)
The owls are still there. They are three. “This three is something very important for me. Look at that drawing, a three headed man. There in the painting you see a three headed bird. I have not yet figured out what this three means to me,” Gopikrishna says. I tell him about the triads of religions; Brahma, Vishnu, Maheshwara, Father, son and Holy Ghost, the Three Times- past, present, future, the three heads, the three eyes, the three weapons. Gopikrishna looks at me and smiles. “Owls do not need language,” he says. Yes, they just need a place to sleep. Gopikrishna feels that as a human being it is his duty to provide home for nature and its creatures. That’s how an artist worth of his salt thinks.