‘There was a boy, a very strange and enchanted boy.’ From Nat King Cole, we cut to Puthoor near Kottarakkara, Kollam District, Kerala. Seventh decade of the 20th century was just about to begin. Suddenly, in this boy’s house furniture started catching fire. Dresses worn by guests were sniped to shreds. All the fingers were pointed at our enchanted boy, who was five years old then. His father was a District Medical Officer (doctor) and the impudence of his son infuriated him. For almost two years, till our boy turned seven, ghostly fires and invisible scissors were toppling the peace of the household. Each time it happened, our boy was caned thoroughly by his father. And one day, the family members chanced upon the real culprit; an elder cousin sister of the boy who lived with them and enjoyed her split personality was setting things on fire.
(Work by Pradeep Puthoor)
Remorse descended on the father. Each member of the family was guilt ridden. They looked at the boy who all those two years had been taking all thrashing without really understanding why they did it to him. Driven by repentance, his father set the boy free. Now onwards he could do anything he wanted under the sun; and over too, if he really wished. His father was like a pillar of strength for the boy to pursue what he wanted. He wanted nothing but to draw. Years later, when he graduated from the Trivandrum Fine Arts College with a second rank in Applied Arts, his father arranged a studio for him in their former stable of cows.
(Pradeep Puthoor in Studio)
Thus starts the story of Pradeep Puthoor, an acclaimed artist who lives and works in Trivandrum, whose paintings reveal the innards of non-existing organic beings and the fundamental structures of visible and invisible objects and edifices around him. The enchanted boy in him has not grown up yet. Pradeep sees the world through the eyes of that boy who had once wondered why he got periodically thrashed by his dad whenever fires appeared at the feet of chairs or holes appeared in the clothes. The boy in him now wonders why the world around him is so; why innocent people are being thrashed up and bullied around by people who hold patriarchal authority in the society. So the boy searches for the reasons and he goes into the fundamental structures that make up our society and the collective and individual imaginations. Pradeep, as his works show, believes that the very basis of understandings and misunderstandings is in the very act of ‘seeing’ things in the perspective that we choose to perceive anything and everything around us. Some are capable of seeing things beyond while most of us remain in the two dimensional world, occasionally using a pair of colored goggles to watch a three dimensional make believe world.
(A recent work by Pradeep Puthoor)
The X-Ray eyes of Pradeep are not scientifically intrusive but aesthetically intense. In a normal X-Ray picture whiter images are denser objects. In Pradeep’s visual world denser objects come to the fore, making the viewers believe that the artist sees only the denser objects lying hidden within the glittering skin of the external world. But trained eyes and intuitive minds could sense the lighter objects and lighter events that take place beyond the outer skin of the material world. What is that makes Pradeep see things beyond? Is it because of the presence of his father, a doctor in his life during the formative years? But as we enquire further we understand that Pradeep’s father Dr.Sukumaran was not an allopathic doctor who used invasive technologies to diagnose diseases. He was rather intuitive who practiced Ayurvedic Medicine. He lived in a world of herbs and medicinal plants. He looked and touched the patients and he could see their inner topography as we see a location in a google map these days. This intuitive mind and healing touch somehow has come to Pradeep absolutely in a different form; visual aesthetics.
(work by Pradeep Puthoor)
There is a side story here: Liberated from the parental clutches at the age of seven after suffering undeserving punishment for two years, Pradeep had grown wings to fly wherever he wanted. Too much of freedom at a tender age could be detrimental and while studying in the Trivandrum Fine Arts College, Pradeep was one of the richest students and brightest too, which got him into a sort of anarchy and sooner than later he started wondering why he took Applied Arts as his major and why he did not apply for painting. Even if he had ranked second in the examinations, Pradeep was not planning to join any advertising agency, which offered a lucrative job and life. He went back to his village and started painting from the stable studio which his father had set up for him.
(A work from 1990s by Pradeep Puthoor)
The story goes like this. Pradeep was not making any money from his art. In fact, in his own admission, he was just figuring out how to paint. In Applied Arts department he had learnt the techniques of visualizing and imaging rather than creating a painting using adequate and discreet application of paints on the surface of a canvas or a paper. In the stable studio in the village, he had told himself, ‘look, it is your job now to learn how to paint. If not you are doomed.’ But father was thinking differently for his somewhat crazy son. Making his son settled in life, which meant a good job, marriage and a household to keep up, was the prime concern of the father. So, he started a Medical Store for him. Also he appointed a young girl at the sales counter. Pradeep could be the owner cum manager and the presence of a young girl would have kept him inside the shop. Spirited he was and it took no time to convert the adjacent room into a makeshift bar for his local wayward friends. If at all Pradeep had any connection with the world of medical science and the anatomical structure of human beings or other creatures, it was his medical shop misadventure which came to an abrupt end once the father pulled the shutters of the shop down forever.
(a recently work by Pradeep Puthoor)
The painter in Pradeep was surging forth, learning through trial and error methods and in the meanwhile two major influences came to his life; Paul Klee and Anselm Kiefer. More than stylistic freedom these artists took, what attracted Pradeep were their unceasing efforts to externalize the internal world. When we talk about internal world, most of the art people mistake it as the spiritual world that the Indian philosophy qualifies as the embodiment of self realization and sublime expression. Many an artist has repeated this mistake and many have been repeating it even today. Pradeep, however was not trying to externalize that spiritual world; on the contrary he was trying to look at the strange and enchanted worlds and universes that lied hidden in him. Those attempts to get them out a la the Klee mode took him to the known and unknown archetypes that came in tiered fashion in his early works. Before he could really make out what he had been doing with his paintings, in 1992, he was awarded the best National Painter competition conducted by the Kerala Lalitha Kala Akademi. The title of the painting was ‘Air-Airy’, which thanks to the journalistic interventions of that time became a fad title and the artist who made that painting became equally famous. Pradeep was about to start his fulltime career as a painter.
(work by Pradeep Puthoor)
There was an interim period in his life, when Pradeep worked as an illustrator. While shuttling between the stable studio and the hangout places in Trivandrum city, Pradeep found that there was an opening in the Kalakaumudi weekly, which was one of the prominent weeklies of that time. Pradeep worked there as an illustrator for a few months and an offer came to him to go to Mumbai and work for the same organization. Pradeep grabbed the opportunity and went to Mumbai. According to him, going to Mumbai was all about visiting Jehangir Art Gallery. “I wanted to hang out there and see shows. I wanted to wander in the city of Mumbai and see what I could there,” Pradeep remembers. But in his remembrance, there are no faces or names. He does not even remember the place that he lived in Mumbai. “My office was at Nariman Point. And the accommodation was somewhere and I used to go by train.” Pradeep worked there for six months and came back to Trivandrum. “I had enough of Mumbai and enough of Jehangir Art Gallery,” Pradeep smiles. Interestingly, those were the days of the making of the ‘Mallu artists’ gang’ in Mumbai. “But I was not interested to know any Malayalee artists there for my interest was in art not in artists.”
(Pradeep Puthoor with his wife Raji in studio)
In 1993 Pradeep got the Junior Fellowship from the Human Resources Department, Government of India. It was in the same year that Pradeep got married to Raji, who now has taken up her responsibilities as Pradeep’s documenter, archivist, personal secretary and emotional and creative collaborator. The journey was not so smooth. Pradeep met Raji in front of the Public Library in Trivandrum in 1992 and he was asking for some direction to some place. They met again and finally they decided to marry. Soon Raji realized that she had chosen something ‘different’ and she found herself in the midst of utter confusion and anarchy. But she withstood all the pressures from family and society, mainly to desert a ‘non-profit artist’, and today she is Pradeep’s best friend and best assistant. Rare are such relationships especially they had the responsibility of bringing up two daughters who are now 22 years and 14 years respectively. “We had passed through the rough patches and now we have weathered enough to wade through any situations,” Pradeep says while Raji looks at him with full of admiration in her eyes.
(early work by Pradeep Puthoor)
British Royal Overseas League prize came to Pradeep in 1997. In 2003, Pollock-Krasner Fellowship was awarded to him. In 2006, he got an Indo-German residency program in Berlin. In 2005, Pradeep participated in the Florence Biennale. In 2004, one of his works was auctioned by Christies. Pradeep was in huge demand by the new millennium. There is a huge difference between the present works of Pradeep and the earlier ones that established him as a painter. Towards the end of the 1990s, Pradeep had already got a grip in the painterly language and all his hallmark expressions were developed by then. Still the refinement was escaping him. He was toiling between figurative and semi-figurative paintings which were sold off like hot cakes. However, the search for a refined language was still one; he did not hawk it for a profit. And by the time he started having his solo exhibitions in 2006 in Delhi and Hyderabad, Pradeep’s language was already established; it was semi-figurative and looking into a world that lied beyond the material comprehension.
(A drawing by Pradeep Puthoor)
Totem like structures repeats in Pradeep’s works. Though they are totemic, the organic fluidity shakes them out of the rigidity of vertical structures and shows the possible fluidity of the underwater weeds and creatures. There is a feeling of diving into the depths of the unknown while looking at the works of Pradeep, especially in the works that he did a decade back. Goaded by an urge to create more and more, similar images evolved but each time giving a different finality to the works. At times he painted the concrete totemic figures, shamanic appearances with beak heads and scythes and so on. There used to be a strange dance of ethereal figures in his works. Slowly we see them assuming clear patterns and becoming more and more definitive structures. While there are no bone structures and clear rib cages and skeletal views in those days, one could clearly say that he is inspired by the zoological and botanical anatomies. The most surprising thing about Pradeep paintings from this period is that despite their apparent leaning towards scientific microscopic views of animal and plant world of existence, he never had reference points to such imaginative take offs. (I scrutinize his book shelves in his studio for reference books and find no such scientific tomes).
(Drawing by Pradeep Puthoor)
Each time I look at the works of Pradeep, what comes to my mind is the world of ethereal beings, magical occurrences and a sort of constant witnessing of the same by the artist. As mentioned in the beginning, Pradeep is like a young boy, the nature child, Azaro in Ben Okri’s illustrious novel, ‘Famished Road’. Azaro sees a world different as others do. Each inch of his world is infested with invisible creatures which are visible to him only. The subtext of colonial critique in Okri’s novel could easily give way to the magical realism of the novel’s structure and prop the protagonist, Azaro into a witness of both the real and unreal world. Azaro’s father in the novel tries to finish off magically powerful boxer and each time he tries that he comes back hurt. In the blood that oozes out from his father’s body opens up a new world for Azaro. The father-son relationship could also be seen in the works of Pradeep, where the son is a constant witness to the father’s life, whose life he qualifies as a ‘colorful’ one, filled with herbs and dreams.
(work by Pradeep Puthoor)
The magical realism at times becomes clinically precise in Pradeep’s works. He extracts a singular image and repeats it many number of times as if he is changing a mantra or making a revisit to the same place that he has seen in his dream and later chanced upon in the real life. An effort to see the inner workings of not only the organic entities but also the inorganic edifices, Pradeep turns his X-ray eyes on anything and everything and the underlying bone structures are revealed. To the untrained eyes, the bone structures are simper representational efforts of the artist. But if one looks deep into these paintings he/she could come to understand two things; one, the artist has not really worked on bone structures autonomous images in previous works though they are shown in glimpses and glances. Two, the bone structures that we see in his paintings are not real bone structures as we cannot imagine creatures with such bone structures. This takes us to a different conclusion; the artist is not really paintings the familiar but the unfamiliar, besides, the bone structures do not really belong to any particular being.
(work by Pradeep Puthoor)
According to the artist, these bone structures represent decay of different kinds. However, I would like to see them as structuring of the self rather than decaying of the envelope that covers the ‘self’. This is not a spiritual self; but a transformation of previously known fluid structures into much concrete ones. The self intended here is the self that the artist confronts in his path of aesthetic creations. Most of the bone structures are like the remnants of a previous moment. The constant making and breaking of plans leave a lot of energy patterns in our surroundings and if we trace them through a device capable of doing it, we would be able to see a lot of ruins of our conjurations. Pradeep, with his sensitive creative ends is able understand these conjurations and reproduce them. I have witnessed him coming up with a skeletal image when he was painting the surface of a car in Jaipur recently. Pradeep starts at some point, may an axial bone and the rest of it develop in tandem with the other. His working style is such that symmetry becomes an inevitable choice as structurally only symmetry could hold the logic of a ‘building’ whether it is a real body or an imagined body. Yet, Pradeep gives autonomy to these structures never subjecting them to be a victim of the ensuing structures or images. Hence, Pradeep could leave a portion of the bone structure in the mid way and fill them with a color patch in order to bring the balance into the painting’s wholeness.
(Painting by Pradeep Puthoor)
Symmetry, especially the apparently clinical scientific nature of Pradeep’s works is concerned, seems to be a very conscious act of ‘painting’ rhythm and balance into a work of art. However, if we look closely, we come to know that Pradeep does not follow the scientific structural symmetry in a clinical fashion. The symmetries are automatically developed so that a visual balance is created vis-à-vis the rest of the images seen around it. One particular structure holding up the other in fact does not organically tally with the ensuing bone structure. That means, even if we conjure up a being based on the given bone structure created by Pradeep, we will not get a logically comprehensible being. Hence, decay or no decay becomes no longer important in deciphering the meaning of his works. On the contrary what I see in the latest paintings of Pradeep (that I see in his studio) is a sort of resolved (bone) structures which without adding imaginary flesh to it give away the feeling of witnessing a Gandhara Buddha who undergoes extreme fasting and turn skeletal. This reading could be made possible only by the subconscious rendering of such thoughts related to resolution and deliverance which are currently going through the mind of the artist.
(from Pradeep Puthoor's Nature Morte Solo in 2014)
If one asks the artist to define himself, Pradeep would say that he is an artist who likes ‘drawing’ than painting. In his studio one could see various sizes of expensive papers cut and kept in stacks so that any time he wants to draw, he could just get at it. Hundreds of drawings are made without the artist really caring much about its meaning or possible trajectory of travelling. Each stroke is important for Pradeep; it is like slow building, almost like imagining a castle, a world, a universe, a wood bit by bit. That’s how the nature boys like Azaro do while conjuring up ethereal worlds or extracting such worlds from the mundane ones within which they are forced to operate. Pradeep is a nature boy and one should not try to decipher what he is really making on the papers. They resemble many of his paintings; but they are not the blue print or studies for the paintings. They at times look automatic doodling; yet they are not subconscious drawing. Pradeep derives immense pleasure in ‘drawing’ his drawings bit by bit using pen and at times water colors.
(work by Pradeep Puthoor)
If Pradeep is given a chance, how is he going to define his artistic process? Pradeep does not think for long to answer this question because the answer has been given several times already. He likes to call his artistic journey as ‘wandering’ and in Malayalam he uses this typical word, ‘alacchil’. Wandering and alacchil mean the same. It is an aimless journey but with some glimmer of purpose occasionally showing up. Each time it is seen, the rest of the wandering is a pain, tinged with the pleasure of trying to know the unknown. One moves from sunlight to shade and wise versa. One walks out of an air-conditioned room into the blistering heat of a summer day. One sits under a heating tin sheet roof and sweat; all the while looking at his canvas. You sit in front of a computer and keep moving along the corridors of virtual museums and galleries. You could be travelling and wandering. You could be delivering your homely duties and yet wandering. You could be in one place and still enjoying the pleasure and pain of wandering. Pradeep enjoys wandering in his works. It is never ending, he believes. Even taking his white Swift car and driving with his wife Raji, around the city with a purpose and coming back without really carrying it out, is one of the forms of wanderings. Waiting at the coffee house where he meets his friends, while his younger daughter is at her class, for her to return is another kind of wandering. Shopping at Connemara Market in Palayam in the early mornings for fish and flowers could be another wandering. But Pradeep sees things differently and what he sees is what we see in his works.
(JohnyML is with Pradeep Puthoor in his Studio)
I close this essay with the song of Nat King Cole:
There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy sad of eye
But very wise was he
And then one day
A magic day he pass by me
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return