Friday, May 27, 2016

Born before Time ‘Raja’ Ravi Varma: Piramal Art’s Tribute to Raja Ravi Varma

(The new Ravi Varma book by the Piramal Art Foundation, Mumbai)

In Indian modern art history, Raja Ravi Varma stands more as a problem than a solution. Today his works command very high prices and even the most commercial of his artistic productions, the oleographs and the products that came out in the market several decades after his death too have become precious artifacts generating not only values for themselves but also new avenues of art historical interpretations, anthropological enquiries and aesthetic comparisons. Modern art history in India, often envisioned as a linear stream of events with individual and collective milestones coming up along the path, illuminated by erudition and darkened by deliberate obfuscation of truths regarding art production and consumption, still finds it difficult to accommodate Raja Ravi Varma as the pioneer of Indian modernism in art. In the art historical narratives produced even today play the dilemma safely by saying that Ravi Varma was a pioneer in employing western naturalism in Indian ethos but not really the father of Indian modernism. By pushing both Ravi Varma and his detractors of Bengal School in early 20th century into the common category of ‘pre-modernism’, some historians have conveniently put the cap (Mother of Indian Modern Art) on to Amrita Shergill without explaining clearly how she was not using early 20th century western modernism in Indian ethos. The only safe route for this people is that western naturalism unfortunately is not equated with western modernism. So by virtue of style and technique Ravi Varma remains technically pre-modern than theoretically and practically modern.

A condemned Ravi Varma is as problematic as a lauded Ravi Varma. Without dealing with a ‘mythical’ Ravi Varma, the real Ravi Varma cannot be logically located within the modern art history. There are several texts both in Malayalam and English that talk about Ravi Varma as a painter, a visionary and above all a human being. Interestingly, except for a few foreign researchers, most of the Indian chroniclers and historiographers, despite their depth of research and erudition, have sprinkled a fair amount of suppositions and attributions on to the biography of Ravi Varma so that today he stands like an enigma for a contemporary scholar. When a contemporary scholar tries to crack the Ravi Varma myth, he/she too, quite ironically tends to generate his/her ‘imaginaries’ about Ravi Varma. To see him and his works based on his own milieu of the second half of the 19th century and emerging nationalist ideas and ideals of that time, one has to have tremendous amount of detachment both from the critique of Ravi Varma by the Bengal School and also from the historians who have applauded him for being the first ‘popular’ painter in India. Ravi Varma was not only popular but also populist. He had all the intentions to make his works popular.

 (an oleograph portrait of Ravi Varma)

A new book about Raja Ravi Varma becomes all the more important and interesting because it is always curious to know what the contemporary scholars are thinking about the master artist. Piramal Art Foundation has brought out an interesting collection of essays and images in a book titled ‘Pages of a Mind- Raja Ravi Varma- Life and Expressions’. This books has come out as a catalogue (though it is more than a catalogue) during the exhibition early this year with the same name that has featured original paintings by Ravi Varma, his brother C.Raja Raja Varma, photographic prints based on Ravi Varma’s works, oleographs, embellished oleographs, advertising materials that used Ravi Varma imageries and the painted porcelains statuettes made out of the artist’s images. The temporality of the exhibition however is overcome by this book edited by Vaishnavi Ramanathan of the Piramal Foundation. The book has six interesting essays namely, Raja Ravi Varma: Life and Expressions by Farah Siddiqui, The Painters, The Printer and a Diary by Dr.Erwin Neumayer and Dr.Christine Schelberger, Ravi Varma and his Patrons by Vaishnavi Ramanathan, From Maharajas to the Masses: Ravi Varma, the Maker of Multiples by Lina Vincent Sunish, Idealizing the Real, Realizing the Ideal : Jewellery in the Paintings of Raja Ravi Varma by Dr.Usha R.Balakrishnan and Culturing Indian Cinema and Interdisciplinary Advents by H.A.Anil Kumar. The book also has an ‘image’ section where all the exhibits are presented with verifiable provenance.

Before I delve more into the nuances of the essays, I should say that many of the images presented in the book are not afore seen (at least I have not seen them before) and each time my eyes hovered over them, I start thinking about the kind of silent role reversal that Ravi Varma had brought into his profession of making royal and secular portraits, besides making large scale paintings based on mythological subjects, commissioned by the kings and rich patrons. Ravi Varma did not paint ordinary women; he painted the likeness of the women of the patron’s family. Otherwise Ravi Varma painted goddesses. (He also painted men and gods but that’s a different point). The role reversal happened in the case of portraying women as well as female characters. He made sacred into profane and profane into sacred without much public hue and cry. Royal women were ‘sacred’ members of the family and were not supposed to be seen outside. But their portraits, though made for familial registration only, would come out of the palace premises and would be subjected to the public gaze, exactly the way the profane women are looked at. Almost at the same time, Ravi Varma created goddesses out of the ‘profane’ women (professional models) who went into the palaces and drawing rooms, assuming the quality of sacred, respectable and adorable women (of the palaces). There are no conclusive evidences to substantiate my views and I am not sure whether Ravi Varma himself was aware of this role reversal done by him. Whether he knew it or not, it remains as a (art) historical irony.

 (a portrait by Raja Ravi Varma)

However, while reading an essay written by Vaishnavi Ramanathan, I came across her quoting G.Arunima from her text where she said, “G.Arunima writing on the portraiture in Ravi Varma’s works speaks of the erasure of the notion of portraiture as a form that confers a specific identity, since in Ravi Varma’s portraits there is minimal suggestion of personality.”  Ramanathan goes on to say the following: “However it can be argued that by erasing the specificity of the sitter, he opened up the image, offering a space for the viewer to locate himself/herself. (……) In other cases, it was the space of the sitter where the viewer could aspire towards the status and virtues that the sitter symbolized.” (I seriously doubt any sitter would aspire to be a part of the portrait or the portrait itself. This is a forced reading, I should say). Ramanathan’s whole point is to say this: “Ravi Varma painted for people.” What happens here is that Ramanathan repeats and unqualified statement of G.Arunima and goes by the thread of that argument. Anybody who likes to look at a portrait painting, he/she would definitely appreciate the ‘personality’ of the ‘sitter’ created by Ravi Varma. His portraits are not open ended as the writer says. They are definite and conclusive personality portraits that emphasis the ‘difference’ of the sitter from the viewer.

The distance created between the subjects that Ravi Varma chose to paint and the people who lapped it up including both the royal patrons and later the masses who bought his oleographs is one pivotal point that many historians have overlooked. This distance, gap, even we could say the rupture, is what makes Ravi Varma’s paintings more enigmatic and alluring. When he exhibited ten works commissioned by the Baroda King in Mumbai and Madras people queued up to see the works and those were the talk of the town. (Had it been the selfie days we would have had innumerable visual registrations for the events). In the west it is called block buster exhibitions. Such exhibitions are the dynamics of a particular historical time and developed out of personality cult. People queue up to see blockbuster exhibitions (or they make them blockbusters by queuing up patiently) because they are in awe of the artist and the works of art. It is not the inter-changeability that the viewers see with the works of art. I have never heard a visitor in the Louvre Museum telling that he wished to be the sitter for Mona Lisa! Ravi Varma maintained the mystique of being a painter that too a very popular one. The more popular you are, the more your personal details are in the public domain, your physical absence always makes you mystical and Ravi Varma knew how it should have been maintained.

 (an oleograph based on Ravi Varma's painting)

There are two things that demystify Ravi Varma; the photographic reference visuals that Ravi Varma used for creating his secular as well as divine paintings and the diary entries of his younger brother, manager, studio assistant and fellow painter, Raja Raja Varma. Though these evidences have been out there for public scrutiny for long thanks to our special interest in protecting the Ravi Varma myths, these are not often addressed. Thankfully, this book has an essay titled ‘The Printer and a Diary’ by Dr.Erwin Neumayer and Dr.Christine Schelberger, which has all the details to demystify Ravi Varma. The photographic evidences that they give from their book do not make us condescend Ravi Varma but to appreciate him as someone who knew the world had moved fast and decided to move along with it. He arranged models and photographers in his studio and took the desired pose of the model from all the angles so that he could make any alterations if needed. The advent of mirror and lens was the prime reason for the development of perspective and illusionism in western paintings. The arrival of camera and printable images changed the very way of making paintings. However, photography was not seen as a creative medium; it was treated as a mechanical mode of registration and taking a photographic reference for making a painting was looked down upon as the lack of skill or genius of the artist. This must be one reason why Ravi Varma kept his photographic references as a highly guarded secret. The dairy entries by his brother register the artist’s frustrations as well as calculations, bringing the artist from his ‘divine’ position to a clever creative person who knew the value of his ‘product’.

I have found a small discrepancy in the book as the contradictory historical information clashes with each other in two different essays. Vaishnavi Ramanathan says that we should see the ‘Raja’ in ‘Ravi Varma alongside his thematic preferences.’ According to the writer, “By reinterpreting divinity, imaging them as flesh and blood entities, doubly for his own artistic desire and on behalf of his patrons one may say that Ravi Varma was in a way reaffirming the divine status of himself and his royal patrons.” We all are trained to call Ravi Varma with a prefix Raja only because he too was born in a royal household. It has been taken for granted. However, in the first essay written by Farah Siddiqui titled ‘Raja Ravi Varma- Life and Expressions’, she digs out a different historical evidence. She writes: “In 1904, the Viceroy, on behalf of the King Emperor bestowed upon Raja Ravi Varma the Kaiser –I –Hind Gold Medal. At this time Varma’s name was mentioned as “Raja Ravi Varma” for the first time, raising objections from Maharajah Moolam Thirunal of Travancore. Thereafter, he was always referred to as ‘Raja Ravi Varma’. The artist passed away in 1906. He hardly lived for two years after getting the status ‘Raja’. If that is the truth how Ramanathan’s suggestion regarding the reiteration of the divinity of Ravi Varma by the prefix ‘Raja’ would become an acceptable fact, as the statement almost suggests that the prefix ‘Raja’ was always there?

 (a painted porcelain inspired by Damayanti by Ravi Varma)

The essay by Dr.Usha R Balakrishnan sheds a lot of light on Ravi Varma’s study on the ornaments that he discerningly painted on various subjects depending on their secular and mythical relevance. H.A.Anil Kumar’s article on Ravi Varma’s impact on Indian cinema is a densely packed essay of observations and suggestions. Lina Vincent Sunish, in her article ‘Maker of Multiples’ traces the history of Ravi Varma as an entrepreneur who produced millions of oleographs. Though a good amount of research has gone into it, her thorough adherence to a conventional research essay style repulses the reader a bit. The aspect that she could have developed the point, ‘the defining point of 19th century Indian renaissance is Hindu civilization’ as stated by Geeta Kapur further in order to take the stress from ‘Hindu Civilization’ to ‘Hindu Nationalism’. The attempts that Lina makes peters out as she takes the research line of Patricia Oberoi, Kajri Jain and Sucharita Sarkar. If it was an attempt to define the growing nationalistic tendencies in today’s socio-cultural and political scenario in India and its comparison with the then emergent (Hindu) nationalistic milieu and Ravi Varma’s non-commitment to both, the essay would have been much more interesting.

 (an advertisement inspired by Ravi Varma- All images are from the book. Poor image quality regretted)

I grew up in a village where most of the Hindu houses had the Ravi Varma oleographs. In my grandmother’s home there was a big oleograph that showed the image of a baby Krishna stealing butter from a pot. I used to get into this small household temple that smelled camphor, incense sticks, flowers, sacred ash and sandal paste whenever I could escape the watchful eyes of the elders and used to keep on looking at this bubbly baby boy with shiny large eyes, curly hairs and a peacock feather fitted above the forehead. That baby boy looked more like a cherub than a boy like me. I used to wonder why the gods were not looking like the people around me. As I grew up, I understood that Ravi Varma also had a colonial view on nobility and sophistication. It was his birth, upbringing and training. He subverted this colonial view indirectly by transforming ‘public’ women into private goddesses. However, in his pan Indian imagination as we see in the galaxy of women, he did not paint a woman who looked like a typical woman who worked in his home or in the fields. Ravi Varma had made exclusions; histories written about him also have made exclusions. We do come across court painters like Alagiri Naidu and Ramaswamy Naickar as Ravi Varma’s contemporaries. They were court painters. But we do not see any other individual painters from outside the court. Blame it on patronage. But immediately after Ravi Varma’s death, we see in Travancore, so many individual artists painting in Ravi Varma style, most of them trained by Ravi Varma’s son and his disciples. Till a couple of decades back we could come across Ravi Varma school painters in Trivandrum. However, most of them are excluded from art history. I strongly believe that Ravi Varma’s history will become scientific history only when the histories of his contemporaries and successors are also included in the narratives. Otherwise we will have to depend on a lot of legends and myths, just to satisfy our own lack of interest. This book is a worth reading one and definitely a collectible.   

Friday, May 20, 2016

‘Do Your Art in Hindi not in Urdu’- Cultural Censors Tell Artists in Delhi

(The Tweet in Urdu, as a part of the Thomas Ellis' 'Dilli I love you' Project)

Yesterday Prime Minister Modi was thankful to the people of India for choosing the BJP in Assam and helping to make a ‘Congress Free’ India. Amit Shah, the President of the BJP exuded confidence that the Hindu consolidation was already happening for the general elections slated to take place in 2019. Prime Minister reiterated that the ‘ideology’ of the present government has gone down well with the people of this country. Definitely, the mandate of yesterday was not for the BJP though the vote share has increased and there are reasons for both Mr.Modi and Mr.Shah to imagine this increase in vote share is for their developmental agenda. Despite this optimism and public posture of goodness of the top leaders, the fringe elements of the Hindutva party seem to have not got the ‘right’ message. They are still on a rampage to iron out cultural and aesthetical differences by intimidating and threatening artists. The latest incident has just taken place a few hours back in East Delhi’s Shahdra area.

 (The vandalized street art in Shahdra)

Two Spanish artists and an Indian artist were painting a wall that belonged to the Delhi Jal Board (Delhi Water Authority) in Shahdra as a part of the much talked about ‘Dilli I love You’ project by the French Television journalist and film maker, Thomas Ellis. While at it, they were stopped and abused by a mob of around hundred people who claimed themselves as the protectors of Hindu religion. The artists were taken to the police station and were released once the Aam Aadmi Party leader and Law Minister in the Delhi Cabinet, Kapil Misra intervened on their behalf. According to one of the artists, Akhlaq Ahmed, the ‘incident was shocking’ because the intention of the artists was to spread the message of love. What provoked the crowd, which was deliberately gathered through phone calls and whatsapp messages, was the language in which the artists were trying to put the message across. The language that they chose to write was ‘Urdu’.

 (One could see the Urdu line over painted)

‘Delhi had fallen down once but it got up and regained its dignity. This city is unparalleled’ is the rough translation of the Urdu ‘tweet’ that the artists painted against the backdrop of Delhi’s Lotus Temple. “What provoked them was the language,” says Akhlaq. They were demanding to change it into Hindi. “They were just abusing the foreign artists and I requested them to abuse me and spare them as they don’t understand Hindi expletives,” says a soft spoken Akhlaq. “They turned to me and started patronizing me. They said that I was an Indian and I should have stopped them from using Urdu,” Akhlaq says. The crowd grew within minutes and they forcefully over painted the Urdu writing and literally white washed the tweet. “They were liberally throwing colors on the wall and spoiling what we had done.” In the meanwhile someone dialed 100 and Police came and took the artists to the station.

 (permission granted certificate by the Delhi Jal Board for the street art project)

A lover of Delhi, Ellis initiated this project earlier this year and his idea is to capture the lives and times of Delhi, its people’s narratives, faces, life styles through various mediums including street art. Forty walls were chosen and Akhlaq Ahmed, celebrated young street artist was selected to lead the team of artists including the visiting foreign artists. Their idea is to paint forty ‘tweet messages’ on Delhi’s prominent walls. “The permission was already given in official writing. We showed it to the mob. But they were determined to spoil our work,” says Akhlaq. The police were however polite to the artists, perhaps because of the political intervention by the Minister himself. “The policemen offered us cold drinks and insisted that we should lunch with them, which we refused,” Akhlaq smiles. May be in the larger scheme of things, this incident is a passable one, but the implications are too strong to neglect. Monopolizing and steamrolling of culture starts with censorship by the violent mobs unchecked by the law and order systems. Systemic ruining of culture takes place first in streets and it may not take much time to reach the gates of our Museums and other cultural establishments. We need to be aware and alert on this. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Silent Documenting Revolution in Thiruvannamalai: Abul Azad, the Photographer

(Abul Azad, photographer. Picture courtesy TSL Nadar)

Summer winds get caught by the crowns of tall palm trees that line the flat landscape of Palakkadu (Palghat), one of the northern districts of Kerala. On the north eastern edge of this place Malayalam mixes with Tamil, the ancient language of philosophy, literature and music. These palm trees run backwards during the day turn into illusionary palaces at night where beautiful vampires allure men, take them on the top of these trees, enjoy their virility, then like spiders eat them up leaving only nails and hairs for the kith and kin to collect. The land is as real as a myth or vice versa. Sultans had come here looking for establishing kingdoms and leaving Muslim barons behind who started living amicably, intermingling with the local populace. Vedic and musical Brahmin streets never despised the Ravutars (Muslim Barons) who came by Arabian horses, like northern winds. Like the Brahmins, they too spoke in a Tamil mixed with Malayalam or vice versa. In Palakkad, everyone was a magical being. Some created music, some created literature, some others made wonderful cartoons and yet another lot created images.

(from War Widows series by Abul Azad)

Abul Azad, one of the most important photography artists in our times thought that he was one of the descendants of the Ravutars who came on horseback to Kerala via Palakkadu, in those good old days. He still believes so. Moving from Mattanchery, Kochi to Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu in 2010 was a sort of going back to the roots. Azad speaks Tamil fluently and even many years before he started living in Thiruvannamalai, especially while living in Delhi as a PTI photographer, Azad still spoke Tamil, as if he was trying to remember the language of his ancestors. In fact, as a photography artist, then, Azad was a man of no languages. As he did not have any language of his own, he could speak the language that was presently given to him or rather in a language he found himself to be in. Hence, he spoke in Hindi when he was among the local populace in the northern parts of India. He spoke in English and laughed in Malayalam and mocked in Tamil when he was among his peer group. When he went to Paris to do a residency program in 1996-97 period he was rumored to have spoken in French. I still wonder in which language had he spoken to the djinns and malaks when he was caught within the Hazrat Bal shrine in Srinagar in 1993, photographing the actions of Indian army and the resistance of the Kashmir rebels.

 (from War Widow series by Abul Azad)

Two decades back when Abul Azad showed his independent works to many including me, they all thought that his works were a bit ambitious therefore unconvincing. He was not showing the ‘Raghu Rai School’ of photography. Nor was he making his images in the mode of Kishore Parikh. His photographs were different and disturbing at once. Ram Rahman, in his typical style of black humor and understatement was documenting the underbelly of the North Indian politics and also he was keen on capturing the chance homo-erotic manifestations in the conservative North India’s public domain. With some kind of passion (unlike that of Pablo Bartholomew), both Ram Rahman and Abul Azad were documenting the last patches of an elegant secularism that stemmed from the heartlands of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Abul Azad was doing something more; he was making a private body of images that defied the image quality as well as surface quality of the generic documentary photographs. There were too many deliberate interpolations and deliberate erasures. The image was almost non-existent in his works; in its place there appeared graffiti like scratches and scars, consciously inflicted on them as if the artist was doing some sort of self flagellation.

 (Photo by Abul Azad)

The starkness of the underlying images was either provoking questions or utter disappointment among the viewers and friends. Azad was nonchalant and was not explaining them away. He was just showing the images those were scarred and scratched. One day he showed a series of post card size prints and photographic prints of Indian gods and goddesses, pasted upside down on the walls of his two room set flat in Mayur Vihar Phase III. A shudder passed through the spines of all those who saw them. The reason was simple; our political climate had already changed. The socio-political discourse had already been in a new path after the Post-Mandal years of late 1980s and the historical and unfortunate year 1992, when the Babri Masjid was demolished on the 6th December. Azad was still trying to be a normal press photographer. But something had changed in him. A staunch secularist, he faced the double bind of his name; Azad was at once a Hindu name that connoted revolutionaries like Chandrasekhar Azad and a Muslim name in the southern part of India. His friend Ram Rahman, by virtue of his birth had problematized his religious existence via his parents’ deliberate choice of his name. Here was Abul Kalam Azad, definitely the name coming from the famous Muslim leader of Indian Independence, carrying a name, which is obviously Islamic yet ringing a bit of Hindu in it. Azad was a secularist; neither a Muslim nor a Hindu. If Din Ilahi was there, Azad would have been one in the pack. Otherwise, he remains more like a Sufi, who leans more towards the asceticism and liberalism of Hindu religion than being a Muslim.

(photo by Abul Azad)

Azad’s works of 1990s, however were disturbing for he was documenting the ugly side of Indian politics and religions though an unprecedented image repertoire. None would have exhibited those works in the controversial decade of 1990s. There were incidents in Delhi in which works were brought down from shows and at times even the show itself was pulled down. M.F.Husain was being haunted and hunted down. Galleries and curators were playing it safe. The only organization that stood the pressure was SAHMAT in Delhi and they were making periodical efforts to showcase counter images and counter voices. Yet, Azad’s works were not shown in Delhi even in these venues. It was a time to say good bye to a safe job and a safe life. Azad left Delhi towards the new millennium and settled down in Mattanchery, Kochi, where he was instrumental in developing a style of photography, which I once called the ‘Mattanchery School of Photography’. The years went on and Azad was photographing the locale, the immediate and the self in different image complexes. He photographed the political graffiti of Kerala, without any pretensions of being theoretical or political. He captured the images of local tea shops and toddy shops and much before the new gen films in Kerala started narrating stories from the point of view of ‘insignificant people’, Azad was already narrating the life of Kerala through the perception of the ‘insignificant people’. Poignantly and pointedly, Azad was documenting himself by creating visual diaries. Even a toy or a pebble became a narrative point of Azad.

 (Photo by Abul Azad)

In ‘Ishka’ Gallery, Kochi, Azad exhibited a series of large scale photographs sometime in 2007. Joseph Chakola, a photographer, print maker, musician and artist based in Kochi was behind the initiative and Chakola was ready to take the risk of exhibiting Azad’s works. Those works showed a series of images of cows and their locations, as if they were direct print of tinted negatives. Azad was very perceptive though many did not know the implications of those images then. Years later we saw how cow became a defining factor in the development of new nationalism in the changed political discourse of our country. Azad could see it coming and portrayal of cows in their various manifestations was a silent cry and a strong critique about the emerging political scenario. Even if these works were shown in Delhi or any other part of the cow belt of that time, none would have taken objection because these images were not really showing any agitated state of mind of the artist. The iconizing of the cows was subtle and infused with irony and black humor.

 (Photo by Abul Azad)

Turning his attention to the mother goddess worship in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Azad started taking ‘feminist rituals’ within the subaltern Hindu contexts as his point of departure. A series titled ‘Black Mothers’ came out of this engagement. Interestingly, as Azad does not make any claim about his theoretical or political leaning based on his images or interests, these works are not taken by the literary inclined feminist theoreticians for further studies but I am sure that is going to happen in the coming years. At the same time, Azad also started doing chromo-lomography, an old low end technique of photography which produced something similar to the instagram photograph. In fact Azad started posting lomographic images much before instagram came as a photographic app in the social media. Subverting the idea of making images using high end technology, Azad uses basic photographic equipments to make his stunning images.

 (Photo by Abul Azad)

Koovagam is a place of worship in Tamil Nadu where in the month of April every year, transgenders from all over India (especially from South India) gather and become the brides of their God, Iravan. In this fifteen to twenty day ritual, these transgenders become brides of God and then become the widows of the same god. Then they are free to choose their partners and within a religious context they hold the pride parade without attracting much of the urban middle class theoretical paraphernalia. Azad who is interested in the lives of the subaltern people as well as those of the people with different sexual orientations, has been documenting the lives of the transgenders in Koovagam for the last few years. The images that we see in this series ‘War Wedding Widows, Sex, Desire, Love and Erotica’ (2016), these transgenders are captured with a lot of sensitivity without compromising their identity for male or female chauvinistic gaze. Azad uses two methods to click their images. He uses a traditional box camera and a white backdrop so that he could get these people to pose for him, which they happily oblige. In the second method, he clicks their pictures in their natural locales; including their public bath. As Azad has been a regular visitor to the festival, most of the transgenders are not offended by his presence. Without much praises to accompany, Azad does this ‘making of image’ as a very devoted ritual every year.

 (Photo by Abul Azad)

A silent revolution has been going on for the last two years in Thiruvannamalai. Azad, supported by his daughter Dr.Mahima Azad and his partner Tulsi Suvarna Laxmi, has been documenting the day to day history of Thiruvannamalai in an ambitious photographic project that runs for 365 days in a year. With no funding agencies to support, Azad has been taking the help of the friends and local people, and a lot of enthusiastic young photography artists and doing this for the last two years. He set up an organization named ‘Ekaloka Trust for Photography’ (ETP) and the documenting of Thiruvannamalai and its fourteen kilometer Girivalam has already been done by different set of artists, in residency programs. In 2015, Azad initiated a project called ‘Mathilakam Rekhakal’ in order to document the ancient port cities in Tindys, Calicut and Muziris. He periodically posts the progress of ETP works in the social media and Tulsi does all the administrative works including the co-ordination of international photography projects. ETP has already done a Indo-Polish collaborative work as well as a Photography junket with a visiting Russian photographer.

 (Photo by Abul Azad)

Azad rides around Thiruvannamalai on his TVS 50 motor cycle. The whole town of Thiruvannamalai knows him and for many he is ‘anna’ and for many others he is ‘photo swamy’. Azad gives free photography lessons for all who are interested. His students include high profile city people to street urchins. What ETP needs today is support; financial and material support. The huge archive that has been growing in the small premises of ETP should be supported by both the national and international funding agencies. Azad does not belong to any group or faction. As a photography artist, what he makes is not an image worth looking at, but the possible positioning of the subject forcefully in the given context. His trained eyes and hands do not need deliberations to see what is relevant and what is irrelevant. The huge archive of his own works also needs support.  Abul Azad is a Ravutar turned Sufi Swamy with a camera around his neck. He speaks in Tamil exactly the way his ancestors used to speak to people. But I believe, Azad does not speak in any language. He speaks the language of images. He is a laughing photographer who could perhaps speak all the known and unknown languages in the world. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Dream Collector: Gopikrishna, the Artist of Travancore

(Gopikrishna in his studio)

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. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Enchanted Boy of Art: Pradeep Puthoor

(Pradeep Puthoor in his studio)

‘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