A work of art transforms the immediate world into a suspended world. It is at once an erasure and displacement, often imparting the possibility of renewal and retrieving. An artist achieves this rare alchemy through making the familiar unfamiliar, nudging the apparent into a perception, which is unique in framing and rendering. There the light emanating from a forty watt bulb could turn into the golden sheen that engulfs the works of Bernini. Any creative expression that could transport the viewer into a realm of future is hailed for its ability to help conceive the inconceivable while a work of art that takes the spectator to back to the delicate annals of history is often held in awe and reverence for its sheer capacity to evoke the aggregate of creativity in its perfection. In Tom Vattakkuzhy’s paintings one sees the latter and experiences a sense of suspension (of belief) which need not necessarily be done willingly. Yet, the experience is poetic and if I may use the word spiritual then it is spiritual too.
(Work by Tom Vattakkuzhy)
Tom Vattakkuzhy posts his paintings regularly in the social media and there he reaps hundreds of likes, mostly from the peer group that knows what all are involved in the making of a work of art even if many of the ‘likers’ are not excellent in practicing what they understand, believe or preach. As I said before, what makes Tom’s paintings attractive and often intriguing is their ability to suspend the immediate world that is represented within the painting as well as the one in which the paintings find themselves. The latter world could be the studio of the artist or the social media/gallery where these works are exhibited. Till recently Tom’s works used to get published in some mainstream literary magazines as the illustrations of the printed literature. In this sense, we could see Tom’s experience as an artist is doubly honed, one by conjuring up painterly events for himself and two, by making painterly responses to supplement and complement the given literature. Such honing of skills has all the chances of making an artist slightly confused when he/she changes the ‘location’ of their creativity. Some gifted artists, of late in Kerala have become successful in virtually transporting their exhibition spaces into the magazines by creating illustrations like the way they create their paintings, without external/editorial interventions. The credit also goes to the editors of those magazines who let the artists be what they are.
(work by Tom Vattakkuzhy)
In West Bengal, it has been still a living tradition of inviting the artists to make special cover pages for the Diwali issues of major literary magazines like ‘Desh’. Though, in Kerala, the magazines have not established such traditions (even today no Onam special feature artists’ works as cover page), magazine illustrations have had changed the general perspective about art. There had been a huge lull in this practice since the advent of new millennium (exactly with the closure of the Malayalam India Today) and the tendency of the magazines was to assign certain artists to illustrate the literature and it seemed that all of those artists had the brief to ‘re-create’ a certain feel of lines, forms and expressions which the editors considered as successful examples in a few mainstream magazines. On the other extreme, the magazines went for highly sentimental naturalistic illustrations that satisfied the expected and commonplace demand for aesthetical visual pleasure. Tom Vattakkuzhy and C.Bhagyanathan came to magazine illustrations in late 2000s which after almost one and half decade changed the illustration scene of Kerala for good. In fact today once again many artists work freely as illustrators though the compensation packages are minimal and sparse.
(work by Tom Vattakkuzhy)
Magazine illustrations, when it comes into the hands of a gifted artist, operate quietly independently of the literature once freed from the context. It creates another interesting scenario; once the illustrations declare their independence outside context of literature, it becomes imperative for the literature to make efforts to belong to those pictures. While the illustrations of the stalwarts like M.V.Devan, Namboothiri and so on showed their indebtedness to the literature those were based on, the illustrations of Tom and the artists of his ilk stand independently, creating a new world for themselves. This does not mean that these artists challenge the autonomy of literature or supersede the demands of it. On the contrary an artist like Tom has generated a creative mechanism and style that is autonomous even when it is done for a piece of literature. Hence we get a scenario where two autonomous entities are brought together and in the conjoining a strange familiarity is created. I would call it an event of mutual catalysing where the components remain unaltered while together they undergo a process of change. Tom, of late has become a master of this process, by deliberations of his artistic imaginations and executing skills.
(work by Tom Vattakkuzhy)
Tom is a bit like J.K.Rowling, the author of Harry Potter series of magical novels. Rowling turns the familiar London into a magical world; there are trains, stations, schools, colleges, students, hostels, vaults and so on as in the contemporary world. But the moment they enter into the narrative mode of Rowling, they transform into magical entities. There is nothing in Tom’s painterly world that is strange and unfamiliar. But when we see them within the emblematic narratives that Tom chooses to paint they look ethereal, distanced and divined. Clad in a Renaissance hue, each mundane act of life turns into Eucharistic. They look like the moments culled out from the Bible or Tohra or any divine book of order, morality and punishment. Each person and object in Tom’s paintings assumes Biblical connotations; perhaps that is the only device that both the artist and the viewers have to see and interpret. A sense of guilt and confession looms large in the paintings of Tom and he finds almost impossible to dispel that pall of gloom by adding some cheerful element in it. Each character, even in the intimate relationship with the other, cannot escape the Biblical connotations. For example, his series ‘Lessons of Life’, the mother and child never look like an ordinary mother and child; they are painted with mythological and epic strokes.
(The controversial illustration by Tom Vatttakkuzhy)
My observations gather momentum and weight when we recall the incident where Tom’s illustration on a piece of literature was withdrawn from the public after some church authorities registered their protest against the said illustration. The story of Mata Hari was the theme of the play which was published in Bhashaposhini, a major literary magazine with a considerable history behind to back it. Tom’s illustration, which was published as a cover page also, showed a nude Matahari sitting amongst group of nuns in a Eucharistic moment. The illustration was an independent painting (in the sense I explained earlier) and the artistic intervention was only in the ‘denuding’ of Mata Hari. When the protest against the painting gained momentum, the magazine apologized to the church and the believers (that’s how a magazine with a lot of history does these days) and withdrew the magazine from the stands and re-issued with a new cover page by another artist (which also met with protest from another caste community on the same case of hurt sentiments). During all these commotions, Tom maintained a stoic silence and he never explained his views on the controversy. In hindsight, perhaps that was a good strategy that he adopted which would make his and his family’s life smooth. Tom is no confrontationist though a good conversationalist and a declared sceptic in approach.
(an illustration by Tom Vattakkuzhy)
I believe, Tom’s grounding is in religion; not in its ritualistic and dogmatic side but in its aesthetic side. He more or less lives in a time where Da Vinci and Michael Angelo could have easily lived. I am talking about the period of Renaissance. Tom’s aesthetical approach is that of a Renaissance artist and also that of the Dutch artists during the same period. Apart from the said Renaissance masters, Tom adopts his thematic schemes from the masters like Vermeer, Jan Van Eyk, Rembrandt and so on. Also in some of his recent works like ‘Song of Dusk’, he relocates the American painter Edward Hopper in his works as very subtle visual reference. Tom almost Malayalisises Edward Hopper in the case of lights that he uses to illuminate his painterly images. What we see in this painting is an eerie moment, which perhaps for a rural Malayali is a normal daily moment. A group of boys (four of them) go for an evening dip in a pond near their ‘home’. The steps leading to the pond show that the home is a raised ground and it gives an indication that it is a hilly region. The liminal light of the dusk almost gives an eerie feel to the painting and we understand that the foreground of the painting and the boys there are almost rendered in near darkness.
(Song of the Dusk by Tom Vattakkuzhy)
The more I look at it the more I see a moment of Baptism. The boy in the water is like John the Baptist. The one who gets into the water could be Peter. There is someone who has already done his ablutions and is drying himself. He wears a red loin cloth. Another one who stands with his back to the viewer is a witness. I am interpreting this taking Tom as the unalterable author of this painting while assuming that he turns the mundane into divine; the quotidian into painterly or literal. Seen in this context, the ‘home’ above is no longer is a home but a church built on the rock of faith. One could clearly make a comparison between the yellow light outside and the sanctum/altar space drenched in a red; the sacrifice of Jesus Christ? Or is it a nativity scene? The yellow sheen could evoke the light of the pen in Bethlehem. The sanctum must be the delivery room in red. The sky is lit up. The three kings are taking bath with one witness/angel to lead them to the place. They are cleaning themselves up to receive the Son of God. Or am I just imagining things. But that is where Tom wins as an artist. He could create a series of ambiguities within the textual traditions available. At the same time he could remain free of the clutches that would otherwise hold a religious artist within the fold.
(an illustration by Tom Vattakkuzhy)
Finally, I would like to give a very different and normal interpretation of this work, ‘Song of Dusk’. I would strip all the religious connotations and the possible biblical hue away from the painting. It is just an evening scene. In the rural belts in Kerlala these days one could see labourers from other states (Anya samsthaana thozhilaalikal) who are called with a generic name ‘Bengalis’. They do any kind of work starting from washing cars, working as home helps, masons, carpenters, plywood factory works, restaurant workers, security guards and you name it they are there to work. They call Kerala as Indian Gulf. You wouldn’t believe that for their financial remittance there are evening branches of banks and some banks even work on Sundays. The book stores and music and film stores stock Bengali, Hindi, Assamese and Odiya books, films and music. There are schools for the children of the migrant labourers. Some have even passed the school final in Malayalam medium. And as icing to the cake, some act in mainstream Malayalam movies!
(Song of the Dusk by Tom Vattakkuzhy)
Many of these ‘Bengali’ labourers who live and work in the hilly regions (as farm and plantation workers) often rent out an old style house that is lying abandoned for long, for dirt cheap rents and live together, saving money on the rent front. This house in the painting seems to be one such house where these labourers and farm hands live. Despite the lights you don’t feel the ‘homeliness’ of a home in its depiction. It looks like an abandoned house which has been occupied recently and is not fully functional. The absence of a woman or women is palpable in its bareness and lost nature. The four men who are bathing at the pond must be four labourers cleaning themselves up in the cool water after a long and hard day’s work. The silence that is felt embracing the painting shows the silence of these young men lost in thoughts about their hearths back home in that killing twilight moment. The time looks so pivotal at this moment; the twilight. They are neither here nor there. They are in transit. The Malayali migrants have experienced it once in the Gulf countries. All the migrants have felt the twilight moments as incisions done by surgical blades in the soul. Tom too has gone through it and experienced it. This painting perhaps is an autobiography of an ordinary Malayali camouflaged in the stories of the Bengali labourers. Who knows for sure? That ambiguity is the charm of a good work of art.