“Don’t read anything in my art”: A. Ramachandran

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His work evolved from politically explicit sculptures and paintings to colossal canvases.

“How can I prevent you from making me famous”, remarks the artist A. Ramachandran wryly when I ask him for an interview. A legend in his field, Ramachandran is probably one of the best-known living authorities of Indian art. This painter, musician, writer, teacher and sculptor has been awarded several honors over the years, including the Padma Bhushan, Emeritus Professor at Jamia Millia Islamia University and Honorary President of Kerala Lalithakala Akademi. But he wears these honors lightly: always ready for an adda, he tackles with animation all the subjects related to the world of art, from the theft of Indian sculptures to the history of Indian art.

A. Ramachandran was born Achutan Ramachandran Nair in 1935 in Attingal, Kerala. After earning a master’s degree in Malayalam literature, he did his doctorate. in 1964 into the art at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, under legends Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij. His research on the temple murals of Kerala is an important work, not only describing them in detail, but also identifying the periods of their creation.

Yayati—Sandhya Series

yayati Series- Sandhya

Ramachandran’s early art was clearly political – his original sculpture of King Asoka installed at ITC Maurya, Delhi in the 1980s sparked protests as it referenced the Vietnam War. He must have created a more benign version later – a haunting sculpture of Asoka with his body covered in anti-war markings, crippled hands, and a look of utter despondency on his face. These days, Ramachandran art has evolved into peaceful images of brightly colored lotus ponds and traditionally dressed beautiful women that adorn the homes of celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan.

In 1984, personal tragedies such as near vision loss in one eye and the traumatic sighting of a Sikh man being chased by about 20 people during the anti-Sikh riots led him to rethink his art. He decided his goal was not to make people more aware of sadness but to celebrate beauty. For inspiration, Ramachandran turned to the lotus ponds at Ubeshwar, Nagda, Jogi Talab and Ekalinji near Udaipur, Rajasthan, which are protected by the Bhil tribe, and to the resilient women of the Lohar community, who lived near his home in Delhi.

Among the most remarkable works of this period is a colossal fresco composed of 12 paintings, based on the story of Yayati from the mahabharata, which he made for theater personality and collector Ebrahim Alkazi. The work depicts sensual women and fantastic animals, worthy of the story of a man who stole his son’s youth so he could enjoy life forever. However, Alkazi disliked it because he felt it did not resemble Ramachandran’s politically explicit works.

Subordinate Nayika under the pink tree Shimbul

Subordinate Nayika under the pink tree Shimbul

yayati was shown for the second time in 2002, 16 years after its creation. At this time, Ramachandran’s signature nayikas and raginis, used in a nod to Indian miniature art, which dramatizes the story of Radha-Krishna and personifies musical ragas as humans and gods, were more familiar. to his audience.

The scale of his art is breathtaking: the images from his 2021 exhibition, Subordinate Nayika and Lotus Pond, were so colossal that they were to be exhibited in two separate venues, Triveni Kala Sangam and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi. His studio in Noida is also colossal, with walls that go up at least two stories and rollers placed at the top to hold the huge canvases. I met him there for a coasting adda, which dabbled in everything from paintings to nukes. Edited excerpts:

I am fascinated by your nayikas. Where do they come from? Did they start with yayati or with Nuclear Ragini?

They started with Nuclear Raginiwho is before yayati. The painting was a political commentary on the explosion of India’s first nuclear bomb in 1974. I knew two artists famous for their Hiroshima paintings: Iri and Toshi Maruki. When I was 35-36, I went to Japan with my illustrated children’s book. The editors introduced me to the Marukis, who were anti-nuclear activists. They had a museum showing the fallout from the Hiroshima explosion. I had this in mind when India detonated its nuclear bomb. I tried to fashion my paintings after the ragini miniatures and called them Raginis.

Untitled

Untitled

But ragini miniatures are based on ragas.

Yes. That’s why I called them Nuclear Ragini. It is a series of paintings that show how a nuclear explosion can change all those beautiful men and women found in ragini paintings, which usually feature a couple, like Krishna and Radha, against a beautiful background of flowers and daisies. trees, birds and animals. They evoke an atmosphere of music and love. Those little things will go away when a nuclear explosion happens, that’s what I try to say on the show.

Strong points

  • A. Ramachandran is probably one of the best known living authorities on Indian art

  • Did his doctorate in 1964 in art at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, under legends Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij

  • Ramachandran’s early arts were distinctly political

  • Ramachandran art has evolved into peaceful images of brightly colored lotus ponds and beautiful, traditionally dressed women that adorn the homes of celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan.

  • Nuclear Ragini. is one of his recent series, showing how a nuclear explosion can change all beautiful things

Are the women represented in your recent series raginis too?

They are not ragini. These are nayikas, which are based on the Natyashastra. They depict the love story of Krishna and Radha, as they fight and reconcile again. Radha’s mood swing has been defined as the different moods of a lover by the Natyashastra. When I use these references, my intention is to make Indians look back and connect.

I’m actually making a pun on the idea of ​​the nayika. Most of the women in my paintings do ordinary things: one waits for a bus, another herds goats.

I suggest that these working-class women are as beautiful and sensual as the heroines of a ragamala painting. These are my subordinate nayikas.

Lotus pond in the starry night

Lotus pond in the starry night

You are the only man in these paintings.

I am only part of it. I am the narrator, like a sutradhar in a play. My function is to open stories from Yayati. I represented myself as a bird, a bat, a human being, a Gandharva: it’s like adding a signature. But the idea is also to suggest that I direct what happens there. As a creator, I have a role to play in this web.

I developed a sort of personal iconography drawn from Tibetan thangkas.

Yayati-Ushas series

yayati Series- Ushas

What was the Indian conception of art before the British came along with their idea of ​​individual artists?

We had art. We had miniatures, we had murals, fabric paintings, many of which had religious themes. There were great painters in the Mughal courts; Nathdwara art flourished until the end of the 19th century. There was art, but it was frequented by the wealthy while popular art remained in the domain of the common people. It was the only difference.

What is the ordinary man’s relationship to art?

You go to Udaipur and find ordinary houses painted in beautiful colors. The problem with art classes is that they ignore Indian art history and teach what happens in New York or Paris. For whom is it intended?

Madhubani painting in the Tribal Museum, New Delhi

Madhubani painting in the Tribal Museum, New Delhi

Folk styles like Gond, Warli are still there but they have never been mainstream…

Today everyone talks about popular art but we don’t remember those who put it forward. Bhaskar Kulkarni had done fundamental research, traveling by bicycle, discovering Madhubani art; Jivya Soma Mashe (1934-2018) popularized Warli tribal art. Only people who write books are remembered while those who do fieldwork are forgotten.

People in power eliminate factions they don’t like. Like the school of Bengal. It took us a long time to write about Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij, organize exhibitions and present their work… You can block the story but you can’t hide the facts. I believe the Bengal school is a very important development in Indian art. The ‘progressives’ bypassed it and brought in the so-called modernists – this destroyed any possibility of having a modern Indian language in art.

Sculpture by Ramkinkar Baij (1906-1980) at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan.

Sculpture by Ramkinkar Baij (1906-1980) at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan.

What are your inspirations?

I developed as an artist by studying many levels of life. First, I learned from Santiniketan how to look at life. Another is art history, the study of how other artists used their special abilities in their works of art. Third, the kind of statements you want to make. You incorporate all of this into your practice.

What are your biggest influences?

Ramkinkar Baij was my first. Nandalal Bose came later: because he was more intellectual and a bit detached, it took me a while to understand him. Benode Behari Mukherjee too, but he was easier than Nandalal. Nandalal never worked aimlessly, making studies and sketches for everything from a toy or drawing of an alpana to a mural.

At the same time, geography inevitably determines a style of art. Kerala murals are stylistically different as they have absorbed local images, colors and even food habits. I believe that an individual artist should have the cultivation of their roots in their work. Only then is it authentic.

Ritika Kochhar is the author of the fantasy series Weapons of Kalki and specialist in South Asian art and culture.

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