Art: Inside the Studio

A Ramachandran: ‘I am an artist who paints by the acre’

Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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A Ramachandran traces the inner rhythms of nature

LUMINOUS SHADES of tangerine, mossy green and sunlight yellow seem to leap out at me from a large canvas that occupies centrestage in A Ramachandran’s studio in Bharti Artists’ Colony, Delhi. It is the start of winter. The octogenarian is not taking any chances, given the light chill and the polluted air. Stray wisps of silver hair peep out from the back of his white silk cap, which pairs elegantly with the handloom white scarf wrapped functionally around his neck. His white moustache contrasts sharply against his dark skin. “We both have the same complexion,” he would tell me later that evening. It isn’t surprising, given his Kerala roots and my Goan ancestry. He beckons me to take a seat at a wooden table poised directly in front of his five-panelled painting. When he finds me immersed in its landscape of lotuses with a swarm of orange swallow-like birds taking flight, he tells me with an air of cool accomplishment, “I just finished this yesterday!”

It isn’t often that one gets to bear witness to a complete work as the paint is left to dry. “How do you decide when it is done?” I ask him. “It’s very difficult to say. Painting is complete only when everything you had inside you have poured out onto that canvas. That is the end. After that, you know you have nothing left. I don’t look at the canvas, but I look at the inside and the inside says yes. That is all we have now.” It seems that a sense of resolution is not key to this decision about the readiness of a work. “No painting is resolved,” he reiterates. “Because you see, you start with some notions about what you want to do. This is not like an architect’s plan for a building. You know what happened was that I was sitting at a lotus pond and I threw a small stone. To my great surprise, under the leaves, I didn’t know there were so many birds. They just flew off. It struck me that there is another world, which is hidden under the lotus leaves. So that was the impression that I carried. But then, this is a reworking of the experience I had. Even though this happened a few years ago, this comes back into your mind and you are ready to paint. You know what the painting should be. Then you have to think of a pictorial structure. So you know the flight of the birds against the lotus leaves, and then the sky… you have to structure it in such a way that everything should fall in the correct order.”

What did that constitute? Intriguingly, Ramachandran began by first drawing in the birds. “Because you cannot start doing the lotus leaves first, you will not know what exactly is going to be arranged,” he says. “As usual, the lotus pond emerged.”

What about the sky, I ask. Ramachandran tells me he thinks of it as a breathing space. “Without the sky the birds would not have flown out. There is something beyond.”

This new work, which was slated to be framed two days later then kept in storage so Ramachandran could bring in another blank canvas, is in keeping with the tenor of his solo show, The Changing Mood of the Lotus Pond and Insignificant Incarnations at Triveni Kala Sangam, Delhi, curated by his student, the artist Manisha Gera Baswani, presented by Vadehra Art Gallery, that was on display from November 14th to December 2nd. The seven large paintings of lotus ponds that constituted the crux of the show were, according to Baswani, a distillation of Ramachandran’s aquatic locations scattered around the Udaipur countryside exploring their sensuous beauty and complex forms. Alongside was shown a suite of ten humorous drawings, Insignificant Incarnations, in which the artist appears in his signature caricature form amid vegetal landscapes. Unbeknown to most is that each large painting is the consequence of hours of observation-based study that manifests in the form of thousands of drawings and sketches. “You see, just by sitting and observing alone doesn’t help you. As an artist, the process of painting for me is to look at nature, and then, when I draw, starting from clear lines, I am trying to get an inner rhythm of each image. They are not just leaves. There is a flow of life that passes through each image. Now that gives a painting its own life.”

SKETCHING IS AN elemental part of Ramachandran’s process. It is what he performs outdoors, when he spends time with his subject. It is what he subsequently returns with as he re-enters the realm of his studio. It forms the basis of his painting. Once he begins, it takes him an average of one-and- a-half to two months to complete one painting. “In a year, I do three to four paintings altogether,” he tells me. “Some are large, some are just two or three panels. But I am an artist who paints by the acre,” he says, chuckling. “The point is I am like a novelist. I like to have larger dimensions of expression than a smaller canvas. Most of the artists when they paint, they think it has to be sold, or it has to be in somebody’s house. So they think about that. I don’t. I think my paintings are meant for the public. Ultimately it has to go to museums or public places.”

My decorativeness is a very sophisticated part of a visual language. It is not the ordinary sense of decorativeness,” says A Ramachandran

What seems to have remained a constant in Ramachandran’s artistic practice from its inception is his obsession with a chosen subject; a restless compulsion to examine it from every conceivable perspective. In the beginning of his career, it was a fixation with headless human anatomy. Reviewing his very first solo at Kumar Gallery in 1966, Richard Bartholomew noted in Thought, ‘You can see a touch of Bacon but not the evidence of the ham painter. There is a reference to the dream and its work but there is nothing distinctly like surrealism. The human figure is not a symbol, or a time-connecting device, a fuse-box for high voltage sensations, or bait for the sharks, octopuses or mermaids of memory.’

Sometime between the 80s and the 90s, Ramachandran’s aesthetic underwent a radical transformation. Despite almost 40 years of artistic practice, during which he has produced a slew of epic works, Ramachandran is convinced he has yet to produce his masterpiece. He looks back at his early work and thinks of his aesthetic as yet unformed. “When I was young and I came to the field, of course I was more immature, and maybe a little competent, but not that mature enough to understand the whole process of painting,” he says. “It was only the beginning. It is like a musician who starts singing, or a dancer who starts dancing. But then, as you practice, you become a professional. And after years of practice, you start concentrating on what you are doing. When I started I was an angry young man. I had no money. I worked in Calcutta’s streets,” he reminisces, as he speaks of his time as a student of Santiniketan, under the tutelage of Nandalal Bose and Ram Kinkar Baij. “I came to Delhi as a totally unknown artist. I carried my bundle of politics with me from Kerala. And you know, that kind of radical background I had when I was a student, all these things got reflected in my early work.”

During the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, he witnessed from a terrace a mob chasing a sick person and killing him like a dog. “I, being from South India... we haven’t ever seen anything like this. All these things I started concentrating on. The violence, the actual violence is so brutal and so cruel.” He began to feel a schism between the depiction of violence within the medium of painting, and the medium’s inherent proclivity towards a certain aspiration for beauty, which led him to question why he had been focussing on violence as the subject of his work. ‘Instead of shouting slogans and fighting, why not console people?’ he thought. “Why not, you know, I sing them a lullaby and put them to sleep, like a mother to a child, or sing a song which is soothing, which lets people forget their miseries? They have enough miseries in their life, I need not contribute to it. I need not remind them of their miseries from morning till night. And then, what I create, that product I can sell.” Ramachandran seems opposed to the idea of an artist monetising the painting of human cruelty.

When I ask how he managed to secure this plot of land in Bharti Artist’s Colony, whether it was through the sale of his paintings or through savings accrued during his tenure as a professor of art history at Jamia Millia in Delhi (where he also lived till 1982 before moving here), his answer surprises me. It was through the royalties he received from the sale of a children’s book he illustrated which was published by Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers in Japan. One of his books was put on the syllabus of nursery schools in Japan, and he received a windfall of about Rs 120,000 which he used to buy his studio. Ramachandran declares that he never managed to live off his paintings, a fact that he doesn’t regret.

How did his contemporaries view his practice when he made the shift in subject matter? I ask. “They still say I am a decorative painter,” he responds. “Now, the word ‘decorative’ is used by Europeans looking at Indian art. Fundamentally, Indians are decorative. Their literatures are decorative… And if you take our living style, you go to the villages, they make these floral designs on the floor… My decorativeness is a very sophisticated part of a visual language. It is not the ordinary sense of decorativeness. So because the Europeans used the word, is it fashionable for the art critics to say so about their fellow Indians? It’s their stupidity, what can I do?”

Ramachandran then asserts that he is an erudite man, someone who started out with a Masters’ degree in Malayalam literature from Kerala University in 1957, before earning a diploma in fine arts and crafts from Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, in 1961, and simultaneously, a doctorate degree for his thesis on ‘Mural Paintings of Kerala’ which he also published as a book. It became obvious that while for many of his contemporaries, his work was presumably ‘decorative’, it in fact was the consequence of a series of aesthetic choices that derived from the mastery of skill, technique and subject matter, and a deep, committed formal engagement with colour, which accounts for why his oils-on-canvas have the appearance of gauche or the lightness of watercolour. “I take only Burnt Sienna, because Burnt Sienna is kind of like an Indian red. Traditional Kerala muralists used this colour for initial drawings because they had no pencil around. They used to draw directly with the brush, say to make a yellow colour background. On the top of it, I draw with a chalk the basic structure. That’s only the structure, then I start with this Burnt Sienna, then it becomes like watercolour.”

Ramachandran drew heavily from his research and background in the Kerala muralist tradition as well as from Japanese screen paintings, which led him to use panels to section his canvases. If you look intently enough at a Ramachandran canvas, you can trace the grid he evolves to guide his proportions. The panels make the work mobile while allowing him the feel and scale of a mural. He understands his technique as an artist with a craftsman background from Santiniketan. “We learned through a whole process of trial and error,” he adds, mentioning also that while he studied the muralist tradition, watercolours, tempera, silkscreen painting, Tibetan tangkhas, Italian, Ajanta and Jaipur frescoes, he never actually formally studied oil painting.

Later, satisfied by my curious questioning and his fitting replies, he lets me wander into his anteroom in which he does his watercolours. All through his studio and the rest of his home that he shares with his artist wife, Chameli, whom he met decades ago in Santiniketan, you get a clear sense of him as not just an artist, but also a reader and a collector.

Among his prized objects is an antique grandfather’s clock from Madras. I hear it chime as it strikes 6 pm. I take it as my cue to leave.