Brush with Rajasthan Ponds and Memories of Kerala Murals

Sreevalsan Thiyyadi | Jul 15, 2021

Attingal-born Delhiite Padma Bhushan A Ramachandran’s artistic career took a decisive turn in the late 1970s when he stumbled upon the beauty of blooming lotuses in the desert state upcountry.

As a painter of international repute, A Ramachandran has often said that modern art was a movement India could have skipped. Why? “Well, our own country has traditionally had a non-realistic visual culture,” the octogenarian notes. “That way, we weren’t like the West.”

Aged 86, the Delhi-based Padma Bhushan awardee knew the vibrancy of indigenous art right from his childhood in southern Travancore. As a little boy, Ramachandran’s visits to the neighbourhood Krishnaswami temple in Attingal near Thiruvananthapuram exposed him to the murals around the sanctorum. Those images sowed in him the idea of grand paintings.

Five decades later, Ramachandran’s own painting style took a decisive change when he visited northwest India. Some 2,500 km away from his native village, he watched with admiration Rajasthan’s vast lotus ponds against the dwarf hills. Ever since, he has been painting  a ‘Lotus pond series’, much to the appreciation of the art world.

Into the late 1980s, lotus ponds went beyond forming just backdrops to his images. They became the focal motif of paintings that now total four dozen. It began with Suresh Sharma, who was his contemporary in West Bengal’s  Santiniketan and subsequently teacher at M L Sukhadia University in Udaipur, escorting him to interior areas around the City of Lakes.

“Among the hamlets was Baneshwar. There, local tribes would converge annually on the full-moon day in Magh (mid-February),” recalls Ramachandran, who taught art at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia for 27 years. The artist had, during his Santiniketan days from the late 1950s, interacted closely with the Santhals of eastern India. The Bhils of Rajasthan came as a more rejuvenating experience. The result was a string of renowned works including Dancing Women Near Lotus Pond (1987), The Myth of Palash Tree (1993), Meghmalhar (1996), Solki as a Young Bride (2000), Ahalya in Yellow (2001) and Self Portrait with Insects (2003).

The style of the works has been a far cry from Ramachandran’s teachers like Nandala Bose and Benodebehari Bose at Santiniketan. Art critic R Siva Kumar says Ramachandran often paints himself as an omnipresent observer of Bhil life even while remaining self-effacing. “In his paintings, you see faces like his in the form of a bat hanging from the tree, a fish in the water body, a Kinnara playing the flute or a beetle on the plant,” notes the Santiniketan-based scholar, also from Kerala.

The ‘Lotus Pond’ series evolved a couple of years after Ramachandran completed what many consider is his masterpiece. ‘Yayati’, which took some 30 months to complete in 1986 as a 60-feet painted narration comprising 12 panels further embellished by 13 sculptures, explores sensuality in the context of the eponymous character from Indian mythology.

For all the fame Ramachandran earned globally since youth, his home-state had to wait for the artist to turn 78 to host his first exhibition.That happened at Kochi in 2013. At the Lalitha Kala Akademi’s Durbar Hall gallery, to where Vadehra Art Gallery in the national capital brought the master’s 100 selected works done over half a century from 1964.

Six years later, in 2019, the same venue in downtown Ernakulam hosted a second show of Ramachandran. Yet again curated by Prof Siva Kumar, the event that coinciding with the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi, was titled ‘Mahatma and the Lotus Pond’.

Ramachandran, who lives east of the Yamuna with his artist-wife Tan Yan Chameli, has won the Kalidas Samman and Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram. He had left for Visva-Bharati University in 1957 after doing his MA in Malayalam. In all his 64 years of life away from Kerala, the artist's love for his mother tongue remains unchanged.

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Thanks for informative write, about eminent artist A Ramachandran...

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