Ella Datta in Conversation with A. Ramachandran: Indianising Indian Art

Ella Datta in Conversation with A. Ramachandran: Indianising Indian Art

in Interview
Published on: 21 April 2021

Ella Datta

Ella Datta is a noted art historian, author and critic.

Ella Datta in conversation with A. Ramachandran

When A. Ramachandran exhibited his monumental mural Yayati (60’ x 8’ along with a group of 13 bronze sculptures) in 1986, he was bitterly criticised by the art community. Few realised that the master artist was turning away from painting the existential crisis of modern man. He was rejecting the expression of violence and degradation of humanity from his canvases and choosing to fill the blank space with a joyous, universal vision of man in nature.

Ramachandran accounts for this complete break from his past work to his witnessing an incredible act of inhumanity. In 1984, he saw a group of men lynching to death a Sikh in the neighbourhood. He was revolted by the sight and felt that all the images of dehumanisation that he had painted did not have any impact on an individual’s consciousness. He made up his mind never to create an image of violence.

For almost two decades, from the early 1960s, he had been painting cataclysmic images of violence, bloodshed, human degradation in such works as Kali Puja, Audience, Gandhi and the 20th Century Cult of Violence, Vision of War, End of the Yadavas. This bleak vision of humanity was born of his encounter with post-Partition Calcutta, where he saw refugees living abysmal lives on the pavements of the metropolis. These decades were also witnessing skirmishes and wars all over the world, as well as extreme political violence. It was natural for a young sensitive artist coming from quiet, beautiful Kerala and reared in the idyllic landscape of Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan to react to the scenes of human agony that he encountered.

Ramachandran moved to Delhi from Santiniketan in 1964. In 1965, he joined Jamia Millia Islamia University as a lecturer in art education. He won respect as a distinguished art teacher even as he and his colleagues worked hard to create a full-fledged art department.

The 1970s was a decade of exciting experiments for Ramachandran. He engaged seriously with bronze sculptures. The embryonic forms and the totem pole-like figures that he created were remarkable milestones in modern Indian sculpture. Also, during this decade, he wrote and illustrated books for children, for which he received international awards, made a few ceramic pieces, painted two sets of miniatures, designed postage stamps and illustrated Sadat Hassan Manto’s stories. While the experimental spirit was always present in Ramachandran’s creativity, it was during this time that he explored many mediums.

During the latter part of the ‘70s, his fiery response to human suffering was slowly abating. After a visit to Rajasthan, his memories of the lush Kerala landscapes stirred in his mind and he began to introduce trees, flowers, clouds, the sky in his images. The climactic moment came when he conceptualised Yayati. It was clear that he was deeply immersed in the aesthetics and language of Indian art of the past as well as the art of East Asia. He also had intimate knowledge of Indian myths and epics. It was from these resources that he created unique visual language and imagery. The two ideas that he explored in a million ways are the universe in a lotus pond and the life in tribal villages around Udaipur in Rajasthan. Around these two ideas, he created his own personal mythology by painting himself into his images as a creator, as an observer and as a participant, be it a snail, a bat, a bird or innumerable other forms. His brilliance as an artist became manifest in the way he achieved his jewel-bright colours and the magic that he could create with the diversity of his lines. This is particularly patent in his watercolours and drawings.

He received the National Award in 1969 and 1972, the Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustrations in 1978 and 1980, the Parishad Samman from the Sahitya Kala Parishad in 1991, the Gagan-Abani Puraskar from Visva Bharati in 2000, the Manaviyam Award and the Ravi Varma Puraskaram from the Government of Kerala in 2001 and 2003 respectively. He was elected Fellow of National Lalit Kala Akademi in 2002, Professor Emeritus at Jamia Millia Islamia in 2002 and conferred with Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 2005.  In 2013, Ramachandran was awarded Honorary D.Litt by Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, and the next year he received the Kalidas Samman.

Well-versed in art history and aesthetics, Ramachandran’s definitive book on Kerala mural tradition, Painted Abode of the Gods, was published in 2005. Ramachandran’s essays on his art have a sparkling quality.

Ella Datta

Following is the edited transcript (part 2) of a video conversation with A. Ramachandran conducted by Ella Datta on November 3, 2020, Delhi.   

Ella Datta: It is said that Yayati painted in the mid-’80s was your watershed moment. But I notice that from the late ’70s through the early ’80s, you were already painting these veiled, mysterious women in natural settings amongst foliage plants, flowers, sky and clouds. Were you turning away from the tortured flesh of your earlier decades?

A. Ramachandran: Actually, my first radical, politically charged works started losing steam after some time. The reason is very simple. You can’t shout slogans all the time. So, when you are young, you are dissatisfied with so many things. You want to be a rebel, so you do things. But you can’t be a rebel all the time in your life because your life changes.

Now, two or three reasons I am telling you. One is, the major change which happened was that I watched the riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the ’84 riots. I saw from here, at that time it was quite open, they were chasing a sardar like a dog and killing him with sticks. I must say one thing: I had seen many miserable things in Calcutta [Kolkata]. I had even seen people buying oranges and next to them a woman sitting with a dead child. But that is the misery of life. Here it is the cruelty of human beings to others, to their own people. So that created a very strange reaction in my mind because for the first time I realised… you know, we talk about riots, we talk about how people suffer in riots, but we really don’t know. We are only reading in the paper or we are watching TV. But actually, when you see the same thing happening in front of you, our whole response to it can be devastating. Because I had never before seen human beings be so cruel to another human being. Somehow, after that incident, I realised that the misery of such violence should not be a topic for a painting. Two reasons… One, painting is a beautiful experience ultimately. Even the painting of dead Christ, it gives you a beautiful sensation. Even Francis Bacon’s paintings, when you look at the actual paintings, they are beautiful. So, the very fact that the colours and lines in a certain precise arrangement creates a kind of happiness and not revulsion. So, you are taking something which is repulsive, you are painting it and making it a beautiful object. And that beautiful object, you are selling to people and making money. To me, the whole thing looked a little immoral. The whole idea of cashing on political statements as an artist for your fame and money which, frankly speaking, seemed to me as an immoral act. So, I completely rejected that kind of political paintings. People have never forgiven me for that.

But I am very convinced that ultimately Sunflowers are far greater than Guernica. Why? Because it is the finest achievement of a man’s genius. Not because there is any message in it. So, today’s idea, especially of post-modernism that you should have a message to convey and you should be updated, you should be fighting for the issues and be a part of it, all sounds to me very strange. I can’t paint a picture and change the social defects. I can’t change the communal attitude of people by painting. I can’t change people killing each other. I can only paint a picture. If a human being stands in front of it, for a moment, he gets a small fraction of enlightenment, that’s all. If Buddha got bigger enlightenment, a man who is looking at a painting or listening to music or reading a book, he gets only a fraction of enlightenment. That is the rewarding thing about art activities.

ED: I don’t know if I’ll be right to call your Yayati, your magnum opus. But it was a complete departure in the way you approached the painting. And the figures, the women became more lyrical, the whole myth, the way you narrate it, perhaps if you can talk a little bit about your palette, how much did the Kerala murals influence your concept? The idea of bringing in sculptures to this vast expanse of painting.

AR: This is another aspect that I want to elaborate on. One, I have already stated why I don’t do political paintings anymore. My second thought was, unfortunately, modern Indian painting has become an appendix to European art. So, places like New York or Paris, are supposed to be the landmarks of current art and we are supposed to go there, buy some of these ideas, come back to India and make an Indian version of it and give to the Indian audience saying look, this is the latest trend. I’m asking: is it necessary? Who decides the trend? Not the people. It is only a few people—the museum, the curators and the gallery people. Why? Because there is an enormous amount of money involved in it. So, they want to channelise Indian art in such a way that if you have an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, you are considered the greatest artist. But if you don’t do it, you are not a great artist. But nobody is asking what this means for Indians?

For Indians, today’s modern Indian art is like birdwatching to birds. You can say anything, but the public is not affected. To me, art should be as good as [Munshi] Premchand, as good as [Rabindranath] Tagore, as good as Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. It should be read by each and everyone. They should feel thrilled by it and feel it is my own life, it is my own culture that is reflected. Why have we made art which is nobody’s? It belongs to some selected few. Why is nobody allowed to go near it? If you say you don’t like it then you are a stupid fellow. But if you say you like it then you are a very enlightened person. This is the kind of yardstick they have created. To me, art should be as good as literature, as good as music, it should reach each and every human being in India. So, I am going back to the regional literature or the dialect. People write in Tamil, Tamil people will respond. You know Malayalam, the Malayalis will respond. Odia same thing. So, in the same way, Indian art has also a language of its own. Why are you forgetting all these things? We have a language structure that is totally against European thinking. We have no Mona Lisa, we have Yakshi. Didarganj Yakshi and Mona Lisa if you put together, Mona Lisa looks like a photograph, or even Venus, the Greek statue [Venus de Milo], she looks like a nude woman that’s all. But Didarganj Yakshi is not just a nude woman; it is a woman who symbolises fertility, the earth. The way the artist created a new image out of the female form is greater art than when you copy a female form from life.

I am very proud of the tradition that we have. If we cannot respect our tradition, if we cannot study our tradition… tell me how many modern artists have gone to Ajanta? How many modern artists look at miniature paintings? When people pass their course [in fine arts] in India, either from Baroda [Vadodara] or from Bombay [Mumbai], the first thing they do is go to England or France or New York and then come back as half-British men, half-French men, half-American. Then they can’t communicate with other Indians, they are below the standard. Whereas when I completed my degree, I went back to Kerala to study Kerala murals. It was a very tough job to travel without money and seeing all those temples and looking at the paintings there. That was the beginning of my learning. I learnt that we have our own language, we have our own language structure, we have our own concepts of colour, we have our own concepts of lights, all these things are extremely important.

ED: How long did it take you to make Yayati from the conceptualisation to the completion?   

AR: Yayati was the first experiment about which I was explaining. My first experiment was to move away from European norms to Indian norms. Especially after studying Kerala murals, I found how we have a very powerful tradition, how you paint wall paintings, wall painting is not a canvas. Wall painting is something to be done integrating the architecture. So, if you go to Ajanta, you will see the painting all over, on the pillar, ceiling, walls. That is the quality of a mural. If you want to do murals, you have to have a specific attitude. Like you write a novel; a short story writer cannot write a novel. That is the difference. What a miniature artist is doing, it’s like writing a poem. You can’t do it with the concept of a wall painting. So, each art form that we have developed has its own rigorous discipline. If you understand that, then you will know that Indian art is not that rigid as you think. The more you get into it, you understand the subtleties of it. You have to understand the grammar of Indian art, the way it is used and the concepts we cherish in our own way. For example, line; contour line defines a form in Indian art, whether it is a miniature or a wall painting. In European art, immediately following the end of the Renaissance, the contour line was erased, and then it was light and shadow work, that’s what [Johannes] Vermeer is, that’s what Rembrandt [Harmenszoon van Rijn] is. That is only the visual perception. The light falling on me, that is, you are identifying my face because of the light, but an Indian artist doesn’t need a source of light. It is his grasp of a human form, the essential form of a human body that he creates. That’s why we have a powerful Nataraja bronze, which is supposed to be powerful not because it has any likeness to [an] ordinary man dancing.

ED: So, the next phase in this new conceptualisation of your art, your image. You have moved away from the traditional myths of Urvashi and created your own, own mythical traditions of yourself painting your own universe. Also, you have painted these women of Rajasthan, the Bhil women in nature. It is a definite step of way to the real life of the people of those Bhil villages. And then, it is a statement again in a different way.

AR: No, this all happened together, you cannot separate them, that is the problem. You see, Yayati was my first attempt to change. There I used many elements; one is the concept of a wall painting in a temple. So, the painting is conceived as a garbhagriha; garbhagriha is the inner shrine, so, it is a painted inner shrine and then I put the bronzes in the middle as the worshipping image. So, that is a kind of a ritualistic atmosphere you create. But basically, Yayati is a homage to modern man. Modern man will never be satisfied with the happiness he is searching for. So, we have made every kind of things for our own happiness; whether it is a telephone or a mobile or a car or plane, or even chairs, everything is designed for your comfort. A human being is the only one who is all the time designing things for his own comfort, which animals don’t do, birds don’t do. So, that is the speciality. Human beings have a tendency, a certain kind of selfishness. That selfishness is reflected in our attitude to exploiting nature, destroying the forests, digging up minerals, and creating ecological imbalances. These are all what human beings are doing for their own happiness. So, Yayati is the symbol of a modern man. To me, you can use a myth, but you should point to something else in that process. So, when I started Yayati, I used Gaduliya Lohars [also called Gadia Lohars], who used to have a settlement near my place. I used to go and watch them. Of course, I couldn’t sketch them... But I come from a tradition, from Santiniketan, where we were asked to go to villages and sketch. That was the way we were taught. We were never given models. Models are a European concept. So, like Ramkinkar [Baij] said very interestingly, Amrita Sher-Gil treats Indian men and women like still life. So, it is very correct because you are making these women sit in certain positions and then she is painting them but if you go to villages you will not see women sitting like this. Only European women will sit or lie down like that. Our women sit on the roadside, they sit on their haunches, they stretch out their legs, so those things are typical of our women. But we cannot see that or rather, we are not looking at them. So, when I went to the village to study, I wanted to relive my experience of Santiniketan, of going to Santal villages. I thought it was better for me to go to Rajasthan and study these people. Because I was not interested in Delhi or in the middle-class people who were living around me. They are not natural human beings. Their body is not natural. They are all unnatural human beings of modern society. But if you go to the village, you see men and women work in the fields, women climb trees, carry water on their head.

ED: They are very spontaneous.

AR: So, all these things, gives their body a certain structure which is like South Indian bronzes, which is very tense, pulled up and tight. There is no extra flesh spilling out of the body. Pictorially that image is far more interesting than a middle-class family in a city, or even an upper-class family. So, to me, the human body is beautiful when they become like animals suitable to the habitat where they live but we don’t have that. We are products of comfort. We are to sit on a chair, sofa and we have to put our legs up. So, all these things are necessary. But in the villages, they are not. You sit wherever you get, maybe under the tree or over stones lying there or on the riverbed. And then because they work in the fields and do physical labour, their body does not have any extra fat. So, to me, they are the perfect models. I was taught to sketch them, not by making them sit [pose]—that I only do occasionally if I want to do their facial characteristics, otherwise I sketch the moving images quickly or I use the references.  

ED: Your life-long engagement with drawing and sketching shows the extent of your experimentation right through. You have used lines very eloquently and in very many different ways.

AR: For an Indian artist, the line is the most important thing if you ask me. You take any painting. Whether it is the Jaina miniatures or the Mughal miniatures or the wall paintings, everywhere you see how the artists are defining a form. See, it is something else, you structure a form by showing light and shade and getting a modulation like [Raja] Ravi Varma did. Here the contour lines are defined. When you define the contour lines, you are actually catching the inherent rhythm of that image. Visualise a woman carrying something on her head, harvesting, walking. The movement of her body and the harvested wheat or whatever that is on her head, all create a total rhythm when she moves. It’s not a static image. My intention is to capture in a few lines the grace of that image. It is a long, long practice of so many years, 60 years maybe. To me drawing is like breathing, I have to do it every day. I have done drawings every day, and these drawings help me to develop paintings.   

ED: I would also like you to talk a little about your lotus ponds. The lotus I have noticed even earlier in your works, in your ceramics, in your children’s books’ illustrations, but it is from the Urvashi series on that the lotus pond comes into its own till the time when you are creating an entire universe, a private universe of your lotus ponds.

AR: The time when I did Urvashi was the first time I started using lotus pond as imagery. That is because I saw some of the magnificent lotus ponds in Udaipur. Two of them are extremely magnificent, especially, the one at Udaishwar. It is a tiny Shiva temple in the middle of a forest and on all sides are hills. Rainwater must have collected near the temple; somebody had blocked it so that the water didn’t flow to the valley down. So, that became a natural lotus pond. When I went there, there were lotus leaves growing very high and also tall grass-like. But the best thing I noticed was that the colour of the leaf was more bluish than greenish because it was also reflecting the clean sky above which we don’t have in the cities. There everything is so clean, the sky is clean, the leaves are clean. The rainwater has washed the earth so clean. So, it’s a different experience. Frankly speaking, I am trying to point to human beings the environmental degradation that they are doing, all of us. The wild growth of trees, lotus ponds and such things, they should be left alone like that. But three out of four of the great lotus ponds I’ve painted, two of them have been cleaned out.

ED: Disappeared.

AR: They’ve cleaned them up and the third pond, they are making it a tourist spot, by making a road around it. But the lotus ponds’ greatness is their wild background. That is the lotus’ natural habitat. There the lotuses grow, in winters they die, and then they again come out. The pond reflects a universe in itself with fishes and lizards and scorpions.

ED: Birds, yes…

AR: Everything. Little insects… To me, it is like a universe. I spent many hours from early morning till even night. I watched the lotus pond’s change of colour, change of shape, and the movement it creates. Lotus is one of the most flexible art forms in the world. That’s why China, Japan, India, all these countries, lotus is a constant symbol that has spiritual connotations, which has also central connotations even in poetry. So, lotus is not an ordinary plant. Of course, I’m not talking about it politically.

ED: I wanted now to ask you to talk a little bit about your sculptures. I think I have noticed them from the eighties onwards, I think the Yayati group was probably a springboard of inspiration, but you’ve made portraits, sculptures, you’ve made this totem-pole-like tall, cylindrical forms…

AR: I learnt sculpture under Ramkinkar but I was very bad at technical things like casting or converting into cement or bronze or things like that. I was very bad. Not bad but I had no patience. So, I never tried to learn that deeply except the clay work. After coming here [Delhi], when I developed Yayati, that is the first time I started thinking about… I had done a few sculptures early on, but that was done more in experimental form. But with Yayati, it struck to me that if I could adopt the Indian imageries into my painting, I could do the same thing with sculptures. So, I adopted the same principle. I made wax rods, connected them and then made those small, small images of the Yayati group. After doing that, I got more interested, and Urvashi and Pururuvas…I did those series of tribal girls but combining with the Indian iconography. And invariably, I am in them as a gana image. In our temple architecture, there are ganas. They are fat men and women who are mainly attendants, especially of Lord Shiva. I did my self-portrait like a gana carrying a tribal girl on my back. In most of my sculptures, I am coming in as an intervention in the life of the tribals to project their lives, supporting the classical images of those girls who are standing. They also invariably have some plants or trees behind them. That is also there. So, there is a palash tree, there is another one with a creeper around it, but they are a kind of an experiment I did along with painting. I never took my sculpture that seriously. 

ED: … as your painting.

AR: Because I am not capable of physically doing that much.

ED: Talking about your use of yourself in your sculpture, even in your painting, it has become a very important device, especially in Yayati, I think.

AR: Humorously saying, that is the only way not to allow people to make fakes. Because signatures they will copy, but they can’t copy my portrait. So, anyway, I started using the self-portrait first in Yayati. When I did the whole painting, I thought it looked like a narrator, or a gandharva [heavenly beings] singing songs. So, when I used it the first time, I couldn’t stylise my face that much. Because at that time, I remember [Ebrahim] Alkazi saying, you look like Kishore Kumar, and I was quite disappointed. But later, I thought, why should I copy my face as it is? I picked up elements like my hair, my drooping moustache and things like that. So, from that I created hundreds of shapes, I’m a butterfly, I’m a worm, I’m a caterpillar…

ED: … a bat…

AR: Anything

ED: Yeah, anything.

AR: I could make it into any form.

ED: Also, here it is your own myth that you are creating, you as the creator, the tree of life growing from your navel, you know…

AR: So that is it. I’m defining myself as the director of the play. Not anyone else.

ED: Exactly, that’s your signature. So, the three big public controversies that you faced in your life. First was, you were the commissioner of the [Lalit Kala Akademi] Triennale, the second was when you exhibited Yayati and the third was when you mounted the monumental exhibition of Raja Ravi Verma, I mean it became a public controversy. So how did you handle these? I mean it must have been a shock to you. 

AR: Actually, my hair has gone white. Actually, it is very surprising. In India, I don’t know why people cannot stand something different happening. Anything slightly, you want to change you know, there is always this resistance.

For the first Triennale and second Triennale, they used to select almost every artist. So, my idea was, this is not a national exhibition, this is an international exhibition, so you select a few artists based on a theme or a concept and then put them together and next year someone else can have a different theme and a different group of artists. But in those days, the [Lalit Kala] Akademi was the only source of income and life for artists, so everybody put their stake in getting in the Triennale. I selected only 22 artists; I selected two artists like Ganga Devi and Jivya Soma, who were folk artists. So, all these were shocking for the public. I did not select the famous old artists, nor the very young artists, I selected only the middle ones. At that time, they were not very famous, like Ganesh Pyne, Bikash Bhattacharjee or Bhupen Khakhar, Vivan Sundaram, Gulam Sheikh… all of them are very established artists today. But they were young at that time, and there were many senior artists who got upset about it. So, without even asking me, myself and two other members—Namjit Patel and Pranab—they dismissed us and made another list and selected 60 artists. Bhupen and Vivan and everybody put up a separate exhibition as a protest. But then, nobody even bothered about it when I said Triennale was not a national exhibition. Now you know things are different. You select only a few artists and send them to international exhibitions. That is why people don’t want to open up.  

ED: Were you hurt when there was that acrimony after Yayati? Were you upset?

AR: [The response to] Yayati was shocking. Yayati was so shocking for many reasons. Before Yayati, I was an artist who participated in almost every national and international exhibition. So, even though I was a junior, my initial works had given me that position. When Yayati was done, the first reaction was that I had taken modern Indian art 200 years backwards. That was one of the comments I heard. And then people started looking at me as if I had killed somebody, or I had done some criminal act. Simply because they have this notion of modernity, I don’t know what it is, and they thought my work didn’t fit into it. So, people said all kinds of things. That my works are decorative, my colours are very gaudy and cheap and that I am making pretty paintings, all kinds of things. Then they removed me from the art scene. For almost 10–15 years, I was out of the art scene. People hardly used to invite me for exhibitions and openings, and they counted me as a case that could not be restored.  

It took a long time after that. How many? 15 years. After 15 years, I think, Yayati was exhibited again, a second time. That is the time when many people looked at it carefully, and by that time, Indian art moved away from those old notions and opened up better. There were artists like Bhupen and Gulam, they were all doing Indianness, that’s become an element, a part of their work. So, they looked at it differently.

ED: You were vindicated.

AR: I don’t know that but…

ED: Well, certainly you were.

AR: To a great extent those days were difficult for me… For me to be totally ignored, not because of my mistake, but because people didn’t want to listen… So, also the notion that if you refer to tradition then you are against modernism and you are not a modern man. All these ridiculous things they said. I couldn’t digest it because I knew the parallel movement in Kerala. Filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and [Govindan] Aravindan…  all these people made entirely different films from films in Bengal or Bombay. They made experimental films. And they succeeded in it and then they also developed an audience for good films. So, to me, we have to create our own audience, like what Aravindan or the Malayalam writers did. So, if you don’t have an audience, you cannot survive with the stories. Because after a few years you will only be a relic and not people’s artist. People will not remember you... Even the tragedy of M. F Hussain is that people remember his beard and walking barefoot more than his painting which is a great tragedy to my mind. Whereas people should remember that the paintings are sculptures done by the artist. Then only it is worth it.

ED: What would you advise the future generation of artists, the artists who are now emerging? The whole system of art education…

AR: I won’t give any advice to anybody. Simply because neither they are going to listen nor this is an age of giving advice because every young person knows what they are doing. But the point is, the only thing I can say, if Indian art has to make a distinct mark, then they have to develop their own language and aesthetics. Like what the Mexican artists did in the twentieth century. They were the most successful, they moved away from modern European art and established their own identity. So, Indian artists should be able to establish their identity in that manner, maybe in the coming days.

ED: Thank you very much for agreeing to engage in this conversation. It was a great pleasure for me and I’m sure for all those reading.

AR: Thank you.