A CEREBRAL vibrancy. That’s the first impression communicated in a conversation with Achuthan Kudallur. His mind is restless, darting from Rabindranath Tagore to Picasso, delving into the microcosm of abstract art. His is a ceaseless search for raison d’etre. He adheres to a fundamental honesty, intolerant of cant. He speaks in muted cadences. Even in anger, he retains an inner quiet.
Born in Kerala in 1945, Achuthan’s desire for self-expression originally took the shape of Malayalam short stories. Opting for art in 1972, his self-taught medium has since run the gamut from landscapes and portraits through blazing abstracts to infinitely detailed drawings. Change, to him, seems intrinsic to life.
Achuthan’s earlier work summons up images of nudes that are raw, tantalizing, seething with urgency and a certain edge of courage. Blazing across outsize canvases, insistent upon attention, they intermingled poignancy and contemplation equally ~ despite still seeking footsure colour equations, despite the tentative quality of the drawing. From 1976 onwards, the imagery took on overtones of melodrama, sifted rather self-consciously, and shades of surrealism crept in.
But the ache of abstraction is at the core of Achuthan’s existence today. Shunning geometry, bypassing naturalistic representations, he has chosen to unravel the secret life of colours on canvas after canvas, as if caught in an irresistible continuum. Unlike practitioners of portraiture or figurative art, he compares the very lack of discernible patterns in abstract art to the strains of Indian classical music, dependent more on tapestries of sound than on lyrics.
An abstract artist, Achuthan emphasizes, can execute realistic interpretations with ease, and does not consider his choice an escape from weak drawing or painting skills. The evidence? The sheer range of magazine and book jacket illustrations to the artist’s credit. Why else would Achuthan once try to capture the final moments of Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, as the protagonist in the novel looks at the mountains beyond his window, his nails digging into the ledge, before he breathes his last? But realistic renditions failed to evoke the emotion he felt.
Though his one-man show at the local Max Mueller Bhavan in 1977 featured primarily figurative work, he felt stifled by the monotony of placing a figure or two against balanced spatial backdrops. Today, intuition guides him through his abstracts. If the feedback from the canvas proves negative, the artist often abandons his pursuit. And tries afresh, riddled with the anxieties of charting his course through the unknown, away from the security of formulaic paintings.
His room, at a lodge in Madras’s bustling Royapettah area, reflects the man. An array of drawings cascade over the bed, offering images both private and primordial. Abstracts paintings in vivid oils, varied in hue and size, vie for space with earlier realistic compositions. Books on philosophy, literature and art are piled high on a shelf. Some crop up singly on window-sills and chairs. An abundance of creative talent assails the eye.
Achuthan’s present job in a government department allows him a means to his vital other life ~ in the realm of the paint, brush and canvas. One day, he knows for sure, he will be living his life in art full time. For that is his dream, his vision, his passion. He has both the will to wait for this dream to be realized and the willingness to let life unwind to its own tune.
In Achuthan, a critic in Madras noted one who “enters into calm discussions of serious (pictorial) problems.” So he does, even in excerpted eloquence:
What drives you to engage with art?
I started sketching at a very young age. While teaching me the alphabet, my father drew a face and I copied it. I used to caricature all the people I knew. In my high school days, I didn’t have any colour sense, actually. My passion was literature. There was some discussion of literature in our household, and poets were revered. Naturally, I took to writing.
Perhaps like venom in a snake, it was somewhere within me, because when I started painting again in my twenty-seventh year, I found I was being dragged to the medium by its own power. I think my mood is better suited to painting than to writing because I can’t plan anything.
(Thoughtfully) Because I can’t be serious about two media at the same time, I can now say I have settled down to painting. Without art or any other creative activity, I may even commit suicide. I do not exist.
I am not saying this for effect. I have been doing this out of dire necessity. Even now, death and sex bewilder me a lot. So far, I have no answers to certain questions of life. So, I can even say art is an excuse. It is an escape from these questions.
How would you define a modern artist in today’s context?
I am against schools and granting a particular group of artists a particular label. It is the critics who demand such labels.
One can define a modern artist as one who searches for his own identity. As the world retina is looking at you, it’s important to belong to humanity, not to a nationality. I do not believe in patriotism and all that.
Are there any artists whom you admire in particular?
I can say I have a great love for Henri Rousseau, especially for his Sleeping Gypsy. I think that painting is a very great work. If I grow rich and if I can afford it, I will buy that work. There are also some very brilliant works by Paul Klee. And Chagall I like.
Pablo Picasso was a great disturbance because he touched everything and took it to an extreme, thus rendering most of his contemporaries derivative.
Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings came purely from the instinct of a highly sensitive mind. In a way, he revolutionized existing norms. For years, artists were governed by the rule of the Golden Section and the principles of harmony. But Tagore’s compositions stand out in a very different way. He was a not a dandy twiddling with his brush. I have seen the same freedom in the works of Sailoz Mukherjee.
Ravi Varma was a great misfortune in Indian art. His contemporaries just sat back and watched the royal man. He spoilt our concept of gods and goddesses by dressing them up in Kanjeevaram sarees and pearls.
Do you ever feel indebted to other artists?
I am terribly indebted. It is not a direct influence. I must thank all those who took the brush before me. When I take the brush, they must be turning in their graves. (Shyly) It is a great feeling to think, when I pull out a line, that the line has been taken by so many of my ancestors.
How do you feel about art in the social context? And censorship?
Art has no direct purpose. I don’t remember any work of art influencing the public. Art is not supposed to. It gives a brighter light. You start seeing better. But the world can do without art. You know, in China and Russia, you can’t find any modern art.
In fact, we are very fortunate to have freedom (in India). So, without being inhibited by anybody’s presence, I can create… (Passionately) I don’t understand why art is censored when there is uncensored science. No one censors the Theory of Relativity.
Actually, I’m anxious about whether I can exist in a changing society. If India veers to the left, and all abstract, modern work is censored, how much will my work be worth in a junkyard? I used to think it would be no more significant than a floor-tile removed from a mansion. I used to cry, thinking of that horror.
Can you justify the system of exhibiting art?
Fundamentally, I used to question the gallery-oriented system. It has become a ritual ~ hiring gallery walls and inviting some people, who are genuinely indifferent to my art. The critics come and write something. Then, bringing all the works back and turning them against my walls… For art, this is not required. I might as well paint in my room and keep quiet.
Yet, after I paint for two or three years, I exhibit for just five days. It is only for these five days that the paintings are alive. When I keep them in my room, they are totally dead even to me because I don’t remember painting them.
Do you have a strong stance on pricing a work of art and exhibiting to sell?
There is something unethical about selling. The pricing of a painting pains me. I can put on a price tag. If somebody buys the painting, I can get money to buy canvas and to meet part of my expenditure. But I can never impress myself by saying, “This is a good work. You take it.” Because it is something I have done for my own pleasure. There are some works I cannot bear to part with. There are others I don’t want to keep. If I sell these, a question arises ~ if I don’t like them, how can I sell them to others?
Somebody else may ask, “After all, it is four annas worth of paper. Why are you selling it for Rs. 400?” I reply, “It is the first time this is being impressed upon the human retina. For that alone, the work is worth a huge amount.” But in order to appreciate these things, one must belong to a visual culture.
How do you feel about the organised art set-up, especially the Lalit Kala Akademi? Is it a boon to artists?
The Lalit Kala Akademi began with great intentions, but it has become a degenerate body. It can annihilate isolated art activities in the country by collective neglect. It has never got to the grassroots. (Angrily) In a democracy like India, even now Mussolini’s children are living in the Akademi set-up. They are unapproachable. If you write, they will not reply. If you protest, they will send you a regret letter.
Its annual exhibition in Delhi is a major thing. Once you exhibit your work there, you are put on an electoral roll for their general council, exhibition committee, purchasing committee. In such circumstances, manipulation of the voter’s list gains more importance than the country’s art.
Personally, I have not benefited (from the Akademi). You might misinterpret this and say I am talking out of vendetta. But even if I am given an award, I will always be critical because, in the end, all academies pollute the set-up.
Why does the public response to art in India tend towards apathy?
I do not blame the public. The education system is to be blamed for this. At school, I studied Moghul history at least five times. Instead, if they had introduced one lesson on art or artists, it would have been helpful. Here, people talk about plastic heroes and film stars in daily conversation. No one talks of a painter.
Is art criticism and art writing relevant to your world?
Personally, no artist is benefited by criticism. In fact, the critic is a great nuisance, a peeping Tom. But when he writes well about me, I’m happy about it. (Laughing aloud) It affects my ego. When he writes adversely or ignores me, I think he is a ridiculous fellow. However, even when he praises me, I fear he is consecrating a particular approach to my art. I don’t want to be contained by any canon or dogma.
In the long run, certain critics have been helpful in creating a movement. And how would we know about the art being done in other parts of the world without writing on art?
Critics are always talking about technique. They can only see what is happening on the surface of an artist’s world. When a man pours out red on his canvas, it may be due to some personal tragedy. When the land under his feet erodes, something very vital happens to his art. This is dictated by the very source of his life, not by any external agency. The critic will never be able to understand the biological processes behind art.
(Reflectively) A funny thing happened last year. I was planning to write about my experiences as an artist. I wrote quite a lot. Then, I came across what Wassily Kandinsky had written on art. I found that 50 years ago, he had written all that I wanted to say. So, I tore up all I had written.
Do you consider your own work inspired?
Because I didn’t study under any particular teacher, I think all my works are inspired. I’m very lucky that I didn’t study anywhere. I have no regard for fine art being taught, and a degree being awarded for it. Fine art cannot be taught, though that may be required for other disciplines.
Would you like to talk about your recent series of symbolic drawings?
It is always a great test, how to control a thin line. In drawing, you cannot bluff. In painting, you can always do some patchwork. But a line is a very honest thing. (Intensely) It is something like your signature. You can’t correct it. You have only the strength of your line to guide you.
In the meantime, a lot of my dream images have surfaced. If I render my dreams as drawings, they will be just illustrations. I have tried to substitute a sense of order through stylization. If you see five or six scattered images, you immediately want to form a relationship between them. They form a certain pattern. The rhythm is always there. As I draw, forms emerge. I love these forms.
When I was young, I used to dream of a reptile that looked like a hydra. I do not know where these primordial memories came from. For years, it haunted me. But slowly I refined it. I trimmed it as a child trims paper patterns. Then, it resembled a reptile one could love.
What does this abstract phase in your work mean to you?
In 1977, I was working on a large canvas. I sketched the main figures. But when I was filling up the blank spaces with an eye to a beautiful composition, it came to me too easily. There was no feedback, except a whitewasher’s delight in covering up a surface.
I was at a loss. Then, life gave me a catharsis. I found myself entering an argument with colour. I followed my instinct, the need of the hour, pouring out reds and mauves and blues. I started talking to myself in small, inaudible whispers. That was the beginning of my abstract phase.
By abstraction, I don’t mean spoofing reality. (Pausing to think) The world and semblances are all forgotten. I worshipped at the shrine of colour. When one goes to the essence of colour, one enters the fringes of light. I tried to tame this light.
At one stage, I felt a feedback like a fish nibbling at a bait. You can pull in the cord, the fish and bait, all intact. But you can never hold the live fish in your hand. Either you tear its mouth or you set free the fish, the hook and the bait. Such is abstraction.
The best abstracts are never painted. They are held in the painter’s vision, casting a spell on all that he sees. In a painting, abstraction is a great ideal. I repeat myself till I am tired, like a great tree gone mad with flowers. A tree doesn’t count its flowers.
When I took to abstraction, I found that by a juxtaposition of certain colours a new harmony comes to the canvas. People point out that it doesn’t refer to anything. Then, what is the norm? In fact, there is no norm in abstraction. Abstraction is but a total disembodied reality. That is because painting is a very autonomous thing. It exists for itself. If it comes to a question of what guides me, I reply: my total visual sense.
But from the moment I took to colour, like a mighty river entering a gorge, I have felt the fullness of life within me. If I were asked to stop painting completely, I would sprinkle colour on a mountain stream and watch it flow.
(Indian Express, Madras/ Chennai, 1980)