|Viswanadhan: at home in Paris and elsewhere|
A homecoming of sorts, after two decades. In the guise of a four-venue exhibition of caseins on canvas at Madras, Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay from September 1991 to January 1992. Influenced byTantric rituals stemming from boyhood, J Swaminathan’s Sixties experiments, K C S Panicker’s neo-Tantric art. Rites of transition through the black paintings, yellow, then red paintings. Later, in 1968, won the Lalit Kala Akademi’s National Award. His chosen mode today: Pure abstracts.
Just mere clues. To a mere Paris-based painter named Viswanadhan.
Why have I come back to exhibit here? I’ve always wanted to, but the occasion wasn’t right. Last January, when I met (arts writer) Rupika Chawla in Delhi ~ she had talked to me in Paris while writing a book on artists’ techniques ~ she suggested galleries which might show my work. I got in touch with one, which agreed on a show. However, later when I wrote to them, they did not even bother to reply. They could have at least told me what the problem was. Later, I got in touch with Gallery Espace in Delhi, which coordinated this show.
You know, in the early 1970s, at a show in Delhi, I had a very bitter experience. Most of my paintings sold out on the first day. But when I got back from Kerala a week later, the people at the gallery remarked: ‘You have very good friends.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘Some of the buyers have declined to take the works because their artist friends put in a word,’ they replied. I was discouraged by an art world that was so political and dirty.
Now, how did I get to Paris? Well, in 1968, when I was just out of the Madras College of Arts and Crafts, a friend of S G Vasudev’s was organising a contemporary Indian art show in Europe. He said that a participating artist could travel with the show, if he could raise the air fare. I sold some of my paintings and my friends helped me with the air fare.
I travelled for six months and visited Paris just before my return home. I was there just for two weeks, during which period an important gallery saw my work and asked me if I was interested in working with them. I had no money. They bought my work, so that I could paint. After a year, I had a show there. When I went to the gallery, I had no visiting card, no recommendation, and nobody knew me. They saw me and accepted me. That’s it.
Yes, an artist’s life is tough, very tough. But in Paris, there is always a chance to find a place. There are about 350 commercial galleries (and about 80,000 artists), so the field is wide open. You can move from gallery to gallery. In fact, I’m the only Indian working with a professional gallery in Paris (apart from Shakti Burman).
Look, in the Indian art schools, we’ve still got a western way of teaching, not like the sthapatis or miniature painters. Our reference books were always about Europe, especially Paris. We knew Whistler and Turner existed, but our point of identification was Paris. What Cezanne and Gauguin did. Or Van Gogh, for that matter.
When I was accepted by a gallery in Paris, it did not seem strange. It seemed natural. I was happy. Yes, Paris has shaped my life in many ways. The concept of freedom as an artist exists there. Nobody says: ‘You are a painter, so go and paint’.
When I wanted to experiment with film, the French Culture Ministry gave me a green signal and asked me to go ahead. Exchanges between the media exist so easily there. People first accept you as an artist, then say, ‘So, what are you going to do?’
Earth hues on canvas. A geometry beyond nature. Rhythms from everyday life. The breakaway poetry of abstraction. In combinations of red, yellow and green. Casein to paint with. Fixing bright pigments. A translucent ebb and flow across reclaimed visual space. Irreverent colour chemistry, traversing the territory of ideas. Expanding beyond the square frames. Oils. Acrylic. Sand. Canvas. Casein.
Each, a challenging medium. On the canvases of Viswanadhan.
I like adventure. I’m still experimenting with my art. I used to paint in oils and acrylic, but I kept looking for a technique that suited my temperament. I came to casein on canvas. It is an old technique, used by Albrecht Durer. Such paintings are conserved well for hundreds of years, unlike oils. Acrylic, they say, is lasting.
Nobody else is using this technique. So, I discovered a book that showed how it is done. First, I made my own paneer, dried it and mixed it with choonam (lime water). This becomes a very strong glue. As you grind the pigment with the casein, you are both physically and mentally involved. It takes time. Like a ritualistic prayer. Then, you reach this abstract moment when you lay the colour on, look at it and feel happy. It is like preparing to fall in love. It is with the same care, attention and dedication that you realise your love.
Very often, geometric or abstract painting is considered inhuman. That’s because we don’t understand there is geometry in our own pulses, in nature, in the movements we repeat throughout our lives. Geometry is so essential, so pure. Perhaps we’re afraid of this purity.
When I look back at my semi-figurative red paintings, I am satisfied. Because I also realise I’ve travelled from there. Because all our lives, we’re looking for meaning. So, how can I be content with one form or one way of doing things? For me, all that you learn is more important than what you see on the canvas. These concepts are art.
You have also to learn to stand up for your art, prove its worth, plead for it. You can’t say, ‘I do good art, but nobody wants me,’ and sit back and cry. That’s why art schools in Europe today teach artists to deal with society, place their art in a social context, and make a living out of what they’re doing.
Within my limits, I’ve still so much to explore. That’s why I also make films. It is a passion.
The flame licks at the edge of the frame, blurring time. Lighting up half-focussed thoughts. Illuminating the schism between looking and seeing. Frame after frame. As a Parsi priest worships in a fire temple. As a Teyyam dancer in northern Kerala whirls amidst a flurry of torches. As a blacksmith hammers at red-hot metal. As a muscled hand starts a fire with two flints.
Images from ‘Fire… Feu… Agni,’ a film by Viswanadhan.
I use film as a medium for observing, looking into nature and the nature of things. Contemplation. I don’t give it a direction or a commentary, meaning or symbolism. You’re seeing what I’m seeing. It’s a very abstract process. I have a theme, an idea, but I have no script. My films are works of memory.
It all began in 1976, a turning point in my life. I was travelling through Germany by car to see clients. I remember being hit from behind. Later, somebody was stitching my forehead and I cried out from the pain of the needle. The doctor asked, ‘Who are you? What’s your name? Where are you from?’ I realised, with shock, that he was looking at a body with a name and an identity card number.
I wondered what it means to say you’re an Indian. What is this India, this Indianness? I imagined a map of India, surrounded by water. I wanted to follow that line and trace something Indian in me. Because each of us carries an India within him or her.
When I returned to Paris and told my friends I wanted to make a film, they asked, ‘What do you need?’ I collected money and material to make a film. I talked to Adoor (Gopalakrishnan) about this. He and other friends joined the trip. For me, moving is an important part of making a movie. Travelling from place to place for two months, coming to images which move for you.
I first made Sand (1982) along the coast. We travelled to Puri, Dwarka, Mahabalipuram, all ancient ports. Today, what do you find? The shore temple at Mahabalipuram is carved by the wind, crumbling to sand. What a story the sand could tell! I collected some sand and some living images to make an abstract/concrete relationship.
Watching the dynamism of the waves beating against the rocks along the coast led me to images of water. I learnt that which flows fast is Ganga ~ a synonym for water throughout Indian civilization. Like the sequence of an old woman in the water who lifts a small pot, pours out water, over and over again for three minutes. That gave us a whole definition of life. (Water/Ganga, 1985, has won awards in France, Italy and Spain).
In Fire (1989), the dancers, the blacksmith, the poojari are doing what they normally do. I haven’t asked them to. I’ve only watched them. Who am I to give directions when the camera already determines, once you pick your frame and lens? I respect the sahaja in the spectator, the natural way of receiving, perceiving feeling, doing, even saying. Unlike water, we hesitate before the idea of fire. You don’t dare to touch a fiery image, however fascinating. It may burn. You don’t play with it.
Honestly, I have a feeling that I’m still a student. I can still discover with surprise and delight what already exists. Even if I’m only an artist with a limited canvas.
A tall, spare frame, an aureole of frizzy hair, a trifle grizzled. Years, 51 of them, sit lightly on his mind. His voice laced with fluted laughter. Probes each thought, teasing it to life. Each moment is questioned, each concept stood on its head. An intrinsic explorer. Still brimming with wonder. An individual named Viswanadhan.
Breeze-hewn, thatch-roofed, wood-beamed. The cottage nestles among casuarinas, on the sands of the Cholamandal artists’ village, on the outskirts of Madras. Through the large, barred windows, the sunken-in space within beckons. With half-complete abstract canvases across trestle tables. Open shelves, home to a jostling array of radiant pigments and a jar of powdered casein. A naked light bulb pinpoints earlier work, ensconced under a raised wooden dais. A lived-in mezzanine overlooks an adjacent cottage.
Framed against his sit-out, turning in, painter/film-maker Viswanadhan shares thoughts… theories… memories, as each grain of sand awakens to reflect a star: ‘If you can listen to the birds and understand what they are saying, maybe you will understand your own language better. Remember what Dostoyevsky said: Life itself is much richer than any novel you can write…’
His words trail away in the evening air, adrift in his reclaimed, back-from-Paris, room with a view.
(Originally published in Gallery, Economic Times, September 29, 1991)