|Portrait by KN Raghavendra Rao|
(This interview took place in December 1980)
OVALS WITHIN ovals. Circles within circles. Flame forms. Bull heads. Lotus petals. Negative and positive mask heads. Floral motifs. Vertical lines. Triangles. Rectangles. Is there a correlation between them? Where do they mingle and merge and diverge? The interactions and balances between these diverse forms form the core of K V Haridasan’s paintings and drawings, which combine these elements with a mastery of colour and space. Composition and colour fuse through the artist’s penchant for philosophy.
To Haridasan, Tantra is much more than the subject of his art. It is, indisputably, the essence of his life.
Born in the Cannanore district of Kerala in 1937, Haridasan graduated with a degree in psychology from Presidency College in Madras before opting for art. He earned a first class diploma in fine arts from the Government College of Arts and Crafts and bagged an Indian Government cultural scholarship from 1965 to 1968.
He was one of ten modern Indian Tantric painters in the Man and his World exhibition in Montreal in 1971. Besides participating in the Paris Biennale in 1971, and the Second Indian Triennale (1971), Haridasan has held one-man shows in Madras, Calcutta and New Delhi. He has visited France, Switzerland, Germany and the Soviet Union. Awards and critical acclaim have come his way.
Ever since 1979, Haridasan has been editing Artrends, the journal of the Progressive Painters Association. Haridasan recently shifted to Trivandrum to teach at the College of Fine Arts.
When Haridasan speaks, his voice emerges as a whisper. He often pauses to think. The sea breeze at his newly-constructed cottage in the Cholamandal Artists’ Village wafts away some of his words. He seems a little preoccupied the day we meet him, the day of his grihapravesham or house-warming.
His words ebb and flow with transient moods. He laughs easily. A hand occasionally gestures to accentuate his speech. The other hand tames his grey-streaked hair and beard. His conversation, as it emerges, takes on a basic, timeless quality:
What was special about your formative years?
My childhood was not very pleasant. Perhaps circumstances have made me a little more introspective than others. My father was a very religious man, so that may have influenced me. It taught me traditional values. I also read a lot, particularly English literature. There has been a good mixture of east and west in my background.
I have had an interest in art since childhood. I continued sketching and scribbling even during my high school and college days. I used to frequent art exhibitions in Madras. After graduation, I was not really happy about getting into a regular job. I just felt it didn’t seem to serve much purpose. (Laughs) So, I entered the arts college. It’s a question of bent of mind. I was interested in psychology and literature, you know. I think these were complementary interests.
How deep was the impact of your years at the arts college?
For me, it helped a lot. It’s more an atmosphere, a world of its own. It is creative. If you have a certain amount of independence in college, it helps a lot. If someone dominates you a lot, it can be a hindrance.
How modern an Indian artist are you?
We live in modern times and are influenced by modern trends. We are also looking into our Indian roots. It is a combination of both that evolves into a style. In looking towards tradition as a modern artist, it has here become a breaking of convention because we had got used to the style established by the British. It is a contradiction in terms, but we had to do it according to the peculiar circumstances we were in.
In the traditional, codified system, there was little freedom to explore. Norms were laid down by the guru at the ashram. A modern artist is supposed to have a lot of freedom and his expression is individualistic ~ because there is a background of breaking conventions and introducing new elements throughout the history of modern art.
What Indian elements feature in your work?
First, you have to consider whether anything is valid. (Slowly, drawing out the thoughts) I find there are certain attitudes which are relevant to modern times, attitudes which have traditionally been in Indian society. Such as the Tantric approach to life and art that I have brought into my work because it is very characteristic of the Indian approach.
Basically, the Indian philosophical system is mystical and metaphysical. Tantra has the same basis. You can find Tantric ideology in most of our art, culture, manners, rituals, dance, even music…
What was it about Tantra that proved attractive to you?
Partly because of my inclination ~ like choosing to study psychology and literature. If you go deep into any aspect of life, you reach into the metaphysical. So, why not self-decision? It’s almost like coming to terms with abstract art. As you paint, you find objective norms. Then, you reach up to the abstract level. It is much like certain basic elements in the Tantric approach to life. I am doing basically abstract painting. Only, it has been given an orientation the Tantric way.
When you deal with a fundamental form like the square, you come to a certain level after which you can’t go any further. That is the essence of the form. Tantric diagrams seem to have a power of their own because the whole of the cosmic phenomena are created with the very elements fundamental to life. These run through existence itself, though on the undersurface things seem to change.
What’s essentially Indian about Tantra?
As I see it, there is no area of Indian cultural activity where Tantra doesn’t enter. Everything in which ritual is involved is Tantric. The rituals are to create a certain bent of mind in those involved in them. Tantra is a method of yoga. Its purpose is to direct one psychologically towards spiritual attainment.
Tantra is basically a Dravidian concept, which has been taken over and systematised through a method of codification, directed into principles. The intellectual approach must have been partly the contribution of the Aryans.
(Charged with emotion) I personally feel that Tantra has its roots in the phenomenon of possession, and in the folk traditions that we find almost all over India among the lower classes. The result of it has been observation of life, expressed in terms of metaphor. It is very Indian. There is no parallel elsewhere. The various ways in which a goddess is described is basically an expression of what is nature, made into a doctrine. The peculiar aspect of our Hindu system is that a basically intellectual concept is made into idols, then the idols are turned into identification symbols. It is psychologically very complex.
After all, reaching for a god is an attempt to get some of the power of that god. That is something which an average person cannot comprehend. But once you enter into it, the Tantric experience is as real as anything else.
Can you possibly capture the complexities of Tantra in your paintings and drawings?
At the yogic level, Tantra has no limit. But at the visual level, it has certain limitations because it appeals to one sensibility among various sensibilities that people have. You have to understand the medium itself, and put it effectively in terms of visual impact. It is also subjective. It depends upon the person who sees it.
Do you view your art as self-expression?
Sometimes, if the individual artist has anything to express. (Fervently) We haven’t created most things. Colour ~ it is there in nature. We are just trying to crystallize what is in a jumble in all that we come across. I would call it self-realization. We come to a sort of understanding with our surroundings, some kind of harmony. Through an object of art, one can say we are trying to communicate what we have found to be a pattern of life.
The very fact that one decides to become an artist determines one’s age. One tries to remain very vital and active. That’s one great thing that art does to a person. So, I have been cultivating an attitude of search and discovery. That has to be retained. That is the basis of my approach, which is puritanical and direct. I just try to discover the relations of colours, the essentials of form, certain images…
Have other artists influenced you?
I have trained myself to appreciate many of them and I am a product of works of art down the ages. There are quite a number of Tantric artists now. It has almost become a trend. There are some in Delhi. Even in Madras, most artists have been influenced by the Tantric approach.
How do you feel about pricing your works and being judged by others in the context of the exhibition system?
An artist, like anyone else, is a social being. It comes from a natural inclination to show whatever one has achieved and whatever one has come to know to other people.
Prices are generally based on how a work stands on par with other paintings. After all, a work is the property of the individual who creates it. Art is considered invaluable. You cannot really fix a price, though you can put a tag on, according to existing norms of art. After all, any judgement has to be in terms of comparison.
When it comes to exhibitions, one has to compromise. Somebody experienced in the field has to select some works out of hundreds that are submitted for an exhibition, but vested interests and personal attitudes often interfere. For instance, Madras art may have little exposure in Delhi. So, out of sheer unfamiliarity, they think the work is poor. (Laughing) When art is exhibited, it becomes an object of contemplation. But most people are not willing to rise to that level. No training is needed for appreciation. Only one must learn to look.
How would you sum up your life in art?
Tantra, at its best, is a practical approach to a spiritually-oriented vision. This creates an art of pure vision, fields of colour, rhythm and harmony in forms which were not there on the surface levels of nature. They reveal a visionary abstract reality.
Tantra is a whole attitude towards life. How you view life around you, how it has emerged, what direction it is taking. That is why Tantra is still valid today ~ because it is an approach to individual fulfilment.
(Indian Express, Chennai/ Madras, 1980)