|Portrait by Mallikarjun Katakol|
(This interview took place in March 1992)
HIS EARLIEST artistic memories are of his mother, who painted cutouts and figures for a family Dussehra in the old-world city of Mysore, where life flows at a timeless pace. Her colours and brushes, amidst the festive bustle, fascinated him. But there were other moments, other icons. The child would watch agog as his uncle worked with his stretched canvases, and he would tune in to tales of how his great-grandfather ~ an ayurvedic doctor ~ had sculpted in stone.
Inevitably, despite parental opposition, the boy defied the family to study art. The passage of time has moulded him into an artist named S G Vasudev. A founder-member of the Cholamandal artists’ village, outside Madras, he presents his recent drawings ~ titled The Line ~ at the Pundole Art Gallery in Bombay till March 21, 1992.
What is special about Vasudev’s line drawings? Unrestricted expression imbues their flow and play. Momentary ideas, like stray strands, intertwine, then veer apart. Moods beckon, then disperse, summoning up colours through fluid, circuitous lines.
Thematically, both integration and individualism come to the fore. Man and beast, tree, reptile, earth, sky and fruit, evoke a celebration of life through their inherent contradictions and alliances. In Vasudev’s world, each element is placed within its special orbit, both at ease with itself and with each other. Communing with this imaginary natural universe, the artist is immersed in belonging, never an outsider.
Vasudev’s work has meandered through many themes and media down the years. His mastery of oils, copper reliefs and the line have traversed Fantasies of real and unreal forms, Maithuna or the act of love, the Vriksha series that flowered for years, and the more recent drawings of He and She.
His is a multi-faceted talent. His paintings have been exhibited all over India, in addition to Havana, Paris, Brussels, Vienna, Prague, and New York. He was the art director for the award-winning Kannada films Samskara and Vamsa Vriksha. He has designed book jackets for writers like A K Ramanujam, U R Ananthamurthi and Girish Karnad.
How does the world view Vasudev? As one of the most popular and hospitable people at Cholamandal. As a tender and devoted husband to fellow-artist Arnawaz before cancer took her life in 1988. As an individual who cares passionately about art in a technology-centric world.
In conversation, Vasudev couches his strong views in a gentle voice that seldom rises to a shrill treble of protest or defiance or anger. His spatulate fingers shape nuances in the air as he elaborates on an answer. He seems to be poised in mid-career, all set to take wing.
Here’s a pen portrait of the artist as a gentleman, not yet engulfed by the call of commerce:
Was the painter K C S Paniker, your principal at the Madras Government College of Arts and Crafts, a major influence on you?
When I got a national scholarship for painting in 1964, I joined directly under Paniker. (Wistfully) He never made us feel he was a teacher; he was a friend, philosopher and guide to me. His studio was always open, and I could talk to him about anything. It was good to discuss our work every day with a teacher of his standing. He’d talk about his own painting, and how the arrangement in my painting was helping him with his! It was as if both of us were learning at the same time. He gave us the freedom to work as and when we wanted to.
He gave a very good direction to those who were his best students ~ Viswanadhan, Adimoolam, Bhaskaran, I ~ because he felt we could build a very good centre in Madras. He’d even help us out with personal problems that we could not discuss with our parents. Gradually, that’s how the idea of Cholamandal came about…
Now that Cholamandal is 25 years old, what do you feel has gone wrong between the dream that was and what exists now?
Look, in the 1960s, there was no financial or media support available for us in Madras. We were in our twenties and willing to work very hard to build up Cholamandal. But as we grew older and as some of us became successful, problems like jealousies and friction were bound to arise. And, in a small place, everything tends to get magnified. (Thoughtfully) But I feel Cholamandal has succeeded in what Paniker set out to do. He felt if 30 to 40 painters, living together, could produce five or six artists of some calibre over the next 20 years, Cholamandal would have served its purpose. It has.
You know, people always think of Cholamandal as a school. They’ve never understood that it is a community in which every artist is an individual.
Did it make a difference to Cholamandal to have a woman artist like Arnawaz in its midst?
If Arnawaz hadn’t been there, Cholamandal would have been totally different. One strong, outspoken woman like that changed the basic attitudes and concepts of people around. Otherwise, most of the other artist’s wives were very timid.
Now, I’m glad a strong person like painter Subha De lives in Cholamandal. I know most of the artists are not very comfortable when Subha talks to them because she has such strong opinions. But it’s good for them. They should argue things out.
Is something major happening in the world of Indian women painters today?
Well, it’s great to see artists like Rekha Rodwittiya, Vasudha Thozhur, Nalini Malani, Arpana Kaur, Arpita Singh and Jayashree Chakravarthy, confident and proud of their work. I admire their strong personalities, their statements, their involvement.
I don’t know how their husbands have taken their success, though. For instance, Arpita’s husband, Paramjit Singh, is a very popular painter. But Arpita is better known than him now…
What childhood experiences shaped you?
My earliest impressions are of my mother in Mysore, where I was born in 1941. She was an amateur painter of realistic, impressionistic subjects, including landscapes and fairly good copies of masterpieces. Most of her work was done before we were born. By then, she had already won some major awards in Mysore. After her marriage, she settled in Bangalore. She probably inherited her talent from her grandfather, an ayurvedic physician, who painted and sculpted in soapstone.
What were your initial yearnings towards art like?
I drew a little when I was very young, but nothing very special. I attended a college in Bangalore to do my B.Sc. because my parents wanted me to, but I never completed the course. In college I often did caricatures and cartoons of political and cricket personalities. I loved the game and drew G S Ramchand, Polly Umrigar, Hazare, Vijay Merchant…
I was influenced by the famous British cartoonist David Low and copied his style. My pen sketches were published in prominent publications of those times, like Samyukta Karnataka, Prajamata and Thainadu.
What brought you to arts college?
The well-known art critic in Bangalore, G Venkatachalam, helped me to go to arts college. He persuaded my parents to send me to the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Madras in 1960 and gave me a letter of introduction to Paniker.
My father used to send me some money, but it wasn’t sufficient. I didn’t want to ask him for more, so I earned extra money by drawing and doing stylized headlines for the Kannada edition of Soviet Land.
I was surprised when the national scholarship for painting was awarded to me. For the next two years, I had to choose someone as my mentor, I chose Paniker. We worked till late at night. We talked for hours. It was Paniker who taught me about the creative removal of colours. He’d say, “You can have any number of colours on a canvas. What is important is how to restrict or remove them…”
When I returned to college after a two-year scholarship, my new class included a young Parsi girl, Arnawaz, whom I later married.
|She and Tree, 61 x 61cm, 2006|
Would you be able to trace phases that your work has traversed?
At college and just after, I did a series called Fantasies, which were thick impastos with lines scooped into the surface. I created fantasies from real and unreal human forms, birds, mountains, shells…
Around 1969, I began a series on Maithuna or the act of love. Yes, it is an old theme in painting. Perhaps I started on it because I had met Arnawaz. (Dreamily) To me, maithuna is not just about man and woman, but also about the sun and the moon, the earth and the sky, the stars and the clouds. My world is animistic. In it, bird and reptile, fish and fowl, seed and fruit, man and woman, live together in undulating hills and peaks seething with life.
Once in Dharwar, I came across the Kalpa Vriksha Vrindavana, a work by the modern Kannada poet D R Bendre. The kalpavriksha or Tree of Life soon grew to take centre-stage in my work. It was drawn from Indian myth. Later, at an exhibition in Delhi in the 1970s, someone asked me if I had read Roger Cook’s book, The Tree of Life. When I read it, I realized that all religions and most artists and craftsmen have used the tree as a motif at some time or the other. Take Mondrian, Miro, Klee… In Indian mythology, we have the Bodhi tree.
All these elements went into the making of the series and later copper reliefs, after I learnt repousse from Kuppuswamy, a traditional craftsman who came to stay in Cholamandal after retiring from the art college.
In 1983, when Arnawaz fell very ill, my tree took in the cycle of life, death and rebirth. Though I never consciously thought about it, it grew to become the Tree of life and death. Then, for nearly four years, I didn’t have any exhibitions in India.
But over 1989-90, many things I’d already done over the past 10 to 15 years came back to me. I found I wanted to paint. I wanted to get things out of my system. In some of my recent work, you can find influences of my earlier work.
For instance, I was always fascinated by portraits while in college. In trying to break away from the tree motif some years ago, I brought in a human element. The tree is still there, but the head is now becoming more prominent in my work. The heads grew into two new series of drawings ~ He and She.
In late 1989, I’d designed the sets for B V Karanth’s production of Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana in New Delhi. That set me off on a series of drawings with the same title. Do you remember how the main character in the play sets out in search of a human head?
|Theatre of Life, 91 x 91 cm, 2001|
Why is it important for a south Indian artist to exhibit in Bombay and Delhi?
If I’d exhibited my work in Bombay or Delhi more often, it would have made a difference to my career. I would have been better known because that’s where one gets maximum publicity and commercial success. Because there’s so much of all-India publicity generated from these cities, it’s not important for a north Indian artist to come south, though.
I felt this when, after three or four successful shows in Bombay between 1967 and 1974, I didn’t exhibit there for a while. When I went back to visit after shifting to Bangalore, I found everything had changed in Bombay ~ attitudes to art as an investment, prices for work by my contemporaries had rocketed…
I’d always fixed my prices according to lifestyles in Madras, and then Bangalore. I realised that artists who’d come five or ten years after me were selling more than I was. It’s not that they were better artists; it’s just that they were in the market. That’s why I want to exhibit in Bombay and Delhi more often.
Given the current worldwide recession and the state of the Indian economy, is the current system of pricing art justified?
In India, Bombay decides the prices. Pricing a painting high in India doesn’t make sense because you’re not really helping work to get into many homes. You’re confining it to industrial houses or the homes of the very rich.
If an artist like Tyeb Mehta does only four or five works a year, I can understand him pricing each very high. But what about others, who paint 20 to 30 works every month? (Excitedly) Why should each of their paintings sell for one lakh? Is it necessary? Will they be able to sustain their prices?
This places an artist like me in a dilemma. I can’t have one price for Bombay, another for Madras. I’d like even the average middle-class person to buy my work. So, where should I place myself?
(The Independent, Bombay/ Mumbai, 1992)