An interview with C. Douglas is rather like spending a couple of hours wandering through one of his tortured grey-black canvases filled with dark symbolism and cryptic metaphor. There are no straight answers to be had from this celebrated artist, no simple facts to be gleaned, no easy conclusions to be drawn.
“The hallmark of a good poem or painting is that you can keep interpreting, interpreting, interpreting,” he says at one point, as we sit at his work table, surrounded by pots filled with mud (a regular ingredient of his artworks), battered paint brushes, and books of intense Russian poetry. “What you get from it when you’re 16 isn’t what you get from it at 50. It isn’t a finished product.”
Douglas’ telling of his own artistic journey has a similar sense of open-endedness. He describes it at different times as a process of “learning and unlearning”, an “eternal postponement” in finding the meaning or essence of life, and a fight against losing our past, our history (“memory is so important, yet ignorance and forgetfulness is waiting for all of us like death,” he says. “The struggle of every artist and writer is to save us from forgetting.”)
‘Suffering’, ‘loss’, ‘struggle’… these are words that feature often in his narrative, but it wouldn’t be right to label Douglas the classic ‘tortured artist’. There’s too much contentment in his cosy existence in the tiny cottage (charmingly framed by flowering creepers) he owns at Cholamandal Artists’ Village, too much warmth in the companionship he shares with Zen, the improbably-named street dog he’s adopted, and too much enjoyment in his easy friendship with neighbourhood kids (“Hi pattas thatha!” a little guy squeaks as he alights from his auto after school — there is, apparently, a rather sweet story behind that moniker.)
As we speak, it also emerges that Douglas, today, feels a certain sense of comfort in being part of the city’s art scene. “I feel inter-related to the art world in Chennai,” he says, “I don’t feel alienated at all, otherwise I’d go away to Baroda or Mumbai. Chennai is home; I’m happy to stay here and contribute.”
His relationship with the city stretches back to the early 1970s, when he came to Madras from his native Kerala in search of an escape from boredom. “I wasn’t completely conscious of the reasons why, but I was unhappy and bored in those days, going about reading existentialist literature (which everyone was doing in the 1970s),” he says with a smile.
He was already drawn to art (“‘art is the flight from boredom’, as Nietzsche says”), and had studied under Balan Nair in Tellicherry. In 1971, his search led him to the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Madras, and there, he found an unexpected sense of belonging.
“I started coming to Cholamandal on weekends, and spending time with people such as K.C.S. Paniker and K. Ramanujam,” he says. “Through them, I found meaning to go on. They gave me understanding, a sense of faith. I remember, once the art critic Josef James told me, ‘Douglas, you’ll be taken care of here’.”
He adds thoughtfully. “I think that’s the important difference I found between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, this idea of faith, of nambikkai — not religious faith, but faith in life.”
In the years that followed, Douglas came to be known as one of the eminent artists to emerge from the Madras Art Movement. But his travels weren’t done. His marriage to Mona, a theatre artiste he met at Max Mueller Bhavan in Madras took him away to Germany for a large chunk of the 1980s, during which time some of the most distinctive aspects of his mature artistic style came together.
The result are the paintings that art lovers and collectors are today familiar with — works on textured, tortured paper, worked over in mud, resin and charcoal, filled with poetry, human angst, and, in his words, disaster. “I love the fragility of paper, that it can be torn and frayed, that it can at any time fall apart,” he says. “I sometimes wonder if I should switch to canvas for my larger works, but it’s too stretched and strong, too brave.”
Canvas is, in other words, the very antithesis of all that powerfully attracts Douglas about life — its evanescence and its frailty, its pain and its struggle. So are the expensive ‘art shop’ materials he largely eschews — “I took a vacation once and painted on nice paper, with nice materials, but then went back to my poor man’s paper and mud,” he says.
In the early 1990s, Douglas returned to Chennai and to Cholamandal, his place of comfort and belonging, and purchased his little nook in the village. But even today, the notion of ‘contentment’ sits uncomfortably on this 60-year-old’s shoulders. “There’s danger in being contented,” he says shaking his head. “Art is about wounds.”