Category Archives: Art

Coverage of art and artists in the MetroPlus

Interview with… K. Muralidharan

Photo credit: R. Raghu

It’s hot, burning hot, in K. Muralidharan’s white-walled second floor studio. But still I linger, taking in the colours glimmering off the beautiful canvases in the noon-day heat. Elephants and monkeys and deer in burgundy and violet, mythical beings all in ivory and gold against a deep-blue celestial ocean, goddesses on a glowing golden yellow canvas…

“Colour is an endless joy for me,” says the senior artist, one of the stalwarts of the Madras Movement, as we retreat to the cooler lower floor of the house. “Any combination can be played with.”

That, of course, is one of the hallmarks of Muralidharan’s famous abstract figuratives — bright, playful colour, sometimes kitschy, sometimes earthy, always eye-catching. The other element that makes his works instantly recognisable is his use of mythological and animal figures and motifs.

“Indian mythology is like an ocean,” he says. “Each time I dip into it, it gives me something new.” He adds, “I grew up surrounded by mythological stories and folklore at home. It all came back to me later when I began working on my art.”

Cities and canvases

His current burst of inspiration, visible in these new works in his studio, however, come from a different source — the time he’s spent in Kolkata on and off since 2008, when his wife was transferred there in her public sector job. “At first I hesitated; Chennai was my home,” he says. “But going there was a boon. It’s a place steeped in art and culture, and once you live there, it engulfs you slowly.”

He spent his time there absorbing the art scene (“so lively and fresh”) and getting to know artists such as Jogen Chowdhury and Shuvaprasanna Bhattacharya. “It was like the conversations I’ve enjoyed with the artists of Cholamandal here; it rejuvenated me, sharpened my vision.”

Earlier this year, the artist returned home to Chennai, and has been working on a new series of large-scale works, with a 3-D wooden and bronze sculpture component worked in. His experiences in Kolkata are especially visible in his explorations of the feminine form — a blend of the contemporary and the mythological — and in a fresh fascination with texture and textile-like designs on his canvases.

But experiment though he may with texture and installation art, his primary focus remains the drawing, which, he says, is his gift from the masters of the Madras Movement. “Right from our days at the Government College of Arts and Crafts (he graduated in 1970), we learnt from the great masters such as L. Munuswamy, Alphonso Arul Doss and A.P. Santhanaraj not to lose sight of the drawing. It was always our forte.” He pauses. “That was truly the Golden Era of the Madras Movement.”

How it all began

Muralidharan owes his career in art to his elder brother, who, he says, wanted to be an artist himself, but wasn’t able to, due to family obligations. “When I finished school, he put me in the College of Art,” he says. Later, when the young artist gave up his job as a lecturer in the college (“I resigned within one week!” he laughs) and the entire family was furious with him, his brother was steadfast in supporting him. “He was so happy when I started getting recognition later on,” he says. “My sister too allowed me to stay with her when I was struggling… I’ll never forget all of their support.”

His turning point as an artist came with a scholarship to Sweden in the 1980s, when he was exposed to artists from around the world. “I realised the importance of creating work that reflected my experiences, and that was taken from our own soil,” he says.

Still, he struggled with finding a visual language that captured his thoughts. All that changed when he visited Hampi at the end of the decade. There, amongst the majestic religious ruins, he found “a new vision” for his paintings. “That is when I began the ‘Mystic Valley’ series, one of which won me the National Award in 1994,” he says.

And he’s never looked back, going on to exhibit internationally to wide acclaim. It was only recently, in 2010, when tragedy struck his family, and he lost his only son to cancer, that Muralidharan found himself unable to create. “It was a fatal blow to us. I didn’t work for nearly two years. Then I created a darkly personal set of works I’ve never let anyone see,” he says.

Back in the city which has always been his home, Muralidharan and his wife have been picking up the pieces of their life. She has devoted herself to religion and charity work, and he, once again, to his art. “Now I am a karmayogi,” he says. “I work 17, 18 hours a day, and don’t have time to think about anything else.”

“I live moment by moment. When I work, I’m happy. Art gives me a purpose for living.”

This article originally appeared in The Hindu Metroplus. You can find it here.

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Interview with… C. Douglas

Photo: S.S. Kumar

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.”

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