Badri Narayan brought to life many fabulous tales through his endearing paintings, recalls Giridhar Khasnis.
The unicorn is an animal of the legends. Regarded as a symbol of both purity and virility, it is generally depicted as having the head and body of a horse with a long tapering horn in the middle of its forehead. Legend also has it that the swift and fierce animal could be trapped only by a virgin.
“A virgin, preferably both beautiful and naked, bound to a tree,” explain British authors Richard Barber and Anne Riches in A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts (1971), “at which the unicorn, attracted by a creature as rare and chaste as itself, would approach and meekly lay its head in her lap; and this would so entrance it that it could easily be killed by the hunter waiting in ambush.”
Badri Narayan, who passed away last month, aged 84, was one of the few Indian artists who portrayed the unicorn consistently in his work. “For me, it is a symbol of righteousness,” he explained, when we met him at his home in Bangalore a few days before his demise.
With exceptional clarity and understanding, he also spoke of many mythical tales, be they from the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha, or Buddhist and other religious texts. Obviously, it came easy for the well-informed and cultured octogenarian who had, for more than five decades, brought many a mysterious tale alive in his simple yet striking paintings.
Born in Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh, in 1929 to a Mysore Iyengar family, Badri was second of five brothers. He grew up in different cities, thanks to his father who, as a working journalist, faced several transfers. Moving to Bombay in his early 20s, Badri made that city his karmabhoomi.
Self-taught in art, Badri showed early maturity. “When the eminent artist K K Hebbar saw my work, he asked me from which school I had learnt to draw and paint,” recalled Badri. “He could not believe when I told him that I had never stepped inside an art school.”
Hebbar (1911-1996) was impressed by the young man’s natural talent; he was to also play the role of a matchmaker and get Badri married to his niece Indira in 1958.
Bonding with children
Badri became a prolific artist and was very much a part of the vibrant art scene in Bombay. But he continued to live frugally, and to keep himself afloat, worked at the Vitrum studio at Kemp’s Corner in South Bombay as a ceramic and mosaic artist. There he came under the tutelage of Simon Liebschetz, a naturalised German citizen and a specialist in polished glass. Simon’s secretary, Martha Wartenberger, a Russian Jew, encouraged Badri in his artistic pursuits and virtually became his godmother.
Badri later taught art to children at Bombay International School and penned scores of short stories which were published in magazines like the Illustrated Weekly of India, Marg as well as the Transatlantic Review, USA. He also illustrated several books, including the Indian Mythical Heroines by R N Saletort; Some Street Games of India by Mulk Raj Anand; The Mahabharata and In Worship of Shiva by Shanta Rameshwar Rao; and The Ramayana by Lakshmi Lal. His own books for children carried both lucid text and attractive illustrations; they were lapped up by people of all ages and are remembered by many to this day.
Badri developed a natural and special bond with children and loved to be in their midst. “I was a practising painter, impractical in the ways of the world and in total ignorance of how to impart lessons in art to the young,” he once wrote. “I felt I had embarked on an unfruitful venture, but I discovered myself through my natural affection and admiration for children and made the attempt to re-orientate myself closely to their manner of thinking and their unaffected visual expressions. I soon felt rewarded, for, in these very children, I found a surprising freshness, and my task perhaps became less to teach art and more to appreciate the element of children as living creative ingredients... I felt no tutor then, but an eager participant along with them, in the process of learning.”
In Bombay, Badri and his family lived in a small house without complaint. “Working in Mumbai’s small urban spaces, Badri Narayan has used such cramped conditions sagely,” observed critic Keshav Malik. “The reason in his case may well be that his empathic touch with the overall simple India has not been lost, as in the case of many of the artists in pursuit of a good life.”
Malik explains how the painter was saturated with the lore of the past and how this had served him well. “Literary content is imperative for him, the one that stems from the higher registers — epics as well as sacred texts. All this spirituality is resorted to without loss to his personal critical perspicuity. It is in this way that have come his figures, murals, ceramics, tiles, mosaic work, book illustrations, script-writing and much else besides. Consequently, the core of his works has gained metaphoric weight.”
Malik also recalls that many of Badri’s early works were high watermarks and commanded respect from discerning viewers, while several of his compositions “were superbly stark, almost stone-cut and apocalyptic.” His later works became more integrated, eminently soothing, dream-state housescapes, resembling vast stage backdrops that nevertheless carried the conviction of lived reality. “Some of these, when accompanied by the symbol of the unicorn, were exceptionally honed and well-tuned in colour and tone.”
Even as he remained entranced in the fast-changing art world, Badri followed his own path with conviction and produced work which drew immensely from folklore, the jatakas and the puranas. “Firm in his convictions, Badri has refused to follow changing fashions in art,” wrote art critic Ranjit Hoskote, “He has chosen to remain steadfast in the use of a particular pictorial language, a stylised figurative idiom that combines an intimacy of treatment with public intelligibility. Individualistic and even idiosyncratic as Badri’s style can be, no viewer can complain that his paintings are obscure or difficult to understand.”
While his contemporaries (including the Progressives) marketed themselves cleverly, Badri remained somewhat naοve and indifferent to world ways. Quite innocently, he would hand over his prolific output to a Bombay gallerist, and accept the pittance which was paid in return. He never ever bargained for better rates; on the contrary, he continued to put his entire harvest in the hands of the gallery owner. Only over a period of time did he realise that he was being exploited, and that the gallery was selling his paintings for exorbitant rates. When we met him last month, Badri was so bitter about the experience that tears welled up his eyes in pain. “Tell me, why did he do that to me?” he asked. “I trusted him completely.”
In his final days, Badri had become weak and was not in good health. He was nevertheless a picture of grace and warmth as ever. It is a sad commentary of our times that when he breathed his last on September 23, hardly a newspaper or magazine in the country carried an appropriate obituary; no meaningful condolence meetings were held. But given his life-long abhorrence for hype and hard sell, it could well have been to his liking.
Badri may be gone, but his vast repertoire of creative output remains etched in one’s memory. His mythical characters, metaphoric symbols and meaningful images will continue to haunt and mesmerise us. Who can ever forget those regal kings and princes; charming queens and fairies; birds and beasts; gods and demons; monks and mendicants; purusha and prakriti? And of course, the awesome and unforgettable unicorn?