Colours of the mind

CREATIVE MATTER

Colours of the mind

SUBLIME The visual rhythm of art works.

In his long khadi kurta, with a beard and hairline that run unruly, a physique that hasn’t picked up flab even though he is touching seventy now, and a slow, studied speech that retains a native (Malayalam) accent, Velu Viswanadhan looks every inch the archetype genius artist living in a world of his own. Only, he is not really unrecognised or disconnected from the contemporary world. The fact is, the world has for long now recognised his genius and continues to lap up the paintings he churns out. The sway of his paintings is awesome, and it is not just because of their artistic merits. His paintings pulsate with energy.

Someone who has been working out of a dual base for long now — alternating between Paris, and the quaint Cholamandal Artists’ Village on the beautiful East Coast Road just outside Chennai, Viswanadhan started learning art at the School of Art and Crafts, Madras. His early work was figurative, and he later took the abstract route. “Yes. In a materialistic sense, my art is ‘abstract’.  And, it is worthwhile to ask if there is any art which is not abstract in essence?” he quizzes. Viswanadhan has won many international awards such as the International Award, Contemporary Art of Monte Carlo, besides Indian awards like the National Award from the Lalit Kala Akademi, and of course, his works have been featured at ‘one man shows’ and biennials and triennials around the world.

The veering towards abstraction was not a conscious decision, however. “In life, I have mostly been led from one point to another. Even becoming an artist was mostly determined by circumstances other than my own conscious decision,” he says. The abstraction just happened. With time, Viswanadhan had come to disassociate his canvass from resemblances, storytelling, and illustrating ideas. His lineage from a family of Viswakarmas or traditional craftsmen ensured that he was introduced to tantric mandalas, but he created his own organisation of geometric shapes in spectacular colours. 

He experimented with mediums, and in his work done in the 1970s, he even used gold and silver colours, Indian ink, etc. He elaborates, “I realised that ‘the feeling’ that an art work evokes comes from the 'matter' one uses for creation besides the story one wants to say. When I look at the great ‘art-monuments’, be it the Taj Mahal or the Ellora caves, the lessons those masterpieces give me is that ultimately “matter is the message”, as in time and space, where inspirations other than that concern to ‘the matter’ do not necessarily matter”.

As for the linear style of the Madras School, he sees it to be related to the visual rhythm that the art work presents to the viewer. “I don't think I can claim that I have broken away from what was taught to me and inspired me through my life. The line is a line - visible or invisible - leading one to the music of silence,” he says.

Arriving at Paris

ROOTED TO ART Viswanadhan believes that matter is the message. It was in 1968 that Viswanadhan first stepped foot on Paris. Unlike other Indians who arrived at Paris then, Viswanadhan hadn't come there to learn art, but to practice it. But there was no specific intention to seek a base at Paris. But when he came to Paris, he got energised by the enthusiasm his works evoked. His exploration of colour and geometry captivated the world and he became one of the first Indian artists who were accepted by the west - on his own terms and artistic language. Some gallery owners there offered to display his works. He looks back, “I thought it was a real recognition to someone like me who had come with no recommendations or visiting cards. That gave me courage.”

Along the way, he found Paris a great city for art, with artists who came from all over the world finding a space there, where they could express their art. But of course, it has to be so, considering that the art history that we learn was a lot about what happened in Paris - impressionism, pointillism, abstract art, dadaism, nouveau-realism, etc. “Even today, the art scene is very active, with all kinds of art expressions finding a place in Paris. May be this is an incomparable situation in the whole world. I only wish I had time to follow all that is happening!” So, how has Paris impacted his work and him as a person? “The fact that I was accepted in Paris for my art put me in a new space, a space where art and only art matters. That gave me real confidence. It changed my way of thinking about art and people.”

The Cholamandal legacy

Viswanadhan also happens to be one of the founding members of the unique Cholamandal Artists’ village, a quaint experiment where art was harnessed to make a living, at a time when art had no buyers. “Yes, in the sixties, if one said that he was an artist, then the question from the Madras Bourgeois was, ‘Then, what you do?’ ” he reminisces. It was at such a time that Cholamandal was created by the late K C S Panicker, erstwhile principal, College of Fine Arts, Madras, with some of his students. Viswanadhan reveres Panicker as his guru and says, “He taught me to be fearless in doing what I want to do and be. He taught me that a creation doesn’t exist until it is created by the artist. As the poets say, ‘The path is traced by walking’.” 

As for where his biological roots lie - Kerala, he does retain a deep tie. “I believe that one is what one is born with. The far one travels, the deeper one reaches his origins. Kerala is a colourful country. Its tropical red earth, greeneries of foliage, and sunlight make one realise that one doesn't need any real work of creative art; one is enriched by the colourful landscape and exuberant light of nature by herself. There, culture is derived from “cults” and “beliefs” and wedded to Nature. Normally, the “culture” should be an alternative to “Nature”, he muses.

Down the years, Viswanadhan has also been experimenting with films. Last year, he had finished the film Back to Elements, which was done after the films on the five elements, The Pancha Bhoota, a journey through the changing landscape of India and our changing values, was shot. But his canvas is as much a happening place as ever. “Normally, I paint when thought ceases to exist. But if you want to align my mind to thinking, more than thinking, my mind is filled with wonder, wonder about the meaning of life!” he says. He adds, “Painting is my reason of being and becoming.”

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