Glued to paper

V V Ramani’s exploration of the possibilities of collage art is perhaps unparalleled. It wakes your vision to new possibilities of perception, writes hema vijay.A hundred years back from now, in the artistically charged atmosphere of Paris, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were experimenting separately.

They were discovering, or rediscovering, in a sense, the strange aesthetic impact of gluing assorted bits of paper to form images, instead of limiting their use of pigments to just paints. They termed the resulting works ‘collage’, from the French word ‘coller’ meaning ‘to glue’, and a new form of art was conceived in Paris, yet again.

Far away from the Parisian soil where it was born, several decades later, an unassuming artist from South India discovered the same thrill, and went on to quietly take collage art to unheralded heights, his work growing increasingly complex with time. Meet Chennai-based artist V V Ramani, one of the few contemporary artists who commands an international reputation and buzzing market, even while sticking to his chosen medium of collage art.

He is one of the few artists to celebrate the centenary year of collage art this year in a befitting manner, with a massive show of his intriguing collage work at the Lalit Kala Academy, Chennai. Of course, few Indian artists like the late Farhan Mujib and several foreign artists have explored collage art, but Ramani’s exploration of the possibilities of collage art is perhaps unparalleled.

Though it was in 1912 that collages got baptised to be a fine art, collages had existed in humbler forms since ancient times. But of course, Braque and Picasso went on to revel in collages, like none before them. “But for some reason, though the spirit of collage did get infused into everything from music to architecture, collage art did not really take off as well as did, say, cubism (pioneered by Picasso and Braque again), or the more recent innovative formats of assemblage and installation art,” mentions art historian Pratap Roy. Which is why Ramani’s efforts truly stand out.

Ramani likes to work in large formats. His 5X4 feet Navarasa is just one of his large sized collages. He likes to place his collage work on black mounts, as he feels that this best sets off the vivid colours of collages. The construction of collages is extremely difficult. To arrive at a three-dimensional space effect by just arranging bits of paper creatively on a plane surface is a tough thing to do. But after three decades of transforming images, Ramani has become a master in this.

Layers of meanings

Why collages? “Simply because it is the most challenging of all mediums,” responds Ramani, immediately. He goes on, “Creating texture, depth and other variations with paint is easy as compared to creating the same effect using bits of paper.” And then, collages do allow you to fit in layers of meanings.

For instance, in Ramani’s work ‘Three Devis’, an image of the Buddha is transformed into a trishul by a mere positional change. When you are able to morph images so dramatically, it does allow you to rein in layers of meanings.

And then, there is also an element of fun to collages. In a portrait made just to celebrate the centenary of Picasso and Braque’s pioneering experiments, Ramani used straightforward and complete images of tools, gluing it in position to create a face, with the tools perceptible as themselves, and also as the parts of a face. In another collage work, Madhushala, an image of the wine glass happens to be the starting point and goes on to carve out a stylised neck and face of a woman. It is fun to see curling straps of watches as Lord Ganesh’s trunks, or cars with their headlights on as the hoods of the demon snake Kalia.

There is yet another twist to collages. Collages can get you to unlock frozen perspectives and mind frames. “The surprise element is always there in collages. There is also the thrill in taking an existing picture and giving it a new meaning. It does make for an exciting journey,” Ramani says and adds, “I begin with an idea and subsequently hunt for images, sometimes. At other times, images I see trigger ideas in me.” Consider Ramani’s 3.5X2.5 feet Genesis. In this, what Ramani projects as the withered and wrinkled side profile of an old woman’s face turns out to be the inverted photograph of a rugged mountain range, with waves breaking against it.

Ramani’s unique series of collages using only cork as a medium of art was intriguing, for a similar reason — they wake your vision to new possibilities of perception. But Genesis is the one that Ramani personally holds very special. In this narrative collage, the imagery begins with the open-fisted baby, followed by a series of images that include the clenched fist of a running man, and finally culminates into the open fist of a dead body. With non-transformed images juxtaposed with transformed snippets of paper, this image effectively rings home two messages, that no person can bring any material to this world or take away any material from this world, and secondly, the immutable cycle of life. Of course, it is not a new thought. But the fact is, neither straight forward photography nor untransformed images could have made such a poignant impact by themselves. It is this clever juxtapositioning of the two that works so well.

An accidental foray

Incidentally, the foray into collage art began accidentally. Travel back in time to a morning three decades back, when a young Ramani, then in his second year of the arts degree at the Madras College of Arts and Crafts, had run out of paint.

His professor, Alphonso Arul Doss, suggested that he try making collages, rather than sit and do nothing. That is how it began. “I owe him a lot,” says Ramani. Now, three decades later, Ramani’s collages have made much headway on the art scene and even figure among collections like the International Museum for Collage, Assemblage and Construction (IMCAC) at Texas, considered the holy temple of collage and assemblage art.

From the time a form of collage was first seen — around 200 BC in China, where paper itself had its birth, to the 10th century in Japan when Japanese calligraphers used glued papers, to its more modern avatar, thanks to Braque and Picasso in the 20th century, as also the works of artists like Lee Krasner, who had a penchant for cutting up her own paintings and subsequently repositioning them to form new images, and the imaginative use of collages by surrealist artists like Kurt Schwitters, and to digital collages in more recent times, collages have come a long, long way. But V V Ramani believes, “There will always be more surprises in store.”

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