A spiritual trek

Different strokes

A spiritual trek

Through his paintings, V Ramesh tries to comprehend and present the ephemeral whispers of Bhakti philosophy, writes Giridhar Khasnis...

It was the American painter of Russian-Jewish descent, Mark Rothko (1903-70), who once said that pictures must be miraculous and a revelation to both the artist and the viewer. Senior artist V Ramesh (born 1958) seems to concur with Rothko in many ways.

Remembrances of Voices Past — currently on at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore, includes Ramesh’s significant paintings during the last ten years. Quite evidently, the Visakhapatnam-based artist is inspired by Ramana Maharishi (1879-1950), who espoused the idea of self-enquiry as the principal way to realising the self. 

Ramesh says that he has been struck by the wisdom and childlike innocence of the master ever since he saw a black and white photograph of Ramana in 1998 for the first time.

Over the past three decades, Ramesh has employed a range of colours, textures and motifs for exploring the concepts of transcendence vis-à-vis mundane daily life. “The journey of one’s existence and work run parallel, feeding and acting on each other,” he says. “I have, over the years, discarded many hard-held notions.

The earlier solidity of the human figure as well as the tight compositions have given way to a blurring of boundaries. These are in a continuous state of flux.”

Ramesh, who completed his Masters at M S University, Baroda, way back in 1984, has been a teacher at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam since 1985. His poetics and painterly vocabulary are informed through in-depth reading of philosophical texts, spiritual discourses and ancient literature.

“Bhakti or devotion is singled out as the leitmotiv, not only as an underlying unseen presence, but something that can be felt as an emotional exaltation in my work. Most of my work is imbued with a deep personal reverence, and hints at areas of faith, devotion and transcendence, but it articulates these ideas in an oblique manner, using voices from medieval poetry and imagery culled from mythology.”

His large-scale canvases are overrun by layers and layers of oil paint which help create mysterious forms and allegorical images. “I often use allegory because it can allude to my concerns and what I want to express in a more poetic and potent manner,” says the artist who received the Sanskriti Award in 2003. “Allegory allows us multiple readings of the image depicted in the narrative.”

Grace and poiseExpectedly, Ramana’s engrossing portraits form the core of Ramesh’s exhibition. In a solemn work (untitled/2012/oil on canvas / 84 inch x 60 inch) the solitary figure of the spiritual master is seen walking towards the revered Arunachala Hill, holding a wooden staff. Except for a loincloth, he is bare from head to toe.

Seen from behind in a corner of the painting, the figure is somewhat dwarfed in the midst of the expanding hills. Yet, there is a poetic grace, poise and majesty in the sage’s bearing and movement.

Two large and evocative paintings, each 96 x 72 inch in size, portray Ramana Maharishi facing the viewer. These are based on familiar photographs but rendered in an unusual and accomplished manner. “Many before me have attempted to capture that face of eternity.

Though I have been painting his image intermittently, it was in the beginning of 2006 that I began a series of works endeavouring to formulate and devise a language and vocabulary, which would in a simple and straightforward manner, enable me to pay a personal tribute, straight from the heart. These painted images were straightforward depictions and were imbibed with deep personal reverence.”

Among the other highlights of the exhibition is a set of works which informs the viewer of Ramesh’s fascination for the poetry of four women mystics: Lal Ded (14th century/ Kashmir); Akka Mahadevi (12th century/ Karnataka); Karaikkal Ammiyar (5th century/ Tamil Nadu); and Aandal (8th century/ Tamil Nadu). All these highly revered poets wrote flowing hymns and immortal lyrics which become a source of perennial inspiration for Ramesh. 

Beyond the visibleThe exhibition also includes The Passion of the Poet, a suite of oil and watercolour paintings alluding to a poem by the 8th century poet-saint Manivachakar; and an eye-catching untitled work based on the famous Garuda Purana, which deals with life after death.

Perhaps the most riveting painting of the exhibition is Be Still (2008-10/oil on canvas/ 60 x 84 inch), which presents a sharp, solid and piercing weapon (ankush) set against a semi-abstract background of an elephant and carrying a facsimile of Ramana’s writing in Tamil — “Who am I?” In this single painting, the artist is able to travel through the realm of the spirit and provoke an extraordinary feeling of contemplation on taming the ego.

As described by critic Kamala Kapoor, Ramesh’s paintings encompass a multitude of forms, sometimes broken down, at other allusive, and still others realistic.

“Investigations, sometimes tentative ones, at others much bolder, explore the realm of the concrete and the sensory. For him, meaning has never dwelt in any fixed form but always in the interstices between the layered scrims of paint, between its density and its transparency, introducing a realm beyond the visible.”

ReflectionsOn his part, Ramesh says that the act of painting often reveals to him, in unexpected ways and at serendipitous moments, his own state of being. “It also precipitates articulation of my intentions and expressions.

” He further explains what it means to be an artist and traverse through the labyrinths of unexplained universe: “To be able to draw the viewer within, through a state of flux, through the layers of paint, images and text; to be able to transcend these outwardly seen and perceived phenomena. And, perhaps to be able to discern and perceptively intuit the truth imbued in the work…”

As to his abiding interest in Bhakti poets, he says: “My own work not only became an endeavour to comprehend the full import of the ephemeral whispers of their inner world of devotion and human emotions across centuries, but also illustrate the complexity, the despair, yearning, rapture and loss they spoke about.”

A die-hard fan of Carnatic music, Ramesh finds a similarity between melodic tunes and visual arts, since both of them try to break barriers and discover meanings, methods and nuances at a deep level. Entrenched in his own world of art of reverence and exploration, he also seems happy to insulate himself from the noisy clatter of art market and social networks.

Ramesh’s exhibition, co-ordinated by Gallery Threshold, New Delhi, is on at NGMA, Bangalore till March 25, 2014.

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