Learning from life

Different strokes

Learning from life

It is difficult to slot his works into any particular category. Thirty-nine-year-old Chennai-based artist Yuvan Bodhisathuvar can paint highly realistic images; create mammoth installations employing minimalist techniques; and make intricately complex collages with old, shredded paper. His art is intense, evocative and unpredictable. There is a sense of meditative contemplation which he brings to his works that often stand on the thin border separating actuality and illusion. Not surprisingly, his works are difficult to comprehend in a photograph.

Starting off as a cutout artist and banner painter, Yuvan is now a recognised name in contemporary Indian art. Last year, he won the Emerging Artist of the Year Award, 2013 instituted by Glenfiddich, the world’s leading single malt Scotch whisky, in partnership with Bestcollegeart.com. Yuvan, who can barely manage to speak in English, thus became the Indian representative to fly to Dufftown, Scotland to be part of the Glenfiddich Artists in Residence programme, which hosted artists from eight countries.  
Sunday Herald caught up with this exceptionally talented and unassuming artist who produces absorbing works using unconventional objects and material.

On his childhood: Even as a young boy studying in a boarding school in Thiruvannamalai, I was fascinated by the film posters and large hoardings that dotted the city. I began assisting a signboard painter in my spare time. When I finished schooling, my parents wanted me to take up some routine job. They were upset that I was keen to pursue a career in art.

On his days as a banner painter: Without telling our parents, my friend and I left home and fled to Chennai. Our intention was to become banner artists. We joined a company in T Nagar, which made huge billboards and cutout hoardings of popular actors and politicians. There was a clear hierarchy of jobs with carpenters making the frames, assistants drawing the outlines of celebrity portraits, and senior painters giving the finishing touches. We were really at the bottom of the scale and the company exploited our condition by paying a pittance even though the work was tough, tiresome and backbreaking. The cutouts we made were large, sometimes 24 ft high and 50 ft wide. We would slog day and night, sometimes even without proper food. We liked the work but they were difficult days for us. After a while, my friend returned to Thiruvannamalai and is now an autorickshaw driver. I persevered with my job despite all the hardships. Looking back, I think my experience as a cutout artist has taught me many things about life, including the art of survival.

On his unusual name: The name my parents gave me was Siva Kumar. Over time, I lost belief in religion, gods and divinities; even now I think that many of our societal problems are because of people’s attachment to caste, community, etc. One way of getting out of all that was to change my name. I like being called Yuvan because it keeps me eternally young!  

On his art education: I joined the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai, completed my bachelor’s in visual communication, and went back to work. A couple of years later, I rejoined College and completed my Masters as well. I do not think art colleges teach anything substantial, except perhaps a few techniques and ideas. I suppose I learnt more from watching and interacting with my seniors and other artists than attending classes.

On his use of materials: From the beginning, I knew how to work hard and with limited financial resources. Most part of my work, even today, is done with waste materials like old newspapers, magazines, thread, cloth, strings, wood, mirror, and such things. I like to use different materials to create different moods, thoughts and feelings. Shredded paper is my favourite material and I extensively use it to create illusions of space and landscape. I am not afraid of size and scale because of my experience as a banner artist. Many of my works are highly experimental and site-specific.

On his approach to art: I initially relied heavily on realism and figurative art. Over time, my works have tended towards abstraction which, I think, makes them more expressive as well as introspective. I like to derive inspiration from real life occurrences — like watching my daughter laugh, cry and play; and from everyday incidents and accidents.

One of my recent works was inspired by the tragic multi-storey building collapse that killed more than 60 people in Chennai in July this year. I cannot work in isolation, or without contact with the outside world. I am also part of a small collective of young and imaginative artists called ‘Kinetics’. My present workspace is the Lalit Kala Akademi studios in Chennai.  

On winning the Glenfiddich award: It seems more than 500 artists had applied for the award; the works were evaluated by a jury of leading artists, curators and collectors. Apart from a cash component, the award included a three-month residency at Scotland, but I was denied visa thrice on technical grounds. I was cleared only after the sponsors convinced the visa officer in Chennai that my visit to UK was not going to displace any settled worker in that country! The residency was a good experience. I was able to work in an independent environment and produce nearly a dozen works. Even there, I used recycled and found materials like shredded paper, discarded bottles, corks and empty barrels.

On his daughter: Her name is Thathari Yuvan. She is a special child who has Down’s syndrome. She is the apple of my eye. I have learnt many things from her. Just by being with her, watching her and her condition has inspired me to create many works.
On the artist he admires most: My all-time favourite is Vincent van Gogh. He had serious health issues; his financial condition was precarious, but his commitment to art remained unaffected. His only real support was his brother. And, as my tribute, I have named my son Theo van Gogh.

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