Made of metaphors

The Chennai-based artist C Douglas explores the themes absence and presence in the series 'Missed Calls'

One of the paintings of the 'Missed Call' series

His life revolves around art. It has revolved around art ever since he realised he wanted to be an artist. The Chennai-based 67-year-old artist C Douglas is an integral part of the Madras Art Movement, but his works do not necessarily depict the ideology of this movement.

While within the Madras Art Movement, identities are forged on the basis of collective identities of language, culture, or region, Douglas’s works address human beings on a one-to-one basis, and the artist is well aware of this fact. In fact, such contradictions define him.

Though quite reticent, he fondly quotes the shanti mantra from Isha Upanishad: ‘Om purnamadah purnamidam…’ meaning ‘That is complete, This is complete, from the completeness comes the completeness. If completeness is taken away from completeness, only completeness remains.’

Douglas’s works are on display at Delhi’s Aakar Prakar gallery. Titled ‘In Search of Fragments’, they depict his artistic journey from the 1990s until the last few years. He began working on these characteristic grey works in the 1990s, influenced by German expressionists.

“Grey represents a liminal state that embraces vulnerability over heroism and uncertainty over finality,” he feels. Most of the works on show are crumpled and coated with sand and grey pigment, and show an inherent “slowness.”

“Grey represents a liminal state that embraces vulnerability over heroism and uncertainty over finality,” he feels. Most of the works on show are crumpled and coated with sand and grey pigment, and show an inherent “slowness.”

Back to roots

Born and brought up in Kerala, Douglas moved to Chennai (then Madras) to enroll for an arts course at the prestigious Government College of Arts and Crafts, in 1971. He had joined the ceramic section wherein he worked on terracotta and ceramic vases. It was at the college he made friends with a senior student, K Ramanujam, from whom he learnt draughtsmanship.

Two other people with whom he developed close association at that time included his teacher Santhanaraj, who taught him working with lines, and senior artist KCS Paniker (the founder of Chennai’s iconic Cholamandal Artists’ Village), from whom he learnt about Madras Art Movement. His visits to Cholamandal Artists’ Village did a world of good to him.

It was here that he graduated to actual painting from “drawing and colouring” that he used to do. Ramanujam’s suicide in 1973 left a deep impact on Douglas. So did living in Germany, where he moved to after marriage and lived in for the next nine years, for the most part of the 1980s.

“In Germany, I was caught between the art and the real world, which brought about a change in my viewpoint of my role as an artist and my responsibilities towards the family,” he says. Douglas began doing figurative abstractions by the year 1985. He worked with paper, cloth, sand and tea stain.

He returned to India in the early 1990s and started living in Cholamandal Artists’ Village, and has been living there ever since. In 2008, he moved to a series of works that embraced flat surfaces and colours, prominent ones being the Missed Call series (2008) and The Blind Poet and Butterfly series (2012).

The former is about the idea of presence and absence using ‘missed call’ as a metaphor. The works depict a non-hierarchical arrangement of disjointed mannequins, broken ladders, phones with receivers off the hook, plastic flowers and toy birds, each of which conveys fragmentation, absence and emptiness.

“This series is so much about waiting and simulation. We miss what is original, what is real: the presence,” he says.

The Blind Poet series includes non-linear works that are densely coloured and layered, while the Butterfly series has works showing metamorphosis through a repetitive use of images of butterflies, cocoons and caterpillars.

When not working on his paintings, Douglas can be found reading volumes on contemporary philosophy, literature and poetry. A voracious reader, he says the future of art lies in dialogue and reading.

His favourite authors include T S Eliot and Rabindranath Tagore.

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Made of metaphors

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