Artist Nityan Unnikrishnan’s portraits and crowd scenes are a study of people and their quirks
Delhi-based artist Nityan Unnikrishnan’s (39) mixed-media painting, The War Room, portrays the awkward dynamics of a family gathering. Family members are assembled around the dining table: there are animated conversations, the odd loner, a baby that people are fawning over, an argument just waiting to happen. Within the painting is another painting: the dining table depicts people farming, the process by which food reaches the table, and the difference between the privileged and the not-so-privileged.
In his cloth painting, The Indian Sceptic: A Brief History, Unnikrishnan depicts a wizened old man, sitting and reading newspapers — the perfect embodiment of an armchair intellectual. The backdrop is made of diverse spaces, perhaps what the sceptic is thinking about. These artworks are part of Unnikrishnan’s solo exhibition, titled Wood from Ships, at Chatterjee & Lal.
Unnikrishnan is known to be a man of few words. Yet, his art indicates that he is an astute observer of people. Despite the vivid imagery, Unnikrishnan gives a disclaimer that his works are “imaginary portraits”. “Neither of the paintings are about specific people or places. They are built of many events that came from a variety of places. They are not based on actual recollections of people/gatherings,” he says cryptically.
Recurrent motifs in his paintings are of stranded ships, water and beaches. It’s apt, considering Unnikrishnan belongs to the coastal town of Kozhikode (Calicut) in Kerala. Some of the artwork are also made on Calico, a hand-spun fabric sourced from his hometown. “I wanted to make large paintings, and cloth or canvas was an apt choice, since it allows for a certain amount of freedom of size,” he says.
The landscapes have a faded, antique look about them, reminiscent of old maps. They remind you of small towns, and a simpler, pre-digital era. Unnikrishnan says it is not a conscious decision. “[But] I have been told by many people that I behave like I am a hundred years old,” he laughs.
Much like the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch (known for his detailed crowd scenes), Unnikrishnan’s images show densely populated spaces. It’s a tool that he says helps “tell tiny stories in between”.
An alumnus of the National Institute of Design (NID), Unnikrishnan studied ceramics but later shifted to painting. “I am not sure why I did ceramics. It is not like I was in love with clay or thought of it as the best medium to work with,” he admits. Over the years, he kept drawing for magazines, and in his sketchbook, and ultimately decided to switch to painting. “After ten years of practising as a ceramics designer, I realised that I had stopped having fun with it. So, I shut my workshop and decided to paint,” he says.
Wood from Ships is ongoing till January 7, 11am to 7pm
At Chatterjee & Lal, 1, Kamal Mansion, Arthur Bunder Road
Call 2202 3787