Review: Sketches - The Memoir of an Artist by KM Vasudevan Namboodiri
Filled with drawings that capture places and people, the pages of this memoir delight with sheer artistryUpdated: Jul 13, 2020 16:35 IST
I want to begin this review with a confession. I didn’t know about artist KM Vasudevan Namboodiri and his illustrations until 2014 when I saw his sketches and drawings at the Kochi Muziris Biennale. It is much later that I learnt about his illustrious career drawing cartoons and illustrations for Mathrubhumi. The biennale has been educative in many ways – foremost for bringing to public attention so many of Kerala’s brilliant artists who often remain unknown beyond the frontiers of the state. Art and fame work in strange ways. The biennale in Kochi embodies a truly local character by showcasing and identifying some of the state’s finest alongside other artists from the country and abroad. No wonder that I gravitate to the biennale for its spirit of discovery and dialogue.
Sketches - The Memoir of an Artist (translated from the Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty) provides glimpses of various episodes and experiences from the life of the artist Namboodiri. He fondly remembers his childhood in Ponnani, growing up in an illam (Brahmin household), the many guests who visited them en route Guruvayoor, time spent in the local library, meeting many literary greats there and other such snippets. The most heartwarming parts of the book involve Namboodiri’s reminisces about his guru whom he affectionately called ‘Master’, the legendary KCS Paniker. Other stories about Paniker’s efforts to set up the artists’ village in Chennai called Cholamandal follow. Paniker envisioned an artists’ commune where artists could live in close proximity and work together. He constantly worried for the well being of his students. The money came in from various artists all of whom were given plots in return. Namboodiri too received a plot and made a house there with the help of friends.
The most exciting anecdotes are about Namboodiri’s travels and association with the legendary filmmaker, G Aravindan whom he first met at the Mathrubhumi office. Aravindan was also a famed cartoonist. The artist reminisces how a group of them prevailed upon Aravindan to direct Uttarayanam and their many escapades while shooting Kanchana Sita. Namboodiri recalls his time as an illustrator, working with other colleagues, meeting greats like Basheer, amongst several other events from his life.
The highlight and singular strength of the book are Namboodiri’s line drawings and illustrations that evidence his mastery. The pages of his memoir delight with sheer artistry. The sketches and drawings are also photographic, capturing a place and people in their natural habitat. In fact, I constantly wrestled between the written text and drawings – to see or to read first? I believe the images construct a better autobiography of the artist. He is to be found in his drawings. The book feels like a living exhibition of the artist’s work.
After a point, I stopped reading the text and only concentrated on the images which helped to understand the man and offered an entry into his art. I wish similar attempts were made to present artists, their thoughts and work to a larger audience as opposed to didactic and academic tomes masquerading as biographies. I must seize this opportunity to mention a recent publication, The Art Gallery on Princess Street (Pratham Books) written by Jerry Pinto and illustrated by the wonderfully talented Kripa Bhatia, which presents the brief history of Gallery Chemould in Mumbai and its contribution to Modern Indian Art.
My grouch, however, remains that the translator Gita Krishnankutty is mentioned on the back cover of the book. At first glance, I wondered if Namboodiri had rewritten the book in English. While MT Vasudevan Nair’s name adorns the book cover prominently for just writing a rather insipid foreword, the translator is relegated to the back cover and mentioned only inside the book. I hope the publishers will amend this. Images alone don’t require translation but where would this book be without the translator?
Kunal Ray teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.