Art works of C N Karunakaran, a Marxist who believed in Krishna, straddled modern & tradition - Hindustan Times
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Art works of C N Karunakaran, a Marxist who believed in Krishna, straddled modern & tradition

PTI |
Apr 13, 2024 01:17 PM IST

Art works of C N Karunakaran, a Marxist who believed in Krishna, straddled modern & tradition

Bengaluru , The people who knew him said, when he was alive artist C N Karunakaran, who played an important role in the modern art movement of independent India and served as chairman of Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi twice, often introduced himself as a ‘Marxist who believed in Krishna’.

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Just as Karunakaran embraced the dichotomy of his ideology, his friends and fellow artists said his artistic style too stood confidently astride modernism and traditional Indian art forms, drawing inferences from mural painting from Guruvayur and ‘Kalam ezhuthu’.

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Bengaluru-based Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation and Kochi’s Palette People are organising a show titled, ‘Chitrakoodam: A Tribute to C N Karunakaran’ till April 30 at the gallery of Maini Foundation at Lavelle Road in Bengaluru. The exhibition showcases 10 works of the prolific artist, highlighting his last phase that channelled a psychedelic vibe. The paintings are from the collection entrusted with Palette People by Karunakaran’s family.

“We had organised a show of 40 of his works in Kochi in 2022, to mark the 30th year of association of Palette People with Karunakaran. We sold most of his work, the rest his family entrusted with us, making us the exclusive dealer of his work,” said Cyril P Jacob, founder of Palette People.

Archana Shenoy, director of curatorial practices at the Maini Foundation said even though Karunakaran is a legend in the artists’ circle, contemporary art collectors do not know him that well.

“So, this exhibition is a tribute to an artist who is not very well known among people, but who should have been known because his body of work is so beautiful,” added Shenoy.

Interestingly, one of Karunakaran’s close friends and retired English professor and artist, C S Jairam, said when he was alive, Karunakaran had always been a very successful artist.

“In fact, he was one of very few artists from Kerala who could make a comfortable living with his art,” said Jairam, who also served two terms as an executive member at Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi, when Karunakaran was its chairman.

Art critic and artist M Ramachandran said Karunakaran was well known among his counterparts because he was extremely skilled. “He had it all – style, confident composition and brilliant usage of colours,” said Ramachandran.

As a critic though, Ramachandran said he found it a pity that Karunakaran indulged in pretty pictures instead of pushing boundaries. “You see, he belonged to Madras school of art and his generation of artists from that school were looking for a visual language that transcends European masters and taps into local cultures. Karunakaran found his inspiration in Kerala ritual paintings like ‘Kalam ezhuthu’ as well as mural paintings. But he took this in a different direction from the strivings of his counterparts – he only looked at work of art as a beautiful object,” said Ramachandran.

Jairam said Karunakaran was aware that his paintings were ornamental. “But he had his own explanation. He said it was his rebellion against deprivations that fate dealt him. One of his legs was shorter than the other and he had really poor eyesight. He also believed that art can be dreamy. He was never ever apologetic about what he painted, though,” said Jairam.

Just like Jairam, Bengaluru-based artist and the current chairman of Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi, Murali Cheeroth, also believes that Karunakaran addressed modernity versus tradition in his own way.

“He absorbed a lot from art forms around him – not only from the traditional art forms of Kerala, but also, say, Thanjavur paintings, miniature art… You will see them in his work, he used them as decorative elements. But he takes them to an in-between space – what I call a textured space – giving it an entirely new twist,” said Cheeroth.

The lotus, for instance, in one of the paintings displayed at Maini Foundation in Bengaluru is definitely a nod to the famous Indian miniature style. But juxtaposed in his psychedelic rendering, it does, as art critic Ramachandran pointed out in one of his reviews, “reorganise itself in a modern pictorial format”.

“This pictorial imagination of the undefinable space gives the paintings a value that is traditionally attached commonly to myths and legends in the popular subconscious,” said Ramachandran.

Cheeroth agreed this sense of familiarity meant people were willing to accept it readily even if the work of art is an abstract rendition. But contrary to critics belief, that he only popularised rhetoric, Cheeroth said Karunakaran silently shifted many goalposts.

“For instance, I would say he was instrumental in the paradigm shift in Malayalam film industry’s approach to film titles. Thanks to Karunakaran, who worked as art director in many Malayalam films, they become visually impactful,” said Cheeroth.

Ramachandran agreed that Karunakaran, typical of his generation of artists, never really talked about his work. “The so-called modernists of India had no access to art history as such. Art colleges did not delve deep into art history. The kind of knowledge that will give an artist a broader context to pinpoint the direction of one’s work came much later. So the modernists let their work speak for themselves. Karunakaran was no exception to that either,” said Ramachandran. JR JR ROH

This article was generated from an automated news agency feed without modifications to text.

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