Ramachandran was an artist with an epic vision
What is left behind by this artist par excellence, who was honoured with innumerable recognitions, is a huge legacy of art and scholarship
A set of small but exquisite etchings were the first works of art I saw of A Ramachandran (1935–2024) way back in the early eighties. In a group show of a few artists at the gallery of Kerala Kala Peetom in Kochi, those works invited me into the world of Ramachandran. They were a set of prints based on the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto.
Those days, like some of Manto’s stories, the works of Ramachandran gripped us due to their grotesque and morbid feel. Ramachandran was shouting all his anger and spitting fire as an artist who could not tolerate the languishing social life through his mural-scale canvases that predominantly featured faceless, wobbling, muscular human bodies. Reds, yellows, and browns dominated the pictorial space of the artist because those are the colours evocative of the strongest effects of the human ordeal. However, from such morbidity and grotesqueness, Ramachandran moved to the lyrical, tender, and smoothening pictorial language developed to delineate age-old Indian narratives and stories.
While modern Indian art was limping after various international movements, Ramachandran has not wavered. He remained true to his strong convictions in his figure-based paintings. While most of the artists in India were struggling to find their personal idioms in pictorial language, Ramachandran stood firm on his ground, looking directly at the people he was fascinated with and delineating them according to a visual language that he forcefully inherited from various mural traditions.
Literature was the premise on which Ramachandran created his entire visual oeuvre, but his training in Carnatic music and art under his teachers Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinker Baij at Shantiniketan miraculously transformed his pictorial imagery into something somewhat idiomatic and integrated. For him, drawing was the forte with which he could easily move from miniaturist works to large-scale murals. In other words, the extraordinary range of Ramachandran’s art begins from postal stamps to large-scale murals several metres long.
However, over the years, the painter in him listened to the sounds of the musician in him, and that allowed him to move away from geometrically designed compositions to organic, swirling, and ornamental lines that decided the mood of his paintings. Slowly, blues and greens started enriching his palette in place of his earlier loud yellows and reds.
When he attempted sculpture, the visual language became totally different. They acquired a stark, solid, iconic imagery despite the meticulous rendering of flora and other designs superimposed on them. His Gandhi sculpture is more of a symbolic representation of Gandhi as a person than a portrait. The elongated human figures he cast in bronze do not extend themselves into space but impose an iconic presence with their monumental solidity.
Further, his versatility in handling mediums such as drawing, etching, painting, and sculpture enabled him to play with the content and form of his works. Rajasthan, its village life, its people, the bright, myriad colours of the dresses women wear, and its landscapes are the visual sources Ramachandran returned to for developing a language that speaks in epic dimensions. Yes, that is the phrase one has to use to describe Ramachandran’s works of art. His works are of epic dimensions. It is only natural that he conceived his works on a mural scale because he had a lot to narrate as if he were a novelist in the world of visual art.
Whether his early works, such as Kali Puja (1972), End of the Yadavas (1973), or some of the later period works titled Yayati (1982–86), The Birth of Palash Tree (1993), or the Ritual Resurrection (2013), their monumentality in execution, seriousness of the theme, as well as his personal interpretation of myths, elevate them to a grand vision. For such a grand scheme of pictorial narration, he consciously assimilated the figural and structural conventions used by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Benode Behari Mukherji, and the traditional muralists of Kerala.
The more one looks deep into the works of Ramachandran, the more enchanting and intriguing they become. From the mythical beings, flora and fauna, costumes, ornaments, self-portraits, tools, and figures in various perspectives, birds, bees, dragonflies, monkeys, and various insects invariably appear on his canvases. Thus, the pictorial space becomes a networked arena of forms that take our eyes to every inch of the painted area. Though at a later stage, he had done many paintings devoid of human figures, exploring the idea of a lotus pond and embellishing the painted surface in a decorative vein, he was primarily a figurative painter.
The drawings of human beings, animals, and nature and the realist renderings he tried are academically correct, exposing the dexterity of his hand and a keen eye for natural forms. But when he used them in his works of art, particularly paintings, with the use of brilliant and unusual colour schemes, he transported the realistic or naturalistic undercurrents of his drawings to the level of fantasy. Yayati, his best-known painting, for instance, with its bold and bright colours, endured the ordinariness of the illustrative idiom the painter took recourse to. Here, Ramachandran’s shrewdness as a painter worked, as he knew the colour scheme of his choice altered the mundane into the otherworldly.
What is left behind by this artist par excellence, who was honoured with innumerable recognitions, is a huge legacy of art and scholarship, which he inherited from his great teachers in Santiniketan and what he could impart to his students as a professor and professor emeritus at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, as well as his writings on art and his in-depth research into the mural tradition of Kerala. Moreover, he single-handedly brought Ravi Varma back as an artist of discourse potential in our times with a large exhibition of his works and conducted a seminar on them at the National Museum, New Delhi, while he was chairman of Kerala Lalitha Kala Academy.
M Ramachandran is an art critic. The views expressed are personal