Be it in sculpture or painting, one could always sense the power of lines in artist A Ramachandran’s work. He could evoke feelings of pathos and exuberance, and portray the beauty of nature through his vocabulary of free flowing lines. The artist, born in 1935 in Attingal, Kerala, was known for his diversity in his oeuvre, and sharp intellect, which soaked in everything ranging from poetry to prose. In his career, he came to be known for his monumental canvases, vibrant oils and watercolours. Ramachandran, who passed away earlier today at the age of 89, had widely exhibited at various important institutions such as the Lalit Kala Akademi, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Art Museum of Seoul, the Singapore Museum of Art, and more. He received the Padma Bhushan in 2005, besides many other awards throughout his career.
Various galleries across the country such as Emami Art, Kolkata and Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi, have shown different facets of his practice over the years. In October last year, the latter put together for the first time a large body of sculptures—large, small and groups of bronzes and ceramics—created between 1974 and 2023. “We are deeply saddened by this huge loss to our gallery and the art community. Ramachandran was not only a great artist but the most wonderful person, and our gallery’s hugest champion. It’s been a very special journey and relationship working with him for nearly three decades. May he rest in peace; he will be dearly missed and remembered by all of us,” says Arun Vadehra, founder-director, Vadehra Art Gallery.
Ramachandran graduated with a degree in Malayalam literature from Kerala University before pursuing a diploma in fine arts and craft from Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan. While in Kala Bhavan, 1958 onwards, he was greatly influenced by his teacher Ramkinkar Baij, whose system of teaching was different from others at art schools elsewhere. “Right from the beginning, students were asked by teachers like [Ramkinkar] Baij to step out of the class and sketch. Now that was a very strange proposition. It was like asking someone who has gone to learn how to drive to start driving immediately. When Ramkinkar sir asked me to sketch, I exclaimed I didn’t know how to. He urged me to do it anyway and that’s how it started,” Ramachandran stated in a 2021-interview to Lounge.
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It’s no wonder then that drawing has never left his practice—he consistently used the medium 1958 onwards to portray elements of nature and the human condition. Over the years, he created over 5,000 drawings, with some remarkable ones such as Yayati, Lotus Pond and Grave Diggers.
Art historian R. Siva Kumar, who had been a close friend of the artist and had also curated several of his shows, wrote often about how the graphic quality of Ramachandran’s drawings was one of the strongest points of his work. “The artist has shown just how flexible a line can be, and how it can be employed for different purposes. With a little twist, it can move towards caricature or towards a highly idealised form. In the hands of an observant artist, it becomes a potent tool,” he told me in an earlier conversation about Ramachandran’s exhibition, A Lifetime of Lines, held at the Vadehra Art Gallery in 2021.
For the artist, his drawings were distinct from paintings and sculptures, the latter being more impulsive and conversational. “When I start drawing beautiful lotus ponds, I make intricate lines born out of nature. When I do satire, the lines get distorted and create a comical effect. It is difficult to say how it happens, just like it is difficult to say how you express in words when you are angry or in love,” he said in the same 2021 interview. The lotus pond had been a favourite motif in both his paintings and drawings for several decades. His sculptures, on the other hand, featured tribal totem-like imagery—a single pillar-like image, highly stylized with decorative linear forms on top of it. This, perhaps, came from closely observing people from villages working in paddy fields in Bengal, an exercise that Baij made all the students do at Santiniketan. That was combined with his thesis on Kerala temple art to create evocative works.
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Initially, during his days in Kolkata, he would depict human suffering that he would see all around. “A trip to the Sonagachi red-light district in Kolkata in 1961 inspired him to do a very different kind of self-portrait, where he stands naked in the street as heavily made-up prostitutes beckon,” wrote Chanpreet Khurana in a 2014-article in Lounge. Added to this, was the influence of writers such as Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Saadat Hasan Manto and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “I thought I would paint like Dostoyevsky wrote," said Ramachandran. After Kolkata, he came to New Delhi in the 1950s, where he was offered a monthly contract by Kumar Gallery.
The events of 1984 had a huge impact on his practice. “I saw one man being chased by 12," Ramachandran told Khurana about the time when had been living in east Delhi’s Bharti Artist Colony. “They killed the Sikh man like a dog right in front of my eyes," he recalls. That turned him off painting images of human tragedy. “Why coat it in rasgulla syrup and ensconce it in painting?" he had said. Ramachandran then embarked on his search for beauty in both nature and humanity and translated that in his works. Humour ran as a thread through his practice, with the artist often representing himself—and his signature hairstyle—in his paintings and sculptures. Ramachandran's practice stood out for representing a vocabulary that was truly Indian, rooted in everyday people and scenes.