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Artist Vasudevan Akkitham paints dream-like worlds on his canvas

In his ongoing exhibition in Delhi, artist Vasudevan Akkitham brings together ordinary everyday elements with a fable-like quality to his paintings

'Revere' by Vasudevan Akkitham. Image: courtesy Gallery Espace
'Revere' by Vasudevan Akkitham. Image: courtesy Gallery Espace

Vasudevan Akkitham paints an imagined world, one that seems like residue of a dream—inspired by a small village, Kumaranallur, in Kerala where he spent his childhood. His canvases mimic a staged scene, where figures of humans and animals are juxtaposed against ordinary everyday elements. Akkitham’s recent body of work is currently being presented by Gallery Espace in a solo exhibit titled ‘Arrivals and Departures’. According to him, the works are imagined journeys of returning home as well as departing at the same time. Edited excerpts from an interview with Lounge: 

Please elaborate on the juxtapositions of the real and imaginary in your paintings? 

I have had a rural upbringing. My childhood was spent in a village in Kerala, where I went to a school located about one kilometer away from my home. Our home was surrounded by dense greenery and paddy fields, and one grew up knowing the seasons in relation to the crops. I can still remember the day electricity came to our house for the first time in the early 1960s, which changed our lives forever. It also ended the mystery of the darkness of night. The presence of landscape has been an eternal part of my childhood psyche. As for as the simplicity of references, they can be sometimes deceiving. Ordinary can become extraordinary and mysterious like in old fables one heard in childhood.

There is dichotomy in your works related to scale and drama. How do these elements play out in your paintings?  

I think there are many dichotomies in my works, not just one—for instance, the constant juxtaposition of city and village, not necessarily always opposing. Maybe there is something autobiographical about it. Don’t we experience the real and the fantasy on a day-to-day basis? They always co-exist, spilling into each other, making the real mysterious and the mysterious more real. Since my attempt is not to document a particular situation, but to create an atmospheric intensity around it, I also need to distance myself from the real to make it more real. I am not interested in any kind of overt ‘surrealism’, but in a kind of dreaming which connects with the subconscious. I have interest in the Italian metaphysical artists and also Latin American writers, filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and choreographers like Pina Bausch; they all seem to make the transition from real to mysterious so beautifully. After all, one is looking for a magical moment in any creative pursuit.

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How has your practice been influenced by the Baroda school’s figurative-narrative tradition and close proximity to stalwarts like Gulammohammed Sheikh?

I met Gulammohammed Sheikh for the first time in an art camp at Kasargod, organized by Kerala Lalit Kala Academy. At the time I was going through some disappointment regarding my studies at Trivandrum College of Art. So, meeting him was a catalyst in me shifting to Baroda.

In Baroda in the 1980s, there was a ferment around figuration, which had far-reaching implications. We imbibed so much from the discussions we heard and witnessed. Knowing Sheikh Sir, Nilima [Sheikh], and Bhupen [Khakhar] intimately has had tremendous influence on my thinking. Art practice in Baroda, at least in those days, was not seen in isolation from other forms of creative expressions.

There has been a distinct transition in your style of painting over the years, from geometric and rigid images to the organic and fluid figures. What triggered this change?

One is always unsure of what one is doing. Although my early works were very figurative, I have also tried to move away from it. It is always an unavoidable pressure to speak in the language of the particular time you are in. I have also done, or at least tried to do that. I can see that those experiments have added something new to what I am doing now. I am a storyteller. My interest in art history, literature, and cinema all get woven into what I am doing now.

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What does the title of your forthcoming exhibition, ‘Arrivals and Departures’ signify and how is your current body of work responding to this theme?

Arrivals and departures are an intrinsic part of our lives, manifested also in the phenomenon of birth and death. We leave a place and arrive at another, physically as well as psychologically. My journey away from the place of my birth, and leaving behind something that was a part of my growing up, has played a crucial role in my mental makeup and creative expression. Addressing this displacement and revisiting the memory still remain an important life source for me. Although now I look at this journey more as a collective entity rather than something personal.

I can see that there is a very little specificity to these settings now and they look almost like a residue of a dream. 

‘Arrivals and Departures’ can be viewed at Gallery Espace, New Delhi, till 25 February, 11 am to 7 pm.

Rahul Kumar is a Gurugram-based writer and artist.

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