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For A Ramachandran, the line says it all

Since the 1950s, the artist has consistently used drawings to express humour, tragedy and pathos. Eighty of his landmark works are now on show

‘Suwalka Ragini’ (1993). Image: courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery/the artist
‘Suwalka Ragini’ (1993). Image: courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery/the artist

An untitled drawing from 1975 shows a group of women huddled together. All one can see is the silhouettes. But the way the ladies clutch their saris to their faces and sit close to one another, as if seeking warmth from each other’s presence, is telling. It evokes a sense of conflict, which the women have somehow managed to escape.

Through a simple set of lines, A. Ramachandran has managed to infuse the image with pathos.

Since 1958, the artist has consistently used drawings as a medium to express humour, tragedy, the beauty of nature and the state of the human condition. Over the years, he has created over 5,000 drawings, using ink on a variety of paper. Now, 80 of these related to the landmark works from his oeuvre, such as Yayati, Lotus Pond and Grave Diggers, are part of the exhibition A Lifetime Of Lines, on display at the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi.

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The proclivity towards drawing goes back to Ramachandran’s days in Santiniketan, West Bengal, where he was pursuing a diploma in fine arts and crafts from Kala Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University. “In other art schools, drawings are used as a preliminary step to record form or to make contour lines to fill up colours. In my case, I was fortunate to go to Santiniketan, where the system of teaching was different from other art schools,” says the 86-year-old artist.

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,” reminisces Ramachandran.

This process became a way to understand nature and record it with a few flowing lines. It was very different from the practice of anatomical study in European art, where artists would sketch details while looking at a model. At Santiniketan, Ramachandran and his classmates would be asked to visit villages and observe movement—of people working in the paddy fields and their homes, and the way farm animals behaved. “While looking at that movement, we would have to carefully observe how the contours of their body would change between one action and the next. Ramkinkar Baij would tell us to watch the lines of the backbone, as it gave an indication of how the body structure was built,” he says.

Untitled | Mixed media on paper | 11” x 8” | 1993. Image: courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery/the artist
Untitled | Mixed media on paper | 11” x 8” | 1993. Image: courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery/the artist

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When it came to animals. Baij told Ramachandran that using flowing lines for a horse would evoke its speed—but he advised static lines for the slower donkey. “There is an inherent linear structure in every natural form which one has to observe. It is a long process but once you achieve it, you can use lines like a conversational language,” he says.

The artist says his paintings and sculptures are very different from his drawings. To him, the latter are far more communicative, impulsive and conversational. “I can make a joke or a statement, evoke pathos or make a caricature,” says Ramachandran. He believes one can use lines in a composition much as one modulates language for a variety of subjects in a conversation. “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 adds.

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For art historian R. Siva Kumar, one of the strong points of Ramachandran’s work has been the graphic quality of the drawings. 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 says.

What makes Ramachandran’s work significant is that he has consistently used lines in a world where drawing has become a much neglected form. In most cases in the contemporary art world, says Siva Kumar, it is only used as a device to arrive at a figure in a historical composition. “Most artists use drawing as a preparatory exercise and not as an independent work in itself. But several Santiniketan-trained artists, including Ramachandran and K.G. Subramanyan, are outstanding exceptions to this.

“Ramachandran has used the line to express himself completely and not as a stepping ladder towards something else,” he notes. “And that makes his work very important.”

A Lifetime Of Lines can be viewed at the Vadehra Art Gallery, D-40, Defence Colony, Delhi, till 13 August.

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