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A. Ramachandran (1935-2024): The artist who broke free of limitations

Ramachandran was as adept at writing children’s books and practising Carnatic music as he was in the visual arts

A portrait of A. Ramachandran by artist Manisha Gera Baswani
A portrait of A. Ramachandran by artist Manisha Gera Baswani

"I do not adhere to limitations, which is why I consider myself a ‘bohurupi’ in Indian art,” artist A. Ramachandran had said before the opening of his 2022 show, Songs Of Reclamation, at Emami Art, Kolkata, And indeed, throughout his prolific career, he refused to be tied down by mediums, themes or art theories. The 89-year-old artist, who died in Delhi last week, worked on children’s books, sculptures, oils, watercolours, drawings, sketches and more.

Born in Attingal, Kerala, in 1935, Ramachandran had always been interested in different forms of art, be it music, painting or literature. He was not only proficient in Carnatic music but in poetry and prose as well. He earned a master’s degree in Malayalam literature before pursuing a diploma in fine arts and craft from Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, 1958 onwards, where he studied under masters such as Ramkinkar Baij, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Nandalal Bose.

Ramachandran’s early influences ranged from the beauty of the local landscape in Kerala to viewing the murals at the local Krishnaswami temple in the light of the flickering lamps during a visit with his mother for the evening puja. R. Siva Kumar, who was a close friend of the artist and has curated many seminal shows of his works in the past, including Songs Of Reclamation in 2022 at Emami Art in collaboration with Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, writes about these early influences in his essay, A Ramachandran: A Retrospective. “(There) he first understood that art transcends the real. And finally there was the work of the Bengal School artists that he discovered in the pages of (the now defunct magazine) Modern Review, which provided him with a model of painting that looked beyond the straightforward imitation of the perceived world,” writes Siva Kumar. (The essay is available on the website of the Critical Collective, an arts education initiative by art curator and critic Gayatri Sinha.)

Later, the poetry and prose of Kunjan Nambiar, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and Fyodor Dostoevsky were huge influences. “I thought I would paint like Dostoevsky wrote,” Ramachandran had said in a 2021 interview to Lounge.

Also read: A Ramachandran (1935-2024): A master of line and colour

In the early part of his practice, the artist painted the pathos of the human condition after coming across scenes of suffering in Bengal. Works such as Homage I and En Masse from 1964 are stark examples of this. From Kolkata, he came to Delhi in the 1960s after being offered a monthly contract by Kumar Gallery. The city was to remain his home till the very end.

After creating works such as Vision Of War (1976), he began to look at suffering not from the lens of pathos but of satire. It was in the 1970s that he started working on children’s books and sculptures as well. In October last year, the Vadehra Art Gallery put together, for the first time, a body of his sculptures—large, small and groups of bronzes and ceramics—created between 1974 and 2023.

 ‘Lotus Pond With Water Hyacinth’ (2020), oil on canvas. Photo: courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery
‘Lotus Pond With Water Hyacinth’ (2020), oil on canvas. Photo: courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery

In his essay, Siva Kumar mentions the series, which gave new direction to Ramachandran’s practice, Yayati (1984-86). “Anyone viewing Ramachandran’s career would readily notice a rupture, with Yayati marking the definitive break, which splits it into two halves. It can be read as a movement from darkness to light, a shift from a dystopian to a Utopian vision of the world. … So the rupture should have been caused by a blend of emotion and rethinking, a rethinking about the relation between art and life, and about modernism and one’s cultural antecedents,” he writes.

Besides being an artist par excellence, Ramachandran was a much-loved teacher. In 1965, he joined Jamia Millia Islamia University as a lecturer in art education and later developed a faculty of art. Contemporary artist Manisha Gera Baswani counts him as a guru and mentor. She was pursuing history at Lady Shriram College, Delhi, when admissions to Jamia Millia Islamia University opened up in 1986. “I was probably the last person to apply and landed up at the interview without a portfolio. Upset that I wasn’t carrying one, he asked me to draw a tea cup placed on the table in front, and I made a free-hand drawing of its rim. He later told me that it was the way I had handled the pencil and paper that had impressed him,” recalls the artist, who not only did her bachelor’s but also master’s in art from the university.

One evening, during the last few months of her master’s programme, it started raining heavily and she had to stay on. It was then that Ramachandran showed her his miniature paintings, and with that their association became deeper. “In his presence, one never felt that one knew enough. That is what a guru is like. He was such a reservoir of knowledge, be it painting, art history, philosophy, religion, literature, the workings of the mind, and so many other subjects. He could also recite Shakespeare. That admiration will never leave me,” she says.

During the 1970s, Ramachandran started to visit areas populated by the Bhil tribe in and around Udaipur in Rajasthan, and that opened up new ways of thinking. His sculptures began to acquire tribal totem-like imagery—a single pillar-like image, highly stylised with decorative linear forms on top. The lotus ponds in the area became a lifelong preoccupation for Ramachandran, both in his drawing and painting. In fact, drawing is the one medium that he consistently engaged with throughout his practice, creating over 5,000 sketches over time.

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.

Also read: For A Ramachandran, the line says it all

Siva Kumar, in a phone interview, tells Lounge that Ramachandran picked up drawing as a daily practice in Santiniketan. There, teachers and students used drawing not only to sharpen their skills but also to explore their immediate world. “In most art colleges drawing was used for studying objects and as preparatory work for painting. For artists like Ramachandran, it was an independent medium and an end in itself. At one point he had said that drawing was akin to a musician’s riyaaz,” says Siva Kumar, who first met the artist in Santiniketan in 1976-77.

To Ramachandran, the lotus pond was not just an object of beauty and symbolic value. “By studying it at different times of the day and in different seasons year after year, he realised that the lotus pond was a world in itself, home to many creatures and an ecology and atmosphere of its own. He also realised that the life of the pond and the creatures within it was related to the larger planetary system,” explains Siva Kumar. Year after year, Ramachandran would head to the lotus ponds and study them. This in itself shows the kind of process that the artist followed, which set him apart from the rest. “He was not just looking at traditions across the world but at the ones closer home as well such as miniature painting and the Kerala temple murals. You might call these conventions, but these are based on an understanding of what is out there in the world. He was interested in the logical basis of those conventions. Many artists don’t do that,” he says.

For Gera Baswani, this rigour was inspiring. Ramachandran’s presence empowered students like her to be the best for themselves. “He had a portrait of his guru, Ramkinkar Baij, in his studio. He would say, ‘Whenever I have a problem in my work, I visualise what my teacher would do and I get my answer’. Even before the preservation of culture, and a natural way of living became the modern norm, he was practising it in his life. That legacy for me will continue,” she says. “He always told me—don’t let art burden you. Coming from a man, for whom everything was art, it was a big thing—this idea of always celebrating art and not being burdened by it.”

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