One often tends to wonder about the role of rituals in urban contemporary living, especially since festivals in the subcontinent revolve around the worship of nature. And with increasing urbanisation, we seem to be slowly moving away from cyclical celebrations around sowing and harvest, and more. However, for visual artist Viswanath Kuttum, this longing for ritualistic practices has become the centre of his art.
He is a recent awardee of The Elizabeth Greenshields grant, which only a handful of Indian practitioners have received since its inception in 1955. For Kuttam drawing was more of a play during childhood spent in Port Blair. But when he received an award during grade 8 for his work themed on the Kargil war, he was encouraged to pursue this more seriously. Hailing from the Andaman islands, his family had limited resources to support his education. Failing the tenth-grade exams did not exactly further his cause. However, by then, his passion for art knew no bounds. Though rusticated from the school, he signed up for inter-school competitions using names of his friends. He even won several awards in disguise.
He pushed himself to complete his secondary education only because he learnt that a bachelor's degree in fine arts was an option. “I wanted to pursue art and I was assured that I will not need to study any other subject besides that,” he confesses.
Kuttum worked at a local car workshop in 2004, and after it was destroyed in the tsunami, he worked with a cloth merchant. The family could not support his higher education, but he used his savings to study in mainland India. With some guidance and luck, and immense perseverance, he got admitted to the Gwalior Art College.
After completing his formal studies, he was niggled by the thought that his art lacked soul. “I was reacting to political events in the city and getting swayed by social media,” he says. That is when artist Anwar Khan nudged him to delve inwards, to make his work that is uniquely his own. This encouraged Kuttum to take a step-back and seek inspiration in his native place. “I began interpreting life of the island in my work,” explains Kuttam. The distinct characteristics of people and the landscape emerged in his art. Dichotomies became exciting for him; the hot weather and cool water of the sea, a happy-go-lucky attitude combined with a strictly ritualistic approach.
Festivals and carnivals were very important events. “We would eagerly wait for these annual celebrations, with me being the most enthusiastic participant”, says Kuttum. Village celebrations have always been simple and community oriented. However, when he compared life in the city, the artist realised that the galas there were more extravagant but highly individualistic. “On the island, there is no pollution. The structures are monolithic in nature. There is breathing space. The urban perspective is extremely contrary to this. Everything is layered and dense. I began to playfully merge these two worlds”, he says, explaining the reason behind the illusionary and surrealistic motifs in his work.
Kuttam’s art is minimalistic and monochromatic. He always paints his subjects in dark shades, both to display the dark skin of people in his village and also as signifier of the intensity of his work. But the backdrop is always in calmer and lighter shades. The use of a single colour also gives him the opportunity to focus on the form.
Over the years, Kuttum has developed a special technique to produce his work. “In grad school, I had no money to even buy acrylic paint. I collected scraps of sheets left behind by other students. And to create a ‘clean’ slate over it, I literally smudged the powdered pigment used in wooden-furniture polish,” he recalls. Ever since, he has pushed himself to develop his own process.
His current work uses paraffin and beeswax, linseed oil, resin, zinc, and natural pigments. He mixes two kinds of wax and boils them with linseed oil and zinc white to prepare the base material. This itself takes over ten days to dry after application on the surface for the painting. He has to wait another one week after pigment is applied to make fine impressions of his imagery. The process is painstakingly tedious. But the technique easily lends itself to achieve bold imagery alongside highly detailed renditions. “Where I come from, everything is visible from afar, and yet there are subtle details wrought by nature. Nothing is homogenous,” he says.