The Incredible Mr. Ramachandran

The life and times of artist A. Ramachandran who transformed the way Indians looked at modern art.

Sometimes you were introduced to him as a bird. Or you saw him perched atop a large lotus leaf as a turtle. Salman Rushdie, who gave us the term magic realism, would have been amazed by his ability to transform himself at whim into a fish one moment, a dragonfly the next. In the last drawing he made for me a few months before his demise, he posed himself as a painter with his sheets of paper and pens adrift amidst a lake of lotus blooms. I’d like to believe it was one of the last drawings he made over an eventful six-decade long career and is the more precious for it.

Born in Kerala, where he studied Malayali literature, A. Ramachandran might have pursued a career in music were it not for a chanced glimpse in a journal of a sculpture by Ramkinkar Baij, the first modernist who was redefining the language of sculptural art in Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan. It was in that moment that Ramachandran Sir—as he came to be known by most—knew that he too wanted to be an artist. A scholarship found him arriving at Santiniketan in 1957, replacing one lush countryside with another, but his training would have to wait. Baij was a moody teacher and moodier artist. He took one look at Ramachandran’s sketches and drawings and put them aside, advising the eager acolyte to learn from observing him at work—and so, for a year-and-a-half Ramachandran did just that. It honed his observation skills, but under the mentorship of Baij, Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee, the artist in him was finding nourishment. Later, he did a PhD on murals from his native Kerala where Tan Chameli, a Santiniketan-born Chinese artist whom Rabindranath Tagore had named, was asked to assist him. They married in 1967 and had two children—a daughter and son. Chameli, a watercolourist, has survived Ramachandran.

In those early years, Ramachandran would travel from Santiniketan to Calcutta (now Kolkata) where the influx of refugees, the violence on the urban streets, and Communist politics caused him to look at life through a Marxist lens. His early works were filled with the angst and anxieties of modern life. When, in 1964, he sent his works to New Delhi as part of a group exhibition, they were seen by Virender Kumar of Kumar Art Gallery and he was offered a remuneration to move to the capital and paint for him. It was incentive enough for Ramachandran and soon enough he was also offered the opportunity, along with artist Paramjit Singh, to set up the fine arts department at Jamia Millia Islamia University. That is when he became Ramachandran Sir to a legion of student artists.

Ramachandran was already a successful artist when the nuclear testing in Pokhran in May 1974, codenamed Operation Smiling Buddha, caused him a lot of grief. That the name of an apostle of peace and moderation should be lent to a weapon capable of harming millions was to him reprehensible, and his response to this was a series of paintings that he titled Nuclear Ragini in which images of shrouded women signified both beauty and death. These metamorphosed almost seamlessly into another series, Yayati, lending colour to a story in which a king asks for and appropriates his son’s youth so he may continue to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. That moment of epiphany came during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in New Delhi following the death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “I happened to witness a number of ugly scenes around my residence in east Delhi that thoroughly shook my conscience,” he told me. “Watching the gruesome scene of a mob chasing a young Sardar and killing him like a dog was so horrifying that I lost all appetite to paint grotesque aspects of life. I felt I had no right to paint such subjects, creating a beautiful work of art out of cruelty and suffering with my skills in painting.”

It was on an excursion from Udaipur that he discovered Ubeshwar, Eklingji, Nagda and Jogi ka Talab surrounded by the low Aravallis and lotus ponds that saw him transform his genius into paintings of lotuses and the tribal people who lived in their midst. “I sat near the lotus pond and watched the changing hues of colour on large leaves, the tall stalks holding flowers and buds, swaying in the breeze along with golden reeds,like a graceful tribal dance,” he wrote of that magical moment. And all at once, he found himself able to draw parallels between the aesthetics of Indian art—the Kerala murals, Ajanta frescoes and miniature paintings—and what he hoped to paint. Earlier, he had seen paintings of lotuses by Madhava Menon at Shrichitralayam in Trivandrum, and by Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee in Santiniketan. The latter half of his career he now devoted exclusively to painting the lotus ponds through day and night, sunshine and rain, summer and winter, in every mood and every light.

And along with the lotuses, he found himself painting portraits of the tribes that inhabited the region—the women (mostly) in their colourful skirts and mantles, the men in their turbans, going about their tasks, bathing in the lakes, celebrating weddings. So much so, he became a part of the family for the community who never missed a chance to be amidst them, travelling several times a year to capture the chimera of their lives.

Ramachandran was exuberant about these works; critics less so, lamenting that he had set Indian art back a hundred years. Ramachandran argued that aesthetics were always part of Indian art and could not be divorced from it. At any rate, his art found eager collectors. Exhibitions and retrospectives followed at prestigious galleries and the National Gallery of Modern Art. In time, he lent himself to representing the subject of his paintings—at least the people—as large, looming sculptures. It was at this time too that his own sardonic wit—for he never lacked in humour—exerted itself, and Ramachandran started inserting himself into these paintings as a voyeur. And a voyeur he was, after all. How else would he so evocatively paint the scenes that became a staple of his practice?

He was in his sixties when he started work on his most monumental paintings, often quadriptychs, that looked even more closely at the goings-on in the lotus ponds. These were among the largest oil paintings made by an artist in India, and he continued to paint them into his seventies, interspersing them with lyrical watercolours. He was bent upon creating a legacy—and he did.

Ramachandran was my go-to person when it came to knotty questions about art history in general, and about Santiniketan artists in particular, on whom he was an authority. These conversations in his Bharti Nagar studio in east Delhi were conducted over tea and laughter, for Ramachandran was self-deprecatingly funny, making himself his own butt of jokes. But over the last year or two, that wit had become to wilt a little. He was dispirited. He had attached an electric chair to the staircase railing to take him up from the ground floor to his spacious first floor studio. His gait was faltering. Worse, he was rapidly losing his eyesight. Yet, he jauntily labelled that last drawing he made for me “Lotus eater of Kerala”.

That was in August. We spoke again to each other over the phone in September. In December, I sent him a copy of a book that I was sure he could no longer read. His passing away on February 10 at the age of 89 years was a blow to the art world. The lotus ponds had lost their chronicler. Perhaps they did not bloom that day.


Kishore Singh is presently Director, Delhi Art Gallery. A most prolific writer, he has a regular column in Business Standard. Author of several books, Kishore is a regular on seminars and talks on Indian art and artistes.


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