On an early winter afternoon as I headed to Lalit Kala Academi I was super excited. I had reason to be. It is not everyday that you get the chance to be in the company of such a fine mind as the Artist an inspiration for many and an iconic figure in the world of Indian art.
The occasion of this meeting was momentous for me. I have been reading his coffee table books on art at home, seen his works at exhibitions and homes of kith and kin in wonder and gone for all the possible talks I could go on with him on panel. He is also an artist I immensely respect for sticking to his style of work and doing full justice to it in the face of criticism on it being considered archaic by some in the fast track racy world of contemporary art. I’ve met him professionally but never with exclusive time in a restful space to discuss art and life at leisure, a decision, which I was to realize, was a true revelation.
As I pondered on my luck, I came to see the figure of the man on top of the stairs at the gallery. The warm greeting lit up his face and eyes as he gregariously met me and asked me to be seated.
From there conversation was easy. The professional concerns of breaking the ice on time to get to the core truth on life and work was not even an issue.
Ramachandran flows with conversation like his subjects, nature and people who are integrated with their way of life and in relation to each other. There is seriousness in his conversations with bits of witty humour and the grace of humility that radiates from his persona.
When I asked him on his choice of subject and the close connection on his work on nature, Ramachandran mentions that to some extent it was his training at Shantiniketan. He says “Santiniketan is, or was in those days a unique institution. Our teachers like Nandlal Bose, Ram Kinker and Vinod Bihari Mukherjee, they believed in a universe which is not only for human beings but also other beings like trees, plants and insects.
Most of our Indian culture has that. Our Universe is not human centric as the European artists. Look at our miniatures. Krishna and Radha is a very small part of the miniature woven around a landscape with the trees, clouds, plants, seasons and insects. We kept human beings as an integral part of nature. That is why I think of it as a very correct attitude. And that is why I went to a place, villages where people are that way. They are the human beings in their natural habitat not like our cement blocks.
Secondly, the environment also conditioned them. Their connection to nature through festivals, for example, harvesting. We have forgotten all these subtleties of nature and how it is related to us. It isn’t with putting pots in front of us to remind us that that's nature.
It is a sad thing. People talk of environment. We are destroying our environment. But we are destroying our culture too…all these pockets of culture. Every village in India has its own architecture, stone wall paintings, textile designing, its own pots and pans “
The idea of sustainability where a group of people made do with whatever was in their environment and make judicious and creative use of it is something that touches a cord in Ramachandran’s vocabulary. The need to see that fragile balance of nature and man can be seen in the man as it is displayed in a celebratory mode in his work.
“ It was an integrated vision. People like Gandhiji talked of Panchayat Raj in those days but unfortunately we have forgotten all that. Our teacher Nandlal Bose was asked to do work for the congress. Gandhiji said make use of the available material there not take from the city you take things. With hay, bamboo, white clay and locally available earth colours he used a beautiful work. That gave him insight about moulding your life and creating an aesthetic environment with materials locally available. That notion was the basis on which Nandlal practiced his art.”
Ramachandran then goes on to engage with culture and its problematic tangle in present day India. “We are steam rollering our cultural scene unnecessarily. You know talking of modernity. We never asked what is this modernity word. How do we talk of technology and science when our telephones don't work! We have cars spewing venom and people being reckless in the name of science and technology. We never think of what is going to happen to our children. The whole notion of art also has to be looked as in how when we do something how does it relate to our environment which we have not thought about. These are serious issues. One cannot stem roller modernity. It has to be worked in a contextual way. Where ever it is necessary, how it is necessary.”
On asking him on how contemporary Indian art faces the issue of being disjunct from the issues and conditions which are glaring and which must be present in the psyche of the artist yet not responded to by him, Ramachandran in his humourous tone emotes “I am like a bat, neither bird nor animal. I belong to an older generation where a lot of the famous artists like Tyeb Mehta, Souza, etc are my friends. But I am not a part of that in a sense. I moved away. Number one was, somebody has said, the modern movement in art is like bird watching. We are doing things but ordinary people have no response. Even today the great masters, how much today do they [the people] know about the work? They only hear about the prices. How much do you enjoy a work done by them or how much do they find relevant to their own cultural milieu?”
“This is a very serious issue. But I don't blame them. It is our art schools. They were started by the British. Suppose the British had started dance schools there wouldn't have been bharatnatyam. There would have been ballet.”
The softness on his face has vanished as one sees the man smolder, a little disappointed, in a silent rage. His passion for the integrity of his work and the keenness to see the Indian aesthetic grow can be seen as he talks.
“With an English education we are given an education in European art. As a result we have developed a complex. We are ashamed of talking of Indian Art. We don't get intimate with it. Nobody says I have a collection of miniatures. Nobody says I love going to Ajanta. We are unable to identify ourselves with our own visual tradition. It is a great tragedy for us and now, we have to think about it seriously. We have to get our language structure back into our visual expression. And that is the reason why the public is not responding to us”
Ramachandran is an artist, profound thinker and philosopher. A man who thinks for others, for their future and is interested in building rather than disintegrating. His works respond to his environment. There is a deep connection with the way he lives his life and the art he makes. His works are made in response to his environs, they reflect daily life, there is the sense of music ,dance and celebration along with a rooted local cultural element and ofcourse his personality and humour are reflected especially with him putting himself as a small bird or an animal somewhere in his large canvases observing the scene.
His works range from precise sketches and detailed drawing work to beautifully rendered and large painted canvases on people and their lives. It is contemporary with its roots in the local visual scenario.
“People dismiss my art saying it’s decorative. People do not understand decorativeness is one of the ingredients of Indian art. It is our way. We try to decorate every inch we have around us. Decorativeness is within us. We decorate the floor, we decorate the wallspace we decorate the bride with mehndi and still we say that art is decorative! We got this idea from the British who thought Indian art was decorative against their art, not our art. They were saying in a derogatory manner Indian art is too decorative. It is our asset. Decorativeness in a good sense is how to tackle a picture space.It is like rhythm. When you hear it you feel like moving your body. Atleast the work should have that Indianess so that the onlooker feels like moving within“
In his humourously insightful way Ramachandran goes on to explain the predilection where Indian art and the people of India are not connecting. “When Pandit Bhimsen Joshi sings even an ordinary vegetable seller will go and listen. Here you got twelve people to listen to you, three critics and four buyers. Bus. There it ends. That is the art world. How can you limit your art world like this? That way the Mexican artists are more correct. It is people’s art. I also think it should be people’s art.”
He then very simply states,”Forget my theory, philosophy everything. Just being with my art makes them happy. They take a photograph, even as a backdrop it makes me happy! They respond… You are giving art and also an encyclopedia with it. Read political social contexts… why are you doing all this?.. it is the social scientists work, not an artist’s work…Art has become articulation. Work should speak.”
With these words comes a dawning. There is nothing more to be said. Just to be felt and be in the moment with. The two worlds of first the artist that is Ramachandran and second, the unending lyrical trail of paperwork and canvases on people, life and nature which one is surrounded with to be cherished, shared and enjoyed, they collapse into one vibrant world – the art and life of A. Ramachandran.