Lotus, Bhils and pure art
If you visit the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Fort, you’ll find large painted murals on canvas sharing space with sculptures, etchings, drawings and illustrated books. Some works comment on the plight of the marginalised in urban Delhi. Others feature drying lotus ponds, women dancing on a full moon night and the Bhils living in villages around Udaipur. This versatile oeuvre belongs to the acclaimed, New Delhi-based 84-year-old artist A Ramachandran. It comes together in the exhibition titled A Ramachandran: 50 Years of Art Practice, supported by the New Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery. Conceptualised by art historian R Siva Kumar, the show displays 260 works done by the artist between 1968 and 2019. “It’s not easy to show an artist like Ramachandran, who makes mural-scale paintings and multi-figure sculptures, without a certain kind of space being available. While there have been solo exhibitions of Ramachandran’s work in Delhi, Bengaluru and Kochi, he hasn’t shown in Mumbai on an appropriate scale. It has been made possible with NGMA Mumbai deciding to host this exhibition,” says Kumar.
Born in Kerala, Ramachandran studied art at Santiniketan and moved to Delhi in 1964. Over the years, he has expanded his repertoire from being a modernist painter to include sculpture, prints, and designing.
He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2005. “Looking back, I feel that my pilgrimage as an artist started when there was hardly any incentive or public support for the Indian artist. Yet, I could travel such a long distance without losing my identity as an individual artist for more than five decades. That, in itself, is an achievement,” he says.
The show offers an insight into two distinct phases in Ramachandran’s career. The first 20 years are dotted with socially engaging, often seething, mural-sized works as response to the social violence he witnessed in the post-Partition India and globally after World War II. The seminal 60-foot canvas mural ‘Yayati’, which he completed in 1986, marks the start of the second phase. Thereon, his art depicts village life and nature in a visual language reminiscent of traditional arts. “The greatest turning point in my life as an artist was my decision to turn away from art as an expression of political commentary to the practice of art in its purest form, discovering the beauty of unspoilt nature and its inhabitants — the tribals,” says Ramachandran, adding, “Besides, I had the misfortune of witnessing the ’84 riots which made me realise that gruesome cruelties of human behaviour should not be touched by art even with a long pole.” Kumar adds, “Ramachandran is an excellent draftsman.“He observes and comprehends the world through drawing,” he elaborates. “He also makes what he engages with his own in this process. This is rather rare today when most artists depend on photographs or secondary printed image to know the world. The exhibition, I believe, makes this very evident.”
A Ramachandran: 50 Years of Art Practice is ongoing until June 12, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Tuesday to Friday) and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Saturdays and Sundays) at National Gallery of Modern Art, Fort.