- Narmeen Sajid
K. RAMANUJAM: THE MAN BEHIND THE BRUSH AND THE SYMBOLISM IN HIS ART
Updated: Nov 12, 2020
An artist's creative process is governed by deliberate thought— in the brush strokes, base colors, use of perspective, understanding the anatomy of figures, and perhaps, making a socio-political statement, all built-in conjuncture with artistic technique and practice. However, in minuscule amounts, intended or not, the artist seeps in through the layers of the canvas. Perhaps, all artworks are always intensely personal, offering a medium by which the artist weaves a fantastical and richly imaginative world, in which they chart their way of understanding and relating to the world that they are so often out of step with.
Born in 1941 into a poor orthodox Iyengar family in Tiruvallikeni (now Triplicane), K Ramanujam's childhood was tragic, marked by schizophrenia and depression. His stunted body and speech impediment made him a figure of ridicule at the hands of family and society. As a young, impoverished boy, Ramanujam sold crude ink drawings to scrape together a meal. Fortunately, the artist was very attached to his mother, who noticed his love for drawing and sent him to the Government School of Arts and Crafts (presently Government College of Fine Arts), Chennai. The principal of the institution, K. C. S. Paniker took the artist under his wing. Under Paniker's guidance, Ramanujam quickly absorbed the technique of painting and began to create a profusion of pictures, each a detailed record of a dream of his, perhaps a reality he hoped to actualize.
Ramanujam's work is an intriguing amalgamation of the personal, the absurd, and the eternal. In his pieces, the Western Baroque style and Indian mythology copulate, mixing with his dreams effortlessly, creating a unique style that markedly distinguished him from his contemporaries. His work is considered as 'Outsider Art' or as belonging to 'Art Brut'; a school of thought devised by French artist Jean Dubuffet, to describe art created by those who belong outside the shackles of professional art practice. Ramanujam's characteristic style comprises of line drawings in black and white, and he moved quite often from wash-drawing to shading, using criss-cross lines without marring or spoiling the effect of his work. He developed the technique of creating white areas on paper by scratching out the surrounding parts.
Celestial figures, beasts morphed and adorned with wings, clear depiction of the sun and the moon, motifs of clocks, and intricate patterns make repeated appearances in his narratives, mostly done in ink and oils. His own portrait features frequently in his work— a man clad in a white shirt, black pants and sometimes, donning a hat and a mustache, like the Master of Ceremonies, conducting an impossible show. Perhaps he wanted to be an integral part of the fantastical narrative he weaved. Bits and pieces of him seeped into every single piece he ever created. Once, while explaining his drawings, Ramanujam said, "An army of nurses came in search of me, and from the shadow of the shells, I looked on them in sadness."
A curious case of religious and divine exploration can be seen in Ramanujam's work. In captivating dreams of line and color, his work reflects the Hindu Vaishnavite ideas of spiritual ascent, for many of his compositions correspond to literary texts on the same subject. This resulted in a marriage of Vaishnavite symbolism with techniques he picked up from his seniors and contemporaries, like that of the ink wash style. Ramanujam may have also been inspired by the architectural wonders of the region, the reproduction of which is seen in his works. Unlike his personality, his drawings were assured — be it the ink drawings, self-portraits, or informal media, he churned out surreal and bold pieces that focused on intricate and minute details.
In the later years of his life, he lived in the Cholamandal Art Village, Chennai, and came to be known as a Cholamandal artist. And here, he slipped further into despondency. His canvas began to acquire a melancholic look. These later works reflect his state of mind — he was depressed and melancholic, but he was at the peak of his career, for his works were beginning to get him recognized. In fact, the renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffery Bawa, who admired his work immensely, commissioned Ramanujam to do three murals for Hotel Connemara in Chennai. In 1965 he participated in the Commonwealth Arts Festival in London, national art exhibitions of the Lalit Kala Akademi, and the group shows in Mumbai, Chennai, and New Delhi. However, the ill-mental health finally caught up with him, and he died tragically young at the age of 33, by suicide, in 1973.
K. Ramanujam's artistry is reflective of his solitude and inner state of mind, and a medium of indulging in his mind space. It is an open letter of possibilities of an afterlife he almost melancholically lived through. Ramanujam broke new ground in the realm of the Madras Art Movement and modern Indian art, particularly in the 1960s and 70s. His work reflects how he used art as a catharsis, not only for portraying his intense emotional expression but also for healing the wounds that society had inflicted upon him. The free-flowing lines and forms reveal his exquisite craftsmanship. Paniker compared him to Somerset Maugham's character, Charles Strickland, who clung to his solitary gift of a painting to keep the depression from setting in. Ramanujam's last painting, unfinished, reflected his bruised state of mind — dark clouds hovering at the horizon, engulfing an elephant with his trunk raised in salutation, and a dog. But instead of the dog's face, Ramanujam ended up drawing his own.
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