Facing kids, Sunil Vallarpadam asked them to name a few local birds before they would draw one. “Most of them failed to list beyond half-a-dozen,” he sighs, looking back at a workshop the artist led as part of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
Fresh in their first sitting earlier this week, the middle-aged master suggested the little trainees to sketch any winged creature “you like, the way you wish”. Most of them came out with images that looked “below par”. At this, Sunil decided to demonstrate the exercise of painting with pastel on crepe paper. “We had a set of 24 colours. I did a breezy work, added fancy shades to a variety of sparrows I tried. That had a positive impact on the children: their bird in the following session looked much better.”
How? “Well, the demo gave them the idea of how to balance space, arrange colours and structure the object they were trying to portray,” he reasons. “It takes only a little to train a talented student to get the basics correct, but that rarely happens in most of our schools.”
It is to bridge this gap that the Kochi Biennale Foundation has launched a programme called ABC, or Art By Children. “We are inviting masters from various mediums to give practical tips to budding artists,” says Blaise Joseph, who heads the ABC programme that is organising short workshops at a key venue of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale. “We had them giving training in handicrafts using coconut leaves, objects from clay, charcoal drawings, pastel, graphic novels and now storytelling. More are in the pipeline.”
At his January 8-9 workshop on painting using pastel, which is a powdered pigment mixed with an adhesive to be used as a stick, Sunil and his apprentices have left a souvenir at the art room in Cabral Yard of Fort Kochi. It’s an assortment of images by participants of all ages and varied nationalities, who tried their hands in the medium by painting on a surface that is 20 feet long and six feet wide.
“It was a happy sight when children and adults pooled in their talent and desire to paint. They were not just locals, but people from outside of Kerala or of India,” says Sunil, 47, who hails from the tiny Vallarpadam off Kochi. “True, not many kids in the modern age have the inclination to look around — or raise their eyes from the mobile phones and laptops. Yet, in the end, we rediscover that it is children who can be a university to any artist.”
Sunil remembers how his childhood days in marshy Vallarpadam started with birdsongs in the dawn hours. “Above their chirps, we had another nightingale: M S Subbulakshmi,” he recalls with amusement, referring to the neighbourhood temple playing the invocatory Venkatesa Suprabhatam record by the iconic classical musician. “Nature was much more pristine those days (1970s). The birds too were of several varieties.”
The waterhen fascinated Sunil no end. “With its lean body and long toes, the white-breasted bird would walk like what we later saw as models walking the ramp at fashion parades,” he says. “The kingfisher was another attraction; the way it would dramatically swoop down to the pond to rise with its prey between the beaks. Then, we had the crow pheasant, the cranes, pigeons, parrots, mynas, koels, sunbird…”
“My most favourite bird, though, has been the owl,” says Sunil, who is a student of artist P V Nandan, also from Kochi. “It makes a weird sound, to which I as a kid used to reciprocate. I don’t know if the bird was amused, but it was great communication.”
The ABC programmes are also a platform to convey matters to a different generation living in a changed world, notes Blaise, an alumnus of MS University, Baroda.