How Lotus Ponds in Rajasthan Refilled A Ramachandran’s Canvas

Into his early middle age, A Ramachandran felt a sense of déjà vu when he visited a stretch of rural Rajasthan no less than 2,500 km away from his village down the country in Kerala. The artist’s native place near Thiruvananthapuram was admittedly greener, but there were matters common between the childhood vignettes it conjured up and the alluring rural vista near Udaipur.

Lotus ponds, for one. And the hills that formed the backdrop to the open lands. That visit to the desert state in the late 1970s eventually triggered a new bout of creativity in Ramachandran as a Delhi-based artist. So much so, he has for the past four decades been painting what has come to be famously known as the ‘lotus pond series’.

It’s only with awe-filled fascination that Ramachandran recalls both the instances, sitting in a famed gallery in Kochi where an exhibition is currently featuring his latest works. Attingal in erstwhile Travancore kingdom where he grew up as a child had a “little Amazon” behind his house. “There was a tiny lotus pond in the middle of the paddy fields that extended up to a hill,” the octogenarian winds back, adding wistfully, “The progress machine wiped out almost all of it during these 40 years.”

No different is the case with the transformation of the quiet expanse he had come across near Udaipur upcountry. “Roads have been built and the city has extended its arms to these areas. Not long ago, they were desolate, but today we see flats all over there,” he says. “The lotuses have been pulled out, and the ponds cleaned. The place has been redeveloped into picnic spots and centres of religious tourism.”

This fact is tacit at the ongoing show of Ramachandran, 84, at Durbar Hall Art Gallery owned by Kerala Lalithakala Akademi in downtown Ernakulam. The 27-day event, titled ‘The Mahatma and the Lotus Pond’ and curated by scholar R Siva Kumar, has 91 works of the Padma Bhushan awardee brought in by Vadehra Art Gallery (VAG) with whom the master has an association of more than a quarter century.

“My works don’t straightaway send out messages. I don’t intend that either; am not a politician,” says Ramachandran, who studied art at West Bengal’s illustrious Santiniketan after leaving Kerala in 1957 on completion of an MA in Malayalam literature. “You are free to conclude that these paintings are just about nature. Lotus ponds, in all its subtleties. At cool dawns, still afternoons, in sunset hours, moonlight — and across seasons such as spring, monsoon…”

At this, Prof Siva Kumar chips in to say that the ‘lotus ponds’ are also the artist’s take on environmentalism, which is essentially political. “See, conservation of ecology is basically a political matter. You can’t really gloss over Ramachandran’s paintings (in the series) as just pretty or a mere pursuit of the idyll,” he adds.

To Prof Siva Kumar, who teaches at Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, Ramachandran bases his works on reality even while building on it an imaginary world. “His works are like, say, R K Narayan’s Malgudi. Or the characters of Vaikom Muhammed Basheer in Malayalam fiction,” says the scholar, who had curated Ramachandran’s first Kerala solo in 2013 when VAG brought in the artist’s works done over half-a-century from 1964. That 15-day show, too, was held in Durbar Hall.

“Ramachandran’s works remind us of how urbanity is depriving today’s generation of the sights, sounds and smell of nature around,” notes Prof Siva Kumar, in a talk held here a fortnight ago as part of the October 5-31 exhibition. “That way, the paintings have added relevance in the present day.”

Ramachandran, who taught in Jamia Millia Islamia in the national capital, says his style of painting has been the result of a natural evolution. “We have artists who purposely blend genres to find a signature of their own. I don’t do it, though it’s not as if I don’t know the contemporary trends in art,” says the winner of prestigious honours such as the Kalidas Samman and Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram. “I have seldom imitated even my own teachers,” he adds, referring to 20th century titans such as Nandalal Bose, Benodbehari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij.

Prof Siva Kumar notes that Ramachandran’s initial visits to Rajasthan leading to renewed encounter with nature do overlap with the artist’s first-hand contacts with a cross-section of Asian antecedents in painting.

“Having studied in Santiniketan, they were not unknown to him. His teachers, especially Nandalal and Benodebehari, had drawn upon them in exemplary ways. But he had not paid close attention to these traditions as an artist so far,” notes the scholar. “Now studying them maturely in search of an alternative visual language, Ramachandran noticed that artists in each of these traditions had attempted to create visual equivalents in their own unique ways. Ramachandran’s awareness and exercise of such linguistic possibilities is reflected most vividly in his first paintings of lotus ponds,” he says.

It was in 1988 that Ramachandran did his first painting of the lotus pond as a subject by itself, beyond being a backdrop to a human story. Since then he has painted about 40 large paintings exclusively on this subject. “Plus, the hundreds of drawings and studies done from life, as well as an almost equal number of watercolours done from memory, as studies or as individual paintings, in the studio,” adds Prof Siva Kumar.

‘The Mahatma and the Lotus Pond’, which has also a section on the iconic Mohandas Gandhi, is open to the public on all days this month till the end of the show.


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