Published in India Perspectives, Vol. 24, No. 6/2010, pp. 39-42.
One of the foremost artists of India, A. Ramachandran has charted out a singular course for his artistic expression. Both as a painter and a sculptor, Ramachandran has established a new idiom in which man and nature share a symbiotic relationship that is unshakable and unbroken. Ramachandran’s art is marked by references to India’s mural traditions, strong control over line, vigorous brushwork and a mastery over colour.
Born in 1935, Ramachandran grew up in the lush landscape of Kerala. Among the many formative influences, the flourishing vegetal backdrop and the brilliant colours of the Kerala temple murals which he observed during his growing up years left an indelible impression. After obtaining his Master’s degree in Malayalam literature from Kerala University, Ramachandran went to Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati in Santiniketan, West Bengal to study art. His awareness of the beauty and power of nature was further stimulated by the Santiniketan environment and its aesthetics. In 1961, he finished his art education at Kala Bhavana and was enrolled there as a research scholar for four years working on Kerala mural traditions. However, it was not till 2005 that his life-long research into the subject saw the light of the day. A seminal book, Pained abode of gods: Mural traditions of Kerala was published jointly by IGNCA and Vadehra Art Gallery.
Sometime in the early years of the Sixties of the last century, Ramachandran relocated to Delhi. In 1965, he joined Jamia Millia Islamia and became a professor and head of the department of fine arts and art education. He took voluntary retirement in 1992. Since the mid-Sixties, Ramachandran has held several one-man shows both in India and abroad. In 2003-2004, he was honoured with a retrospective of his works mounted by the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Of the many commissions that he has received, his most outstanding public sculpture was the bas-relief at Rajiv Gandhi Ninaivakam in Sriperumbudur. This monumental sculpture in granite is perhaps the largest work of public art in India. The work is a telling example of how Ramachandran can reclaim and reinvent tradition. Ramachandran has been honoured with many awards, significant among which are Gagan-Abani Purashkar from Visva Bharati University for the year 1998, Raja Ravi Varma Award from the Government of Kerala in 2003 and the Padma Bhushan in 2005.
Several features distinguish Ramachandran as an artist - his dexterity in handling material whether it be paint or bronze, the ease with which he shifts scale from the monumental to the miniature, the vitality of his lines, the blending of intellect and emotion that he brings to the image. In the early decades of his artistic career, Ramachandran painted huge canvases showing brutalized, dehumanized figures in an expressionist style. While studying in Santiniketan, he was deeply moved by the scenes of misery and distress of East Pakistani refugees trying to find a life in post-partition Kolkata. These grotesque images of human figures embroiled in turbulence and turmoil slowly softened as the years went by and nature gradually made its presence felt in the artist’s canvases. A cataclystic factor was a visit to Rajasthan in the early seventies. Ramachandran was not only fascinated by the vibrant landscape of the Udaipur region and the simplicity and directness of tribal life there but it also helped him to reconnect with Indian art traditions.
In the seventies, Ramachandran painted two suites of miniatures where he brilliantly fused traditional and modernist ways of seeing. The decade was also a period of gestation for him. He undertook many experiments in ceramics, sculptures where he explored both iconic totem-like forms as well as embryonic forms. He designed postal stamps. He earned recognition both in India and Japan for his illustration of children’s books. In his large oils done during this decade he cited references to traditional Indian images of Nayikas painted in a modern context. He also painted the marginalized sweeper and scavenger women that he saw in the neighbourhood where he lived bringing them centrestage.
The year 1986 marked a watershed for Ramachandran when he exhibited Yayati, a huge mural some sixty feet long and a small group of bronze sculptures. From this time onwards, Ramachandran’s canvases blazed with colours. He began painting the tribals around Udaipur, people who lived on the edges of society in harmony with nature. Ramachandran imagined an idealized territory where man’s integral link with nature was a constant source of celebration. The totemic sculptures also conceptualized the bonds between the female form and the fertility of nature. His lotus ponds are an extension of this metaphor of the abundance and beauty of nature. He has painted them during the different times of the day and in various seasons. The lotus ponds, visualized as a self-contained universe, have been painted in rich, saturated colours and have become signature images by the artist.