This is A Ramachandrans first solo exhibition in Kerala. It presents a selection of his works done between 1964 and 2013. The scope of this exhibition is, therefore, that of a retrospective. It includes some very significant paintings, sculptures, prints, water colours and drawings,, but does not include a few of his landmark works one would have, wished to see. So this is perhaps riot the definitive retrospective or dream exhibition of his works that an aficionado can conceive of, yet, with major works from every phase of his career, it is a very representative exhibition; an exhibition that will offer viewers an insight into Ramachandrans creative world.
A retrospective, definitive or representative, allows us to notice the turning points in an artist's career, its broader pattern, and to speculate about what drives him. Anyone viewing Ramachandrans career would readily notice a rupture, with Yayati marking the definitive break, which splits it into two distinct halves. It can be read as a movement from darkness to light, a shift from a dystopian to a Utopian vision of the world. But what caused this mid-career change of heart or vision is a question that would perplex the viewers. Although Ramachandran would claim that he is a man of passion and not of analytical thinking, he is nevertheless a thinking artist, more self-reflective than many of his contemporaries. So the rupture should have been caused by a blend of emotion and rethinking, a rethinking about the relation between art and life, and about modernism and ones cultural antecedents.
A second and less obvious aspect of Ramachandraris work is what it owes to Kerala. He had left Kerala, in. 1957 to study art at Santiniketan and then moved on to Delhi in 1964. Since then, Delhi has been his home arid his visits to Kerala have been short and sporadic. But his ties with Kerala are deeper than what this suggests. His sensibilities and his outlook were shaped by the early years he spent in Kerala. His later experiences, which have made him meaningfully cosmopolitan, were superstructures built over this experiential base, or to use an image that Ramachandran might prefer, wherever he is he continues to be connected with Kerala through a long umbilical cord that was never cut. And both these aspects will become clearer as we consider his career.
Ramachandraris interest in art began early in life, and three different early experiences nurtured it. The first was his experience of the local landscape that sensitized him to the beauty of nature. The second was his visit to the local Krishnaswami temple with his mother during the hour of evening puja, where viewing the temple murals in the light of flickering lamps, he first understood that art transcends the real. And finally there was the work of the Bengal School artists that he discovered in the pages of Modern Review, which provided him with a model of painting that looked beyond the straightforward imitation of the perceived world without transformation or mystery represented by the much admired Raja Ravi Varma.
The first two experiences filled him with a mixture of splendour and mystery, and were deeply etched in his mind. But they were too complex to be immediately unravelled and used in his immediate creations. So they simply sank into the deepest layers of his mind to be drawn up and used later when a better experience of art and life made them more accessible. His first paintings therefore came to be marked by the stylizations of the Bengal School than by something more local. But at the same time his exposure to Malayalam literature especially to the-satirist poetry of Kunjan Nambiar, and the works of modern writers like Cherukad, Basheer, Thakazhi and Keshava Dev showed him ways of creating a modernism that drew on local experiences and sensibilities. It-also showed him what was lacking in the post-Ravi Varma art scene of Kerala, and this led him to look beyond the confines of Kerala for his own development as an artist. He found what he was looking for in art in a reproduction of Ramkinkar Baij's sculpture, Santal Family. And this made him travel to Santiniketan to study art after completing his Masters in Malayalam Literature in 1957. But travelling to Bengal from Kerala in the late fifties - with eyes fed on the natural beauty of rural Kerala and a heart full of youthful ambition - he was scandalously shocked on seeing the festering wounds that post-partition migrations had left on the social fabric of Calcutta. And he felt impelled to respond to it urgently in his works.
Ramkinkar's art, marked by a monumental imagination and a subaltern energy with expressionist overtones, offered him a possibility. He was also drawn to Dostoyevsky and hoped to produce paintings brimming with earnest passion, conceived against a large canvas of human despair. But it was the discovery of the Mexican muralists in the library at Santiniketan that eventually helped him to develop a language that allowed him to imagine and communicate such a vision on a scale that was truly monumental.
His efforts in this direction began with an image of a suffering man as seen in paintings such as Homage I and En Masse, both from 1964. And gradually his works transcended the structure and scale of easel painting and approached that of the mural with an open-ended structuring and a lateral rhythm connecting the figures. The beginning of this shift is noticeable in The Cells, which is also from 1964. It is then carried forward through paintings like Indian Resurrection (1965), Moving Bodies (1966) and culminates in Encounter (1967), which at the length of twenty four feet is not merely the largest of his early paintings but also a representative summing up of his early vision and idiom.
Ramachandran has described the image of man in his early paintings as Christ-like. And many of his early paintings have titles such as Indian Resurrection, Last Supper, Entombment and Resurrection which invoke biblical references but without the redemptive promise that is inherent to the image of the suffering Christ. His images gradually move away from being passionate representations of human suffering to evocations of existential absurdity, until suffering becomes a meaningless spectacle of dehumanisation as we see in Encounter. Headless and anonymous but gesticulating and writhing tortuously under duress, his figures tell the universal tale of modern man as he saw it.
Ramachandrans early paintings were an angry young man's anxious and emotional response to human suffering. Like every young man’s response to the world it was coloured by his personal anxieties as much as by the images of tragedy that unfolded before him, and one merged with the other to amplify the effect. There is an element of expressionist urgency in the earliest of these but they gradually give way to a uniquemixture of surreal content and baroque articulation. He expressed the human predicament powerfully but he did not attempt to propose a social cure as the progressive writers with whom he had once moved did. Without god and without political commitments he did not see a promise of salvation. In this he was more like the sensitive but non-activist existentialists of his generation in Kerala.
How he expresses this pictorially can be gauged by considering Encounter very briefly, especially the penultimate image. The painting can be described as a procession of headless figures - involuntarily dangling and crawling, scooped hollow, balled up and locked into circular containers like dead foetuses, mangled and butchered and left undisposed - culminating in a crescendo of violence and painterly energy represented by the wheel of human limbs radiating from a hub of shapeless abdominal flesh. Only to be followed by the figure "of a flayed man hung by his feet like a trussed animal.
The penultimate image of many limbed figure inscribed within a circle arid a square is constructed from a palimpsest of antecedents and gives an insight into Ramachandran's art. Firstly the design reminds us of Leonardo's reworking of the Vitruvian scheme symbolizing the cosmic design of the human figure. Secondly the hands and legs that stretch out behind the wheel recalls crucified Christ. But the headless a many-limbed figure within the circle is an image of violence conflating the memories of the Tandava-dancing Siva of Ettumanoor, the Mahisasuramardini of Panayannarkavu and of the warring Ravana at Mattancherry - all of which Ramachandran had studied while working on his abandoned PhD.
While the motifs that this image reminds us of are associated with harmony, redemption and superhuman will, Ramchandrans image with its composite associations neither shows man as part of a universal order as the Renaissance motif does, nor does it have the redemptive promise of the crucifixion or the powers of the old gods and demonic heroes to move and change.
As opposed to them it signals the futile energy and absurd revolt of man without hope or future. This vision of human predicament is again starkly reiterated in a series of etchings he did in 1968 in which he uses the biblical stories conventionally, used to chalk out mans path to redemption to tell the story of mans fallen state.
That three years of Ramachandran's work which saw his establishment as an artist with a definitive vision should be summed up in a set of etchings is not altogether fortuitous. It also points to the fact that despite some turbulent brushwork in a few of his early paintings (in Last Supper particularly) and the use of brighter colours in some of the later ones, drawing is central to his. creative process and gives a distinctive character to his paintings. While colour and autographic brushwork were pivotal to many modern expressionists, Ramachandran chose to communicate emotional energy through, forms in movement. And because animation and kinetic force define figures in movement he also keeps his line thin and unmodulated; using a pen for his drawings rather than the brush, which was often favoured by other 'Santiniketan artists because of the inflections it facilitated.
Ramachandran's idiom despite its shifting material manifestations - pre- and post-Yayati - can be seen as a combination of a rather Western understanding of figural modelling with an Eastern use of lines to suggest movements and rhythms that bind the different elements of the composition together. Similarly, in his early paintings he uses a -conjunction of geometry and perspective to effect figural distortions and foreshortening without submitting the composition and thus the pictorial space to a single point perspectival grid. The geometry that resists and contains his figures also becomes a regulatory force which denies man his free will in such paintings as Resurrection (1967), Machine (1968), The Iconography (1969) and Ceiling (1970).
So far, with Dostoyevsky as his guide, Ramchandraris paintings were devoted to sketching. the universal contours of a world in which the suffering of Christ had become a wasted sacrifice. In 1969, a commission to do a mural for the Gandhi Darshan made him look at the issue of violence and human suffering in a more historical context. Looking at Gandhi against his times he saw Gandhi as the lone apostle of peace in a century of violence. Paradoxically, the next few years- proved to be a period of war, political brinkmanship and internal strife in India. This engagement with recent history and the twentieth century cult of violence found reflection in his paintings of the seventies such as Anatomy Lesson (1971), Audience (1971) and Kali Puja (1972).
Anatomy Lesson is a retake on Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. In it the original image is partially distorted and the good doctor of Rembrandt's painting is morphed into the overbearing image of Hitler. And it suggests that when man dares to play god he perverts freedom into authoritarian tyranny. The audience sees a noxious demagogue selling a spectacle of orgy to a mass of morally dead spectators. The year 1971 in which these paintings were done was the year of the Indo-Pakistan War, the Bangladesh Liberation War and general elections in India. If the wars, especially the war in Bangladesh, were a genocidal programme unleashed by autocratic generals, the general election also saw the rise of a more demagogic leadership in India.
Kali Puja was his response to the Naxalite movement that bloodied many parts-of India including Santiniketan. He felt that both the executions carried out by the Naxals and the brutal suppression of the radicals by the state were mindless social violence. He tried to give expression to it by drawing upon his memories of seeing ordinary villagers being transformed into possessed mobs during the goat sacrifice at a Kali temple near Santiniketan. In the paintings from this period his vision of the human condition acquired a historical mooring, but only briefly and obliquely. In his next major painting End of Yadavas (1973), Ramchandran once again returns to the image of man, powerless and subjected to forces beyond his control - forces that mangle him, toss him around and finally suck him into the all-consuming flames of a cataclysmic extinction.
His next major work was the Vision of War mural done in 1976. Like the Gandhi Darshan mural though it entailed specific historical references, Ramachandran turned the painting into a broadly allegorical commentary on war, violence and peace. But his engagement with these commissions made him turn his gaze from the spectacles of suffering to its causes, and pictorially from expression of pain to satire. These first reflections were found inpaintings like King and the Elephant, Mellon Seller and Grave Diggers, all from 1977. In them redemptive hope recedes further and gives space to an element of distrust and cynicism that will manifest itself as black humour in many of his subsequent works, especially in his illustrations to the stories of Saadat Hasan Manto (1979) and Anwar Sajjads novel Kushion ka Bagh (The Garden of Delights, 1981).
While the collective social madness that Manto attacks in his stories urged Ramachandran to produce a set of etchings in which he married the macabre with the surreal, Sajjads criticism of life in an undemocratic society impelled him to produce a series of independent paintings collectively called The Puppet Theatre (1981), exploring the dehumanising distortions perpetrated by men driven by self-deluding and absurd fantasies. Pictorial satire to be effective, Ramachandran felt, called for a greater realism of treatment and readable symbolism. This series of paintings, thus, stand out within his oeuvre just as prose writings would do in the oeuvre of a poet. If Sajjads novel was pro test-writing, in fictional form, The Puppet Theatre is its equivalent in painting. And this is the closest he ever came to being an artist activist.
The seventies also saw a diversification of his interests and engagements. The first of these was writing and illustrating for children. Although this was an old interest it was revived in 1972, inspired his own children who were by then four and three years old, and over the next few years he went on produce some of the finest children's books designed by an Indian artist. Secondly, for the first time after his student years he turned to sculptures in 1974 and to which he returned more seriously during the nineties. Known as an artist with a preference for monumental scale he also began to do miniature paintings around 1974, and continued to do them until the early eighties when doing fine work on a miniature scale became difficult due to an eye condition.
Along with his interest in miniatures which began with a few retakes on traditional examples, and perhaps under their influence, an element of sensuality begins to manifest in Ramachandrans paintings from this period. Its first traces can be seen in the Nuclear Ragini series of the mid-seventies. It gathers more strength in such paintings as Yellow Robe, Girt on the Swing, and Dancing Girls (all from 1977), intensifies in the Nayika series of 1980 and becomes flagrantly conspicuous in Yayati I (1983). Although the motifs from traditional miniatures have contributed to the imagery in some of these paintings they do not celebrate the sensuous and the beautiful as in the miniatures. Worked alongside his satirical paintings from this period, sensuality comes intertwined with earthy reality and atavistic gestures in them, making it more grotesque than desirable.
Ramachandrans art acquires a new purpose and direction in the eighties beginning with Yayati (1984-86). It marks a definitive "rupture in Ramachandrans career as an artist. If in the works before Yayati he was given to painting a dark picture of the world, in his more recent paintings the world appears, re-enchanted by a new sense of wonder, as a colourful and celebratory "pageant of sensuous beauty. In Yayati the tragic and the celebratory, the real and the mythic, the world outside and the world within coalesce, making it a truly transitional work.
The title alludes to Yayati, the mythic king who we know from the Mahabharata but the painting is not an illustration of his story, it is an exploration of the Yayati syndrome to which all of us are equally vulnerable. The mural, composed of a sequence of images, tell the story of human life moving from mans full-bodied youthful awakening to the sensuousness of the world to his tragic ousting from it. It seems to be saying: this world is beautiful and desirable but man cannot have enough of it, because both youth and life are transient. And it is not presented as a cautionary tale but as a confessional about human desire and its tragic insatiability.
At a personal level the painting was occasioned by a sudden deterioration of Ramachandrans eyesight around 1984 that forced him to give up painting for six months. This was a shattering experience for an artist at the height of his powers. It made him feel that the world was slipping away even before he had fully grasped it and this awakened him to the sensuousness of the world with a new urgency and impelled him to paint it with all the passion and energy he could muster.
Ramachandrans approach to painting has always been, that of a muralist. Yayati, which is sixty feet long, is not merely his largest work but also one that redefines his idea of a mural, and of modernist painting itself. If the visual vocabulary and idiom of his early paintings were inspired by modern Mexican murals, in Yayati this is replaced by an idiom in which the figure types of Ajanta (some are actually borrowed) and vegetal motifs with the decorative heaviness of Hoysala sculptures are combined with a palette of bright colours that does not belong to any school of traditional painting. It marks the beginning of a conscious effort to move away from a modernism built up on Western antecedents and replace it with an alternate modernism that draws sustenance from traditional sources.
When Yayati was first shown, Ramachandran arranged the painted panels hot in a continuous sequence along a wall but presented them as the three inner walls of an enclosed space with a constellation of small bronze sculptures at the centre to create a field of axial forces that held the space together. He had also thought of having if viewed in the light of oil lamps. And this should have made the colours muted and added an element of atmospheric mystery to the painting. The idea clearly was not merely to create a mural in an indigenous idiom but also to offer a viewing experience different from the one we have in galleries; an experience inspired by his childhood memories of seeing murals in the nickering light of lamps in Kerala temples. Yayati was his temple to the vulnerable man.
The use of an ancient story or myth as a trope having become a taboo in Indian art and a sign of being illustrative and revivalist since the 1940s, Yayati was promptly seen as illustrative painting though it was not even strictly narrative. However, it also brought him closer to a modernist literary tradition, which had a strong presence in Kerala, of revisiting ancient myths and stories and rereading them in the light of contemporary sensibilities and values to foreground a universal or personal issue. And incidentally it was a tradition with which G. Sankara Pillai - with whom Ramachandran had worked during his Kerala years - G. Aravindanand C. N. Sreekantan Nair - who were his life-long friends -were also associated.
Yayati as we have noted marks a point of transition or rupture in Ramachandrans career. Many consider it as a negation of modernism, but it would be relevant at this point to remind ourselves that even in his pre-Yayati works he demonstrates a post-Romantic sensibility and employs an idiom that deftly combines an element of surrealism with a Baroque sense of drama. His modernism always rested on an existential engagement with the world around him rather than on allegiance to particular modernist movements or styles. And like the Mexican muralists whom he acknowledges as a source of inspiration, he proves that significant new work can be produced without adopting explicitly modernist formal traits.
If Ramachandrans work has always stood apart from mainstream Western modernism, in his post-Yayati works he simply moves away from it further. But the more important change in recent years has been in his understanding of the artist's vocation. In his early years as a humanist engaged with the world he was more concerned with writing life into art; But the violence he witnessed during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi taught him that in. life main perpetrates, more violence than he had ever imagined or painted as an artist. He was convinced that the desire to change the world through art was futile. He now wanted to bring art into life, to bring a touch of beauty and celebration to life, be it in the form of an idyllic vision.
Modernism became for Ramachandran inadequate and, therefore, a failed project. He now voted for everything the modernists had voted against, and against everything they had voted for, especially against their aversion to pleasure or preference for austerity and high seriousness - values that, characterized his own early work. If Bernini had made Herbert Read feel sick and Greenberg had categorised everything, or almost everything, which did not fit into the straight and narrow path of formalist avant-garde as kitsch, Ramachandran concluded that such modernism had been a disease and he-wanted to be cured of it. He now set himself to create an art that seeks to pleasure the senses, deviates into narration, endorses skill, and dips into the language of traditional art forms which, like most modern artists, he had heretofore stayed away.
The pre-modern world of the Bhil tribe around Udaipur, whom he first visited in the late seventies, opened up a vision of beauty to him. He noticed that the Bhils lived in harmony with the world around and went about their life without wiping out the larger spectacle of nature. In fact, they wove their lives into the larger scheme of nature, or so it appeared to Ramachandran. He painted them initially not as ordinary villagers but as tree nymphs and water nymphs who embraced trees and brought them into bloom, swam in the lotus ponds, danced amidst flowers and generally celebrated life. They became apsaras in his imagination, and with his annual visits to their villages he became the mythical Pururavas who comes searching for Urvashi. His paintings done between 1987 and 1990, thus, became a symbol of his search for an alternative reality and a new muse.
The Bhils who lived in intimacy with nature also taught him to take notice of nature as never before. While looking at the Bhils across a cultural divide he felt compelled to idealize them, he observed nature with greater objectivity and empathy. Of the many aspects of nature he came across here, the most striking were the lotus ponds which were large enough to engulf him and to turn him into a tiny speck lost in their immensity. The lotus pond, thus, became for him both a womb and a self-complete universe of life to be explored and experienced with his eyes and his body. As he explored and experienced the immense lotus lakes with all their little inhabitants they also entered his imagination. And when he recreated them on canvas he painted them not merely as he found them in the world but as manasarovars or lakes that nestled in his mind.
Engagement with the lotus pond also led him to study more closely those Eastern traditions in which the lotus and its ecosystem were of perennial interest to artists. Especially with those traditions which had perfected the art of presenting the reality of the world upon large flat surfaces, flattened and turned decorative like flowers pressed between the pages of a book, but without losing the vivid colours and breathing atmosphere of the live world. Like in their paintings Ramachandran's Lotus Ponds too are large, decorative and encyclopaedic images of the aquatic world over which the lotus reigns.
They are also mirrors in which we can see the passage of time and the stages of life reflected. The first of these were painted in the late eighties but it is a theme that still continues to entice him.
Ramachandran realized that transformation of the seen and observed ^reality into a decorative image in which everything appeared transformed, more enchanted, almost surreal and yet was true to experience, is the central feature of most Eastern and many non European traditions. He also realized that this was something his mentors at Santiniketan, especially Nandalal Bose, had known .and striven for. This gave him a new sense of freedom hot merely in transforming and linking up discrete elements of what he saw but also in using and connecting up different traditions of representation and imagery from across half the world.
Gradually, this led Ramachandran to shed mythic tropes and to transform what he saw into symbols and icons through decorative and thematic reconfigurations. Thus, he painted Jamburani and the Tobacco Plant (1993), Savita and Solki with Aparajita Flowers (1995), Hanna and Akanda Flowers (1999) and many more, in which the human figure and an aspect of nature coalesced and the individual Bhil women became the new Yakshis of his pantheon. Following this he began to do larger paintings representing the communitarian life of the Bhils regulated by their beliefs and rituals, presented against a backdrop of nature like a live pageant (for instance, On the Way to Baneshwar Mela, 1998, and Summer Wedding, 2007) or alternatively as a frontal tableau (for instance, Iconic Self-portrait with Umbilical Mahua Tree, 1994, and Song of the Simbul Tree, 2001).
In these paintings he draws upon and employs the different and yet related ways of pictorial representations found in the temple murals of Kerala, the Pichwais or temple hangings of Nathdwara and the murals from the Buddhist monasteries of Alchi. And in them he brings into focus different aspects of Bhil life just as the artists of Nathdwara call our attention to different aspects of Srinathji in their temple hangings. Indeed, like the Pichwais of Nathdwara, thesepaeans to the Bhils are also rendered with the empathy and warmth of a believer rather than the cold' objectivity of an anthropologist. And the vision of pictorial beauty they invoke is the token of truth for Ramachandran.
In his water colours, unlike in the larger paintings, the lives of the Bhils are narrated more intimately. Their smaller format, which requires the artist and the viewer to go close to the image rather than see it from a distance, seems to have encouraged this shift. But it also has something to do with their foundation in his drawings. Being a compulsive sketcher, like his Santiniketan mentors, during his annual visits to the Bhil country, Ramachandran made innumerable drawings of the same places, the same people and even the same trees and animals. As he drew them again and again, they soon became familiar inhabitants of his mental world and characters who milled around in his mind. Gradually, they began to seek a voice and he became the narrator of their stories.
The earliest set of water colours was done in 1992 and the latest in this exhibition were done in 2010. Though smaller in size than any of his oils, the water colours present the physical and mental ambience in which die Bhils lead their lives more holistically. They are as vivid as the fictional world a writer like Basheer creates. And they allow us to enter the world of Dhowraji, who lives in a meditative trance, and of the solitary Bhil girls, who bathe in the ponds, lounge dreamily in the sun, wait for buses or rest in the midst of journeys surrounded by pet animals and a bountiful and quiet nature. These details give these paintings, a strong locational identity and aids our participation in their life and thoughts as invisible but complicit observers. Just as Basheers stories allow his readers to enter into the world of Pathumma and her goat, of Keshavan Nair and Sarama, or of Majeed and Suhra.
In the earlier paintings, which have more stories in them, Ramachandran often paints himself as a self-effacing and yet omnipresent observer of Bhil life - assuming the form of a bat sleeping on the tree, a fish in the lake, a flute-playing kinnara on the tree, a beetle on the plant, or of a restful goat or a nandi among the worshipers. But in the recent water colours, done-after many more visits, he is more central to the scene. He is no longer the unnoticed voyeur but a conjurer of fictional worlds and a meditative shaman amidst the Bhils. These water colours recall Buddhist stelae in which life stories are given sculptural condensations rather than descriptive elaborations with mood and details as in the miniatures.
If Ramachandran's recent water colours recall sculptural stelae, the meeting of painterly and sculptural sensibilities have always been characteristic of his work as a sculptor. While for many artists sculpture is the art of volume and unadorned surfaces that lay bare its materialistic truth and its shaping, for Ramachandran, the painter turned modeller, sculpture is as much embellished and animated surface as it is modelled volume. In fact, his modelled figures are originally bare and meagre in volume, and are cloaked with a shimmering mantle of decorative details and textures only after they are cast in wax. Ramachandran clearly enjoys a play between the optical and the tactile, the smooth and the textured. In his recent sculptures, done since the mid-nineties, he enhances this interplay of forms and textures through the use of differently coloured and polished surfaces and even different materials.
Subject matter also travels from paintings to sculpture in his work. Parti: Rati at Baneshwar Sangam and Basant: Roski with Palash Tree (both from 1998) are, like some of his paintings from the previous years, iconic images of individual Bhil women conceived as embodiments of nature. Similarly, if some of the voluptuously heavy decorative trees in Yayati came from traditional sculptural vocabulary, a sculpture like Brides Toilet (2004) is a sculptural translation of a motif derived from a Kota miniature that has engaged Ramachandrans painterly imagination for a long time. Similarly, Bahurupi (2006) is a sculptural constellation that has grown out of his mediations on the artist's role as a conjurer of visions and images as opposed to the idea of the artist as the transcriber of seen facts as seen in many of his paintings.
If Yayati was a temple to the vulnerable in man, Bahurupi is a monument to the artist as creator. Part yogi, part satyr, and part conduit for his own creations, he is himself many and not merely the maker of myriad things. That Ramachandran uses his own portrait to convey the multiplicity of the artist as creator and carrier of ideas makes it at once a thoughtful self-reflection and an ironic take on the artist's self-image. If a portrait is an emblem of individual uniqueness the multiple identity that the artist assumes becomes an agent of its dissolution, and thus, self-portraiture becomes in Ramachandrans hands an artistic trope that turns what appears as obvious self-obsession and self-exaltation, characteristic of the modern artist, into a tongue-in-cheek self-mocking.
Ramachandrans work of the last thirty years inspired by the Bhils presents an alternative vision of life, which is drastically different from the one he and the urban viewers of his art have. To his urban viewers the world he represents might appear pre-modern, primitive and exotic; and an engagement with it, without a reformist agenda, a form of cultural escape. But Ramachandran stubbornly refuses to play the role of an activist and or undertake a civilising mission. He believes that the Bhils should be allowed to choose for themselves.
He idealizes the pre-modern with the nostalgia of a backward glance but he also knows that progress is a one-way street and that he cannot shed his modernity. In the photographs that show him working in the Bhil villages he stands out as a cultural outsider. He does not pretend to be innately primitive but he is keen to register their difference as un-hegemonically as possible. Thus, he paints himself into the scenes as an animal (less than human) or as a visiting dhyani baba (a shamanistic other) who is incorporated into their space without being one of them. By inscribing himself through such playful but strategic self-effacements he succeeds in becoming an organic part of the scene without appearing to -be its all powerful narrator.
It is through his art that the Bhils get represented and through his agency that they invade the spaces of high urban culture, yet Ramachandran realizes that it would be pretentious of him to speak as one of them.' As an artist he simply plays the Pied Piper who leads the living representatives, of a worldview pushed to the invisible peripheries of our world into the globalising spaces of high art. In small numberstheir festive presence as singers, dancers and entertainers - as exotic icing upon the cake of urban culture - is a familiar sight in Delhi but by swelling their ranks Ramachandran, subtly but definitely, upsets this comfortable arrangement. His means of subversion is not agitational but aesthetic. And it gently reminds us of the cultural and ecological amnesia we have collectively slipped into while choosing modernism.
While reclaiming and strategically reintroducing the forgotten values of the pre-modern into the cultural sphere as envisioned by the modernist centre he seems to be guided by a sense of modernisms deficiencies rather than by a desire to valorise the pre-modern. It is significant in this context that he - who for all his dissatisfaction with it, is a part of the modern and is its representative among the Bhils - represents himself not as a giver but as a receiver. His representation of the Bhils is coloured by what he thinks we have lost or we lack - natural grace, communality, a sure sense of identity, and, above all, contact with nature. Romantic though it is, his recent work, informed by a deep sense of the ecological and social alienation that has crept into modern urban life and art, is also a Utopian gesture towards the future.
And by making this gesture his paintings become more than seductive visions of a sensuous and luxurious world and opens up the space for a significant rethinking.