First published by Gallery Espace in 2006

The moment is passing so quickly that perhaps the only way to hold it is to accord it honour. The artist, who has the ability to impale memory in form also exerts the right to select, erase and reinvent, dredging up the past to judge the present and the look into the future, with the disquieting gift of prophecy.

The narrative contained within the exhibition titled, “The Last Sanctuary: Vasudevan Akkitham” thrives on the principles of antithesis. Vasudevan Akkitham sets up a dialogic interlude, one that traverses personal history and the legacy of art to reflect on the present. Equally, as a painter he sets up a vigorous set of queries and engagements with his peers, that interrogate the notion of value in art. I believe that in this didactic enterprise, Vasudevan is guided by the notions of purity and nostalgia, and the devising of a language of loss, even grieving of the passing of a palpable vision. In this he appears to be guided by a language of symbols, both generic and personal, that become emblematic of a time, a place and a cultural memory.

In Between States

In the temples of Meenakshi Madurai, of Markandeya Abirami and scores of others dozed across the south, one of the first sights is of an elephant benediction to gleeful children and delighted devotees. The symbol of regnal authority, Lakshmi’s Gaja that once lustrated the goddess on the ancient panels of Bharhut now becomes emblematic in our times of temple tourism. In his paintings of the 1980’s and 90’s, Vasudevan painted the elephant as a pristine animal. Encased in the soft shade of a Kerala forest, absorbing the afterglow of twilight in his massive form, the elephant becomes an extraordinary symbol of vulnerability, consecrated in this state only in the boy’s memory. Similarly the boatman resting his oars, the last cooking vessel that still contained the arm afterglow of family festivities were encrypted into a language of evocation. But with insistence, severed trees, cutdown as inanimate logs, or coiled electric pythons heralded instability and change. Already the momentum has started to quicken.

Vasudevan is not alone among artists in Kerala who have reacted to change with a sense of loss, even devastation. I would argue that there is even a submerging of the individual ego in the Derridian vision of a Catastropher. Or as Derrida writes, “No truth, no apocalypse”. The Last Sanctuary is an epitaph to the erasure of what he describes as, “a certain aesthetics, certain values”. Vasudevan was born in Kumaranallur in Palakkad district in Kerala, within teasing distance of the Malabar Coast line. Possibly the single dominant influence in this rural idyll was the presence of his father, eminent Malyalam writer Akkitham and his uncle, Akkitham Narayanan the painter. Their houses had an abundant library to which other writers and researchers would refer.. Vasudevan witnessed the successful library movement in Kerala, with the support of the Granthashala Shankham or Forum for Libraries, which sustained literary talent through the state. Literary writing in Kerala in the 70’s and 80’s reflected many of the political tensions within the state, a dissatisfaction with institutional presences and a sense of alienation among the middle classes. At the same time, a radical freedom of expression allowed for new engagements with modernity, tempered by the character of the region. Akkitham, who fought for class integration in Kerala, has published about 45 collections of poems, plays and short stories, writing from an essential position of transcendentalism, evidenced in his work, Vision of Bali. His 1952 poem, Epic of the Twentieth Century, is considered a vital plank in modernist Malayalam poetry. In Vasudevan’s painting, the writer/poet is a figure of nurture and sensitivity recalling Giotto, St. Frances or Adyakavi Valmiki, one who affirms transience and spirituality in that most evanescent of sights, the feeding of the birds. Vasudevan’s paintings of 2003 titled The Poet I and II reveal a figure with an exposed viscera, contemplating a cluster of birds whose very size dwarfs his presence.

The question around region and modernity is not simplified in a way as is dialectic of loss. Rather Vasudevan works towards implicating the present in the past, and the past in the present, employing the post modernist tools of fragmentation and dislocation to create a sense of historical disbalance. Working from the standpoint of the mimic and the pedagogue, he quotes generously from miniature painting, if only to dismantle its lush and generous beauty. He also creates symbology of inversion. if the miniature affirms settlement expansion and graceful sociality. Vasudevan uproots this vision to create a sense of loss. To quote Terry Smith, "Erasing the habitus, the imagery, the viewpoints, and eventually the physical existence of indigenous people- there are the practices of obliteration. This may take the form of violent extinguishment, or violation of ceremonial sites, of creating an environment in which the indigene can no longer live.

Vasudevan paintings appear in a line making delicate perceptible shifts. The artist's vision serves as an indictment. in a period of nearly two decades his paintings have moved from a memory of plenitude 1o a deep sense of atrophy, the verdure of the remembered landscape mak1ng way for severed logs and felled forests and finally, humans rendered reduced and petrified in their lack of vitality.

Vasudevan achieves this end by perverting the art of quotation In his desire to accord honour to systems of the past, he evokes the great sympathy evident in the Indian pictorial tradition to the depictions of nature Of particular influence is the Anwar e-Suhaili, a copy of the Iyar-i-Danish commissioned by the emperor Akbar. Akbar's inability to read led him to commission the illustration of a number of Indian manuscripts one of which is the Panchatantra, a compilation of narratives that traces back in time to the Gupta period, and which travelled from Persia and Herat into Europe rendered into Hebrew, Latin and German.

Rendered in his time as the Anwar-e-Suhaili by artists from the royal atelier, the narrative advances through the tongues of wild beasts and animals, giving caution and wisdom as essential for human existence. The great sympathy with which the manuscript proceeds Is evident in Farrukh Chela’s and Miskin s painting, Lion's Court, The artist sets the arboreal abode of fakirs, in which all the animals coexist in perfect harmony, among natural sanctuaries. In Dharamdas, A King visits the Sage Bidpai, wild animals appear, unfettered and free.

The Hunt and The Assault

In quoting the Mughal masters, Vasudevan works towards the principle of vimarsh or reflection, revealing the distortions and the atrophythathaveemerged over a period of time. The hunting of animals has a layered interpretive meaning. According to Ebba Koch, the Mughals particularly favoured the hunting grounds outside Palam near Delhi “According to the Mughal theory of kingship, patterned here on ancient Persian models - the hunt of the ruler symbolized in a general sense his power to overcome the forces of evil, often meant n a political sense. In a more specific argument, the hunt was defended as a means to know about the condition of the subjects and to administer justice on the spot, without any intermediaries”.

So many hundreds of years later, the hunt assumes global proportions of mass terror. The Poet is witness to transgressive acts of death. Animals become of a world inhabited by fleeing, terror-stricken creatures, rendered like specimens of a Bruised Garden, while an apparently diseased Tirthankar figure is unable to mitigate their plight. In an Arcadian landscape (see Sanctuary), the division of the painting in angular geometric fields, the optimistic pastels shades of a new day betray the emergent image of a petrified landscape and hunting trophies. In more than one instance, (see The Assault) the image of hunting expands into warplanes, fleeing animals and razor sharp borders and divisions.

Vasudevan’’s reponse to violence is at different levels. It moves out with centripetal energies from the verdant, beloved country of his childhood to the desecration of art sites and habitations across the world. In Witness I, the fraught sub-continental narrative of communal violence plays itself out on the bodily emblem of the cow. In the artist’s evocation, the cow has gained centrality to the Hindu-Muslim conflict since the writings of Gandhi and Premchand’s Godaan. Entrapped on a raging field, the birthing cow can be the harbinger of peace, or else a new monstrous form of violence. In this symbology of instability the artist emphasizes unnatural habitations. In the painting Sanctuary, the generous use of blithe pastels, used to evoke a Spencerian Arcadia reveals decapitated trophies. An aquarium rests on a disbalanced table, gardens disintegrate, and a pock-marked figure much like a diseased Tirthankara appears like the symbol of a dwarfed, misshapen age.

Heraldic of the age of loss is the figure of the elephant. As a symbol of plenitude, the elephant as a mark of divine and regnal authority has particularly been associated with Kerala’s house of Travancore, with Lakshmi, benign goddess of wealth, and the birth of the Buddha. In Akkitham the elephant is also gentle and domesticated, but like the planet Pluto, it appears to gradually disappear into obscurity reduced to perhaps to the size of a seal, like the remnant of another age.

In this process, numerous narratives, some carrying the lingering taste of childhood, are introduced. Vasudevan alludes to the folk tale of the manhout who ill treated the legendary elephant Keshavan. Bashir’s well loved story, My Grand Dad had an Elephant as well as the 14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta’s extremely flattering description of the people of Kerala. Ibn Batuta uses Keralla’’s ancient name, Gokarna, long described as a tapovan, an idealized forest. But as the maws of the city become more vapid and hungry, even the last sanctuary becomes subject to attack. Imploding swords and bombs target the land with deadly accuracy, the deer of the forest flee and perish as collateral damage. The image of sacrifice is emphasized by a decapitated deer like Chinnamasta that cuts its own head to feed her bhaktas.

Concurrent to the narrative of the elephant that runs through this body of painting is Vasudevan’s interrogation of stylistics. What he is attempting is a dialogic exchange with his peers as well as his artistic forebears. On both counts he appears a priori to work from a position of refusal. In the line of painters of the Indian landscape, Vasudevan’s exchange with Govardhan, whose finely painted deer represent spiritual asceticism, the commingling of lion and lamb in Jehangiri period painting, which points to happy coexistence of opposites, is another vital quotation. There is also an interesting stylistic intention. What Milo Beach says of the Akbari period Razmnama, would be equally true of Vasudevan. “The use of thin washes of pigment rather than heavily layered, burnished colour, and the quick sketchy quality of the execution imply that these were not works meant to impress by the richness of the materials used……” Instead, the effect is one of a general translucency that informs the transient state of his subjects.

At the same time, the artist militates against the idea of an idealized pictorial beauty. Figures are reduced to a formal two-dimensionality. As beauty atrophies, it approximates an apocalypse. The Mughal interjection of text that would break the pictorial space is here broken by small wedges, which, reconfigure the visual field. The sky or the sea then appears like a geometric tabletop, a mountain shrinks in front of a looming beehive, an elephant ducks under a table that supports an entire city. If the small seemingly wooden figures are animated, it through their exposed roiling intestines or the pox that marks them as diseased. In the dialogue that he sets up with his peers, Vasudevan proposes tentativeness as a virtue, the human rather than the mechanistic, and in his quest for value, the past rather than the future. And if he proposes a release from the apocalypse, it is in the potential of nature to heal itself.

But even in the apocalypse there is hope for regeneration. In Chinnamasta, the Mahvidya who severs her own head, to feed her bhaktas, we have an essential dualism, one that reflects the artists’ position. On Chinnamasta’s apparent act of sacrifice Elizabeth Anne Benard writes, “The dichotomy of receiver and giver or object and subject collapses into one. Chinnamasta is not only the giver and the receiver but also the giver- she is the sacrifice, the sacrificed and the recipient of the sacrifice”. In Chinnamasta perhaps, who engages in the leela of self-sacrifice to sustain the world, and finally resumes her own form, there is the possibility of both hope and renew ability.


1. Chinnamasta The Awful Buddhist and Hindu Tantric Goddess, Elisabeth Anne Benard. Motilal Banarsidass Delhi 2000, Pg 9.

2. Mughal and Rajput Painting, Milo Cleveland Beach, The New Cambridge History of India Cambridge University Press, 1992, Pg 62.

3. Mughal Art and Imperial Ideology Ebba Koch, Oxford University Press, New Delhi 2001, Pg. 179.

4. Imperial Mughal Painters, Indian Miniatures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries Amina Okada. Flam Marion, Paris.

5. Counter path: Travelling with Jacques Derrida, Catherine Malabou and Jacques Derrida. Stanford Universty Pres, California 2004.

6. Visual Regimes of colonizaion TerrySmith,The/visual Culture Reader Nicholas Mirzoeff, Routledge, London 1998. Pg, 483.

7. Anwar-e- Suhaili (Iyar-I-Danish) Rai Krishnadasa, Benarasi Hindu University, 1999.

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