Loneliness is a persistent factor in Shibu Natesan's oeuvre. He has always been a loner. Certain childhood experiences of the artist throw light on how Shibu always cherished loneliness -a peculiar tendency seen in people who have the sensibility to go beyond what is apparent; in other words, to beyond perceived reality and the immediate experience of it.
Born in a small village called Vakkom in Thiruvananthapuram District, Kerala, Shibu as a child showed an inclination to move alone in his path. While most children of his age chased butterflies and cats, or climbed trees and pilfered the neighbourhood mango groves or orchards, Shibu spent his time away from them drawing images of butterflies, cats, cars, buses and children on the mud walls that ran along private properties. It does not mean that Shibu was asocial by nature; he was asocial to a level that he found his pleasure in making shapes, creating images and being alone. Legends pertaining to artists' childhood brightness and glimpses of genius are abundant in our art history. Such myths could be created out of Shibu's life too. Perhaps, myth is a sort of reality removed a step above or beyond the perceived reality where the subject of myth achieves an extra-real character. In that sense, this artist too has all the qualities to have a myth around him. But a myth that does not invite the follower to a deeper reality would not qualify as a 'real' myth. Shibu has a real myth around him though it has not yet been articulated fully.
It is not the aim of this writer to detail the various nuances of a mythical Shibu Natesan. However, as a person who grew up with him and spent many turbulent teenage years together, I could clearly lay a few foundation stones in this essay that would give a meaningful beginning for other art historians, critics and art lovers to build up a history or myth around this artist.
Shibu's loneliness was not an imposed one. He grew up in a joint family; rather a family which was loosely joined with so many branches of the same family living in the same village. His brothers had their own circles of friends who roamed around a Shiva temple (Shibu's name is derived from Shiva's name) in the vicinity. Interestingly, if you ask Shibu about his friends from his childhood days, he hardly remembers anyone. He did have friends but as their interests differed considerably they were only friends when Shibu decided to come out of his self-imposed solitude and prepared himself to mingle with them just like any other child of his age did. He showed sparks of a genius and a veritable loner when he reached high school and by the time his family had shifted from Vakkom to a nearby town, Varkala, where the famous 20th century social reformer, Sree Narayana Guru's Samadhi was located.
Shibu's father, Nadesan Kumaru too was an artist. Family elders recount the story of a grand uncle in the family who used to read the 'Vikramaditya Stories' every day without fail throughout his life. Though Shibu had not seen this uncle, somehow the story got stuck in his mind. Even today he feels excited when he speaks of the uncle he has never seen and often wonders how that person might have experienced the Vikramaditya story as a never-ending puzzle and lived an enigmatic life Iiterally doing 'nothing' to the dismay of his family members. He speaks of the loneliness of this uncle in eloquent terms. In the self portraits that Shibu h as done over the years, one notices that he deliberately creates a haze around the face without giving too many hagiographic details; he only suggests the large eyes and sharp jaw lines, in order to celebrate an enigmatic persona who does only painting (in his words 'nothing other than painting') in his life. Painting everyday without doing 'anything else' is a quality that he highlights about his own self, which he might have subconsciously derived from this unnamed uncle in the family.
Shibu's paternal grandfather, Kumaru was the other 'artist' in the family. Kumaru at a very early age learnt Takil, a percussion instrument, and travelled to different South East Asian countries along with music troupes. Even after getting married and settling in life, Kumaru kept up his love for percussion. His family wasn't pleased with this 'making noise at home' as he practiced every day without fail till his fingers stopped moving with old age.
Kumaru, after becoming a 'grahasti' ( family man) wandered in different places as a pilgrim, went to temples and religious centres without informing his family. His earning was mainly from making artefacts and tools for small scale industries like coir-making and weaving. His eldest son, Nadesan learnt drawing and painting from a local art teacher, Sahadevan Master, who was an acclaimed photographer in Vakkom. Years later, Shibu also had the opportunity to learn art from the same master.
Nadesan was a dreamer. He wanted to become a fulltime artist. But life took him to Singapore where he worked in an industry. After coming back to Kerala, he became an art teacher in a government school only to resign from the post as he found it too time-consuming and less 'creative'. Nadesan set up an atelier, Baby Arts, named after his daughter's pet name, which became famous in no time as Nadesan was the only artist who could make projection slides, billboards and portraits par excellence. During Shibu's childhood there was not a single billboard in the nearby towns without Nadesan's signature on it. Also there were no film theatres even in the neighbouring districts without Nadesan's signature bearing slides. Nadesan was an adventurer. He developed his atelier into a screen printing studio, when serigraphy in the advertisement industry was just a novel thing. After that he began using the automotive painting technique in the same studio. Shibu grew up in this atelier and instead of playing with his mates he spent his free time doing paintings on cardboard pieces using enamel paint as it was abundant in his father's studio. Recognizing Shibu's artistic talents his father inspired him to see more art magazines and allowed him to watch many movies, unlike most of the fathers of the 1970s, who felt that watching films would ruin the ethical upbringing of kids.
Shibu lived in two realities though he did not know that he was living so: one, his father was known as a 'commercial artist' (Baby Annan, they used to call him), yet he faced financial problems. Shibu knew that despite all financial woes there was a thrill to the life of an artist, who could capture the essence of both personal and societal lives in lines and colours. He recognized as a young boy that it was a lonely path.
The loneliness in Shibu became more pronounced when he refused the requests of friends and family members to paint gods and goddesses. He did not want his images to be worshipped for he had painted them for pure pleasure. Shibu used to model sculptures out of clay, which hehimself had dug out from a river bed near his home in Varkala. Those beautifully painted sculptures of gods and goddesses were sought by many people. Instead of granting them their wish to have them for worshipping, Shibu used to take them to a hillside and roll them down. He had not read the Myth of Sisyphus then; nor was he too conscious of the legend of Naranathu Bhrantan, a mad man who used to push rocks uphill all day and push them downhill by sunset. The absurdity of making and unmaking or the very meaning of it, the crux of life and existence, he understood in his own terms as a child. He sat idly in a kavu, a small forest seen near the temples in Kerala, for long hours or spent all day sitting on top cashnew trees on a hill side. As he grew up and became a student at the Trivandrum Fine Arts College, though his routine had changed a bit, he spent hours sketching people in nearly-deserted railway stations, which put him in embarrassing situations at times.
Though Shibu has painted many works peopled by different racial groups, especially the ones he did during the first decade of the 21 st century, what one sees as a predominant aspect of his works is the all pervading solitude of those characters. In one of the pivotal works from this time, 'Take Me Where I Belong', you see a young dancing girl bending backwards in front of a sparse audience. The members of the audience are static in nature as if they were caught by the precariousness of that moment. But the dancer is absolutely unaware of the presence of the audience. It is a moment when the dance and dancer become one; an absolute moment of spiritual union. Here while the absolute bliss of union takes over the canvas what gets highlighted is the loneliness and uniqueness of that experience. It is not the loneliness and uniqueness of the artist alone but it also belongs to the dancer as well as to the viewers.
Bliss gives way to pathos when one looks at a work which Shibu painted a few years back. The painting depicts a touching moment of parting; a huge flight brings the revolutionary Prime Minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, who will be assassinated upon arrival. His wife Pauline is seen weeping with her face hidden in her cupped hands. We do not hear any sound here; there is an eerie silence despite the weeping of the woman. The silence falls like a huge blanket all over the airstrip where the flight stands still. Each image in the painting resonates with an inner silence, a sort of aloofness and a note of pathos pervades the painting, immersing everything around it in concentrated isolation.
This isolation from reality is not about cutting oneself away from mundane things, as far as the artist is concerned. Shibu is as involved as any other ordinary human being in the quotidian life as it demands its due from each individual in society. But detaching from the thick of events is a choice that the artist has made, in retrospect, in his childhood itself. Over a period of time Shibu as if it were very natural to him, has painted the portrait of such loners; as examples I would cite the portraits of Kumaran Asan, Bob Marley and many other familiar, unfamiliar, missing and retrieved people. One cannot just think that Shibu is particularly interested in famous personalities and their portraits, notwithstanding his research and interest in the life and times of such people; we have all the reasons to think that what Shibu looks for in people is their utter uniqueness, in their lost or retrieved selves, in their established or abandoned lives. He feels one with them and he feels like portraying them. Even the landscapes, abandoned rooms, the rooms about to be vacated, the places that are immersed in sunlight, roadsides, waiting rooms, platforms, waterholes etc become the locations where Shibu finds the resonance of his loneliness. The feeling of oneness with these things and places, objects and people makes him paint all of them as if he were counting prayer beads. From his 'Missing' series to the institutional buildings to the strangers in various sleeping postures, Shibu captures their loneliness, their relationship with their own surroundings, with the power centres including the power of their own selves.
Shibu's paintings evoke the feel of Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul. Pamuk details the places that are familiar to him. For a Turkish reader it will not be difficult to discern the places as they are real as their own bodies, But the very same reader feels isolated in these spaces as if they were facing those places for the first time in their lives as the author transforms them and projects them into a new temporal and spatial zone of existence. For the reader outside Turkey, each place and each person described by Pamuk becomes an experience in itself; a constant feeling of oscillating between the familiar and the strange, similar and the dissimilar, seen and experienced, this makes the viewer pursue those people and places as if they were stalkers in their double life as readers. Here in Shibu's paintings the viewers are transported to the same experiential mode as they are asked to follow each person and place in Shibu's work with a stalker's sense of caution and attentiveness. Black history and the black people that repeatedly resurface in his paintings cease to be black history and black people; they become the history of people and people themselves from any part of the world. Shibu's paintings could be called a procession of strangers in a carnival of spiritual seeking where they find loneliness in every pair of eyes and bonding in every smile. Shibu's annual visit to the seat of the Ramana Maharshi at Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu reflects his life philosophy of 'stand alone' while walking with many towards the realization of one's own self.
A painting of Casper David Friedrich comes to mind. 'The Wanderer above Mist' by Friedrich perhaps epitomizes Shibu's life and life's philosophy though he has followed and admired many European as well as Indian painters. This German Romantic painter depicts a stately dressed gentleman standing in a vantage position and watching over the clouds and mists pass by him. His position that almost covers the foreground and middle ground of the painting, gives him an iconic presence and also reiterates that he is in direct touch with the things beyond the ken of ordinary human beings who have not reached that level. Though the painting shows the meeting of two materialistic positions, the result is the spiritual realization of two selves; one the individual self of the man who stands and watches and two, the self of the universe that is embodied in the painting in the form of mist, mountain peaks and clouds. Shibu takes the same position, visibly and invisibly in most of his paintings. He or his protagonists or the spaces that he creates are in a constant union or dialogue with the self that lies beyond the ken of ordinary human beings. Andpainting is a way for them to reach to that position. As a tribute to the German master, Shibu has painted a self portrait in which he is seen in silhouette wearing an overcoat and his hands pushed into the pocket. While the German turns away from the mundane world , Shibu boldly looks at the world though his hagiographic features are submerged in a sort of deep olive green darkness. The turning of Shibu towards the world makes him a 'realist' who wants to be a real person, not a romantic who runs away from society. Shibu is ready to face society but on his own terms, and aloofness and loneliness are the emotional states that he uses genuinely and intelligently in his works.
Shibu is an artist who has opened his studio inside out in his recent Facebook postings. He makes his likings clear to a public which is absolutely an abstract entity for him. He brings out his research and tells the world that he likes this or that painter, or this or that work. This in a way is a transparent way of showing one’s appreciation to the world of art and its history. At the same time, Shibu wants to tell the world that though he prefers isolation to crowding, his art is not isolated. He aligns elegantly with a larger art history and stands for the purity of historical continuities. Purity and continuities are two polemical terms as the stating of it had brought some debates around Shibu's works in the past years. Those people who take continuity of anything as a state of intermixing of things, events and ideas maintain that purity cannot be possible in such a situation. For them history cannot be pure while the medium could be. Shibu goes by the latter definition because for him the purity of medium (in his case, Oil on Canvas) is something that makes him and his works hold the continuity of history in place. And any art historian could verify how Shibu's works and their claims stand vindicated vis-a-vis purity and continuity in their respective definitions.
Before I close this essay, I would like to cite that though Shibu's indebtedness to art history, its monumental figures, its path breaking innovations in painting, its milestone works is underlined by his own revealing. It does not always happen in a linear way : Shibu does not locate his idols and ideals and then paint according to them. On the contrary he finds his affinities as his researches go in terms of painting practice. In fact his practice takes him to certain artists and their works than it happens opens the other way round. Shibu was instrumental in initiating 'Mediatic Realism’ in the Indian art scene almost two decades ago. But he has evolved from there a new painting style which is absolutely personal while linked to the art historical milestones in their affinities and philosophies. By way of conclusion I want to add that the loneliness in Shibu Natesan's works is one of the aspects of his painterly engagement with the world, life, materialism, spirituality, politics etc. Depending on the context of explorations other art historians and critics could deduce other ideas as per their inkling. In the context of the present show, it would be conducive to peruse his works with reference to the loneliness of his own personality as well as a thematic expressed in his works.