First published on 26th February 2024

The passing of Achuthan Ramachandran, or Ramachandran Sir to generations of students and artists, marks the end of a chapter in the realization of an Indian aesthetic that gradually consolidated in the course of the 20th century. Despite being unable to paint for some time on account of ill health, Ramachandran leaves behind an enviable artistic legacy. Born in Attingal, Kerala, he obtained his degree in Malayalam literature from Kerala University in 1957; it introduced him to the works and political ideas of writers like Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and expanded his reading to the social and philosophical concerns of Saadat Hasan Manto and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Afterwards, he shifted from literature to pursue a PhD in Art from Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, in 1964, under the tutelage of Ramkinkar Baij, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Nandalal Bose.

An ongoing exhibition on Nandalal Bose in New Delhi has provided a happy coincidence in shedding greater light on the development of Ramachandran’s practice at Tagore’s university. Widely reputed for his modesty and genius, Bose set in motion the retrieval of a rural-based ethos in art. Living and working in Santiniketan, he brought a folk tenor to his postcards, which were spontaneously produced, and which in their sheer volume serve as a valuable visual diary of his impressions of Santiniketan and his travels elsewhere. Bose could easily think in different scales, and worked with a range of themes, from the historical and mythological to the political and the everyday. Even as he deftly created mini sketches and drawings on the go, he continued to produce works on a much larger scale (such as his posters for the Haripura panels) and also designed the dense illustrations in miniature scale for the manuscript of the Indian Constitution.

A different but equally impressive flexibility and fluidity can be seen in Ramachandran’s practice. During his six-decade long career, he demonstrated a stunning propensity to move from a dystopic (even apocalyptic) view of modernity to paintings of a folk idyl. Moving to Delhi in 1964, he was part of the modernist vanguard and produced large chromatic canvases like Grave Diggers and End of Yadavas. The promise of modernity and independence for the new Indian nation had come with the deep horrors of partition, the shadows of which haunted Ramachandran and became the subject of these early works. In this period, Dostoevsky was another critical influence. Wanting to paint in the same way that Dostoyevsky wrote, the latter’s exploration of despair, anguish and cynicism lent a model for Ramachandran to expose the injustices of state institutions and the degradation of urban life. He combined Dostoevsky with the scale and drama of the Mexican muralists he encountered in Santiniketan to create a series of mural-sized canvases during the 1960s and ’70s, depicting headless men with bloated bodies. Besides their engagement with death and large-scale violence, these works presented a pointed critique of the art world: for example, one of them showed a cluster of grinning skulls appearing to look at a skinned carcass on display. Ramachandran’s references mined not just lived reality but also elements from Indian classical myths, as evident in works like Nuclear Ragini or Kali Puja.

A breakthrough in Ramachandran’s practice came with a decided shift from themes of social relevance to those representative of a timeless beauty with enduring figures. Although he had already drawn on miniatures and muralesque figures for his Raginis, his 12-panel 1984 Yayati stood out as marking a distinct new phase in his oeuvre. These panels were inspired by an episode from the Mahabharata recreated in a structure imagined as the garba griha of a Kerala temple. In the Adi Parva, King Yayati exchanges his increasing decrepitude and old age with the youth of his son, Puru. According to art critic R. Siva Kumar, this figure became a metaphor for the artist’s own psychological predicament. He also used it to create a larger narrative about working-class people, referring in particular to members of the Lohar community, a group of migrants in Delhi who worked on domestic and labour implements. He drew on their well-honed bodies, imbuing them with the sensuality and grandeur of figures from the Ajanta and Kerala murals. In this context, one must also mention that Ramachandran’s study of Kerala murals was inspired by his encounter with Ramkinkar Baij’s sculpture Santhal Family, and he studied in detail the evolution of this art form over different time periods, compiling his research in a 2005 book called Painted Abode of Gods: Mural Traditions of Kerala.

Another major trigger for a change in Ramachandran’s art and concerns came in 1984, when he witnessed a Sikh man being chased and killed by a mob during the 1984 Delhi riots. The helplessness he felt led him to seek solace in nature and folk forms. This was further reinforced when he nearly lost his vision to a tubercular infection, which instilled a sense of urgency to record and preserve beauty. The lotus pond with a profusion of flowers, vines and butterflies, and the artist’s own miniaturized presence, emerged as a signature motif in his work from this phase onwards. It connected Ramachandran to his childhood and the environment he grew up in. It also found place in a village series the artist worked on, when he visited a Bhil community in Rajasthan. There, the open landscape, people’s reciprocal relationship with nature, and the role of myths and rituals provided new inspiration for Ramachandran’s engagement with folk art, the seeds of which had already been sown in the 1970s when he worked with Lalit Kala Akademi Triennale to select and promote talented but lesser-known folk artists. This period also saw the artist’s sculptures move from embryonic forms in the 1970s to long totem-pole-like figures in the 1980s and ’90s. Yayati was followed by the Urvashi series, which along with the Bahurupi paintings, developed on the lotus pond motif and created a new Indian modernist art vocabulary.

Besides painting and sculpture, Ramachandran’s inclination towards drawings remained at the core of his practice. He had honed his skills in it during his student years in Santiniketan, when he was encouraged by Ramkinkar to step out and sketch frequently, learning drawing as a method of observation of movement and nature. Instead of considering drawing as a preliminary step to recording form, Ramachandran saw it as a means to expressing humour, satire, tragedy and nature’s beauty. He also viewed drawing as more impulsive and conversational than painting and sculpture. His use of lines was a notable feature of his works -- a flexible and evocative tool, arabesque like, which allowed for a sensuous depiction of human figures and a fecund landscape.

Therecipientofseveralaccolades,including the National Award for Painting in 1969 and 1973, the Raja Ravi Varma Puraskar in 2003, and the Padma Bhushan in 2005, Ramachandran’s prolific body of work also extended to children’s book illustrations, stamps, ceramics and writings. As an educator, he is credited for establishing the Fine Art Department at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and was always generous in sharing his knowledge with younger writers and artists. Ramachandran’s work embodied his belief in art as vocation and statement, its deep connection with nature, and the need to learn from historical aesthetic traditions native to India.

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