The paintings of Badri Narayan are like doors that open into a many-splendoures world of his creation. Whether they are big oils, medium-size water colours, small panels of tiles or even smaller coloured drawings, they are all doors that lead us into his world of fantasy. Badri Narayan firmly believes that a painter’s work “is a thing added to reality, a thing which only the painter could make, an activity that resembles the Creator’s”, as he himself has said.
During the last decade, I have been going through these doors into the world of Badri Narayan, time and again, whenever I have been to his solo exhibitions, or spotted his painting at some group exhibition or when I have dropped in at his modest but beautifully kept flat in Chembur, Bombay. Most often, my critical faculties get benumbed as I willingly step into his world. It is a world of glowing colours, though there are monochromatic patches. Trees of various shapes abound here, with birds chirping among the branches. Cats with upturned tails and bristling whiskers pass by. Occasionally, a dog scampers along. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed fish gambol in the clear waters of the rivulet. The streets are plenty here, with three dimensional houses and cut-out houses. A temple or two can be noticed. Big-bosomed and round hipped nayikas go about. Bearded mendicants with egg-shaped eyes popping out amble along. The fruit-sellers have a busy time selling their wares. As I move along, I cannot but pause and look into the houses. Here I see a man dallying with his wife; there I see a bearded philosopher paying homage to the charms of a woman; and in a third place another couple is enacting the sringara rasa.
Badri Narayan’s world is not that much only. There is plenty more. There is a separate section peopled with gods and goddesses, mythological characters and fabulous creatures. India’s past as found in palm-leaf manuscripts and oral tradition comes to life here. Parvati and her sons, Skanda and Ganesa, Krishna and his parents, some sages from our Puranas, along with winged kinnaras (celestial musicians) are all here, in their resplendent glory. Gautama the Buddha, before and after attaining his nirvana, can be seen in various births too. The Buddha in the various Jataka tales reveals himself simultaneously. Then, the heroes and heroins from Sanskrit classics like Shakuntala and Dushyanta, are also there. It is a vast panorama peopled by gods and kings, goddesses and courtesans, man-like birds and women-like fish. It is as if Badri Narayan takes me in a sort of Wellesian “Time Machine” through the cultural milieu of India’s past.
It is this Indian-ness of his subjects that is one of the distinctive features of Badri Narayan. When most of his contemporaries are exponents of “international” art, specialising in Non-Objective Art, Abstract Expressionism and even Pop Art, depending more on pure colour , geometrical forms and non-recognisable form than on line and figure, Badri Narayan is a firm believer in and votary of “national” figurative art. He has written “abstract painting, qua painting, has in it the seed of monotony”, and that “one may tire or even become bored with paintings, which are merely novel permutations and combinations of colours and shapes-mere tautological plastic symbolisations.”
And, he has also made the positive statement that “the Indian tradition is valid and vital for him, who can make it his own.” That is a vital statement, which serves as a key to the understanding of his art.
Badri Narayan is not unique in utilising Indian themes and giving them new content. Nor does he pretend to be a pioneer. There have been many others before him like Abanindranath Tagore, George Keyt, Jamini Roy, D. Rama Rao, Nirode Mazumdar, K. Srinivasulu. These painters- and possibly a few others too have- have been proud to choose subjects from India’s cultural past for their paintings. And there is nothing strange in this. For some of the greatest among the European painters and sculptors have made good use of Greek myths and legends as well as incidents from the life of Christ. Have we not seen Picasso’s fauns, Rouault’s Christs, Matisse’s Odalisques, Marc Saint-Saens’ Sun-God, Chagall’s Daphnis and Chloe and Maillol’s illustrations for the poems of Lucan in the recent exhibition of French decorative arts in India?
It is, however, in the presentation of the Indian themes, in their depiction, in their delineation that Badri Narayan has made a distinctive contribution. His individuality is made apparent in a crystal-clear manner. His ecriture is writ large in all his work, since he had evolved his own “formula” suited to his temperament, strength and limitations.
In the world of Badri Narayan, his figures bear no affinity to those in Ajanta frescoes. Nor to the revived Ajanta figures of the Bengal painters. Nor to the figures abounding with circles and triangles in George Keyt’s paintings. Nor to the rotund figures of Jamini Roy. Nor to the Indian bronzes. Badri Narayan’s figures are entirely his own, though here and there some traces of influence of others may be noticed. Badri Narayan has evolved his formula out of the figures of palm-leaf manuscripts, Kalighat paintings, wood-cut illustrations used in the early Indian printed books, Rouault’s paintings, Byzantine mosaic art and then again our Adivasi art and Lepakshi murals. Out of these disparate elements, he has created the amalgam of his style. Naïve and sophisticated at the same time, his sculpturesque forms have heavy outlines invariably suggestive of the lead beading of the stained-glass windows. It is in his colouring that he is quite modern and contemporary. And, while his oils are made to glow, his water colours reveal their transparent purity. In his compositions, he reveals a complete understanding of structure, balance and rhythm. In the surface effects can be discerned his craftsmanship. More than all these painterly qualities, it is with the intellectual flavour that he scores.
It is true that Badri Narayan’s world is far removed from the harsh realities of the contemporary world replete with atom-bombs, gas chambers and lynchings and what not. His is no wasteland with hollow men. There are no smoke stacks nor motor cars in his world. There is no trace of contemporaneity in his work nor an indication of the harsher aspects of life. But then, that is the way he feels about life. He sincerely believes that “art is a bridge to heaven-an inspiration to better living,” to quote his own words. And, why can’t it be so?
Then, there is another aspect to which he could pay a little more attention. Identical treatment for the beggar, the sage or a character from some Jataka leads to diffusion and monotony. With a better study of Hindu and Buddhist iconography and a better understanding of the symbols, Parvati can be made distinct from Devaki and Shakuntala can be differentiated from a queen.
Thoughup to now, Badri Narayan has not allowed any corrosion into quality because of his prodigious output and experiments in several media, there may come a time, when the formula can be worked out in too facile manner. He should be constantly aware of his pitfall and guard himself against it. He himself, however, has said that he will not commit “the deadly sin of inanity” and that he will “avoid the traps of mere adroitness or dexterousness.” I am sure he will keep to his promise, for as an artist, he has always been conscious of both aesthetic and moral responsibilities.
Even though “irrelevant biographical details make art criticism a muddle”, a few biographical details are warranted here for a better appreciation of his contribution to contemporary Indian art. Of South Indian parentage, he has been born and brought up in Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh), where he had normal schooling. But by then, there was a creative outburst in him. He began to draw and paint in oils, all by himself without any training in at school. What is more, painting was not an inherited family trait either. The murals and folk drawings in temples were his first inspiration and he tried to re-create them on canvas. The stories from Puranas and epics which he had heard from elders in his childhood was further inspiration. And, not having been born in affluent circumstances, he took to freelance journalism when he was not even twenty. By this time, he won a prize for one of his paintings- the very first he had sent to an exhibition. Now he decided on his career- he would paint and write. He began as a teller of tales for the tiny folk, which most often he illustrated. A self-acquired intellectual background, a trained eye, an unfaltering hand and assiduous work earned him recognition all round. Then he joined Studio Vitrum, where he began handling the new media of tiles and mosaics. After perfecting his style and consolidating his techniques, he ventured into wood-cuts, lino-cuts and “ink-resist” drawings, which are peculiarly his own.
It is by the creation of a valid world of his own that Badri Narayan has created a reputation for himself. He will be thirty six this year. But for more than a decade, he has been a serious painter. He has a vast corpus of work behind him, a sizeable portion of which has gone into individual and institutional collections. He has had fifteen solo exhibitions and he has participated in several national and international exhibitions. He has received several awards too, the latest being one from the Lalit Kala Akademi. His has been a fruitful career, noted and commented upon favourably by art critics all over the country.
To me, Badri Narayan’s art is a delight to the eye, a source of aesthetic pleasure, a thrill for the intellect and finally an easy way to go back into “the cultural unconscious of my people”. That is more than enough for me.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, Vol. xxxvi, No. 1 (x2)