It was not quite the best way to make an entree into, the world. When Velu Viswanadhan was born in February, 1940 in Kadavoor, a village near QuiIon (now Kollam) in Kerala, his mother, Nani Ammal, was suffering from tuberculosis. Raagi mixed with a little milk became the infant's food. As a child, food was always scarce. His father Palliyavila K. Velu Achary had fallen on hard times and had to place his property with pawnbrokers. With four children, his mother had to make a little bit go a long way.

It was wartime. Food was rationed. God's own country, with its thick green blanket of coconut trees and network of lagoons and canals, not to speak of the Arabian Sea skirting its pristine-sand shores, was deceptively fertile. Rice and kerosene disappeared. And each time the sound of airplanes filled the sky, Viswanadhan reminisces, people would shout, "Hide, you will be killed:" It may just have been the small Dakota that plied between Madras and Trivandrum - Quilon was far from the war zone. But for a three-year-old it held all the fury of a Japanese invasion. The sound of planes and the rumbles of his hungry stomach merged and settled themselves permanently in Viswanadhan's acoustic memory.

"There was very little rice. We had millet, some fruit and roots. Now when I think back I realize that hunger was my greatest preoccupation. You dreamed of food, the smell of food was haunting. Breakfast was leftover rice in water (kanji). It was better when you went to school you were given small packets and when you returned home there was little to eat. Life for me was certainly not served on a plate.”

Hunger, a stubbornly persistent motif in Viswanadhan's life, becomes a theme that he reflects upon in his early figurative work. While a student at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Madras, Viswanadhan did a series of paintings. One of them, titled Agony, has a cluster of strange-looking cactus-like shapes in the foreground, with a group of elongated women with outstretched arms in the background. The women could be in a desert somewhere, not a leaf in sight, and the cactus a far cry from the fertile landscape of Kerala. “Feeling hunger -that was the subject of my work for a while after I came to Madras”: he says.

Viswanadhan's family belongs to the community of Viswakarmas. Described as builders of the world, they have traditionally made gods and temples. Masons, potters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, sculptors and carpenters are all considered Viswakarmas. The painter's extended family included idol-makers and those who made architectural plans of temples and houses. “They knew all about vaastu (a traditional Hindu canon of planning and architecture, seeking to balance the five natural elements with man and material). They knew it from time immemorial”

Initially, the painter's father also followed in the footsteps of his ancestors, many of whom were sculptors who made idols for temples and individual homes. But illness forced him to take up another vocation. Unable to lift heavy objects after a stomach surgery (he was involved in the construction of temples and homes), V. Achary became a jeweller, a choice that ruined him financially.

However, like his clan members, Achary could also carve deities and provide what temples required for various rituals, including mandala pujas. Consequently, his third son grew up observing all this, tucking away many of the geometric images of triangles, circles and squares employed in the making of the mandalas, in the storage room of his mind. These were to resurface years later, unsought, on his canvases.

While Viswanadhan became something of an iconoclast because of his association with the Marxists in his village, his childhood was marked by rituals and rites. There was an important Thrikkadavoor Shiva temple near the home. As Viswakarmas his family played a role in the functioning of the temple. Ironically, though Viswanadhan is a non-representational painter, the colours, forms and impressions of growing up in the shadow of this temple, and other temples, find their way into his post-figurative phase. Kali makes an enigmatic appearance in his canvases of the mid-196os, as does the tantric vocabulary of lingams and yonis.

While the family of Viswanadhan's father was associated with the Shiva temple, his mother's family was attached to the famous Mulankadakarn Bhagavathy temple in Quilon. “My mother used to drag us to this temple about five miles away. An enduring impression of the festival linked with Bhadrakali was a procession of lights by pre-pubertal girls, and the fight and flight of Garuda.”

Viswanadhan's childhood was decidedly unlike that of his siblings. Per-haps it was the hunger in his belly that made him a rebel early in life. The precocious lo-year-old was often sent by his mother to deposit money in the local post office or bank. Forever hungry, he seldom reached his destination: somehow his feet automatically led him to a nearby restaurant. When nothing was left in the bank, he threw away the passbook. Soon, guilt began to consume him, and he decided to kill himself.

"There was a forbidden fruit, like poison. I found some and hid it, thinking I would eat it when everybody slept. This way I would be dead when they got up. But I fell asleep and forgot about it. In the morning I felt ashamed and ran away to the nearest town, Quilon. That evening I slept in the boat jetty!' The next morning Viswanadhan sneaked away and walked to Adoor, a large town 3o kilometres away. He managed to find an uncle's house, where he stayed for a few days.

Apparently, his mother had already told his relatives that her son had run away from home. After a week, his uncle took him to his parents. Since Viswanadhan could not go back to school after missing so many days he apprenticed first with a blacksmith and later a carpenter. Miserable in both places, he swallowed his pride and went back to school.

College was equally, if not more, turbulent. Viswanadhan's father wanted him to become an engineer or a doctor, like his cousins. Enrolled in Sree Narayana College of Art, Quilon, it did not take long for the lanky political science and economics student with piercing eyes to be expelled for political activism. As member of the Marxist Student's Federation, Viswanadhan was one of the leaders of a strike against the college management's decision to disqualify students without the requisite attendance from appearing in the exams.

Had Viswanadhan not been expelled from college when he was 19, he might never have become an artist. Nor would he have cut himself adrift from his family, village and indeed Kerala, choosing a self-imposed exile. It was the shame of it all- friends turned their faces; neighbours looked at him with pity in their eyes. His father remained silent.

Finding himself at a dead end,Viswanadhanwent to an uncle, a portrait painter. A respected artist, his uncle gave drawing lessons to aspiring painters. On this visit Viswanadhan met an old schoolmate, K. Jayapala Panicker who was at the time planning to join the Government College of Arts and Craft s, Madras. It was one of those eureka moments: Viswanadhan decided to apply as well. Unfortunately, he did not put enough postage on the letter asking for admission. The letter bounced back home. It was as if a bomb had fallen on my house. My father told me that if I went to Madras I would no longer be his son.”

The death of his mother at this critical juncture further alienated him from his home. “I was 19 when she died. It was a period of revolt. When my mother was there I could do anything. My mother would always say yes, and my father no. After her death there was no need to go home. I never slept there again. I would visit but never stay”.

The accidental rebel went wherever chance took him. He became a nomad. Madras was the first stop.


“I had been thrown out of college, I had lost face. I could not look anyone in the eye. I had no future. I was stamped with the red colour (branded a communist). All doors were closed to me.”

In June, 1960 Viswanadhan boarded a train to Madras with K. Jayapala Panicker. The journey itself may not have been eventful, but, it was to change forever the way Viswanadhan saw life - innocence took some brutal knocks. Even today the fleeting image of a girl child who had been physically abused, haunts him. “She was crying and naked and I could see that she had been brutally raped.” Life and its uncertainties were playing on his perturbed mind.

It was blindingly hot, and Viswanadhan had no idea where he was headed. Nor what he was going to do once he got there. "Madras was only an idea. I had no picture of it in my mind." This flight from home, an act of desperation, was taking him towards an unscripted future. As the train chugged along, the verdant landscape of Kerala gradually began to give way to the more sparsely inhabited terrain of Tamil Nadu. The long stretches of dry land came as a shock to the young man who had never seen any-thing other than the lush, wet greenery of his state. Not only were these impressions of the heat and aridity to surface in his student-day paintings, Viswanadhan's painterly eye was already in place, discerning patterns and geometrical forms in the landscape.

“After the train passed Chenkottai it was just desert, empty space. And then there were clusters of villages in between these empty spaces...One could see that the villages had form. Kerala, on the other hand, is a continuous village. The landscape is so densely packed with coconut trees that only the sky can penetrate through the leaves. No wonder the gods are caught under the umbrella of the lush green leaves, and cannot escape!”

Viswanadhan passed the entrance test for the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Madras. But penniless, moving from one cheap lodging to another, he had to return to Kerala briefly. This time to Trivandrum with a hunch of first year drawings and paintings he hoped to exhibit and perhaps get someone to buy them.

This time the Marxist connections opened doors. His old Student Federation of India (SE) friends advised him that what he needed was not a show but a scholarship. The brilliant cineaste G. Aravindan and the writer N. Mohanan helped him get a scholarship from Kerala University to complete his six-year course in Madras. Their artist-friend A. Ramachandran had already been awarded one to study in Santiniketan. Viswanadhan Finally settled down to educating himself at the art school in Madras, in 1960. It wasn't lust the skills Viswanadhan acquired here. It was an entire new way of seeing, and of thinking. The search for an individualistic path was critical and so was the influence of K.C.S. Paniker, the principal of the college. [1] You could say that Paniker followed the middle path in art, steering clear of both tendencies prevalent in Indian art at the time: the Western academic realism personified by Raja Ravi Varma and the Bengal School inspired nationalism advocated by Abanindranath Tagore.

This is the road he laid out for his eager students at the college. Among Viswanadhan's contemporaries in the 196os were S. G. Vasudev, K. V. Haridasan, K. Jaypala Paniker, R. B. Bhaskaran, K. M. Adimoolam and C. Dakshinamurty. And like the generations that preceded them, they too were gently ushered towards different doors of perception. Paniker encouraged them to look at traditional and folk art without stroking revivalist impulses. Somewhere, in those symbols and, yes, abstractions, lay a wav forward for indigenous abstraction. And what has now gained much currency - geometrical abstraction. [2]

Acres of print have celebrated the Progressive Artists' Group in Bombay, spearheaded by F. N. Souza and established in 1947, only to be disbanded later. But little has been written about the Progressive Painters Association set up in Madras four years prior to that, and still active. Led by Paniker, the Association was initially encumbered by the baggage of the post-Impressionist discourse. However, there was a marked shift in the 1950s to ‘Indianness’ in the south.

Talking about Paniker's influence on him, Viswanadhan describes his teaching methods as most unusual. “Paniker never actually taught us,” says Viswanadhan “He used to go round the class, watching us. Once in a while Paniker would stop and ask, “Oh, how did you do this?” He'd point to one corner on the canvas and say: “This is very good - continue.” Paniker often told us, “Why are you doing it? You have to find your identity. If it resembles something alright, but where are you in all this? You have tradition, that is fine, but where are you?”

Much of the 'teaching' was spontaneous- offsite as it were. Paniker gave impromptu lectures in the ‘Lalit Kala Akademi courtyard’ on his way home, often while sitting on his bicycle. Occasionally, these went on past midnight. "Many of the students had gone home but we had no homes to go back to. So, we listened to him talk about freedom, about Tahiti and Gauguin, Cezanne, about the Indian contribution to art, about abstract art - how the idea had come from the Western school of thought. While lessons in the 'ways of seeing' were imparted by Paniker, writer-poet M. Govindan pointed Viswanadhan towards different ways of thinking. In his mentor's home, an adda of sorts, he learned about what literary giants, both in India and abroad, were writing. M. Govindan edited a magazine at the time, and in monthly meetings in a cafe invited people to bring their poems. I le also published Viswanadhan's letters and writings. [3]

Tantra was the 'next best thing' in the mid-196os. In the compound or elsewhere over man cups of chai, artists discussed the flirtation of American artistswith Tantra.“We hadn't thought of abstract art but of doing something dose to it, using symbols and forms. We realized that Pop Art at the time was looking for something similar to what we were doing with our mandalas. Artists like Paniker in the South and J. Swaminathan in the North were talking about all this. Paniker and Swami discovered that we could keep our native identity and also be modern. What is your own expression was the question Paniker always put to us.”

Viswanadhan soon began to find his “expression” - his personal pictorial vocabulary, his alphabets as it were. But before that there were years of experimentation - of learning the grammar of painting. Initially, the re-productions of European masters published in books served as references for him. But these were merely stepping stones in the desired direction.

Viswanadhan, in a mood of self reflection did a fascinating portrait in 1961. A strongly outlined figure looms large, like a giant, on an almost luridly-coloured canvas that has the vertiginous effect of an El Greco work. Perspective all askew, there is the spire of Saint Andrew's Church in the background, with stairs going all the way up at one end of this expressionist canvas, with its intimations of Max Beckman. Viswanadhan says that he wanted to convey what it felt like climbing all those stairs of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Madras - “I was full of anxiety, and yes, hungry”

The short figurative phase reflects the artist's state of mind at the time. Paintings of women with claw-like, upturned hands recall Picasso's work. His 1965 painting of cactuses and women with distorted bodies reminds one of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. During his Madras days, Viswanadhan did a series of superb nudes, with titles like Orange, Blue and Black Nudes and Music of Silence, an orange nude lying on her stomach, so reminiscent of Modigliani. These were intended to be portraits of men and women, not just studies of the human anatomy. Since his classmates and teachers were shy, it fell to the man from Quilon to go to the chawls to find models.

“The boys, shy, would sit in the corners. I used to place the models in a certain way. I was a daredevil of sorts. We did big drawings of nudes. In the early images we were researching form. I had seen Munch's Scream. Hence, the series called Agony with female figures. It was a question of finding the form, of forming your vision.”

The art students went on study tours to various parts of India, often accompanied by Paniker or other professors. For Viswanadhan, the excursions to the temples and archaeological sites of South India, particularly Maniavur, made quite an impression. He was intrigued by the "writing at the base of the Brihadeshwara temple there...When I saw this I thought I could also introduce text into my paintings." And he did just that in a striking work in 1963, following a visit to Mahabalipuram. The melange of text and image continued to fascinate Viswanadhan. He was quite taken by the Egyptian hieroglyphics he came across in textbooks. In 1964 he made a batik sari with writing in Malayalam all over it. “It was about woman trapped in a sari with a script...and Paniker bought it,” explains Viswanadhan. [4]

Concerned about the financial security of his students, Paniker encouraged them to learn crafts to supplement their income as artists. What worried him was the fact that, unable to make ends meet, many of them had gone commercial. Determined to blur the line between art and craft, Paniker established the Artists Handicrafts Association. The batik scarves and sarees made by his students proved to be very popular, and the artists made money. So successful was the experiment that in 1966, Paniker decided to make a permanent home for the Association. He wanted to establish a commune of artists who would not only own their bits of land but build their own dwellings. That is how the Cholamandalam Artists' Colony on the Coromandel Coast near Chennai came into being.

A founder-member, Viswanadhan built its first cottage with fellow student R. B. Bhaskaran and K. M. Adimoolam. The Cholamandalam Artists' Village was ready in the summer of 1966. [5]


In those early, heady days in the artists' colony, Viswanadhan began to experiment in real earnestness with geometrical abstractions and symbols. The ritualistic diagrams (on floors, walls and in temples) that were a constant backdrop while he was growing up in Kerala began to tease his imagination. Like a silent film, images of mandalas with their geometrical forms unspooled in his mind. Paniker's compound lectures about scare-crows fell into place.

The painter took a closer look at the mandala and began to ask questions “How do you place a devi in a mandala? First you have to conceive a space where you will install the idol that has to be worshipped. Hence, there is a square opening in all directions, and then the personal deity, which for me is the woman, the female principle. I was looking at this even in my nude studies in Madras. When you look at Munch's Scream, the central theme is woman. Then I came to the triangle, which is the woman. Whether it is figurative or abstract, it is about the woman. What else is life, but woman?”

Viswanadhan had by now moved to the ambivalent space between the figurative and the abstract. His 'woman' (or female principle) was playing hide and seek: now you saw her, now You didn't. And, you saw her in hits and pieces - and, of course, you saw geometrical forms. His idol series include Black Idol (1966), Idol for My Generation and several untitled oil canvases such as the compelling abstraction on Kali in Black and Yellow. In his brilliant Black Idol, there's an eruption of vibrant red alongside the black. The symbols of the lingam and yoni are clearly delineated. Idol forMy Generation has red triangles offsetting the black figure of the idol.

After this series, the idols begin to 'vanish' from Viswanadhan's canvases. And his painterly search for 'pure form and content' begins. Talking about the evolution of his work, he says - "After the mid-196os, this tendency unintentionally rejoins the mid-i9Tos French movement of super-surface, leading later to my 'canvas on canvas' paintings and sand paintings...From now on I am looking at matter and meaning." The move to Cholamandalam enabled him to make large paintings. [6]

Red (throbbing, energy-emanating) dominates Viswanadhan's palette in the late 196os. The geometrical forms floating in, or held by red, now acquire more individualistic shorthand - less `Tantric' and more ‘Viswanadhanesque' you could say. A significant work, transitional though, is titled Red. From here on, the artist dispensed titles to his works. The two-dimensional dissolved into pure colour. The'narrative'was subsumed by colour.


To be in Paris in 1968, during or after that eventful month of May, was a heady, and in many ways, a life-changing experience. Everybody was, as Elvis Presley sang, "all shook up". Hierarchy was subverted completely during this all too brief revolution spearheaded by students and workers. Almost overnight, Parisians went from using the more formal vous to tu while addressing one another. A page, it seemed, had turned.

It was wild. I know because I was there, as a student.

And it was into this Paris that Viswanadhan strode in, late that autumn, when bohemia wasn't just a fashion statement, when if you lingered long enough over your espresso at Le Dome in Montparnasse you could see Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre walk by. The cultural ambience of Paris was seductive enough to draw in any stranger who had just landed there on a short sojourn. Viswanadhan had come to Europe in the spring of 1968 as part of a group exhibition organised by Siddharamanna from Ban-galore in different European cities. He was just stopping by in Paris because four of his oils (Black Idol, Black and Mustard and two other black paintings) had been in the 1967 Paris Biennale des Jeunes. Viswanadhan didn't even have a return ticket home. All he had in his pocket was a calling card given to him by Jacques Laval, who had visited Cholamandalam.

That card was to change his life, opening unmarked doors to the inner sanctums of the art world of Paris. Monsieur Laval turned out to be Pere Laval, a Dominican priest who was spiritual adviser to artists like Nicolas de Stael and Joseph Sima, writer Antonin Artaud and many others.

“I called him and found he was in a convent, and went there with Akkitham (painter Akkitham Narayanan). He phoned a certain Madame Maillard to ask her to give a room to a young painter from India. I went there. This elderly woman showed me a room, and said, ‘This is your bed.’ There were Picassos and De Staels on the walls - paintings I had only seen in books. When you sleep under them, they are the first thing you see when you wake up. You can't but be taken by this.”

After a few weeks Pere Laval sent him to have lunch with Nathalie Prou-vost, who loaned a beautiful atelier (53 bis Quai des Grands Augustins) overlooking the river Seine.

There was no going back after this. The artist who never intended to stay on was smitten, even though he had to move on, changing several residences before he found an atelier of the Biennale de Paris at the Cite des Arts and was invited to show at the prestigious Galerie de France. Paris was in the throes of experimentation in the late 196os. Hedonism was in the air, as was experimentation. “You could meet anybody. You could have relationships - the exhilaration of freedom in a time when all the rules just slackened off.” Viswanadhan didn't restrict himself to canvas or paper. In 1968, he ventured into the more avant-garde area of performance arts. Instead of doing nude studies he did a series with a nude as his canvas. Interestingly, the forms he painted on the model resemble the geometrical abstractions from his paintings. Most artists have a secret repertoire of erotic drawings, and Viswanadhan has no dearth of them. However, he also did a series of erotic etchings for a limited edition book with a French poet. Unlike most of the Indian artists who went to Paris as students, Viswanadhan plunged straight into the professional circle of artists. The good father's network brought him a few buyers, and an occasional exhibition. But the big break came in 1969. With the courage of the foolhardy he just ‘walked into the Galerie de France’, saying that he was an Indian painter and wanted to show his work.

Initially, the person in charge, Madame Prevost, brushed him off, telling him to return after two weeks. He did, and she was about to send him off again when she saw the packet under his arm. She forcefully grabbed the envelope and opened it. Impressed by his ink drawings on paper, she went to his atelier to see more of his work. She bought some for the gallery enabling him to pay his rent and continue painting. And he came on to their list of artists.

No longer restricted to works on paper, his canvases became larger. And his geometrical abstractions became more dynamic, his play with light more in evidence. In 1971 he won the Palette d'or at the prestigious Festival International de Peinture at Cagnes-sur-Mer.

Life was on a roll after this: “I had my head in the clouds. I never thought about the significance of all this...I got the Galerie de France without any recommendation.” [7]

When Viswanadhan came to Paris in 1968 with his "baggage of Tantric images and geometrical forms and symbols", Sakti Burman, Krishna Reddy and S. H. Raza were already in Paris. Raza was then painting his exquisite landscapes and cityscapes. Akkitham Narayanan on a scholar-ship in Paris, was painting cityscapes and buildings. "We used to talk a lot. Raza was very supportive. He was also very curious about what I was doing. He asked me about my sources, he wanted me to tell him about my father making mandalas."

Viswanadhan’s ‘baggage’ began to metamorphose after he became a part of the professional art milieu, inundated by the images of Hartung and Soulages. He also began to focus on the materials he was using, eventually narrowing the “gap between what was Indian in him and what was international, where the Tantric motifs and the universal geometrical forms converge or move apart” Viswanadhan had inadvertently brought his “ritualistic-magical images from his childhood” with him to Europe, but he never consciously brought them into his work. It was only after Europeans asked him about his childhood that he started to explore it.

“When I showed my work in Europe and Paris, people would comment that they were nearly abstract, but not quite. They asked me about my background, my early impressions. This led me back to my childhood, to the mandalas and Kalamezhuthu. So, I went to back to Kerala in 1972 and made a short film about the Sri Chakra puja with Adoor Gopalakrishnan. It is called Colour and Form. We went to a priest in Cochin and filmed him doing the Sri Chakra puja. I showed him my works. He told me this is Tantra: ‘You do it your way, we do it our way’. When they draw a Kali they make their green colour from crushed leaves, but when they do geo-metrical forms they mix white and black. The juxtaposition with other co-lours makes it look green. Tantra is conceptual. It is the feel of green - or Kerala. For a priest, the geometrical composition of a triangle is Devi. When I discussed this with Chandralekha, she said Rukmani Arundale told her that geometry was in the internal structure of dance, something only devas (the creators) know.”

Accidents have always been part ofViswanadhan'slife, propelling him down unexpected paths. The drawings and paintings done between the 196os and early 197os owe their genesis to a quirk of fate. Curious about the couple who had bought one of his paintings from the Paris Biennale, Viswanadhan sought them out on the outskirts of Paris in Marly-Le-Roi. Since Annick and Martin Weijtens were going on vacation they invited Viswanadhan to stay in their home and paint. And, he did. “I went to look for water to wash my brush I was using stamp ink. I saw a pot with some liquid in it. I dipped my brush into it and tried to use it at the edge of the paper. But the muddy greenish colour went into the paper and made my ink lines emerge. The couple had used the pot to wash their brushes: it was full of turpentine. I liked the effect, mixed some turpentine and covered more space with it. After which I used less turpentine, and tried it elsewhere on the paper. Stamp ink has wax in it. Once it dries it does not fade. I then moved to pure turpentine, undiluted by water. In my next phase I mixed turpentine with oil colours and the result was lighter co-lours. In the following phase I used watercolour gold over the turpentine application. After this, I used an oil base and washed it with watercolour and gold. In 1971, I began to use paper that I fixed on canvas.”

Viswanadhan has always been rather circumspect about labels. “I am not an abstract painter. I don't represent anything. I am not abstracting anything from an image or an object. It's coming from layers of memory, from the imprint of experience. You live it, you feel it, but you don't paint what you see. For instance, when I first went to Europe I went to the cathedrals, St. Chapelle in Paris, the cloisters, the stained glass windows.”

During the early 197Os Viswanadhan experimented with various techniques, even mixing watercolours with oil, or acrylic on oil surfaces. He was determined to “draw spirit from the matter - the material.” Writing on his early work, the late art historian Josef James maintains that the painter's colours grew increasingly transparent and prismatic -“In the prints he was making, he started to sense out the felicities of colour, using a number of washes, mixing oil and watercolours, using metallic tints, using different kinds of paper.”

In his paintings on paper he often drew an outline with a metal stylo and stamping ink. After applying oil colours with a brush he did a series of washes with the "essence" of turpentine. Writing about this period of his work Alberte Grynpas Nguyen says that the "transparent and thin paint revealed the geometric forms: (Catalogue Essay - Retrospective, National Gallery Of Modern Art, Mumbai, 1998). In yet another stylistic invention Viswanadhan introduced stitching in his canvases in 1974. Initially, he used to 'sew' a painting onto a canvas, the 'stitching' intriguingly visible. For his first work he took the help of Rajasthani craftsmen in Mehrauli. Later, his ‘sewn’ paintings became more 'composed' He stitched two different pieces of the painting onto one canvas.

“I wanted to save the unpainted edges of the paintings I had brought from Paris for a show in New Delhi. Yes, I found what I brought had something precious. To save it, I placed the painted canvas on the un-touched canvas base”

Canvas on canvas conceptually opens up a new vista.

Mishaps are turning points in Viswanadhan's life and work. A near fatal accident on the Autobahn in Germany in 1976 pushed him down yet another path (the car he was driving was a complete write-off). A nurse's routine question, “Who are you?” as he regained consciousness in a hospital set him off in pursuit of answers to the existential question. But, that is another story. Suffice it say that the paintings and drawings he was carrying with him to show a gallerist survived - and made it to this exhibition.


[1] The son of a doctor, Paniker, had worked in the Post and Telegraph Department before he joined the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Madras in 1936, first as a student and then later as a teacher. And finally, its principal in 1957. In homage to him after his death in 1977 eminent painter K. G. Subramanyan wrote: “His Western excursion affected him like it affected most Indian artists of any individuality; it threw him back to himself. It was as if across the seas a strange longing for his land caught him in the pit of his stomach. On his return he became a committed indigenist, though not in the traditionalist sense. And it started him on a new road.”

[2] Paniker was largely responsible for creating a regional vocabulary in art somewhere between the abstract and the figurative. In an astute essay, "P. T. Reddy, Neo-Tantrism, and Modern Art in India", Art Journal, December 22, 2005, Rebecca Brown writes, "He was instrumental in in-troducing the concept of nativism as a construct for a modern expression in Madras, with the artists reacting creatively to the vernacular and classical tradition, leading to the configuration of the regional modern. Paniker moved toward a new aesthetic based on the tension between figuration and abstraction."

[3] Talking about him Viswanadhan says, “A rebel, he was a great admirer of M. N. Roy. We used to call him the Radical Humanist. I attended the All India Writers Conference organized by Govindan, Vatsyayana, Harivansh Rai Bachchan in 1965 near Cochin. I was a volunteer. Adoor Gopalakrishnan had organized a film festival...The writers talked to the young artists and filmmakers. They talked about the double destiny of Indian writ-ers and creative people about Indian traditions and what we learned from the West. We were told that we had to make a synthesis. We were just learning about art, looking at Modigliani, Picasso and the others. M. Govindan opened us to what was happening in India and in Africa. We were exposed to the works of Ka Na Subramaniam, Nazrul Islam, other Punjabi and Hindi poets and revolutionary poets from Andhra Pradesh and Bengal.”

[4] Interestingly, Paniker was just beginning to introduce words and markings into his paintings. Art scholar from the South, Ashrafi S. Bhagat writes, “Paniker not only played upon the abstraction of the words and scripts but also incorporated mathematical formulae, algebraic equations and diagrams of horoscopes.”

[5] “We took thatches and bamboos there one evening. Since we couldn't leave them there, we slept under the stars that night, waiting for the villagers to come and help us build the first cottage. The next morning we discovered a tiny sprout of a plant with two leaves on the small palm tree which was part of the fence. That little plant later grew and grew and then swallowed the palm tree to become a big banyan tree. Today nothing can grow under it. Is that a metaphor?” he quips, chuckling.

[6] Meeting the American critic, Clement Greenberg, exponent of Abstract Expressionism, triggeredViswanadhan'sinterest in large canvases. Sent by Paniker to Delhi to see the exhibition hosted in India by Greenberg, Viswanadhan got to see the works of Rothko, Pollock and Sam Francis.

Published in Viswanadhan early years by DAG Modern in 2007
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