Visiting V.Ramesh at his studio in Vishakhapatnam in late Sept. 2011, I was able to get a fair idea of his forthcoming show “Why Cross the Boundary”, a month or so before it was due to open in Delhi. Fair, in the best sense of the word, because most of the paintings, all large oils on canvas, had reached their final resolution, while only a very few continued to be works in progress. Just “Remembering Lalla Moj”, awash in preparatory pinks and yellows, remained a still nascent image, waiting to be conceived.
Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, the experience of visiting the artist’s studio was a bit like entering an old South Indian temple. Raised to a plinth level of one floor in height, a flight of worn steps flanked by a mango tree had to be climbed before one looked up and saw a cavernous interior, effulgent with color--- radiating from his paintings of course, that were stacked against the high walls everywhere.
A gracious host, Ramesh handed me a cup of coffee, inviting me to sit on a sprawling planter’s chair even as he pulled up a straight-backed one for himself and positioned it next to an almost finished painting placed to catch the light. We began our conversation, and I noticed he would pick up a loaded brush every now and then and add a stroke to his canvas or fill in a new area of color and then turn back to speak with me-- sometimes at length-- before resuming his work. None of this disturbed the contemplative calm he may have been trying to instill in the painting, or for that matter the intensity of compressed emotional time that was perhaps being expressed.
Though intent on rendering his vision through the prism of his own personal search for the Self, the painter has not forsaken the pleasures of a sensuous, emotive palette, thus providing a level at which even the uninitiated viewer can be drawn into the work. His development through the years as an artist seems to have been as open and fluid as that of his paintings. Large in scale, their vaporous ethereality suggests a deeply introspective mood. Perhaps best described as metaphysical allegories for his own rite of passage through art and life, Ramesh’s paintings appear to be a flux of his particular consciousness. His concerns have remained steadfast throughout this journey. Images, whose multiple associations have been drawn from cultural and personal memory continue to reverberate with a sense of other-worldliness, even as they lurk within washes of abstract painterliness. Rarely does one feel the disruptive breath of the contemporary world. References to sages, mystics and poets communicate ideas which infuse the artist’s introspections even as they inform his oeuvre.
Interested in how image and content flow into each other, the artist’s precise techniques and engaging iconographies lend themselves to suggestive narratives that have this time included the re-contextualization of some of India’s saint poets, along with some of his earlier subjects. His cast of women saint poets featured in the intriguingly titled “Why Cross the Boundary,” includes Karaikal Amma, Mahadevi Akka and Lal Ded. Each lived in different parts of India through different periods of the country’s history, and wrote their poems in different languages. According to the artist: “despite these vast divisions, all three shared a similar intoxication in their pursuit of the divine; each one of them came from an unhappy marriage, each left homes and families and went forth into the world on a spiritual quest----as such they also had in common their unique, personal histories.”
One would have imagined that since these saint poets wrote deeply devotional poems in a long extinguished past, they could somehow never be transposed to the secular actuality of today when translated into current idioms of poetry, or for that matter, brought into the contemporary observer’s presence in their various painterly depictions as in this exhibition. The reverse seems to be true: they seem to be as relevant and compelling today as before, as their seemingly disparate worlds intersect in the works under discussion, worlds that seem to effortlessly explore the contingent nature of meaning and interpretation through a constant play of intense feeling and fictionalized reality.
Negative, hollowed out spaces and translucent lines define the ghostly but intense Karaikal Amma, who animates and dominates the space of “A Poet in Her Words”, the luminous blue canvas she inhabits with her cage-like skeletal figure. At first there seems to be no explaining this ancient image, literally worn to the bone. Is this willfully wasted body akin to the mortification of flesh as in the tradition of Christian saints or to a scourging of the body to the ultimate, as in certain stringent ascetic systems? Perhaps a bit of both: the fading of the body into devout nothingness as a precursor to complete surrender and consecration, to its transition from corporeality into transcendence, has been a tenet and practice in almost all mystic traditions through the ages. One can almost sense Ramesh’s instinctive involvement with his images; it’s as if for him, the poet’s compulsion for a paring away of the exterior to be able to glance within the hridaya kohra, the heart cave, and find her Lord, was implicit.
Akka Mahadevi, heedless of what others said or thought, is said to have roamed the country naked, covered only by her long, flowing hair, in a similar search. Her bhakti transposed in verse, was that of a lover addressing her beloved. “Pining for an Absent Lover”, the work based on her, though not quite finished at the time of my visit, already resonates with a sentient feeling. The surface of the painting is a virtual palimpsest of textures and shapes, evoking something like the flotsam and jetsam of memory trapped within painterly washes even as a fine, overall filigree of interlacing lines attempts as if to steady the composition. Suddenly the air seems chiseled, as off to one side within an incandescent glow, a small, somewhat de-centralized and finely sketched portrait comes into slow-focus, proposing an analogue between what is and what may be. Letters spelling: “My Lord White as Jasmine”--- a refrain that resounds through Akka’s poetry--- float through and across the spaces of the painting. In places, passages of writing appear layered, some words blurred, others disappearing into the paintwork; the visual effect is of whispers, of soft murmurs, of a haunting voice echoing across the centuries
Throughout the gamut of his current works, the artist seems to be making physical an experience that only exists in the realm of the subtle, something like the space of dreams that can be captured only in the flash second before waking from sleep, and is then instantly forgotten. Instead of an intellectual search for symbols and meanings, he seems to encourage a sensual, experientialrelationshipwiththe unconscious, with visuals that are intense and iconic. The enigmatic results can at once hint at a narrative and deny conclusive interpretation for some, while for others the experience has elements of the profound, even as they glimpse the transcendent amidst the implied and the elusive. The transformative power of paintings like these, perhaps lies in the way they can move away from simple allegory into the realm of pure experience, the images near heroic in their isolation as well as cumulatively mysterious.
“One is inevitably living in today’s world,”says Ramesh, “and I don’t think I am trying to escape this fact by reverting to the past. Its more like a single minded obsession, a world view that takes on all this as a part of one’s existence but stays with images and ideas that have held one captive”, he explains. “All this gets internalized and then gets sort of percolated in a more subtle manner as a manifestation of the experience; it is never a black and white thing.” He adds that he has been profoundly moved by the biting satire crossed with fluid emotion in the poetry of Akka and Lal Ded, as well as by the unmitigated devotion in Karaikalamma’s, who sought extreme physical ugliness from the Lord so that her sadhana remained unwavering and one pointed. “In fact I have read them so often, that for me it’s as if these saint-poets have become old friends, their images culled through the filter of their timeless writing”. Indeed their writings, in their original Tamil, Kannada and Kashmiri respectively, as well as their multitudes of translations into several languages including English, resonate in the literary world more than ever today.
The artist has often painted the heart, an organic entity that is also a mystic emblem resonant with possibilities. Images like in“Yeh Duniya ….” with inferences to the heart as spiritual centre, and in “In the Heart’s Centre”, where Shri Ramanna’s presence (a central motif in the artist’s past works) is embodied within the heart-space as shadow and reflection, derive from their many shades of re-location within the givens of the temporal and the spiritual. Leaving room for poetics, compassion and sincerity, works like these in fact go on to generate larger narratives of artistic inspiration and transformation. Linking them is a reliance upon contour and silhouette to form representations. Their emphasis on the edge, both physical and conceptual, results in evocative images in which detail is attenuated, retaining references that are at once recognizable and abstract.
When asked about the metaphysical inclinations evident in his subject matter and their connections to mystical streams of thought, Ramesh is reflective but candid. “As an artist one should have the integrity to paint what moves one and be able to sustain and develop what one believes in. I feel one has to be articulate and speak about such ideas through one’s work, in spite of notions or fads that are currently considered right or wrong.” When asked once again as to how he in fact deals with the literary, symbolic and narrative implications of such subject matter, he speaks of devotion, worship, emotion and ibadat. “These are the instigators and they are all very significant for me”, he says. The works portray a particular mood, a realm of qualities hard to articulate, but instantly experienced with the actual paintings before us
But who bothers about all this any more”, he asks with wry smile, and goes on to talk about how impossible it is to portray feelings such as those of ecstasy in painting, or of sorrow, as compared to the accessibility and evocativeness of music, which easily touches every heart. “The way I paint is in essence much the same as the way a classical singer would sing a raga. At first this may not seem related, but the way a singer takes a line and sings it differently each time to give it a different inflection-this is the way I paint. The strokes keep varying but the core concern is never exhausted.”
The painter talks about Veena Dhanammal, the great dancer Balasaraswathy’s grandmother, who had an ardent following among lovers of classical music in South India. “Every one thought her music was divine, but she would never play at concerts and would only perform on Fridays at her own house; the whole of Chennai would come to listen to her on those occasions,” he relates. “She was a great fan of Ustaad Karim Khan, and though she was half blind and didn’t have very much money, she gave away all she possessed to him because he sang so beautifully, keeping nothing for herself. I have this urge to strew jasmine flowers in front of her portrait---if I ever get around to painting it that is--- ”, says the artist, visibly moved, “so that viewers get to walk on them”. One imagines the fragrance of crushed petals one day, filling the air as if in homage to a much cherished diva.
Ramesh puts on a disc of MS Subbulaxmi, and as the haunting strains of a bhajan waft across the studio, goes on to talk of several other great singers and musicians from the early decades of the 20th century, among them Rajaratnam Pillai, “a crazy character with 5 wives, who could coax impossible cadences from the nadaswaram”. Pillai it seems had a propensity to break with social norms, constantly shocking the city’s conservative citizens. “Invariably, one of his wives along with his huge Alsatian dog and all his accompanists, would accompany him to his concerts, all of them seated in an old gas guzzling car,” recounts Ramesh, who clearly has an affinity for somewhat eccentric personalities particularly if they had a touch of musical genius.
“They all seem to have had this rare passion, a one pointed dedication to their music and a mastery over their form coupled with a quiet sort of power and confidence,” he says, changing the disc. We are now listening to Ariyakudi, “a great classical singer,” sing Vaishnavajantho. “You had to do your homework before you met people like these--- they wouldn’t suffer fools lightly”, says the music aficionado/artist, who has a fund of recordings and books on Carnatic music and its performers. “All these characters have been knocking on the doors of my mind and they just have to come out; bubbling inside me is my next show and it’s going to be based on musicians”, discloses Ramesh, indicating sheaves of preparatory drawings based on musicians, almost as if his conceptual riyaz has already begun.
His works, some larger than ever before, often lend themselves to a fresco-like format where the landscape acts as a catalyst for his imagination and emotions. In these, both luminous colors and fine, linear drawings with their subtle poetic communications, are layered and re-layered in explorations that represent multiple facets of identity and personal faith in terms of the country’s mythic and sacredtraditions.Theself-referencing 10ft by 8ft “Keeping Faith”, is one such work; its otherworldly theme is permeated by a sense of grandeur along with a contradictory sense of intimacy, its sensuously atmospheric tenor built from a variety of textures. Embedded within the painting’s disparate surfaces are multiple associations sifted from cultural memory and traditions of story telling. The deep forested landscape, aflame with molten oranges, yellows and reds, frames the hybrid half man, half tiger image of the fabled, much venerated sage Vyagrapada,  in a work that is almost hallucinatory and dream-like.
As in the rest of his paintings, one rarely finds any evidence of the contemporary world here. Even his own self-portrait as the man with arms outstretched in expectation, as if asking for a boon from the tiger form, can be construed as a transposition of himself time-traveling back into legend and myth. The central meaning of a staged composition like this, lies not so much in its literal description as in the texture and manner of its evocation. Its meaning reveals itself gradually as in a process of visual and emotional mediation.
This in fact was the painting mentioned earlier in this piece, the one that Ramesh continued to work on even as we sat in our respective chairs and conversed. “The whole struggle with this work has been to make the image relevant,” says the artist, who must have had to climb a ladder or one of his sturdy, handsome chairs in order to paint its middle and upper reaches. “A very large painting like this brings its own particular problems and concerns,” he says, referring to the layers of paint required to impart depth. “By overlaying, one was constantly glimpsing traces of earlier lines and colors,” he explains, “and due to its dimensions, the very act of painting, the calibration of color, the building up of layers, everything has been a challenge”.
The artist’s paintings have always encompassed a multitude of forms, sometimes broken down, at others allusive, and still others realistic. They still do. Investigations, Sometimes tentative ones, at others much bolder, continue to explore the realm of the concrete and the sensory this time as well. For him, meaning has never dwelt in any fixed form but always in the interstices between his layered scrims of paint, between its density and its transparency, introducing a realm beyond the visible.
At the same time, just as Ramesh’s palette in this show appears to have a higher temperature than in that of his earlier works, his images too have a certain urgency: both tend to belong to a nature transfigured somewhat towards symbolism. Thus the three fruit paintings in the show --- embodying something of a departure in terms of the rest of the works--- tend to drift towards the magnified and the hyper-real, even as they remain substantially allegorical.
The bananas in their three stages, go from their perfect pitch of youthful ripeness to rugged wear and tear, and lastly to the shriveled remains of a forlorn stalk, much like human life. The pomegranate and the jackfruit painting, each have a different emotional dynamic. The former emanates a mood of violence and violation, as a menacing warrior-like shadow in the background seems to cleave the air with a weapon. Slashed pomegranates tumble through space, splashing blood-like juices and scattering ruby-red seeds to the wind, in the process transfiguring the sense of menace into something edgy and alluring. The gleaming, dark green jackfruit meanwhile, almost manicured in its perfection, is replete with satiety, its pale flowers drifting aimlessly as if in the blaze of a burning summer afternoon. The artist’s ability to express subtle shades of violence in “Scattering Seeds,” the pomegranate painting, or inertia in “Scented Flesh”, the jackfruit work, or deterioration in “This is It”, the banana painting, conjure new and disturbing revisions of everyday materials and experience, transforming representative image into evocative metaphoric ones.
His current collection, an affirmation of the way he has painted these past many years, projects a particular mood, a realm of qualities hard to articulate but instantly experienced with the paintings before us. Though the works largely refer to literary figures and mystics in history who inhabit rich intellectual traditions, their writings and philosophies belong equally to mythic predilections as well as to instinctive and contemplative ones. His manipulations of internal space while using the image’s constituents are full of controlled accidents, of leitmotifs and visual stimuli that are interwoven in a fluid continuum of translucent overlays. Sometimes there’s a textual content, calligraphic markings that stray across the plane, somewhat like semaphore signals. In their spare, almost insinuated use, they acquire a resonance when conflated with the image. It is an image that is at once implied, at once accessible, and yet so frequently overlaid that sometimes one is not sure it had been there at all. More and more the artist’s communications are to be sought in the subtle codes of expression that are at the very core of his work Put another way, taking the literal and then abstracting it, is probably something like an act of meditation when one may begin with a concrete form or thought that then becomes evanescent and indescribable.
NotesThe title is a refrain from a poem by Annamaya (1424-1530), a major Telegu poet from Tirupati, who wrote within the context of temple worship. Though devotional in character, his writing often had an erotic cast, articulating passionate relationships between the devotee and his god.
 Believed to have been great devotee of Shiva, his stone image can be seen at the ancient Chidambaram Temple in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu