One of India's finest painters, A. Ramachandran and his lust for the Lotus
This was the first painting I ever came across by A. Ramachandran. I was mindlessly browsing through Google Arts and Culture, hoping to find some South Indian representation when I stumbled upon this incredible wonder of a painting. Titled “Incarnation”, it displays a woman holding a flower bud in a pincer grasp- 1/28th of a mudra in itself. Ramachandran quite clearly enjoys cheekily inserting himself into several of his paintings, and this one is a fine example of that. He pageants himself in the form of a tortoise, which is also the incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu. There is no doubt that this painting widened my peepers and piqued my curiosity, thus acting as a window into a lifetime’s worth of his brilliant artwork.
Born in the south Indian state of Kerala in 1935, Achyutan Ramachandran received a Master's degree in Malayalam literature from Kerala University in 1957. He joined Kala Bhavana at Viswa Bharati University (founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan, West Bengal) to study art under masters like Nandalal Bose and Binode Behari Mukherjee. The cultural and intellectual milieu of Santiniketan drew him closer to the art traditions of India and other eastern civilizations, and thus began his lifelong research on the mural paintings of Kerala temples.
Ramachandran grew up with an intimacy with nature, where in his childhood, he would skip across paddy fields, finding his way to local temples, truly absorbing his surroundings, partaking in the daily rituals of a culturally rich town and, at the same time, imagining his own personal canvas. This left a mark on his fertile young mind. When he got to Santiniketan, his teacher, Ramkinkar Baij would instruct students to “go out to nature and sketch,”, which is what Ramachandran had been preparing for for all of his nonage. His love for nature emulates itself in landscapes richly encrusted with flora and fauna motifs.
After studying at Santiniketan, unlike most of his contemporaries, Ramachandran didn’t go abroad to find his artistic anchoring. He joined Jamia Millia University, New Delhi as a lecturer in art education in 1965. His rich body of work — spanning five decades — includes sculptures, water colours, ink and colour drawings, miniature paintings, illustrations for children’s books, stamps, ceramics and writings.
There’s always a lot to look at in Ramachandran’s work. His artistic career and style has been split into a diptych, much like the shock of white hair on his head. In his formative years, Ramachandran was utterly disturbed by the sights he witnessed at Santiniketan, and for years afterwards felt compelled to depict the misery and human suffering he saw around him. Political and social turmoil were a significant influence, with Ramachandran often painting tortured human beings, faceless people and violated bodies, in the belief that his art somehow needed to depict the world’s dark realities.
However, the marked shift in his artistic style, from dark and tortured to calming and harmonious was by dint of a disturbing killing he witnessed from his terrace at home in Delhi. It dawned upon him that day, that art cannot change political violence; at the very most, art can capture it. This incident urged him to cease to be political in his art, and instead, Ramachandran decided to make works that were pleasant, and had the ability to heal. And thus began his waltz with the lotus flower.
Inspired by the natural environment and people of rural areas outside Udaipur in Rajasthan and saddened by its gradual disappearance, Ramachandran continued to create an imaginary universe that bestows them the beauty, pristineness, and permanence he wished for them. He calls his work autobiographical in nature- his ideologies, artistic musings and family & friends all make an appearance in his art.
Ramachandran believes his lotus paintings speak for his fervent adoration of the natural world. For someone who spent over twenty years painting political, expressionist art, he sure is irked by the belief that all art is political and evokes this sentiment when he says, “Van Gogh didn’t do any political work. His ‘Sunflowers’ is greater than Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. ‘Guernica’ didn’t end any world war. There is still a war going on.” He staunchly believes that art doesn't need to be vocal, and that a quiet work can affect millions as well.
When someone claims that “all art is political,” it implies that all art is sending political messages, whether one notices them or not. The subtle corollary is that some of the art you think you love actually has a political stance that you wouldn’t agree with if you realized what it was. It covertly undermines one’s trust in the art they assumed was simply beautiful and suggests that it may actually be glorified propaganda. The chief function of art is to awaken our awareness and make us desire for that which is transcendent. It deals with themes, with feeling, with beauty — things far deeper than politics. Art affects us at a profound level, more powerful but less specific than a message. To see art as fundamentally a vehicle for political messages is to turn the grand function of art into something much more shallow.
Several of Ramachandran’s paintings display lotus stems emerging from his belly button, presumably indicating his undying, umbilical attachment to flora. He believed that as an artist, the more one contemplates in and among nature, the more they understand that there is another universe where humans are superfluous. It isn’t something that can be explained or contextualised in an urban environment. He speaks of a spiritual feeling we experience when we are in nature, “looking at not just the lotus but also its leaves, the insects that make them their home, the fungi in the water...we don’t have that kind of perception. We only want to cut flowers.”
The lotus subject is also one that evokes great affection among Hindu and Buddhist mythology. The lotus pond is representative of creation and cosmic renewal. It also represents purity as its flowers grow on long stalks, which are rooted in the mud. Symbolic of detachment as drops of water may easily slide off its petals, the lotus pond is truly a metaphor for our species’ innate ability to overcome adversity. In the best of Ramachandran’s works, these two worlds — the real and the mythic — begin to mesh. One has the sense of looking at something real through the lens of imagination and experience.
A. Ramachandran’s most recent painting was registered in 2018. I wonder if he has anything lined up for 2021. If yes, what may these works of art have to say about the current state of human affairs?