V Ramesh’s large-scale oils probe the ideas of devotion and transcendence through the poetry of medieval saints. The artist paints in layers and employs mythological and metaphorical imagery to translate philosophical abstractions into a language of colours and images. Twenty-four of his works from the past decade will be on view at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore, starting February 5, in what will be the prestigious State-run gallery’s first solo show in the city.
One recent painting tells the story of Kodhai or Andal, a 5th-century Tamil poetess who, tasked with delivering garlands to Lord Vishnu’s temple every day, first wore them herself. Another shows the emaciated image of Karaikkal Amma, who asked Shiva to turn her into a wraith so she could be free to worship him. Part of a large installation called ‘Sanctum Sanctorum: A Corner for Four Sisters’, these are intimate accounts of women who refused to conform and found god in their own way. Ramesh spoke to National Standard on the passion of the poets, classical music and other inspirations. Excerpts:
How did you come to discover and draw inspiration from mystical poetry?
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A large body of my work came about after a visit to Ramanasramam in Tiruvannamalai in 1998. That acted as a catalyst. It wasn’t an overnight change but it did change the way I looked at the world. It was there, in the ashram library, that I came across a whole lot of devotional poets. Since then, the images and poetry of Manikkavachakar, Karaikkal Ammaiyar, Akka Mahadevi, Lal Ded, and Andal, have figured in my work frequently. I have done four or five versions of all these poets. I would still like to paint them. I have changed and my whole way of painting them, articulating them, will also change.
My going to the ashram and my bhakti towards Ramana — I did a whole series on him, called Painted Hymns — is reflected obliquely through the works and the words of the poets. I had to translate this language into my language of colours and images. This is broadly the background that informs all my work.
Is this the first time you are showing your paintings in Bangalore?
I exhibited here ages ago — in 1991 at Sakshi Gallery, and before that in 1982 as a student at Venkatappa Art Gallery. This body of work is significant. I have shown it in Delhi and Bombay. Perhaps it is the right context for this work to be presented in Bangalore. I live in south India, in Vishakhapatnam, so it feels right to exhibit here. I think Bangalore is a much more happening place in terms of art than Hyderabad. Next year, hopefully, I will have a show in Washington and some of these works will be part of that, even if they will be viewed in a different context.
How have people interpreted and responded to your work?
Some have sat down in front of my paintings and cried. I think it is not important that you understand what a painting means. You may just view it and like it.
People are uncomfortable about the idea of devotion these days. Had I spoken about intellect, gender, sexuality, urban angst, it would have been different. This is something that you perhaps don’t know how to talk about. Devotion is not just about god. It is also a reverence for life, for our fellow humans, for all living beings, a kind of understanding of oneness and the realisation that we are not so different. All these are part of devotion. These ideas inform me as a painter. My images come through the filter of this held knowledge.
How many paintings do you complete in a year? Walk us through the process.
I take about eight months to a year for a single work. But I cannot afford to paint one canvas in a year, so I start four or five in parallel and when these are done, I move on.
Sometimes a word or a line I read can trigger off an image or a series of images. I start with that image but over a period of time, and when the painting is finished, it is quite possible that the image has changed totally. That image leads to the next image and therefore gets incorporated into the work in one of several layers. I let the canvas rest for six months and if I am still happy with it, only then do I know it is ready.
Do you paint with an audience in mind?
I would like people to respond to my work because I have a need to communicate in my own language. Having said that, there perhaps is an ideal audience we all have in mind, who will respond to things we are talking about, to own concerns. Today, people don’t have the time to pause for a second, to contemplate. I think that is very important, to take stock of life.
What else inspires you?
At any given time, I am reading half-a-dozen books. I also listen to a lot of Carnatic music, not because it talks of devotion but because it has certain parameters within which a musician must work and express his creativity. I am fascinated by this because I set my own boundaries by choosing to paint and not shoot a video or give a performance.
I have this friend who is a great singer — Sanjay Subramaniam. He once came and sang in my studio. I am hoping to meet him in Chennai and persuade him to be part of this space and sing. He is familiar with some of my work.