Many years ago, when Aji VN was invited by his friend, the sculptor Valsan Kolleri, to the latter’s home to watch a theyyam performance, he received what he felt was divine communication. The ritual dance form from Kerala is centred around Muthappan, an incarnation of Shiva. It is believed that the artiste who performs as the deity becomes invested with divine power. It is not uncommon for devotees to seek blessings from him, and, that day, Aji queued up to seek an audience, too. When his turn finally came, the artist asked for his blessings. He recalls: “Muthappan told me that what I’m doing is akin to mountaineering.
And then, he said two things: One, that even when one is going uphill, there will be dips in the road where one has to go down for a while. The other thing he said was that when I reach the peak, I’ll see that there is another, bigger mountain behind it, of whose existence I would be completely unaware of until that moment. I would have to climb this mountain too, and it would go on in this way”.
Aji is telling me this story to explain why, after 15 years of making drawings, he has started painting again. The Rotterdam-based artist opened his third solo exhibition at Galerie Mirchandani and Steinruecke in Mumbai on August 8. It showcases oil paintings that he has done over the last four years. “I found in my art what Muthappan had told me that day all those years ago,” he says, “I began focusing on drawings 15 years ago, because I felt that was the only way I could resolve some artistic issues. I made one drawing, and then I realised that I would have to make another to understand more. It went on and on like that for years. You keep thinking that the next step is the final step, but it never comes. That is how it is with art.”
It was at a retrospective of his works at the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam in the Netherlands, that Aji resolved that his next step would be to make oil paintings. Over the last decade and a half, the 48-year-old has built a reputation for the mysterious beauty of his works. Mostly drawn with charcoal on coloured paper, with the occasional watercolour on paper, the works are imbued with the contrasting qualities of serenity and churn, longing and quiet contemplation, strength and fragility. This potential for multiple interpretations is what appealed to artist Jitish Kallat and led him to invite Aji to participate in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, when he curated it in 2014-15. “Aji’s enigmatic interior dreamscapes possess hybrid topographical features that could at once appear tropical or glacial; they could invoke the high mountains, but could also appear sub-oceanic, depending on the viewer’s interpretation. They seem to at once summon imagery from earth’s primordial past or of a post-human apocalyptical future,” he says over email.
These very qualities have been articulated just as beautifully in his newer work. These are the mythical landscapes of the artist’s imagination, built out of his memories of a childhood spent in Kerala and the longing that arises out of having spent the last 17 years in the Netherlands.
Aji says the landscapes just grow out of him. “There is no reference for them, but I study nature closely and I observe how things grow out of the earth. I wanted the trees and shrubs to look like the real ones, but I also wanted to convey a sense of unreality, that these landscapes are actually in little glass houses. It’s like how Piero della Francesca (the Renaissance painter) didn’t like to paint from living subjects because then all the problems of the living would appear in the artwork as well,” he says.
His landscapes give the sense of having been grown inside terrariums, but they also come across as little capsules of memories. His earliest memory is of drawing in the courtyard of his house in the village of Kallissery in Kerala’s Alappuzha district. Like any other child, he would draw what he saw around him — the river, village ponds, birds flying home to roost at sunset, the coconut trees swaying in the wind and the hills in the distance. Aji went on to get a BFA in painting from the College of Fine Arts in Trivandrum in 1991, and a Master’s Degree in the College of Art in Delhi in 1995. In 1997, he participated in a cultural exchange programme with the Netherlands, during the course of which he met his wife, the Dutch artist Juul Kraijer. They married in 2000, and settled down in the Netherlands. Aji believes the move instilled in him a greater sense of discipline. “I feel I arrived very late professionally. When I was working in India, I didn’t even have a proper studio. Netherlands has a history of studio practice; artists go to their studios at nine in the morning and work till evening. Until you have such a system in place, you wait for inspiration to come to you,” he says.
When this inspiration comes, it can take one in a new direction altogether, like a return to a skill long unused. It’s hard to believe when one sees the works on display at the ongoing exhibition, but Aji says that when he went back to oil painting four years ago, he almost had to start from scratch. “You learn all these techniques, but then you have to unlearn much of what you have learnt so that you can pursue your own artistic vision. And I had already done my unlearning. I had lost the feel for colours, brushstrokes and I had to catch up. It took me four years to re-learn everything and get to the stage where all the new information would flow freely,” he says. And, like Muthappan predicted years ago, when this particular mountain has been climbed, there are other peaks waiting to be conquered.