At one point, in the short film, A Gathering at the Carnival Shop , which seeks to explore the inner world of K Ramanujam, C Douglas, the late artist’s colleague from the Cholamandal Artist’s Village, quotes the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s concept of the other side of life, which is death, and to which animals and children are more intimately connected than adults. “That is where Ramanujam always stayed,” he says, “So it was very difficult for you to get close to him”. Douglas then quotes TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men: “Is it like this in death’s other kingdom, waking alone, at the hour when we are trembling with tenderness.”
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Amrita Jhaveri discovered this 35-minute film while she was researching Ramanujam for an exhibition, the latest in a series of dialogues between artists, which is hosted at her gallery Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai. Jhaveri decided that the film, made by filmmaker Mochu (Mohanakrishnan Haridasan), needed to be a part of the exhibition, “Life in the Deep”, which offers a glimpse into the worlds of artists Ramanujam and Kaushik Chakravartty. “I felt the film provided the texture of the place and environment that Ramanujam worked in and therefore added another layer to the exhibition. Sadly, there is no such film that captures Kaushik’s world,” she says.
At one level, the two artists couldn’t have been more dissimilar, despite the fact that they were born only six years apart and were active in the 1970s. Chakravartty was born into an upper-middle class family. He had a hearing impairment, and his childhood was marked by turbulence due to his frustration at not being able to hear or speak. However, it was clear from early on that he had artistic talent and his parents, who had a lot of artist friends, were supportive of his ambitions.
Chakravartty’s journey as an artist saw him go from the Government College of Art & Craft in Calcutta to the College of Art in Delhi, from where he went on to the MS University in Baroda. Here, he studied under KG Subramanyan, experimenting in a way that he couldn’t have back in his more conservative Calcutta college. He eventually got a scholarship to study at the Ecole Nationale Superieure de Beaux-Arts in Paris, and while in Europe, he was exposed to the wider world of art through the many art museums. His life and career, however, were cut short by a car accident in Tanzania, when he was 31.
Ramanujam’s story was starkly different; he was born in Madras into a poor Brahmin family, and his stunted body and speech impediment made him a figure of ridicule. He suffered from schizophrenia and depression, and was ill-equipped for a conventional academic life. His mother noticed his love for drawing and sent him to the School of Arts and Craft in Madras, where he was mentored by the principal, KCS Paniker. Ramanujam eventually went on to live in the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, Chennai, where at the age of 33 he took his own life.
The fact that neither artist could fully be part of the ordinary experience of life had a profound impact on the works that they produced. One result was that both ended up working in some degree of isolation. Their works are intensely personal; fantastical and richly imaginative in how they chart their turbulent inner lives and their own way of relating to a world that they were so often out of step with.
Ramanujam’s drawings and paintings were deeply influenced by his love for Tamil and Hindi cinema. They show splendid worlds filled with fantastic beasts and crystal palaces. He often appears in these works himself as a hatted and mustachioed figure that is active and almost heroic, and in easy communion with the beautiful apsaras – a role he seldom had the chance to assume in real life. Chakravartty’s fantasies took a more abstract form. His influences were varied, combining the Chinese and Japanese traditions of painting in ink and scroll format with the concerns and approaches of American abstract expressionists and colour field painters. He grew increasingly fascinated with the idea of expressing the purest abstractions of form and colour inspired by nature and began working directly on unprimed canvas, using the texture to his advantage.
What affects the viewer the most, perhaps, is the energy in the works of these artists. They are alive with a vividness that one usually associates with fever dreams. In the film, Douglas says of Ramanujam that he was a “strange cartographer, with maps of maplessness”. It’s a description that suits both artists, who died young and whose works, so far, have received little recognition.
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