Friday, Dec 09, 2022

Tantric geometry

Long before Indian art made waves in international galleries, his abstract idiom had made Paris sit up and take notice. A look at Velu Viswanadhan’s remarkable journey, from lush green Kerala to the inner structure of things

When priests in his village at Kollam, Kerala, summoned gods through the arcs and curves of a mandala, Velu Viswanadhan, then a child fighting pangs of hunger, watched in quiet wonder. Years later, his canvas still chants those cosmic diagrams—the circle that inscribes chaos and colours, the triangle that holds in its dark hollow the seed of creation— through a strikingly individual idiom.

It was a language that made Paris sit up and take notice in the late 1960s, decades before Indian art would become the toast of international galleries. “I went to Paris with a baggage of tantric images, geometrical forms and symbols,” Viswanadhan commented a few years ago. That baggage was the alphabet in his quest for an indigenous language of abstraction. In Delhi last week for an exhibition of his early works, titled Early Years, he said, “The baggage will always remain with me. I grew up amid those who practised tantric rituals and the influence of geometric forms on my earlier works came from there. I later realised that these forms have the same meaning everywhere.”

But before the rave reviews in Paris came years of struggle. The rebellious son of the Vishwakarma clan—of sculptors, architects, idol-makers, the legendary builders of the world—was branded a “communist” and expelled from Sree Narayana College, Kollam, after he led a strike against the college’s decision to disqualify students who did not have the requisite attendance. The study of political science and economics ended there. Instead, he knocked on the doors of Government College of Arts and Crafts, Madras, a decision that led his furious father to disown him.

In June 1960, he left for Chennai. There he met K.C.S. Panicker, the principal of the college and the artist who steered an entire generation towards new ways of seeing. Driven by Panicker to “find his own expression” the artist with a wild mop of hair soon turned from figurative works to a tantric vocabulary of lingams and yonis and nudes inspired by Picasso (Agony, Orange Nudes and Music of Silence). “I wanted to explore things; it was more like researching. I was a daredevil of sorts,” he says of those years.

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In 1966, he was part of a small group that set up the Cholamandalam Artists’ Village near Chennai, again under the aegis of Panicker. “Panicker was worried that his students might deviate from art due to financial compulsions. Cholamandalam gave them the security,” says Viswanadhan.

By the time he set off for Europe, Viswanadhan had crafted a distinctive style. He landed in Paris in 1968, without a return ticket. “How I would come back to India was not my concern at that point. I wanted to travel and discover,” he says. He wanted the freedom of the exile. A year later, he simply sauntered into the Galerie de France and demanded that his work be shown. The courage did the trick. Viswanadhan had arrived.

In the French capital, his art acquired more sophistication. He used nudes as canvas and broke new ground with his material—blending turpentine with stamp ink and oil colours, watercolours with oil and acrylic with oil surfaces. Geometric figures gained dominance. Squares, rectangles, hexagons, triangles and bold lines of colours created a mesh that sometimes evoked the innocence of a hopscotch diagram, sometimes the primordial energy of a jagged cave. In doing so, he was pushing the limits of Indian art. “He was extremely bold to have taken to abstract (art) when not many in the country were experimenting with it… His works of the ’60s and the ’70s have a contemporary feel. Even today, the amount of energy they exude is commendable,” says Chennai-based artist Achuthan Kudallur.


The move towards abstraction was also a move away from religious connotations and labels. The works were mostly untitled. “I didn’t want to condition people to view the painting in a particular way by giving them a title,” he says.

But look hard and you’ll find the artist’s origins woven into the geometry of his art. “His paintings reflect his struggle in Paris and the dilemmas that he faced as a young artist abroad… The tantric imagery, deep reds and greens remind one of Kerala, his home state. Unlike several other artists, his abstracts do not have a mechanical precision,” says art critic Roobina Karode.

Then came a near-fatal car accident in Germany in 1976, which steered his career to another direction: films. A series of five films on the five elements — earth, water, fire, air, ether—shot around the coasts of India helped him explore his roots. He plans to revisit the places to film them again.


The maverick artist has also moved on; now it’s his turn to face the camera. He is the subject of Chennai-based independent filmmaker Kalairani’s documentary Matter is the Matter, scheduled for release in July. “The film will showcase Viswa as a person and not merely an artist. He is wacky, fun and at the same time level-headed and that’s what makes him interesting,” says the debutante filmmaker. So she has the veteran artist speaking about his passion for theatre and even dancing to drumbeats in Chennai.

How was it to face the arc lights outside galleries? “Nice,” he chuckles. “During my theatre days people asked me what I was doing in art when I should have been in Bollywood… I might have given Amitabh Bachchan some competition.” Whether cinema might have missed a star is debatable, but Indian art sure has found an artist of pure form — one who looks away from objects into the inner structure of things.

First published on: 05-05-2007 at 03:06:20 pm
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