Achuthan's journey

Published : Jan 13, 2012 00:00 IST

Achuthan Kudallur. Like most painters, he began his artistic journey with figurative works, including line drawings. - PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Achuthan Kudallur. Like most painters, he began his artistic journey with figurative works, including line drawings. - PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Achuthan Kudallur, the reputed abstractionist, is one of those artists who get their teeth into their idiom through sheer intuition.

WHEN the artist Achuthan Kudallur, along with the poet Manushyaputhiran, appeared on a Tamil television show and talked on the Mullaperiyar dam issue a few weeks ago, he established that sensitive artists, with their concern for the external world and people, can play a critical role in society. The Chennai-based Achuthan has been active on the national art scene for the past 30 years and has emerged as an internationally reputed abstractionist.

The art historian Ernst W. Koelnsperger of Munich records: You have the impression that his pictures are breathing, that they can be recognised like pulsars from a faraway colourful yet always systematic world nearby. Kudallur definitely is one of the few international artists who have retained in their pictures the colourful vivacity of the cosmos' and cosmos' being the Greek word for gem' in the sense of diversity. The luminous power of his absolute colours gives an almost mythical power to his pictures, which seem to come from inside, and we here very clearly see the relationship with the term cosmos' as medieval philosophers used it.

Except for the evening classes Achuthan attended at the Government College of Fine Arts in Madras (now Chennai), he has had no formal education in art. (The Madras Art Club, which functioned until 1980, conducted evening classes for aspiring artists and also prepared those who wanted to join the institute for regular courses.) Clearly, Achuthan is one of those artists who get their teeth into the idiom they handle through sheer intuition. In 1972, K.C.S. Panikkar and Sultan Ali were selecting paintings of members of the Madras Arts Club to be exhibited in the annual show conducted by the British Council. Two works of Achuthan were chosen, a watercolour and a drawing in crayon. That was his first show.

Like most painters Achuthan began his artistic journey with figurative works, including line drawings. He did many illustrations for magazines and book covers, which incidentally brought modern art closer to readers unfamiliar with the idiom. It was a time when he was nursing a desire to be a writer in Malayalam. In fact, his short stories appeared in Malayalam magazines such as Kalakaumudi, Anveshanam and Sameeksha. He would often think of the pictorial possibilities of what he read. When he read Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis, one of his favourite authors, the scene in which Zorba is holding on to a window, digging his nails into the sill and looking at the hills beyond and then just dropping dead made a big impact on Achuthan. He wondered whether he could capture that moment on canvas, but he could not think of ways to bring out visually the emotional dimensions of the scene.

Many modern artists have experienced this sense of slippage between word and feeling. But Achuthan did produce many works that captured the spirit of the subject. I recall the cover drawing titled Dark Interiors he did for a government report on job opportunities for visually handicapped people. India Today (Malayalam) carried drawings of well-known artists to illustrate short stories. Achuthan's drawings illustrated stories by Paul Zachariah and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer.

During this figurative phase, he produced some disturbing images of alienation and fear. One such memorable work is an oil painting titled The Song for the Dead, now in the collection of Neville Tully. It has been used on the cover of the English translation of M.T. Vasudevan Nair's anthology of short stories titled The Demon Seed and Other Writings. The English version of Asokamithran's famed novel The Eighteenth Parallel had Achuthan's drawing on the cover.

But in a few years, he got bored with figurative work. He found painting a figure or two and then balancing the background as the space demanded monotonous. He termed it object-space paradigm and found that it was becoming formulaic. This realisation pushed him away from the world of figures and towards abstraction. This was a turning point in his artistic career. However, he points out that abstraction is a natural extension of figurative work. The general sense of ferment that prevailed in the south in those years in art and literature facilitated this transition on the part of Achuthan.

Colour dominates

In the first one-man show he held, in 1977 at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Chennai, he exhibited a few figurative paintings but the others were abstract works through which his mature art began appearing. When he moved to abstraction from figurative paintings, colour was his primary concern. In each of his paintings, one colour dominates, particularly red. Gita Hudson, a Chennai-based artist and film-maker, made a 35-minute documentary on Achuthan titled Red Symphony.

When he moved from figurative to abstract work, he was not clear about the possibilities. For him it was uncharted territory, where more challenges awaited him in terms of colour and space. During this early phase, some of his paintings were reminiscent of certain aspects of nature, such as the bark of a tree or a rocky surface. He found it difficult to get rid of this likeness at first, but was able to achieve that in time. Now he confidently states that his kind of abstraction does not try to report nature and that it has an autonomous existence of its own, in colour. For him, it is not a mutilated version of nature but something that comes from within. Even his figurative works are not from nature. He would describe them as expressionistic.

Achuthan has an important place in the development of an abstract idiom in India. When abstractionism blossomed in the Madras Art Movement in the 1970s, through the works of Achuthan, K.M. Adimoolam and V. Viswanathan, critics did not notice it much as the vocabulary to deal with abstract art did not exist in Madras at that time. Achuthan was one of the early painters, along with V.S. Gaitonde and S.H. Raza, to show the rest of the world, particularly in the 1970s, that there was indeed a vibrant abstract school in India. Critics outside India were surprised by these paintings and the modernism and contemporariness that they represented. Achuthan points out that it is not correct to say that abstraction was brought in from the West. There has always been a streak of abstraction in Indian painting, and he cites examples from Ajanta and the Sittannavasal frescos. He says he sees an element of abstraction controlling these murals, not in thematic content but in the placing of shapes and in breaking the picture plane.

Born in 1945 in Kudallur in Palakkad district in Kerala where his father was a schoolteacher, Achuthan grew up in a village where the rivers Bharathapuzha and Kunthipuzha meet. Electricity came to the village only in 1960. But there was a lot of light owing to the vast expanse of sky over the river. While in school, Achuthan started drawing, and some of his pictures were exhibited on school day. Although he secured the first rank in the school, the family could not afford to send him to college. The erosion created by the river had caused losses to the family property. He got a diploma in civil engineering and moved to Chennai in 1964. Achuthan realised that it would be a dead-end career and so joined evening classes to get an AMIE (Associate Member of the Institution of Engineers) certificate. He could not finish that course and joined the Railways where he worked for nine months. Then a regular job in the Public Works Department of the Tamil Nadu government came his way. Assured of a regular income, Achuthan continued his inner search. The opportunities Chennai offered to be in touch with artists, watch films and go to concerts made him give up promotions and stay on in the city.

Sitting on the terrace of his Neelankarai house, not far from the seafront, I have had many interesting conversations with Achuthan. Although rather taciturn, he is fascinating when he gets talking. He has remained single not by default; he has well-thought-out reasons for the life he has chosen. He says: Most of them [marriages] exist on the anxiety of tomorrow. I am not against that kind of life but I could not fit into that routine.

Achuthan responds intensely to literature, music and films. He can talk comfortably about contemporary Tamil and Malayalam writers in addition to his English favourites. At one stage in his life, he was deeply engaged with the subject of suicide. But one reading of Albert Camus' Rebel changed his life. Now he believes that what is important is the intensity of life. It is a great experience to watch films with him and discuss them later. His participation in the Film Appreciation course at the Pune Film Institute has honed his perception of cinema. He is familiar with the works of masters, in India and abroad. After seeing a great film, you are not the same person, he says. Such a film creates a new awareness in you of life and the world.

He often discusses music in the context of abstract painting. It is not literature, he points out, but music that he would compare with abstract art. Artists handle colour in an abstract work the same way musicians handle sound. We have two musical traditions Hindustani and Carnatic that are very abstract. We enjoy this music not so much for the lyrics as for the patterns of the sound created.

After nearly 10 years, Achuthan will hold a one-man show at the Vinnyasa Premier Art Gallery, Chennai, from January 5 to 15, 2012. Since his first show in Chennai in 1977, he has held 23 one-man exhibitions all over the country, the last being in Kochi in 2010. This is in addition to the several group exhibitions he has participated in, in India and other countries.

Awards have come his way: the Tamil Nadu Lalit Kala Akademi award in 1982, the National Academy Award in 1988 and nomination as a commissioner for the 10th Indian International Triennial in 2001. His works are sold at Sotheby's and Christie's (both in London), and he maintains his stature as an internationally respected abstract artist, prolific and fecund.

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