Floral canvas

Published : Feb 24, 2012 00:00 IST

Rumale Chennabasaviah at work. He was largely self-taught.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Rumale Chennabasaviah at work. He was largely self-taught.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Rumale Chennabasaviah's paintings celebrate the vibrant colours of Bangalore's arboreal canopy.

IN Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk's novel My Name is Red, one of the characters, a painter of miniatures, lays out a proposition on the meaning of painting in three linked statements:

Alif: Painting brings to life what the mind sees, as a feast for the eyes.

Lam: What the eye sees in the world enters the painting to the degree that it serves the mind.

Mim: Consequently, beauty is the eye discovering in our world what the mind already knows.

It is apt to recall this brief passage as we enter the wondrous world of Rumale Chennabasaviah, a painter whose work was on exhibit at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Bangalore. Rumale specialised in painting landscapes and had a distinct style of his own. He celebrated the splendour of the many flowering trees of the Garden City; he sought beauty in them. His keen eye must have discovered in the flowering trees what his restless mind already knew as beauty.

After a hectic and rich life kept him away from his beloved art, Rumale, once he found his muse, settled down and dedicated the rest of his life to painting. Born in 1910, Rumale began practising painting in a passionate way when he was 52 years old. An intensely spiritual man, painting was a form of meditation for him. With his death in 1988 in an accident, the city lost its meticulous visual archivist.

Rumaleji was someone who gave his everything to any activity that he took up. He gave his 200 per cent, said Sanjay Kabe, Rumale's foster-grandson and the person responsible for the Rumale Art Gallery in Bangalore. The gallery provided most of the works that were on display at the NGMA. Rumale was involved in many activities through his life before he took to painting full time in 1962, a passion that he had forsaken for much of his adult life. With a strong service ethos egging him on, he was active in the freedom struggle from 1930 onwards. He was one of the earliest satyagrahis from the Old Mysore region and was at one point imprisoned along with Jawaharlal Nehru.

Independent India saw him work with the Seva Dal, a grass-roots organisation of the Congress, in Mysore. Says Kabe: His immense political experience made him a close associate of almost all the major leaders of the Mysore State [as Karnataka was known until 1973] and he was also a Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) but he chose to relinquish all this for his singular pursuit of painting.

Rumale discovered his talent early on and even attended an art school in Bangalore and Mysore where he started painting landscapes until he was 20 years old. But he got sucked into the freedom movement. Painting sporadically for the next 30 years, he continued to be loosely associated with artists and even helped set up the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishad. Some of his paintings from the 1940s and 1950s, such as Pump Shed (1947) and Karighatta Hills (1952), show how even through his busy political life, he found time to paint. In 1966, he was to do one of his most well-known paintings, Reflections, Hampi. The painting, vibrant and bursting with dazzling colours, is where we see his concentration on trees.

Through the 1960s to the 1980s, Rumale continuously painted the flowering trees of Bangalore. The trees have been planted in such a way that at any time of the year a visitor to the city will find an abundance of blooms. In his book Blossoms of Bangalore, T.P. Issar has written: The blossoms of Bangalore can be seen as a poet-painter's symphony with their planned occurrence through the seasons, building up the mood and anticipating what the eye will see as the year unfolds itself.

Among the flowering trees that Rumale painted, we find the jacaranda, whose bursting canopies of mauve and yellow paint the landscape in the winter and spring. The season also sees the tabebuias break out into spasms of multi-hued effulgence. The tabebuias' blossoms in pink, mauve and scarlet last only for a few weeks but their breathtaking beauty leaves a lasting image.

The summer sees the gulmohur set the city aflame with its fiery red delicate boughs making one forget that for the rest of the year they recede into a dull sullenness. The gulmohur enjoys a brief glory when its blossoms cover the ground beneath with a scarlet carpet. The hot months are also the time when the pink cassias bloom in their fuschian glory. The monsoon and the winter bring with them their own special colours, the fragrant champak in mild yellow, the tulip tree's scarlet-orange blossoms and the pale white flowers of the pagoda tree, though these did not form a part of Rumale's gaze.

The variety of flowering trees found in Bangalore is amazing. Almost all of them are not native to the city. A walk through Lalbagh, the impressive garden and park, will give one an idea of the immense variety of world regions represented in this 240-acre (96-hectare) space. Established by Hyder Ali in 1760, the garden was expanded by his son Tipu Sultan, who imported exotic species of plants from around the world for planting in the garden.

The British horticulturist John Cameron contributed significantly to the development of the work and so did the German horticulturist G.H. Krumbiegel, who came to Lalbagh in 1908 and was appointed Director of Horticulture of the princely state of Mysore in 1928. The flowering trees constitute the magnificent canopy of Lalbagh. The park was Rumale's favourite spot. One of his significant works on Lalbagh is a large watercolour called Spring Season, Lalbagh (1968).

The trees became a part of Rumale's oeuvre and he captured them in his bold brushstrokes in the mediums of oils and watercolours. Rumale had said: It is in Bangalore during the spring that you appreciate the beauty of colour. A large watercolour collage of K.R. Circle from 1979 stands out for its sheer size. Tejswi Jain, Assistant Curator at the NGMA, says: Even the masters of landscape art have not painted such large watercolour landscapes. K.R. Circle has changed significantly from that time when dense flowering foliage of tabebuias and jacarandas surrounded this central location in the city in a bountiful way.

The dazzling oil paintings Flame of the Forest (1980) and Gul Mohur (1987) show how Rumale could vividly depict these trees. The wildly growing bougainvillea with its vibrant spread forms part of two large canvases Bougainvillea on Sri Nagappa Alva's Residence, Bangalore (1973) and Bougainvillea on St. Peter's Seminary, Malleswaram, Bangalore (also from 1973). Watercolours of jacaranda trees set off against the rust-coloured High Court building from the 1980s also attest to the beauty of the arboriculture surrounding this majestic monument and the adjoining Cubbon Park. Another large watercolour, Tree in Blossom, Bal Bhavan, Cubbon Park (1975), depicts the scene at the entrance of the toy train railway station in the park. Edward's Statue, Cubbon Park (1976), another fine work, is also set in the famous park. One of the major challenges of landscape painting is to capture the prevailing and fleeting mood of the moment, and Rumale does this best in his mesmerising oil painting Varna Mythri (1967). This painting also lent its name to the NGMA exhibition.

It is difficult to evaluate Rumale's work in the context of art in India as there is no extensive documentation of artists who worked out of Karnataka in his time, but, according to Kabe, he was the first freelance artist in modern Karnataka as he painted independently without any administrative roles or institutional support.

In his curatorial note, K.S Srinivasa Murthy writes: Rumale was largely self-taught. He has demonstrated through his artworks and his own life that art is an integral part of life and not an exclusive, elitist activity. Through such sensitive gestures Rumale has demystified art and made it more democratic than could be possible in his time.

While his work is often compared with that of Vincent van Gogh, Rumale himself said in a rare interview that he was self-taught but had collected the prints of English landscape artists such as William Turner, John Constable and Peter de Wint.

Rumale was honoured with the Karnataka Lalitakala Academy Award in 1972.

Before Bangalore acquired a permanent spot on the global map as the Silicon Valley of India, the city was known for its gardens and tree blossoms. Rumale captured the soul of the Garden City and saved its beauty for posterity. Rumale's works will be on exhibit at NGMA New Delhi and Mumbai, too.

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