Return of the native

Print edition : June 29, 2012

"FLOATING SEEDS IN the Blowing Wind", 36" x 48", oil on canvas (2005).-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT "FLOATING SEEDS IN the Blowing Wind", 36" x 48", oil on canvas (2005).

Chicago-based Indian artist S.V. Rama Rao finds his way back to India and India's art for inspiration.

Every now and then a critic makes a new discovery. Seeing the work of Siramdasu Venkata Rama Rao was one such experience. Here was an artist born in a small town in Andhra Pradesh, Gudivada, in 1936, the year that saw the birth of some of the most powerful anti-imperialist organisations in the country, ranging from the All India Kisan Sabha to the Progressive Writers Association, which gave the national movement a turn that urged the sons and daughters of the soil not only to equal the colonial masters but also to surpass them in intellectual pursuits. Andhra Pradesh had a number of such sons and daughters P. Sundarayya, Nanduri Prasad Rao, Sarojini Naidu, Harindranath Chattopadhyay and K.L. Rao are a few of them. But then, as one learns, there are thousands of others waiting to be discovered with the passing of each year.

Rama Rao is one of them. But the curious thing is that each of them is far from being unknown. We discover them again and again because they are relevant to the changing times. In fact, Rama Rao won the Lord Croft Award for the best artist in the Commonwealth in 1962. Moreover, his lithographs were bought by the eminent art historian Sir Herbert Read, the Tate Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. He exhibited with leading artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Georges Bracque, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Jackson Pollock. He won recognition as an eminent art teacher in the United States. He was honoured with a Padma Shri by President K.R. Narayanan in 2001 and was mentioned by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in his 200th address to the Rajya Sabha in 2003. But one is yet to see an exhibition of his art works in a Delhi gallery though his works are displayed in the National Gallery of Modern Art.

"GREEN RIVER IN a Black Forest", 36" x 48", oil on canvas (2011).-

Rama Rao is an important exponent of our contemporary artistic tradition. Determined to be an artist, from the time he was 13, he studied under a local teacher, K. Venugopal. He then studied under the noted traditional artist K. Srinivasulu at Kalakshetra, Chennai. It was the reputed progressive art director Madhavapeddi Gokhale, who convinced his father, a woodcarver-turned-builder, that his son had the talent for art, and paved the way for his admission to the Madras School of Arts and Crafts, Chennai. There he met K.C.S. Panicker and began working in oils. This blend of training in folk art at Kalakshetra and modern expressionism under Panicker allowed him to assimilate different art traditions. He did not lose his originality despite being abroad for half a century. This is evident in the way he retains the horizontal flow in the figures of traditional fabric art of Andhra Pradesh in his expressionist oil painting of 1959, The Procession. Even today, the same winding flow of colour holds together his non-figurative works as coherent compositions.

S.V. RAMA RAO, an important exponent of the contemporary Indian artistic tradition.-

This is not the only element that he uses of his initial training in art in India in his contemporary non-figurative works. He treats oils with the same diaphanous translucence that he learnt from wash-painting techniques at the Madras School of Art. This allows him to evolve a certain element of three-dimensionality in two-dimensional space which is a specific feature of the Bengal School and provides a distinct element in his contemporary non-figurative works. Not so common in the West, this element of layering is popular with a number of our leading young artists today. The works of Rama Rao are early precursors of this approach, and hence are of interest to us today.

"AGNI", 36" X 48", oil on canvas (2011).-

Then there is his approach to colour. Equally at home with European pastel shades and the rich contrasts of primary colours of India's miniature tradition, he is an important colour-based non-figurative artist. His flowing forms allow him to evolve harmonies even of contrasting and clashing colours without repelling the eye. This has been compared to the colourful saris, flowers and jewellery worn by Indian women or the many colours of the tropical landscape; but it is different from that as his colours are representational of neither actual landscapes in or figures from life. They harmonise shapes and hues from the artist's experience of the world of pigment, reflecting relations in the artist's mind that emerge from years of painterly practice.

"FLOWING RIVER IN Red Earth", 36" x 48", oil on canvas (2011).-

The interconnections are those of the mind or of the epics, as his titles Kundalini Aroused, Blue Krishna Dancing with Gopikas, Agni and Churning the Ocean indicate. These works show that this expression is conceptually once removed from life but in terms of colour and texture closer to life than representational art. Kundalini Aroused clearly has a reference to the navel, but not a physical one as it conveys a process of spiritual fulfilment. But the flow of colour and the interlinked forms are profoundly material.

"KUNDALINI AROUSED", 36" x 48", oil on canvas (2011).-

This material basis of non-figurative art comes out clearly in other titles of his such as Flowing River in Red Earth, River in the Moonlight and Green River in a Black Forest, reminding one that the spirit is not divorced from the process of living.

"CHURNING THE OCEAN", 36" x 48", oil on canvas (2011).-

As one who has grown up beside the Krishna river and the undulating hills of Andhra, his flowing interlinkages should not surprise us. But they are conceptual, and not figurative at all.

"BLUE KRISHNA DANCING with Gopikas", 36" x 48", oil on canvas (2011).-

It is interesting how the art critic Kekoo Ghandy saw his work in 1965 in London and noted that though the work was unusual, it was far ahead of what was in demand in the Indian market. But today it is no longer so. There are a number of artists now like Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, V.S. Gaitonde, Sohan Quadri, Achuthan Kudallur, Shiv Lal and S.G. Vasudev whose works can be compared with his and appreciated in our art world. Moreover, gimmicks may take over fashionable galleries for a while. But it is the serious lifelong quest of an artist that perseveres. And it is this that has brought his work to notice at this time, when we are looking for art to stimulate our thoughts, to pose alternative paths, and create visual journeys across the world. India's art today offers that alternative. That is why an Indian professor of art schooled by artists like Panicker, D.P. Roy Choudhury, Bernard Cohen and Stanley Jones, after having taught at Tufts, Boston, Cincinnati and Western Kentucky, and living in a Chicago suburb, finds his way back to India and India's art for inspiration.

"BLACK FLAMES BURNING the Blue River", 36" x 48", oil on canvas (2011).-

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