“How can I stop you from making me famous,” artist A. Ramachandran remarks wryly when I ask him for an interview. A legend in his field, Ramachandran is probably one of the most well-known living authorities on Indian art. This painter, musician, writer, teacher and sculptor has had several honours bestowed on him over the years, including the Padma Bhushan, Professor Emeritus at Jamia Millia Islamia University, and honorary chairmanship of Kerala Lalithakala Akademi. But he wears these honours lightly: always ready for an adda, he animatedly discusses every topic related to the art world–from the theft of Indian sculptures to the history of Indian art.
A. Ramachandran was born Achutan Ramachandran Nair in 1935 in Attingal, Kerala. After getting a Master’s degree in Malayalam literature, he did his Ph.D. in 1964 in art at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, under the legends Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij. His research on the murals of Kerala temples is an important work, not only describing them in meticulous detail but also identifying the time periods of their creation.
Ramachandran’s early art was distinctly political—his original sculpture of King Asoka installed at ITC Maurya, Delhi, in the 1980s led to protests since it referenced the Vietnam war. He had to create a more benign version later—a haunting sculpture of Asoka with his body covered with anti-war inscriptions, crippled hands and a look of utter dejection on his face. These days, Ramachandran’s art has evolved into peaceful images of brightly coloured lotus ponds and beautiful, traditionally-attired women that grace the homes of celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan.
In 1984, personal tragedies like almost losing vision in one eye, and the traumatic sighting of a Sikh man being chased by some 20 people during the anti-Sikh riots made him rethink his art. He decided that its purpose was not to make people more aware of sadness but to celebrate beauty. For inspiration, Ramachandran turned to the lotus ponds at Ubeshwar, Nagda, Jogi Talab and Ekalinji near Udaipur, Rajasthan, that are protected by the Bhil tribe, and to the resilient women of the Lohar community, who lived near his house in Delhi.
Among the most notable works from this period is a colossal mural consisting of 12 paintings, based on the story of Yayati from the Mahabharata, that he made for theatre personality and collector Ebrahim Alkazi. The work depicts sensual women and fantastical animals, befitting the story of a man who stole his son’s youth so that he could enjoy life forever. However, Alkazi didn’t like it because he felt it was unlike Ramachandran’s politically explicit works.
Yayati was shown for the second time in 2002—16 years after it was first created. By this time, Ramachandran’s signature nayikas and raginis, used in a nod to Indian miniature art, which dramatises Radha-Krishna’s story and personifies musical ragas as humans and gods, were more familiar to his audience.
The scale of his art is breathtaking: the images from his 2021 exhibition, Subaltern Nayika and Lotus Pond, were so colossal that they had to be exhibited at two separate locations, Triveni Kala Sangam and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi. His studio in Noida is colossal too, with walls that go up at least two floors and rollers set at the top to hold the huge canvases. I met him there for a freewheeling adda, which touched upon everything from paintings to nuclear bombs. Edited excerpts:
I’m fascinated by your nayikas. Where do they come from? Did they start with Yayati or with Nuclear Ragini?
They started with Nuclear Ragini, which came before Yayati. The painting was a political comment on the explosion of India’s first nuclear bomb in 1974. I knew two artists famous for their paintings on Hiroshima—Iri and Toshi Maruki. When I was 35-36, I went to Japan with my illustrated children’s book. The publishers introduced me to the Marukis, who were anti-nuclear activists. They had a museum showing the fallouts of the Hiroshima explosion. I had that in my mind when India exploded its nuclear bomb. I tried to fashion my paintings after the ragini miniatures and called them Raginis.
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But the ragini miniatures are based on ragas.
Yes. That’s why I called them Nuclear Raginis. It is a series of paintings that shows how a nuclear explosion can change all those beautiful men and women found in the ragini paintings, which usually present a couple, like Krishna and Radha, against a beautiful background of flowers and trees, birds and animals. They evoke a mood of music and love. These little things are going to disappear when a nuclear explosion happens is what I am trying to say in the series.
- A. Ramachandran is probably one of the most well-known living authorities on Indian art
- Did his Ph.D. in 1964 in art at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, under the legends Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij
- Ramachandran’s early art was distinctly political
- Ramachandran’s art has evolved into peaceful images of brightly coloured lotus ponds and beautiful, traditionally-attired women that grace the homes of celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan
- Nuclear Raginis. is one of his recent series, showing how a nuclear explosion can change all things beautiful
Are the women depicted in your recent series raginis too?
These aren’t raginis. These are nayikas, who are based on the Natyashastra. They depict Krishna and Radha’s love affair, as they fight and make up again. Radha’s change of moods has been defined as the different moods of a lover by the Natyashastra. When I use these references, my intention is to make Indians look back and connect.
I’m actually making a pun on the idea of the nayika. Most of the women in my paintings are seen doing ordinary things: one waits for a bus, another looks after goats.
I’m suggesting that these working-class women are as beautiful and sensuous as the heroines from a ragamala painting. They are my subaltern nayikas.
You’re the only male in these paintings.
I’m only a part of it. I am the narrator, like a sutradhar in a play. My function is to open up the stories starting from Yayati onwards. I’ve represented myself as a bird, a bat, a human being, a Gandharva: it’s like adding a signature. But the idea is also to suggest that I’m directing what is happening there. As a creator, I have a role to play in that canvas.
I’ve evolved a kind of a personal iconography taken from Tibetan thangkas.
What was the Indian conception of art before the British arrived with their idea of individual artists?
We had art. We had miniatures, we had wall paintings, paintings on cloth, many of which had religious themes. There were great painters in the Mughal courts; Nathdwara art flourished till the end of the 19th century. There was art, but it was patronised by the rich while folk art remained in the domain of ordinary people. That was the only difference.
What is the relationship of the ordinary person to art?
You go to Udaipur and find regular houses painted in beautiful colours. The problem with art courses is that it has ignored Indian art history and is teaching what is happening in New York or Paris. For whom is it meant?
Folk styles like Gond, Warli are still there but they never made it to the mainstream...
Today everybody talks about folk art but we don’t remember the people who brought it to the forefront. Bhaskar Kulkarni had done fundamental research, travelling on a bicycle, discovering Madhubani art; Jivya Soma Mashe (1934-2018) popularised Warli tribal art. Only people who write books are remembered while those who do the field work are forgotten.
People in power eliminate factions they don’t like. Like the Bengal School. It took us a long time to write about Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij, hold exhibitions and showcase their work.... You can block history but you cannot hide facts. I believe that the Bengal School is a very important development in Indian art. The “Progressives” sidestepped it and brought in the so-called modernists—it destroyed any possibility of having a modern Indian language in art.
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What are your inspirations?
I developed as an artist by studying many levels of life. One, I learnt from Santiniketan how to look at life. Another is art history, the study of how other artists used their special abilities in their works of art. Third is the kind of statements you want to make. You integrate all that into your practice.
Who are your biggest influences?
Ramkinkar Baij was my first. Nandalal Bose came at a later stage: because he was more intellectual and a little detached, it took me time to understand him. So was Benode Behari Mukherjee, but he was easier than Nandalal. Nandalal never worked without purpose, making studies and sketches for everything from a toy or an alpana design to a mural.
At the same time, geography inevitably determines a style of art. Kerala murals are stylistically different because they absorbed local imageries, colours, even food habits. I believe an individual artist should have the culture of his roots in his work. Only then he is authentic.
Ritika Kochhar is the author of the fantasy series Weapons of Kalki, and an expert on South Asian art and culture.