He is a multifaceted artist with a wide range of interests from painting to printmaking, digital imagery, music, dance, drama, philosophy and architecture. He initiated his career with a figurative language established through the medium of painting, transited to computer-generated digital work and is now into total abstraction. The Chennai-based N. Srinivasan started his artistic journey inquiring into the world of traditions and culture to make it integral to his art-making. When he was exposed to the possibility of generating art through the medium of computers, he studied and practised the related software and created a body of work between 2005 and 2009.
With characteristic humility, he speaks about his art, inspirations, traditions and philosophy, manifesting pragmatism tinged with a metaphysical perspective arising out of his interest in Saiva Siddhanta philosophy. Consistently over the past decade, from 2005 to 2015, Srinivasan, who teaches drawing and history of architecture at the School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University, has assiduously and intelligently worked through his philosophical and cultural concepts to create a large body of work. His latest suite of paintings, titled “Ekantha”, marks a turn to abstraction which he has painted through a technique known as “ekantha”, or the space of silence in the mind, created through a process of erasures of memories. Computer-generated/manipulated digital art was not a favoured medium with many young artists in Chennai, particularly in the early years of 2000. Yet, Srinivasan, emerging from the matrix of tradition, sought new directions, experiments and explorations, confidently taking the bold initiative of engaging with digital technology.
To comprehend Srinivasan’s works that articulate his sights and sounds of tradition, one needs to look back to his younger days and the impact made on his impressionable mind. This developed his sensibility to tradition but with a difference. In his native town of Rajamannargudi, he had breathed art, appearing in various forms from painted domestic exterior walls, murals in temples, terracotta artefacts and sculptures in stone. The experiences and memories of his early visual education served him well when he joined the Government College of Arts and Crafts for an Integrated Course in Painting in 1991. He graduated in 1996 equipped with technical skills in oils, watercolours, pen-and-ink sketches and with a firm grip on drawing.
After graduation, his love for traditional art and culture motivated him to research the historical temple town of Thanjavur, with its beauty of profound and dynamic temple architecture and its thriving agrarian communities. The motif of the ubiquitous farmer, whom he made a heroic protagonist, and emerald green paddy fields enthralled his vision, celebrating a life that was deeply and spiritually connected to the soil. These nostalgic forays into Thanjavur and other villages signified his profound attachment to a simple life pervaded by the Saivite philosophy, interesting terrain, arts and performances, and these became semantically significant in his works.
In 1998, Srinivasan began engaging with the medium of the computer to articulate forms and imageries. At a lecture on this subject, it was vehemently emphasised that any profession could be a “computer-enabled profession”. This marked the beginning of his creative trajectory into the virtual world, which posed challenges but simultaneously offered a versatility of approach that decided for him an exclusive journey in this medium.
His works produced between 2005 and 2009—“Heroic imagery”, 2005; “Retrospection of My Student Days”, 2006; “Waiting for What”, 2007; “Trace of Existence”, 2008; and “Demand for Fluid (Hydro energy), 2009—fundamentally engaged with drawing, which mediated his process of conceptualisation. The versatile articulations of his drawings were narrative, descriptive, symbolic and metaphysical, rendered physically or digitally, with the manipulated lines as brief scratches, confident contours describing the physical body or as fragments gestalting to convey a form. The lines exuded confidence through firmness, control, agility and geomtricity. He imbued them further with an emotional quality, conveying sentiments, nostalgia, reveries and feelings. Bordering on the expressionist or decorative style, these linear renderings, nevertheless, conveyed moods and emotions. The easy felicity in drawings and sketching was the result of his continuous engagement with all forms, shapes, animals, birds, humans, landscapes, either realistically or distorted to serve a purpose. The dominant presence of lines can be traced to his teaching days and to the Madras Art Movement, which had emerged from the locus of the Madras School of Arts and Crafts. Srinivasan, in many respects, was travelling and meandering down memory lane which, ultimately, provided the conceptual crux for his subject.
Metaphysical turn Moving away from the digital world of computer and virtual reality, Srinivasan’s works from 2011 to 2015 took a metaphysical turn. His predilection for Saiva Siddhanta philosophy, which he studied for three years, loops into his creative enterprise as a medium of “ekantha”, or, literally, an empty space but metaphorically the absolute silence from his lived reality, where memory is suspended in time depending on the control exercised by the artist, ranging from a minimum of five seconds to five hours. But Srinivasan manages it for an hour at the maximum. This technique of memory erasure, which requires profound practice, has to be completed in terms of shapes and forms of various objects animate/inanimate. The process involves intense drawing of the same object as a bird or an animal until the drawing metamorphoses into a doodle of formlessness. Erasure of memory begins like this and enters a silent space, or “ekantha”, after which he is in a state of super-consciousness and, like a clairvoyant, confronts his large, white, primed canvas that has been layered with gesso and white textured pigment ready to receive his pigments. During this state of “ekantha”, which commences around midnight (a time he considers appropriate for this act), he works intuitively and with heightened super-consciousness (when he is removed from the presence of reality); and reaches out for colours without premeditated thought and the painting process continues until he is in the space of silence. When this is broken, he sees the work he has created and is sometimes overwhelmed by this unconscious creation. Srinivasan works thus on a painting until it is finished. Working seven to eight hours a day, he may take over a week to finish a painting.
Strokes and triangles In an initial encounter with his abstract paintings, the phenomenal reality that I was able to construe was one of geometry and calculated structuredness as it conveyed an architectonic character. But when the process was explained to me, my perceptions and perspectives changed, with a realisation that in that heightened state the predominance of squares and triangles, dashes and brick strokes created intuitively the geometry of metaphysicality. Squares and triangles in the Indian cultural context have various meanings. The square is sacred, associated with the temple in the form of the sanctum and the mandapa , with stability, fixity, materiality as its symbolic meaning, while the triangle in the tantric yantra s was symbolic of the male and the female principles, depending on whether it was represented pointing up or down. The presence of triangles is representative of Purusha and Prakriti (nature), the higher realms that manifest the idea of creation. To me, Srinivasan’s works offered a reading of materiality, spirituality and creativity with the predominance of squares and triangles gestalting through a certain directional organisation of the strokes.
The technique of layering that was manifest in his digital art, nevertheless continues but in reduced form. From 250 layers in the former, his canvases now have five layers that are worked to create a sense of a palimpsest of time and memory. The concept of memory, however, persists in Srinivasan’s works but transcends to a loss, not described as roots in tradition for identity. The metaphor of memory paradoxically continues as its metonymy, which involves space and time corresponding to his earlier concepts of “roots and identity”, injecting in the technique of layering a sense of time in the space of the painting. It is not only the actual time of the complicated making of work, but also an allegorical time of different meanings and suggested memories. The intention of the artist here is to suggest a mental life, private and unknowable to others, but which is at his service. The profundity of his abstracts manifests these unknowables, making them enigmatic, and hence increasing the sense of their power and dynamism.
The colours intuitively have a spiritual dimension that stir in the viewer a sense of contemplativeness and Zen-like meditativeness. Some are energetically charged, producing vitality and vigour. Yet, some of his abstracts are poignantly the sounds of silence in which the shades of greys or metallic blues have a life of their own. Other canvases display vibrancy in their colours and juxtaposition of shapes. Srinivasan interprets his abstracts as an architect would read a plan and elevation, or an isometric view of a monument that has a sense of deepening space and heightened time as the main protagonists.
The colours and textures add a significant dimension too. With spiritual whites, royal purples, sky blues, charcoal greys, night blacks, verdant and fluorescent greens, sweet pinks, earth browns reinforced by textures of controlled soft and hard rollers, various directional shapes of elongated rectangles and squares, the transparent and dense brushing on of acrylic pigments, makes it possible to read within these mystifying layers the erasure of memory in the silence of the depthless depths of space.
These abstracts by Srinivasan add another dimension to his corpus of work. Significantly gesturing towards creative development but also equally towards higher mental and conscious control that will offer him insights to enable him to move in a different direction in his artistic practice.
His work is not only intellectually challenging but soul-gratifying and spiritually uplifting.
Ashrafi S. Bhagat is an art historian, art critic, author and former Head and Associate Professor of the Department of Fine Arts, Stella Maris College, Chennai.