Over five decades of work in various mediums and an illustrious career in art has occasioned A Return to Sama, a retrospective exhibition of senior artist SG Vasudev at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Bengaluru.
Over five decades of work in various mediums and an illustrious career in art has occasioned A Return to Sama, a retrospective exhibition of senior artist SG Vasudev at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Bengaluru. Vasudev is a versatile artist, a forerunner in making art accessible through his initiatives—Art Park and Ananya Drishya—and founder member of Cholamandal Artists’ Village, the Chennai landmark that was founded in 1966.
Born in Mysore, Vasudev left Karnataka in 1960 on a scholarship to study at the Government College of Arts, Madras. From 1966 to 1988, he lived and worked as a founding member in the Cholamandal Artists’ Village outside Chennai along with his artist wife Arnawaz Driver. In 1988, after Driver’s death, Vasudev returned to Bengaluru with his son.
Ebullient and dynamic at 76 years of age, Vasudev is a proponent of JD Krishnamurti’s “Truth is found moment to moment” in his approach towards his work. Combined with his philosophy of receptivity and discipline towards work, his artworks are a journey that could be termed as ‘visual autobiography’. His early works resonate with the life experiences and environs of Chennai, with a beautiful amalgamation of inspiration drawn from performing arts and music. The large beautiful tamarind trees at Cholamandal and a proximity to nature and sea had a lasting imprint on Vasudev. The trees made their way, ever so silently, into his paintings. Vriksha, or Tree of Life, which started in 1975 and seem to be an underlying concept that string together various works over different timeframes, be it Tree of Life & Death, Humanscapes, Earthscapes or Rhapsody.
Art for art’s sake
Creative art begins with dissatisfaction with the present scenario. The 60s was a metamorphic time for Indian art, with thinkers and artists like KCS Paniker at the fore. American writer Rebecca Brown puts forth a defence in her book, Art for a Modern India, for Paniker, who is said to have resisted banishing the Indian visual past from scientific and national advancement, and declined to see the past as holding all the answers to the present. In the post-independence era in art, this generation of Indian painters were no longer ready to accept European artistic norms verbatim. They were on a quest for an indigenous modernism. The key insight drawn for artists and thinkers alike—the past was both necessary and inadequate. Cholamandal Artists’ Village had its birth in the concept of ‘art for art’s sake’.
The Village also provided avenues to explore, experiment and derive livelihood from its integration with crafts—ceramics, enamel, metal, batik—to name a few. The fine line between artists and craftsmen, hence, blurred and was re-examined. Vasudev found himself at the centre of this transformative journey that would see its ethos reflected and carried forward through his works. While he drew inspiration from the relationship between trees (or, Tree of Life) and humans, Vasudev wanted to go further as an artist to express his creativity through different mediums such as copper, tapestry, batik and wood.
Upon his return to Bengaluru, the artist found himself pitched into a diverse creative community. This move would bring to life new associations, inspirations and influencers that would last a lifetime. It would also lay the ground for a stronger affiliation with the land, the language and Kannada literature.
From his early exposure to CP Rajarathnam’s poetry to his associations with Girish Karnad, UR Ananthamurthy, BV Karanth and mentor KK Hebbar, Vasudev had been in the company of playwrights, journalists, filmmakers, poets, actors and people deeply engaged in the life of the city. And this would be best reflected when he began exploring, through the 60s and 70s, the integration and interpretations of art and literature through his works. It offered him numerous possibilities to explore the connections across arts and to develop a multilayered response to life, the environment and history through his work.
Many well-known paintings of Vasudev comprise what resembles poetry and locutions of script that echo a language, but on a closer look, are stylised integrations of the Kannada language. It is a powerful idea. And this idea got refurbished further when, in 1965-66, he was introduced to AK Ramanujan and his poetry. They would form a collaboration that would go on to generate a robust response and interpretation that takes the form of dynamic, multilayered, black-and-white line drawings. And as the artist aptly states, “…when a writer writes in his own language, it becomes local. But when it comes to visual arts, it is universal. So I feel that my work is universal, but at the same time, it has content that is rooted in the local.”
Moment of pause
When Vasudev met and married journalist and writer Ammu Joseph, the union not only influenced his discipline towards work, but also introduced him to another dimension of civic engagement and urban commitment. Fascinated by the desire to make sense of existence, of contemporary life and of vestiges that remain from images inspired by music, dance and theatre, Vasudev created Humanscapes, Earthscapes, Theatre of Life and a series titled She. Theatre of Life, in fact, was born as a commentary towards life in a city.
But what has perhaps been less commented on is Vasudev’s use of imagery, which helps to create a sense of familiarity within his work, and the sheer beauty of the colour that he uses to bathe several parts of his canvas in, creating a sense of movement and dynamism. There are the most delicate salmons, saffrons, sepia and amber. Viscid human shapes balance gingerly, often pierced by near familiar forms or script. When asked to describe works from the past, Vasudev is content to suggest that any explanation would only be untrue. It would mean repositioning his past works in a different, although familiar, but new context. “Truth cannot be accumulated. Truth is found moment to moment,” Vasudev quotes Krishnamurti.
The current exhibition is a moment of pause, a moment of equanimity before the next wave of inspiration strikes. Vasudev believes that advocacy and accessibility to the arts are the only constructive way forward. Both the art and the artist continue to show that art continues to be a powerful form of expression and engagement with society.
The solo exhibition, Inner Resonance: A Return to Sama, curated by Sadanand Menon, is on at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru, till September 30
By- Deepthi Radhakrishnan. Deepthi Radhakrishnan is a designer, illustrator and writer. She writes on a variety of subjects, often to do with museums, art and conservation. A designer from NID, she was the recipient of the prestigious Museum Education Fellowship, SCVA, UK