Is the cup half empty, or half full?
This was the one thought which kept flashing through my mind the day I came face-to-face with A. Ramachandran’s art.
One of India’s leading contemporary artists, when Ramachandran [b. 1935], a native of the South Indian state of Kerala and alumnus of Santiniketan started painting, the world he saw around him was a sad, painful one filled with conflict and anguish. It was post-1947 and India was reeling from the aftermath of the partition whilst the world at large still carried the wounds of World War II.
This is no romantic wistful tale down memory lane. My own parents came to India as refugees that fateful year. They locked their homes on the other side of the new border in the firm belief the “partition” was temporary and they would return. Soon.
Estranged from his family during the exodus, my father, then a 15-year-old teenager, spent months on end at Birla Mandir in New Delhi, squashed into a 3 feet by 3 feet space. During the day he would station himself outside the law courts and fill forms for people for a few paisa [one paisa back then was 1/64th of a Rupee]. A daily visit to All India Radio to announce his whereabouts so his family could find him, finally reunited him with his parents and three brothers—albeit after much emotional, physical and mental trauma.
My parents were just two tiny wisps in this large-scale evacuation. Fifteen million people were displaced in total, forced to leave their homes, their belongings, their identity and to start afresh in cities amongst people who did not take too kindly to the new arrivals. Those memories of loss never really left any of the refugees. Worse still, it was a displacement racked with bloodshed. Somewhere between one million and two million people died.
[Note: Top image: Madhyana [Central section of Yayati]: Oil on canvas, 96 X 240 inches .]
Birth of plash tree: Oil on canvas; 80 X 136 inches 
It was, thus, no surprise that Ramachandran, fed on a diet of conflict, should turn to portraying all he saw on to his canvases. But it was not art for its own sake. Guided by Malayalam literature and its tenets, he was of the firm belief that through his art he could heal the pain and transform society.
His monumental canvases painted on the lines of Mexican murals in the 1960s and 1970s narrated tales of violence, cruelty, suffering, and darkness. They seethed with his anger at the plight of the modern urban Indian. With his art, he hoped and expected some element of rationality to prevail.
Two events forced him to see the world and life with a new perspective. To accept the insignificance of his fury in the bigger scheme of things. In the early-1980s, he faced the possibility of losing his sight. In 1984, 37 years after the partition, the country was once again torn apart by riots—this time it was the anti-Sikh riots.
These experiences changed Ramachandran forever. His mantra, this time around, was the celebration of nature and its fragility, a rumination of our unending earthly desires and our transience. The Bhil tribal people of Rajasthan living in perfect harmony with unsullied nature became his muse. The lotus-filled water bodies in the vicinity of Udaipur city—Nagda, Ekalinji, Jogi ka Talab, and Obeshwar—took on the role of his inspiration.
It is to these works of art that I was introduced on that one midsummer afternoon at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. And what a burst of joyous colour, light, and line leapt out at me from the massive paintings, dwarfing me in their wake!
Summer wedding: Oil on canvas; 78 X 168 inches 
In his evolved avatar, Ramachandran was of the opinion that in our quest for material urban progress we have turned our backs on the simple pleasures of our natural world. Through his paintings he prods the viewer to re-enter this world and be charmed. At times he is the onlooker in a composition, in awe of the colourful tapestry of life wherein Bhil tribal rituals and traditions weave into the hills, ponds, and trees. At others, he is the central element of the composition itself.
Yayati, a 60-feet exotic jewelled mural conceived as a portable painted room enclosing a sculptural installation was his response to the scare of losing his sight. His ensuing colossal canvases filled to the brim with swaying lotuses swamped with birds, butterflies and dragonflies, and svelte Bhil women dancing sensuously under the stars are his acknowledgement of seeing the world as a place of exquisiteness. The ethereal watercolours and surreal bronzes he creates in-between are an artist’s studies which evolve into personal experiments.
Ramachandran’s work from the 1980s to-date is a deliberate effort to see the cup as half full. It reminds me of my father who loved to party and sing and dance. Unmarred by how life in his new home, post-partition had begun, he chose to celebrate life till the very end, infusing it with hearty portions of hustle and zest.
Is your cup half empty, or half full?
If unsure, Ramachandran’s paintings are a tender reminder of the wonders of our world—wonders we need to lovingly treasure and embrace. ❤
Dancing on an amavasi night: Oil on canvas; 78 X 100 inches 
The vast canvases depicting Bhil women in sync with nature are not manufactured scenes. They are tableaux of reality which Ramachandran allows his urban audience to witness, albeit from the outside.
Left: Dhowraji’s temple: Watercolour on paper; 29 X 21 inches . Right: Waterside gossip: Watercolour on paper; 29 X 21 inches 
Dancing on a full moon night: Oil on canvas; 78 X 144 inches 
Girl on the swing: Oil on canvas; 78 X 96 inches 
Springtime in Undri village: Oil on canvas; 78 X 96 inches 
Bed of arrows: Oil on canvas; 78.5 X 96 inches 
Yellow butterflies and blue lotus: Oil on canvas; 78 X 192 inches 
Ramachandran has painted the water ponds around Udaipur repeatedly, at various times of the day, year after year. Each time, nature would reveal something more of itself to him which he faithfully translated into colour and line.
Collecting lotus flowers: Oil on canvas; 78 X 144 inches 
Lotus pond in decay: Oil on canvas; 78 X 96 inches 
Lotus pond in misty morning: Oil on canvas; 78 X 144 inches 
Disturbed tranquillity: Oil on canvas; 96 X 192 inches 
A prolific artist, Ramachandran’s art spans multiple mediums. Above are two of his acclaimed bronze sculptures: Gandhi and a Bhil girl.
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A. Ramachandran: A selection of exhibits from his fifty years of art practice by R. Siva Kumar was on display at the NGMA, Fort, Mumbai from 27 April to 12 June 2019, 11 am to 6 pm. In Delhi, key works are on permanent display at the Vadehra Art Gallery.
[All images courtesy A. Ramachandran]
[Note: This post is a re-post. It was first published on ramaary.blog on 14 June, 2019. Due to COVID 19 restrictions, I am unable to generate new travel content. In its place I am reposting some of my favourite contemporary and modern Indian artists’ works which I had blogged about earlier.]