The agony and ecstasy of sensualism

The agony and ecstasy of sensualism

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 10 October, 2015
Ushas (above) and Madhyahna (top), two of the three parts of A. Ramachandran’s Yayati.
A. Ramachandran is now 80 years old, with more than half a century’s worth of work behind him. Even if you are not M.F. Husain-prolific, that is a lot of painting. So it is mildly baffling that Ramachandran’s work, especially his output in the last three decades, is often spoken (and written) about in a vein of mild condescension, despite his many honours and awards, including the Padma Bhushan. The post-1984 Ramachandran is seen by his critics as too obviously pretty, too ornate to be taken seriously. In Susan Sontag’s classic essay On Photography, she compared the allure of Diane Arbus’s “freak” photography series (portraits of people with physical deformities) with a person saying: “I find this ugly thing to be so beautiful”. The argument against Ramachandran’s work seems to be rooted in a similar thought. Critics had nothing but praise for him when he was making images of swollen corpses strewn about or bringing out the horrors of nuclear disaster: “bleeding heart” analyses tend to be narrow-minded that way. And then he spent two whole years  making an ambitious, sprawling project called Yayati, inspired by a minor Mahabharata character of the same name. Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of limited edition Yayati serigraphs. 
Yayati, completed in 1986, was made as an installation of sculptures and three 20 ft x 8 ft oil paintings: the Vadehra exhibit features these three paintings split into 12 serigraphs. In the Mahabharata, Yayati was a chandravanshi (the lunar clan) king who was a brave, feared warrior and also a well-known hedonist. His obsession with wine and women drove him a little insane. One of his wives, Devyani, was the daughter of the sage Shukracharya. Enraged by Yayati’s incorrigible ways, Shukracharya cursed the king and saddled him with  a premature onset of old age and physical frailty, the two things that he feared the most. A horrified Yayati appealed to his five sons: if any one of them could sacrifice their own youth, Yayati could be young and virile again. Sure enough, his youngest son Puru gives up his youth and takes on his father’s curse. Later, Yayati realises the folly of his choice and returns his son’s gift.  
Yayati, completed in 1986, was made as an installation of sculptures and three 20 ft x 8 ft oil paintings: the Vadehra exhibit features these three paintings split into 12 serigraphs. 
Ramachandran’s work is an exploration of the sensual universe, as seen through Yayati’s eyes. There is sexuality dripping from every stroke of the painting. There is also an unmistakable narrative progression to be observed in the three paintings: Usha, Madhyahna and Sandhya (literally, “morning”, “afternoon” and “evening”, respectively). Usha is an unabashedly gleeful celebration of the senses: all five senses are indulged in this painting, generally through a nature metaphor. Ramachandran’s women, with improbably long waists and exaggerated curves, are in poses of suggestive repose. One of them holds a sliced watermelon, another is in the middle of tying (or untying?) her hair even as a peacock struts about in their midst. On the left side is a tree where the leaves are actually birds that have a hint of the celestial about them. The restless energy of the painting tells us about Yayati’s ceaseless search for bodily pleasures.
Madhyahna, on the other hand, begins the sobering process: although beautiful women dominate the frame, they are engaged in various kinds of industrious behaviour. Two of them are busy with a hammer and an anvil; another seems to be planting a seed. Yayati himself, busy with another woman, notices these goings-on but is still not convinced of his folly, of the fact that the path to immortality does not lie in hedonism but in creating something that outlasts you. In Sandhya, this process reaches its logical conclusion: the peacock is decidedly anaemic, a gaunt-looking Yayati has an agricultural implement in his hands while an older version of himself (or this could be his now-old son Puru) observes ruefully from the rightmost corner of the painting. 
It is interesting to note that Ramachandran changed his style after an infection that threatened to take his eyesight away entirely: eventually, vision in one eye was slightly impaired. Another thing that happened around the same time (circa 1984) was the murder of a Sikh man in front of his eyes. The veteran artist famously declared that he longer wished to depict suffering and pain in his works: that there was no point in “making rasagollas from the tears of the poor”. The point of Yayati is to bring out both the agony and the ecstasy of a life dedicated to naked sensuality. Unfortunately, many of us chose to look at only half the picture.

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