This exhibition, Earthen Pot – Image Poems 2016, presents 21 artworks which were all done during one of Achutan Ramachandran’s visits to North America. The renowned artist, through his strong and vivid imagination, presents a series where the theme of the works being exhibited is centres on tribal women and the relationship between nature and tribal life. These works evoke a feeling of tranquility in the viewer through their portrayal of a serene life which is at one remove from the changing dynamics of the modern world.

The central figure in all the works on display is a woman flanked by nature. The artist presents glimpses of tribal life, situated far from the maddening crowds of the cities.

Sitting under a tree and surrounded by the natural elements of flora and fauna, a woman is seen to be making direct eye contact with the viewer. It’s as if she has just turned her gaze towards the viewer with a questioning look in her eyes. The natural elements presented in the painting, like the tree, the chameleon, the butterflies and flowers, surround the woman. The most interesting element of the painting is right beside the woman — an earthen pot which contains the figure of the artist in the form of a foetus.  In this painting, titled Image Poems: Earthen Pot, the artist plays with three key forms — a tree, a woman and his own embryonic form — symbolising hope, fertility and a new beginning.

The presence of a flowering tree in the paintings is symbolic of security, protection. And the central figure in the painting is the woman, who symbolises an indomitable life force. The woman is given a look that is both pensive and reflective. The third key element represented here is Ramachandran himself as an embryonic self-portrait in an earthen water pot.  It is here that the whole drama comes to a cresendo — when the artist presents himself as an observer in the narrative, noticing the details of tribal life.

Ramchandran often travels to a distant tribal village near Udaipur from where he derives inspiration for his paintings on the Bhil community. He first studies their way of life, mannerisms and day to day activities before conjuring up his imaginative world founded upon the idyll of tribal life.

The Bhils, who live in close proximity to nature, helped the artist perceive nature with a new perspective. While examining the lives of the Bhils, he felt impelled to idealise them. And he also began to see nature with enhanced objectivity and empathy. The pre-modern world of the Bhil tribe, which he first got acquainted  with in the late seventies, opened up a new vision of beauty earlier unknown to him. He noticed that the Bhils lived in harmony with the world around them and went about their life without meddling too much with nature. It appeared to Ramachandran, that the Bhils moulded their lives according to the larger scheme of nature. He had initially painted them not merely as ordinary villagers but as tree nymphs and water nymphs who embraced trees and brought them into bloom, swam in lotus ponds, danced amid flowers and generally celebrated life. They became apsaras in his imagination and with his annual visits to their villages, he became the mythical Pururavas who come searching for Urvashi. It was thus  that his paintings done between 1987 and 1990 became a symbol for this alternative reality. 

Ramchandran often travels to a distant tribal village near Udaipur from where he derives inspiration for his paintings on the Bhil community. He makes it a point to closely observe their way of life, mannerisms and day-to-day activities.

In his watercolour series, the artist has used a limited range of shades — like muted greens, cool blues, touches of subdued red and ochres. His artistic prowess lies in his remarkable control over his strokes of brush, which helps him achieve a subtle poetic effect in his paintings.

The contrast between his recent works and those that were  done a few decades ago, suggests that he has indeed evolved as an artist. His work acquired a new purpose and direction in the ’80s, beginning with his work called Yayati (1984-86). This work marks the definitive rupture in his career as an artist. In the works before Yayati, his pictorial vision presented a dark picture of the world, mostly. In his more recent works, the world appears to be enchanted by a new sense of wonder and vitality. Yayati is considered to be a truly transitional work for him.

In his “Image poems”, the artist has used different lines to suggest the formations and textures of barks, roots, rock formation. There are broken, criss-crossed and staccato lines which create exciting rhythmic variations and counterpoints directing the viewer’s attention to a diverse yet distinct detailing.

Ramachandran, who was born in Attingal, Kerala, developed an interest in the arts including painting, music and literature, quite early in his life. He later trained under pioneers of Indian art like Ramkinker Baij and Nandalal Bose. He is a product of Santiniketan and  has twice won the National Award, one in 1969 and the other in 1972.

Apart from painting,  drawing too is essential for the artist as a medium of expression. He has previously written in his pieces published on the occasion of retrospectives of his drawings, sketches and studies, “I admit that I derive great sensual pleasure from the act of drawing. The first touch of pen on paper is like throwing a pen on paper, which creates its own resonance filling the picture space with lines in rhythmic relations and my colour notes are like the reflected broken sky on the disturbed water surface.”

For Ramachandran, drawings and paintings may have started as a practice, but over the years it has turned into a lifelong love affair.

Earthen Pot — Image Poems 2016 will run till 21 May at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi


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