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May 2007

art gallery
New Delhi

Curated by
Johny ML


Art Gallery
Grosvenor vadehra, London
The Guild Art
USA Inc.
& Lal

Essay - Making of ‘visual behaviors’ in print

Making of ‘visual behaviors’ in print - Contd...

Figuring the fiction: engendering ‘creative value’ in pictures through ‘illustrations’

Some of those who went out of the local limits in search of art education at Madras, joined the periodical publishing houses back home in early 1950s and 1960s. M.V.Devan joined Mathrubhumi weekly as an artist. He was placed as artist with the position equal to assistant editor. It is not clear if M.V.Devan was thinking of picture for print as not simply a prop or scene to simply attract attention but as an expressive distribution of human form. He was during this time writing on art as ultimate expressions of freedom and other impossible extents. However, when did drawings for the stories of Vaikkam Muhammad Basheer or Uroob (P.C.Kuttikrishnan) or M.T.Vasudevan Nair, he seemed pretty relaxed and not so bothered about one’s need to assert an ‘aesthetic’ style. M.V.Devan’s illuistrations in 1950s were abrupt and casual sketches of human forms that graphically caricatured them or detailed their corporeal expressions.

The politically inspired realist literature also gave ample scope for an artist to ‘figure’ these fictions. For pictures to print, M.Bhaskaran also seemed to have thought to instill more of a sentimental and aesthetic element in Mathrubhumi weekly by mid 1940s (unlike the more sarcastic and satirical tone of pictures in ‘Sanjayan’ and ‘Viswaroopam’) that could be communicated through pictures of beautiful figures birds and landscape.

Thus ‘illustration’ formed as a practice that accompanied literature and could be developed into a ‘creative behavior’ in early 1960s. simultaneously in Mlayala Manorama there were photo sessions with actors to portray each characters of the novel getting serialized. Most of the photos simulated filmic compositions. Most of these novels did not carry an air of cultural politics too. they briefed the story in each section and ‘illustrated’ characters in each serial and at the end of it all, presented all those who ‘acted’ as each character in the story.

Different from the genre of photo features, when used as ‘illustrations’ these were projecting human figures along with their significant gestures and diminished their backgrounds to venture them even further.

Photograph still carried codes of artificiality in the aesthetic orientation of fiction? Soon the use of photo-sessions as ‘illustation’ was confined to magazines and readers with lesser cultural claims and capital.

Mathrubhumi employed two artists who returned from Madras school in 1961. They experimented with sketches that assumed ‘artistic’ values in some ways or the other. The signs of ‘imitating the real’ were undermined and something like a ‘personal style’ was sought by both A.S (A.Shivaraman) and Vasudevan Namboodiri. With them there formed a specialized aesthetic consciousness through drawings provided for fiction in the print-media. Namboodiri, who came to be the most celebrated illustrators here, states  in interviews that it is from a strong urge to be different from K.C.S.Panikkar that he got a new style of his own.

Among them, C.N.Karunakaran was an occasional illustrator for some periodicals. He grafted schemes of human figures with grace and decorative linearity for many novels. Madhavan Nair, an employee of the secretariat, Trivandrum, worked for Kalakaumudi for a long time.

Unlike Namboodiri, both karunakaran and Madhavan Nair did not try to engage the reader’s voyeuristic pleasures, they rather wanted to make patterns of sentiments as thought to be suitable to fictional pieces.

As many ‘individual artists’ were functioning as illustrators in 1960s, ‘Artistic’ was getting conceived as a particular visual tone and style. The photogenic postures of human figures and charismatic search for beauty by the artists and the highly literary rhetoric of art reviews, artists camp reports etc generated a hub of various tastes. Within this system of tastes, literature was a legitimate orientation for ‘artistic’ drawings. Literature took birth first. Drawings followed and then ‘illustration’ could be believed as nothing but interpretation of the literary content in a figural form. It was difficult for this figural sensibility to go easy with the verbose systems of abstraction and modernity in literature too. This was proved by the human figures as characters created by Namboodiri and AS for even those stories with no specific narrative context. The illustrative habits that took shape within the habitual figuration of characters looked only for a human figure within the fiction.

illustraion by A.Shivaraman (popularly knowns as A.S) late 1960s

On the other side, there were widespread ideals that thought of ‘illustration’ as visual synthesis with the verbal content.

Illustrators generally reproduced figures capable of voluptuous exhibition of body and gestures. A.S made elaborate backdrops of landscapes for human actions and gestures. Namboodiri had procured an elite tone for figural postures through some subtle simulations of traditional poses of South Indian sculptures and popular filmic poses alike. He also demonstrated a sensitivity to the changing trends and fashions of dressing. These habitual appropriations, repeated female forms and schematic rendering of nature made Namboodiri a favourite among particular readers who regarded themselves as being in a realm of great expressions of Art and beauty. Still through out the five decades till late 1980s, ‘illustration’ remained a silent sphere of habitual readers of fiction though literature was a very dominant discourse. Very rare and occasional references to ‘illustrations’ can be available in ‘letters to the editor’ columns when a serialization of novel strikes the taste of the readers in a big way. But passing away of A.S. in 1987 caused many weeklies to speak out about ‘illustrators’ and their practice. Some writers for the first time expressed their personal regards for the beautiful pictures they got for their fictional work in periodicals.  

In the beginning of nineties for its journalistic celebrations of the ‘artistic’ icons, Malayalam periodical-media world (and reader subjectivities took shape in this alike) widely took up Namboodiri. This is a fortune shared by no other ‘illustrators’.  His lines and voluptuous female forms are presented as ‘magic of linear rhythm’ (G.Azheekodu, Deshabhimani weekend supplement, 2 Sept. 2001). There forms reader subjectivities that go mad behind the life-like images of Namboodiri’s (female) characters. (there was a joke in some interviews shared by Namboodiri. He says that V.K.N, one of the acclaimed satirists in Malayalam asked Namboodiri to send that damsel enlivened by life-like sketches to him if she is so beautiful)  Mathrubhumi weekly presents Namboodiri in a center-spread as a milestone that captured the Malayalam readers. This is supposed to have raised the status of line-drawings into fine art. In ninties Namboodiri could personally cross his limits of an ‘illustrator’ as he gets wide spread recognition in this region as an artist and relief maker. Plenty of functions are still getting organized for public performance of ‘Namboodiri sketching on stretched cloth’ along with Kathakali music. 

New ways of functioning in a flux of images:

Even while Namboodiri as an ‘illustrator’ is being mediatically singled out as a great example for a creative practitioner, the print-media visuality recently has cut across many deflections in sensibility. ‘India Today’s Malayalam magazine in mid nineties published multi-colour special annual issues and literary supplements that took the service of many south Indian art gallery practitioners, from the young to the veteran alike. They were otherwise not ‘illustrators’ but provided their works as ‘illustrations’ for literature and as frontispieces of each section in this magazine. This was a very important editorial effort that started signaling that the value of ‘an artistic style’ as can be recognized from the recurring formats already devised on human figures by illustrators, was no more a guaranteed value in periodical designs in the changing times. New publishers too seemed to present a keen interest on the lay-out design that can be made attractive by pictures or made authentic by graphical illustrations. So the comfort of habitual repeat of human forms that was enjoyed by literature-oriented illustrators is today made unstable.

Today some are still employees of particular publishers while there are many artists in Kerala who occasionally ‘illustrate’ stories and other literary matters sent to them by publishers. Still there is no definite conditions that can ascribe special vantage points to ‘the personal style’ of any of them today, though Namboodiri continues with an acquired symbolic capital of ‘the artistic’ due to his last 45 years of regular practice.
Now even the large chunk of photographs collected in the editor’s files also join the visual materials that are supposed to anytime ‘illustrate’ literature or politics or feature in the periodical.

Today most of the periodical publishers have recognized that print-pictures constitute as a ‘special pictorial element’ that can be utilized in various manipulated manners. There is no possibility in this context for an artist to assert his personal style and get taken up as an ‘artistic icon’ with specific regional flavours. It is also because of the lessened space ascribed to literature today in periodicals.

Pictorial behaviors were at one point of time sufficiently aestheticised and that was utilized by a generation of trained artists to mimic more or less charismatic artist identities in the mass medium in this region. It is shattered now into an all-inclusive visual culture that accommodates photographs, graphic sketches, drawings or collages into its symbolic systems, decorative instincts, metaphoric spaces, journalistic ideas or representational politics. Here the function and efficacy of a picture is the most important aspect rather than picture as a representation of reality or assumably aesthetic fantasy.

It is simply cool and creative if one could recognize the vulnerable spots to which he or she can still insert his picture as a ‘work of art’. It is to be done into a flux of images and narratives in print-media that can cause in anybody (with some remnants of ‘aesthetics’) fears of a terrifically open space that can accommodate only graffity as it always gives persons equivocal pleasures of anonymity and expression alike. Anonymity in the sense of being an ‘illustrator’ in a Malayalam weekly that doesn’t attract much of artistic attention to anybody. But it can also be a pleasurable open space to bring in mutated materials, realities and fantasies.

Recognizing this medium and devising one’s possibilities within it is a rare thing in this huge repertoire of print-pictures but there is a new array of people now sensitively engaged in the possibilities of this space. K.Shereef (illustrator and occasional cover picture provider in Madhyamam) Bhaskaran( a routine of ‘Keralam Rekhakal’ in ‘Bhashaposhini’) Ravi (tried out possibilities of a graphic / graffity novel ‘Uparishad’ in Madhyamam weekly for some time) Bhagyanathan, Sunil Ashokapuram, Tom J Vattakkuzhi (who did illustrations for a while in Bhashaposhini) and Bony K Thomas at various points at various degrees make efforts sensitive to the function and historic efficacy of pictures in a specific print-culture like that of Keralam.

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