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Reading Viswandhan

Paris based veteran artist V.Viswanadhan is honoured by the Delhi Art Gallery, New Delhi with a monograph and a show of his early works. JohnyML goes through the book written by Madhu Jain and feels that the ‘political’ Viswanadhan is absent in the book. He takes a different route to read Viswanadhan.

I have a book titled ‘Viswanadhan’ in my hands. I would like to do a book review. But I decide to do a feature instead. This book has got an album section at the end. There I see a young Viswanadhan sitting against a painting, smiling profusely at the photographer. His crown of hair cannot be missed. So is his jet black moustache and beard. He looks like a romantic and a rebel who smiles only at those who are intimate. The photograph is taken in 1972. There is another series of photographs embedded in the text written by the artist’s friend and critic, Madhu Jain. In this series, Viswanadhan is seen painting ‘on’ a nude model. This action painting is documented in 1968.

These pictures open up possibilities for reading Viswanadhan in a new light. Here is a young man, free and rebellious, anchored himself in a new world and its immense freedom and joy. He is sensuous and inviting. Like any other young man he also had a past of struggles and Freudian fights. Now he is free and ready to take the plunge. He likes Edward Munch’s scream and the ritualistic drawings of his native place in Kerala. He has a strong grounding in progressive left politics and has received a very progressive art education.

Viswanadhan is interested in Franz Fanon and the problems of Algeria. Communism is all about compassionate globalization. Hence, he raises his voice against those French oppressors who victimize the black brothers and sisters in Algeria. That was when he was in Kerala and Madras. Once he is in Paris, the land of the French oppressors, where has his political awareness and Communist perceptions gone? Have they abandoned him or he has abandoned these ideas? There must be some historical dynamics that led him to do so.

Madhu Jain does not write about this political side of young Viswanadhan. Instead, she takes a traditional route. We have a hungry boy, directly from the pages of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. This hungry boy steals money from his mother and he is overcome by remorse in the next moment, which the artist says is a political act. He wants to commit suicide and later he forgets. I believe in all these, as I know Viswanadhan is like that. This beautifully written preamble of his life could have been much more historically relevant had it been treated with a bit more socio-cultural and political sense.

I would like to go back to Viswanadhan’s sensuousness that perhaps, other authors would love to encase in his triangle symbolism. The groin part of the human beings looks like an inverted triangle and it has received the emblematic status in universal religio-cultural symbolism. Generally an inverted triangle stands for a ‘yoni’ (vagina). So we have a ‘bindu’ artist in Raza and a ‘yoni/triangle’ artist in Viswanadhan. But for me Viswanadhan’s sensuousness and art comes from his love for life; a life led in the terms of a nomad. Deleuze and Guattari talk about nomads as those people who move through the no-man’s land and prepare war machines against the state. They flout the rules of the state and in turn make the ‘king’ to prepare counter war machines. Viswanadhan’s life, if qualified as a nomad’s, should be seen as a strategic life, a life strategically modified like a camouflage.

Viswanadhan in these photographs laughs like a black brother. The one who has read the book, ‘Wretched of the Earth’ must not laugh like a white brother, especially during the late 1960s and during 1970s. In Britain it is the peak of Racist attacks against the black brothers. Europe has not yet integrated the coloured into the mainstream. I don’t believe, these artists who reached the shores of Europe suddenly found themselves integrated to the mainstream life of Paris. May be I am wrong. Let Viswanadhan right me. Here is the story, he goes to a main gallery in Paris with so much of confidence and within two weeks he is one of the member artists of that gallery. Hmmm…That is how the story of a genius goes.

Let us go back to the photograph where Viswanadhan painting on a nude model. In one of the snaps he cups the left breast of the white model with his right palm. Then he touches the nipples with his brush. Then he paints her all over. Then he paints her inverted triangle (a bushy one). What is that? I would say it is the black man’s psychological overcoming of fear; an act of counter colonialism. The black male’s aggressive brush strokes become a phallic retribution to colonialism. How does Viswanadhan survive these times? The book does not answer.

The book answers only the formal part. Viswanadhan took his inspiration from K.C.S.Panicker, his western counterparts, M.Govindan and his legendary family background, which is related to temple worship. And all his style is developed out of this temple background. What happened to his political affiliations? No answer. I am disappointed. Perhaps, Viswanadhan became totally apolitical after a period of life in Paris. Let Viswandhan explain.

Viswanadhan converts his political affiliations to aesthetic expressions. His love for the ritualistic past comes back through two routes; one through K.C.S.Panicker and two through the demand of the Parisian art circle. I firmly believe that it was more like a political defilement of a nomad to go back to his indigenous cultures and assert his identity in a land of ‘high aesthetics’ than Panicker’s exhortations in Madras. His neo-abstractionism should be seen as a part of his nomadic politics; thwarting of the mainstream from the peripheries, and at times from within.

His is a life infested with accidents, both metaphorical and real. The author leaves the accident part there. May be the Delhi Art Gallery, which is the publisher of this book wants a second part, which would dramatically open with Viswanadhan’s car crash in Germany in 1976. Madhu Jain misses two points; One, she reaches to the Madras Progressives established four years before the Bombay Progressives. Two, the car accident. Both could have been developed in order to place Viswanadhan politically and existentially. But she leaves it there. It is author’s choice.

Roobina Karode has written a study on the works of Viswanadhan that too touches upon his legendary past and the accident. Mostly it revolves around the formalism of Viswanadhan’s works. Noted painter and one of the best friends of the artist, A.Ramachandran has written a very lucid forward that affectionately contextualizes Viswanadhan’s artistic journey.

Viswanadhan hates to be called as an ‘abstract’ artist. He believes that abstraction is also a form of representation. He does not represent anything. He creates a world of his own that cuts across cultural boundaries. This book complements a show of his early works, done during 1960s and 1970s, a politically charged period of the artist. It keeps a total silence on Viswanadhan’s evolution as an artist, from a political being to aesthetic being. That is a minus point. May be, there is a counter question, why should one know about all those political stuff? Can’t art be just art and understood in those formal terms? Then just trash this article. Don’t read it.


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