- Ramesh’s large canvases painted over the past decade are the subject of curiosity and debate for their unique concern with the idea of faith and renunciation in contemporary times.
For example, the concept of withdrawal from worldly concerns by renouncing creature comforts on the one hand, and going against the conventions of devotional practice on the other, is fore grounded in all its complexity in the series Sanctum Sanctorum: A Corner for Four Sisters. It explores the quest of four savants from different historical and geographic moments, whose devotional postures read like a protest against blind faith and soulless ritual.
The artist celebrates the quest for transcendent truth in the disconnected figures of KaraikkalAmma (5thC), Manikkavachagar (8thC), Lal Ded (14thC) and Ramana Maharshi (20thC), all of whom embody the curious concept of the sacred heretic.
In the series, which includes works like Remembering Lalla Moj, The Poet’s Passion and KaraikkalAmma, the background absorbs details of the calligraphic surface, even as sandwiched and vaporous figures, like the emaciated physical frame of KaraikkalAmma framed in thorny foliage, gestures to her prayer for being de-fleshed, strongly hinting at the transience of the body.
Similarly, in an earlier work Untitled, 2006, the modern-day sage of Tiruvannamalai, Ramana Maharshi’s face is rendered in some detail even as his frail frame gets distributed within the landscape – akin to a molecular dis/integration in nature.
The idea of transcendence is predominant in Ramesh’s work. The dialogue that he sets up between the ambiguities of the material and the immanence of the transcendent, is a modern-day problematic located in the dialectic of individuation and differentiation. Self assured and in control of his material, the artist seeks to trace the complex and agonizing pathways along which the sub-conscient elevates and achieves supra consciousness. It is almost an anticipation of a future, evolving humanity that would stay perennially in touch with its consciousness.
Ramesh is, thus, heir to a fecund ancestry of mystical and quasi-ritualistic practices in the arts, both pre-modern and modern. The modern phase of Indian art from the mid-19th century, has consistently jousted with multiple lineages of the mystical, mythological and magical that it inherited from a plethora of belief systems and their dissensions. Raja Ravi Varma’s Ramayana paintings or Abanindranath Tagore’s Bharat Mata (from the late 19th and early 20th century, respectively), are early instances of mythological material seeding the foundations of modern Indian art practices.
Simultaneously, art historians like Coomaraswamy and Zimmer contributed a philosophical and scholarly depth to this by their study of traditional concepts, forms, symbols and architecture.
It will be interesting to remember also that early twentieth century theatre and cinema too employed mythology as an allegorical disguise to deliver contemporary political statements. It turned out to be an effective strategy to beat colonial censorship. Khadilkar’s Keechak Vadh or Dada sahib Phalke’s Kaliya Mardan were complex artistic products that emerged on the sidelines of the Indian nationalist upsurge and movement for political independence.
By the 1940s and ‘50s, art movements in India—in their quest for distinctly native and indigenous vocabularies, as opposed to that of the West—were re-connecting with more ‘traditional’, non-figurative lineages of ‘Tantra’, ‘Lokayata’ and other popular motifs, which had highly evolved codes of formal symbols and color abstraction. It was a call, once again, to the nationalistic impulse to be more ‘Indian.’
Artists of the Cholamandal collective, in Madras, like K.V. Haridasan, V. Viswanadhan, Akkitham Narayanan and Gopinath, among others and artists from the North like G.R. Santosh, Biren De and S.H. Raza constitute a special group that adopted this route.
The works of V. Ramesh need to be framed within this larger context of artistic engagement with deeply personal and cultural memory—as a product of internal retreat and introspection— that seeks to transmute corporeality into transcendence. It engages with abstractions like evanescence and a search for the self. This turns Ramesh into a fabulist, using a sensuous and emotive palette to spin parables culled from sages, mystics and poets. The effect is tapestry-like, with multiple layers of submerged narratives like those seen in frescoes or murals; the visual equivalent of a time-lapsed call of haunting voices across time.
There is palpable evidence in his work, of an intoxicated pursuit of the ineffable. And yet, there is also a sense of ‘this-worldly’ mysticism, jousting with several contesting and conflicting poles—of restraint and release, celibacy and profligacy, denial and indulgence, and the temporary and the permanent.
The artist seems to mock the mortality of earthly duration over that of the spiritual. He knows human life is as precarious as a dewdrop on the tip of a leaf at the edge of the branch of a tree on which a tribe of monkeys is jumping around. His quest, therefore, is not necessarily for the ‘material’ body, but for the ‘subtle’ body. And it is this subtle body, which then inveigles itself into his canvas in all sorts of manifestations.
The artist draws upon the myriad sub-continental philosophies of formlessness, or of the divine as a ‘void’. While acknowledging the ‘material body’ (sthoola), it is the ‘subtle body’ (sookshma), which he extols as a form of the all-pervasive consciousness of the universe– an invisible, but highly present, extension of the body. It is this native philosophy, which informs his canvas in all sorts of manifestations of saint figures like AkkaMahadevi and RamanaMaharshi who denied the body over the spirit.
Ramesh’s oeuvre then, opens up an interesting space for engaging with the debate on how to evaluate his work from a modernist perspective. He is certainly one of many artists who seem to have fallen through the cracks of modern Indian art history, which does not favor what it cannot define. It needs to be pointed out that what an artist like Ramesh achieves is a rebellious de-iconocization, despite investing in material that otherwise occupies the realm of the iconic.
And this is what contributes to his critical modernity.
The journey of one’s existence and work run parallel, feeding and acting on each other. I have, over the years, discarded many hard-held notions. The earlier solidity of the human figure as well as the tight compositions, have given way to a blurring of boundaries. These are in a continuous state of flux. Extensive reading of Advaitic philosophy during the last few years have, perhaps, opened up for me perceptions of the unity — the oneness of being – and – existence — that exist under the surface of constant change.
Most of my work is imbued with a deep personal reverence, and hints at areas of faith, devotion and transcendence, but it articulates these ideas in an oblique manner, using voices from medieval poetry and imagery culled from mythology.
I often use allegory because it can allude to my concerns and what I want to express in a more poetic and potent manner. Allegory allows us multiple readings of the image depicted in the narrative.
To be able to draw the viewer within, through this state of flux, through the layers of paint, images and text to be able to transcend these outwardly seen and perceived phenomena. And, perhaps to be able to discern and perceptively intuit the truth imbued in the work. But to do this one has to adopt strategies and improvise modes of expression. I often borrow from narratives from traditional sources.
V. Ramesh (1958) was born in Andhra Pradesh and graduated in Fine Arts from M.S. University, Baroda following it with a Post-Graduation in Fine Arts from the same university. He received the Junior Fellowship from the Department of Culture in1990-93, Sanskriti Award in 1993 and a Senior Fellowship, Department of Culture in 1995-97.V.Ramesh is the first practicing artist to be invited to show solo at the National Gallery Of Modern Art, Bangalore in March 2014. He has been teaching at the Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, since 1985.
His major solo shows have been at Centre of Contemporary Art, New Delhi in 1990; Sakshi Gallery, Bangalore, in 1991; Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai in 1993,1997; Gallery Threshold, Visakhapatnam in 1998; Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai in 1988; A Thousand and One desires ‘,Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai & Gallery Threshold, New Delhi in 2005; Painted Hymns Gallery Threshold, New Delhi 2007, My Heart Would be Enough, Gallery Threshold, New Delhi, 2008, Why Cross the Boundary, Gallery Threshold, New Delhi, 2011-2012, Sanctum: a corner for four sisters- Gallery Threshold, New Delhi, 2012, Remembrances of Voices Past, NGMA, Bangalore in 2014; and at Katzen Arts Center, American University Museum, Washington in Apr – May 2015. He has been part of many important group shows & biennales across the globe over the years such as- Second Biennial at Havana, Cuba in 1982; Second Biennial of Art, Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal in 1988; Sakshi Gallery at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai in 1992; Recent Trends in Contemporary Indian Art, Vadehra
Art Gallery in 1995; Mapping Memories, 2008; Revisiting Intuitive Logic, Davos, 2011. V. Revisiting Beauty, 2016 and Verdant Memory 2018 at Gallery Threshold, New Delhi and has been represented at the India Art Fair by Threshold Art Gallery in the years of 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2019;
Hashiya the border, curated by Mamta Singhania at Bikaner House, 2018.
Ramesh has developed a distinctive narrative vocabulary, rooted in our sacred and literary culture. His engaging iconographies lend themselves to powerfully suggestive narratives particularly in terms of literary and sacred traditions. In doing so, they create their own powerful visual vocabulary, compelling the viewer to tend to look deep within even while re-visiting the past. Ramesh’s work has been sustained and nourished over the years through his interaction with his students.
V. Ramesh lives and works in Visakhapatnam.