Survival strategies, cautionary tales

A decade ago, V Ramesh’s paintings seemed to be preoccupied with the solidity of things, whether it was the sturdy keel of a boat, the scaly sheen of a gaffed fish, or the parabola of a rope at rest. The artist rendered these objects palpably alive. His evocation of subaltern bodies, likewise, was veined with an acute sensuousness. But this was a sensuousness that did not eroticise the body so much as it invited us to consider, with compassion rather than desire, the physique as it shapes itself through the alternating phases of labour and the rest, concentrating and languor. In Ramesh’s paintings of the early 1990’s therefore, we are confronted by figures that occupied a space between the literalness of visual transcription and the subtle unease of empathy. In these frames, women bent over aniline streams, their sinewy bodies strained by work but conveying the ease of familiar rituals. Here, too, old men gazed past stern hulls and diaphanous sails, as though awaiting the dawn of their salvation. Their energies moulded with restraint, these figures were amplified with a tactful palette: the same flaming oranges, lush greens and coppery reds that might have come to grief in less dexterous hands became triggers of nuance in Ramesh’s treatment, scoring the folds of a sari, the creases of a face, or the swell of a tide.

Although Ramesh addressed himself to the metronomy of works and days by which a community in a coastal village constitutes itself, his painterly gaze was neither anthropological nor socialist. It neither teased out data for theory- making nor imparted messages of revolutionary import. Nor was Ramesh interested in the local colour favoured by the descriptive accounts of ethnic specificity; his theme, rather, was the matter- of- fact heroism of the survivor who refuses to succumb to abjection or corruption, and negotiates the margin of potential between vigour activity and helpless torpor.

Ramesh’s key move in these paintings was the accentuation of the telling details into an obsessive sign. Low key as they were, such details became all the more fraught with significance for having been coded into the fabric of ordinary events. Take, for instance, the portrait of a boy squatting among fishing nets, stretching his own shadow, weighting it down with a shell. The shell recurred as a conch, an unremarked treasure at the feet of a man lost in dream, or an object of quest for shell- hunters wading through the wash. Such talisman guided us towards the possibilities of reverie implicit in Ramesh’s works: by stopping the action of the painting (or rather, by arresting our reading of it), they pointed to the suspension of time that haunts the edge of history. Thus, Ramesh’s landscape were often stylised into still- life compositions, as though the fisher’s creel and the ribbed ketch had run aground on the easel. Thus, also, were his fishermen transmuted: their sunburnt torsos shone like those of Renaissance ignudi. Despite their avowed concern with the palpable, Ramesh’s canvases served as a stage for dramas of allegory: the layering of identities, the eruption of dream in life.

Over the past decade, accordingly, Ramesh’s paintings have described a flight away from the solidity of things, and towards the play of allegory. I would argue that this departure from retinally observed actuality constitutes a deeper engagement with the self and its commitments in the world, a more acute and astute record of reality. The incipient sense of reverie that animated Ramesh’s early work became heightened in his paintings of the late 1990s, as he began to dwell on a new pictorial logic: one that emphasised the symbolic implication of his images. In this period, his viewers encountered large, archetypal, even cosmological figures that could span body and landscape, containing universe yet transiting lightly among veils of colour. Ramesh also developed the strategy of the coded reference into a coherent language at this time: while acting as mythic provocations, his paintings also became activated as parables in the viewerly consciousness, parables that located the artist-self in relation to its practice, rehearsing the conflict between figuration and abstraction, the social responsibility implied by the former and the private pleasure indicated by the latter.

Ramesh’s large –scale paintings of 2002- 2004 carry these impulses forward, with their archetypal symbolisms, their unabashed intertextuality, their use of traditional narrative materials. They function as palimpsests, being layered over with the interplay of image and text, as well as several strata of images. Ramesh demonstrates his ability to tap into an archive of sources, recruiting such inherited idioms as the Tanjore glass painting and the kalamkari style of epic- making for his improvisation. The human figure remains at the centre of his exploration. Whether naked in the exposure of its instinctual drives or posed in the attitude of the heroic male nude, whether drafted in a coital posture of agitation refined to calm or standing in yogic self- mortification, it is the icon, at once, of vulnerability as well as power.

In the laboratory that is Ramesh’s pictorial space, we may assess the relationship among images and what they embody: the larger narratives of self, culture and society. His paintings develop a distinct iconography of desire, lust, passion and choice. Among the protagonist that inhabit Ramesh’s frames are the wise parrot, witness to human lust and cupidity and provider of caveats, whose seventy cautionary tales from the celebrated Shuka Saptati cycle. Here, too, we meet an ambivalent blue figure working a healing spell of formulating a curse: a shamanic figure posited between the cautionary parrot and the driven elephant of visceral need. Ramesh also proposes an Indra- Argos figure with a thousand all over his body, redolent of the sculpture of classical antiquity but with the blossom of desire exploding at his carefully poised feet and ghostly architectures of growth smothering the relics of Corinthian capitals around him. In Ramesh’s recent works, phantasms and fleshly bodies inhabit the same frame, so that each painting is vibrant with a sense of lives birthing and evaporating, situations that commit the self to migration as well as transmigration.

Desire appears in these paintings, also, as the pursuit of pleasure-as-capital in a consumerist society: the paradoxically insatiable need for satisfaction is incarnated by a forest of hands that reach out to solitary questor-sage figure, holding out fruit as well as weapons; those are holes he could play, things he could possess. Wisely, passes along a path cleared between these temptations. In another painting, the large figures of a coital couple, conjoined in a Kamasutra position, from a diagram within which a man is tortured in diverse ways, in a concourse of lives, by forbidding demons; his heads are cut off and collected in an enclosure, as though in a board game.

But if there are cautionary tales here, there are also survival strategies, in adopting the sage Ashtavakra as a self-portrait, Ramesh proposes an illumination: for Ashtavakra was a man of wisdom born in a body crooked in eight places, one for each mistake he heard his father make in reciting the Vedas while himself yet in the womb. Ashtavakra grew up to redeem his father from the hands of a more scholarly but egotistical rival. Can the artist, then, address and rescue his tradition by critique, placing his skills at the service of the vulnerable? Can he overcome his own debilities by asserting the primacy of knowledge and the quest for insight? For, in Ramesh’s memorable image, Ashtavakra may be broken, but he is also a flowering tree.

Ranjit Hoskote



Shridharani Gallery, New Delhi

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