Vasudevan Akkitham’s images are playful but also critique the violence against the forest and its denizens
Drawing and sketching are a compulsory part of any artist’s life. Even for students of art history, observing form and translating it into quick lines is a daily practice. It is this regular act of drawing and sketching that informs Vasudevan Akkitham’s artistic journey as well. The sketchbook, unlike the finished painting, is private, but Delhi’s art-going crowd got a glimpse of that private world for the first time this October.
The 60-year-old Akkitham’s solo exhibition, ‘This Side of the Forest’, which concluded recently at Shridharani Gallery in New Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam, came six years after his last show. Unlike his show at India Habitat Centre in 2012, which comprised mainly large works, this exhibition showcased a collection of assorted sketchbooks, maintained over a period of 15 years, with a selection of more recent small-format paintings — pastel on paper and oil on canvas. As fellow painter Rekha Rodwittiya says, “The sketchbook is like a portable fantasy world, carried without ceremony, unnoticed. In the studio, it is these miniatures that bloom into larger, ordered and designed representations of his personal philosophies.”
Soft spidery lines
The sketchbooks were mounted uniquely: rows of raw pages torn out of the book were sandwiched between glass and held together with wooden frames. In conjunction with the paintings, they provided a deeper insight into Akkitham’s artistic process. The sketches can be enjoyed in themselves — head studies, figures curled up in repose or seated, alert, doodles, and hints of compositions all unfolding in soft spidery lines.
“In a time of blockbuster shows, with larger-than-life artworks, I wanted to take a risk and show something small and intimate. These small-format artworks are something I’ve been working on recently and the return to oils has allowed me to move back and forth between artworks,” said Akkitham, adding with a slow smile, “Perhaps I would not have shown the sketchbooks, but Rekha convinced me and I am glad she did.”
While the human is central to Akkitham’s composition, wildlife and the forest play an important role in his fantasy landscapes. Some of these spaces are from the artist’s memory, without any reference to a real place. At the exhibition, there were suburban homes blending in with the forest, where tigers come visiting for a ‘Night Prowl’; in ‘Circus’, a bear sits sullenly atop a table, clearly in no mood to perform. Sometimes a flight of herons appears to share a meal with a woman on a bench; in ‘Waiting’, an ominous flight of crows seems to mark a lone woman’s anxiety.
In these landscapes, a mysterious, dream-like quality is heightened by the artist’s choice of colours, which don’t subscribe to a naturalistic palette. There is ample use of strong colours like black, red, brown and, in some instances, pink or blue. The colours set the mood of the painting as much as the subject matter. The strokes are broad and the animal and man forms emerge from years of study, but they are highly painterly and not in the least photo-realist. Akkitham’s animals have personality, which is an expression of the artist’s internal dialogue with nature.
“The subject of my work remains the same. It is a preoccupation with a landscape of ideation that will always hold the politics of my being. The works depict people and animals and talk about homelands and displacements and refugees,” says Akkitham, who is from Palakkad in Kerala. The painter who studied at the College of Fine Arts in Thiruvananthapuram has never forgotten his roots, even after exposure to the narrative school of painting in Baroda and studying at the Royal College of Art in London in the late 80s.
The landscape of his boyhood continues to find expression in his paintings and his father’s poetry resounds in the metaphors he chooses to shape. Though the works are playful, they also critique the underlying violence against forests and their denizens.
A painting titled ‘Nest’, with its underplayed theatricality, fascinated me. It depicts a man bent over, and a bird has built a nest on his back. They are watched over by a benign elephant, barely discernible against the tawny landscape.
Akkitham explained its significance: “There was the story of a fakir within me when I started doing this.” While bending for namaz, the fakir senses that a bird has landed on his back with a twig in its beak and has begun to build a nest. Time passes: he remains still until the bird completes the nest, lays eggs, the chicks grow and fly away. “Maybe this patience and empathy is totally alien to us, in our time. What I am hoping to do with these images is to freeze them… both real and unreal,” says the artist.
The writer is a critic-curator by day, and a creative writer and visual artist by night.