My mother Mini entered the world of colours when she tied the knot with my father, an art historian by profession. But it was in 2000 that she finally decided to put down the test tubes and take up brushes, devoting herself completely to painting. I was glad she did so because it was wonderful to have her around, rather than in the faraway lab, into which she daily disappeared for long hours. Her newly acquired designation of ‘painter’ was also fairly easy to pronounce compared to the difficult nomenclature ‘entomologist’, which slithered and lost all its meaning on my young tongue.
One evening just like that she began painting a new chapter into life. She hesitantly drew on a white drawing-paper, with some old watercolours of father’s. Although her vibrant colours used to steal my eyes, I kept reminding her that I was her senior in painting! She would graciously agree and tell me, I drew better than she. And I suppose she wasn’t totally lying to keep my heart. After all I had been at it for two years then and was attending painting classes at school!!
‘Why do you always draw half a person?’ I remember asking her once. And she had burst into laughter knowing well that her young son had figured out her weakness. But soon there were full-figures, and with time they grew in size and vigour, became more and more flexible, alive with the movements of life. And one day suddenly it struck me that she had surpassed my drawing skills. Although my lingering childishness restrained me from ever admitting to her this simple fact, I no longer could draw the figures or capture the kind of movement and liveliness she effortlessly achieved.
With that unprecedented defeat I became curious. I developed the habit of peeping over her shoulders trying to figure out what she was up to; always keen on overhearing the stories her characters whispered between each other and to us. She wanted people to listen, listen to the stories she painted and the characters told, and whenever we all engaged in a conversation, she was more than happy.
Primarily, stories from her childhood or her day to day life made their way into the paintings. On one such instance, after watching the Hindi film Road she was quite impressed by the suppleness of the actress. Soon afterwards she made a painting with an agile girl at the centre. Her buoyant legs wrapped in perfect marine blue trouser supported a drifting boat, and her hair was transformed into a ‘road’ with traffic moving on it. The myriad landscape around the girl – representing diverse geographies with their respective animal inhabitants is reminiscent of the stunning visuals across the length and breadth of the film. When the film got painted onto a paper the story changed, but the basic thrill remained the same in the reincarnation.
The deeper I looked the clearer the images became, the stronger they spoke. I began reading her stories from their moment of birth, when the wet brush touched the paper and colours spread across its surface. Once the diluted light shade of a colour was applied to the surface, the shade would be expanded to the limits of the emerging figure. Then there would be several figures forming, popping into existence and setting the background of her tale. This is how the paintings came to life with stories of all kinds.
But there was nothing ‘permanent’ in the paintings till she put her signature. Usually on my each return from school, as I hastily climbed the stairs and reached the corner where she stood painting, I saw new faces and textures staring at me in place of familiar faces and known textures.
Initially as a child her colourful paintings seemed beautiful, later as a self-claimed but immature critic I thought they were rather decorative. This was the time when she started painting big canvases. Some spread across the walls, some were hung, while others neatly stacked in the corridor. This was the time when colours covered the walls, and life-size figures sauntered the floor. And I felt for the first time their growth along with mine. However, her paintings grew without subscribing to didactic principles. They grew faster, they dazzled everybody and developed in ways I could not – they always complied with her wishes and loyally submitted to her right to recreate and modify. In my tryst with her paintings, we assumed parallel paths.
I never knew my mother as a conscious feminist but when I look back now, it is interesting to see that there is a special place for females in her works. There are lots of female characters in her paintings from different sections of the society; women of all ages, in different moods and with distinct wants. In her paintings, through the combined vision of the artist and from the perspective of her subjects, their worlds have been unveiled.
In the painting called Inside Story the story referred to is hers. The painting has her as a doppelgänger; simultaneously juggling the roles of a wife and the painter. Our cook at that time made her way into the canvas as well. ‘And the little leg at the corner is yours’ she had told me. The dog in it was my stuffed toy dog, whose being painted was quite accidental. While she was working on this canvas, one day the power went off. So a candle was lit, and the shadow of my stuffed puppy fell on her canvas.
As a zoologist zealously hooked to the kingdom of bugs and animals, she was not only familiar with their anatomy, but enjoyed seeing them move about in communes. She had a penchant for crowds. She would often observe their grumpy, morbid and funny faces, taking mental note of their bulging tummies and slender build, their donning and dressing, while keenly listening to the unique sounds they made while sneezing, laughing, or simply chit-chatting in the street corners and market places. Thus the festive season was a treat when people flocked-in in large crowds, and yet at times walking alone, unaware of the rest.
Once, when we were returning from Kerala the train stopped at a deserted place with merely a handful people in sight. As the clock ticked away I grew restive. To distract me and while away time, she offered to play a game with me. We were to observe the unknown people and guess what they were thinking, where they were headed to and to do what. And eventually we started to make up stories about them. And as new characters came into our vision, new stories were born. Caught up in the old stories, they became more convoluted with intricate characters, but surely more interesting and fun.
From these observations and minute detailing of hers, she knit webs across the canvas. Layers of paint coincided, turned into a mixture of true colours from life, enhancing her creations. And the complexity in each part of her canvas grew as she matured as a painter; it narrated stories, invoked feelings and made a connection between different worlds and beings. Her paintings never made bold statements; they never explicitly expressed her opinion about the state of the world, or what it should be, but simply reflected the world breathing within.
In the last days of battling cancer, it was her creations that motivated her and gave her strength. Transcending physical weakness painting kept her spirits high. At this moment, what I thought was beautiful proved to be deceitful and the veil of decoration wore off. They were no mere art objects occupying walls and floors. They were breathing characters, occupying a space around and within us. As time elapsed in her absence, I learnt to find her hidden in the paintings and discovered her existence in me. It was like twins sitting across a table, tallying their resemblance and marking out differences, and in the process, discovering more and more about their parents, in this case about their creator. Her paintings and I, twins who once walked parallel paths, came together – like railway tracks running into one another near the horizon. Every now and then waking up to her complex world and empathising with its inhabitants in familial affection, I rediscover myself against her canvas as one of her nicely dressed intricate characters.
Click here to read R. Siva Kumar’s reminiscence of his late wife.
Find beneath images from the upcoming book on Mini Sivakumar.
Alice Walking Her Cat (2007)
He Man She Man (2009)
Adam’s Daughter (2007)
World of Small Things (2008)
Crab Girl (2010)
Crab Girl (2010)
The Bargain (2009)