You wished to be seen, read, heard and accepted on your own merits. And I agreed and believed it should be so. So I desisted from writing about your works, except once when I was compelled. It was your first show and Roshen Alkazi wanted me to write a text for the catalogue. It was a little embarrassing for both of us, but she was affectionately insistent and I succumbed. But this should please you. I am writing this on your behalf because Archana has a proposal. She has always been nice to you, and although the two of you never met she probably understood you. When without the stamp of art school training most others were unsure of how to respond to your work she was drawn to your paintings. She probably recognized that you were a storyteller and storytellers are not academics. She now wants to do a book on your work, put it in print so that others can look at them. I have been hesitating, you know how much more difficult it is for me to talk about your work now that you are not here. And yet, now that you are not here I have to speak for you.
You told stories well. You had a way with words. When you talked of your childhood words bloomed into images, just as a piece of cloth turned into a bouquet of flowers or into a rabbit in the hands of a magician. The green weed infested pond on the way to your school, into which you threw a stone and then hurried away without waiting to see the pond regain its placidness wary of being pursued by the spooks that lived there. The lonely village roads that you found long and ominous and yet drew you like some forbidden desire. The comfort and companionship you found in the guava tree at the far end of the woods behind your grandmother’s house when you were a little girl and stayed away from your parents. The maid who went to the village market every evening and brought back tales that enlivened the melancholic aura that enveloped your grandmother’s house; the houses in the neighbourhood and the people who lived there, you remembered everything and everything turned into stories in your memory.
When you narrated those stories I didn’t hear words but saw through your eyes. I urged you to write but you were reluctant. The only attempt you made was a poem. A poem full of images and the rustle of emotions crackling like dry leaves stirred by a summer afternoon wind. The luscious smell of rural Kerala which we knew as children mingled with the heaviness of adult life wafted through it. You laughed away my suggestion to send it to the editor of some Malayalam magazine and put it away. You did not easily throw away things but you often hid them away from others till you were ready to show it to them.
As you grew up the written word became your companion. You devoured everything you could lay your hands on, from pulp fiction in magazines to the finest literature. Your way with Malayalam words probably came from these long years of companionship. Books and writers were surrogate companions but what you longed for was to make images not write. You hunted down the stubs of red and blue pencils used for accounting in those days and made drawings with them. You made brushes crushing small plant stems, dipped them in writing ink and made drawings. When you finally got a small box of watercolours it was so precious that you preserved it more than you used it. In the 60s in rural Kerala wanting to become an image maker was a hopeless dream. There were plenty of visual experiences on offer connected with the traditional temple festivals and rituals. But the desire to make images as one wrote books to express one’s thoughts was alien. It was a desire that nobody understood. Perhaps not even you even as you took the first faltering steps.
As you grew up the urge to make images was suppressed. In any case there were so few art colleges and girls hardly joined them. Art itself was a bohemian fringe activity and like everyone else who were good in studies you took up science. You chose biology because you were impressed by the teacher who taught the subject. People were always important for you. You approved a person before you approved what he or she did. Your approval of your biology teacher at school eventually made you an entomologist. Even when you became a painter your friendships were never guided by your professional interests; your professional decisions were often guided by your friendships. Anyway what made you choose science also led you to leave it—people. You did not suffer from self-importance but you couldn’t stand humiliation. You refused to be humiliated even if it meant giving up things you valued and had cultivated through years of hard work.
First you became an entomologist by chance, and then you became a painter by chance. Our marriage brought you to Santiniketan, and having married an art historian you moved into a circle of artist friends and acquaintances. You suddenly found yourself surrounded by everything that you desired for as a girl and did not find. Initially you thought it had come a little too late, you were already an entomologist taken up with the study of rhinoceros beetles and keen on exploring how pheromones impacted their behaviour. But you began to look at the work of artists around and art published in books and journals, and participate in the conversations of artist friends as part of our shared life. When our son began to scribble you joined him as a mother who took interest in the activities of her child. Gradually your old dreams were rekindled and you began to paint more seriously. And when your academic aspirations were unexpectedly crushed you clung to it desperately.
With your penchant for proper education you worried over your lack of training. You even thought of joining the art college and beginning at the beginning. I did not encourage and you did not understand why. I have told this before but let me tell this once again. More than the training it is the milieu created by the coming together of creative people that is educative. The success of an art college lies in providing this milieu more than in the instruction it imparts. Informally you were already part of this milieu and in due course you will learn what needs to be learnt. And driven by an inner urgency I believed that it was not necessary and perhaps it would be difficult for you to submit to the external discipline of training. And now let me tell you what I did not clearly tell then. Though modern art schools are generally more open to diversity and are less regimental having just experienced how brutal academics can become when they feel hierarchies are undermined I did not want you to risk another bad experience.
You did not agree with my caution, but gave up the idea of seeking formal training. As an artist your first challenge was aesthetic. In literature, your taste was shaped by the realists. Tolstoy and Victor Hugo were your heroes, others in your pantheon included Chekov, Dickens and Dostoyevsky, Premchand and Bibuthibushan and the Malayalam writers of the fifties, sixties and seventies. In short the realists and their existentialist successors. Educated by this reading, for you modern art which moved away from visual narration and representation to experimenting with pictorial forms was a vexed issue.
Do you now remember how baffled you were when you first encountered Picasso’s Guernica? And yet how one morning after studying the painting and the drawings related to it you began to respond excitedly to the intensity of sensations Picasso expressed through the transformation of forms? You found this not by reading what art scholars had written about it but through a kind of satori aided by intense looking. You did not read much on paintings anyway, you believed that novels and stories are to be read and paintings to be seen. You did not know how to translate the aesthetic values of the novels you loved into an equivalent visual style. And how you painted did not concur with the aesthetic you had cultivated. But there was a dormant sensibility within that was different from the taste you had cultivated. And luckily your sensibilities were keener and more modern than your acquired taste. To become a painter you had to recognize this part of yourself which you had not realized or so far and call it into existence. But you did this not gradually but pretty fast.
In your first paintings images were stumbled upon rather than called forth. They were not preconceived; they usually grew from a blob of colour you laid on the paper. They did not represent or resemble anything you had seen. They came from within you and then grew like a child from an embryo or a plant from a seed. You were more like a mother and a nurse than an architect or a builder. As they grew you came to know them and recognized some of your own traits in them. Drawing nurture from the light of imagination and following pathways towards the open sky they grew until the whole paper was filled to the brim. You did not try to direct or prune their growth, perhaps you couldn’t, like an over indulgent mother you merely gave them everything you had. You did not try to civilize your paintings making them adhere to some norm of composition; you allowed them to grow boisterously.
Although you never said it, wasn’t there an autobiographical underpinning to your images? You were certainly there, in some both of us were present, in others we were surrounded by people whom you had known, mostly of people you had known when you were younger. Yet without your telling I would not have known this easily because we appear as others in them; just as we sometimes become others in our dreams everything metamorphosed in your paintings into something else. Temporal separations did not matter and neither did space. Faces, birds and fishes materialized in the oddest of interspaces, a hat worn by a figure in the foreground metamorphosed into the hair of a woman in the distance as it rose upwards. Your scale was poetic rather than naturalistic.
In other words in your early paintings you did not represent, you projected. You knitted partial motifs, and parts of different animals and figures into parti-coloured paratactic lace. In them you plumbed your mind; you reached down to your early memories and pulled up things in bits and pieces. Like a record of chance encounters made on a walk they were a random mix of fragments and yet unified like a dream. Reading-in was also your way of looking at paintings, for instance you saw phantom presences in Cezanne’s paintings more than a structured presentation of the visible. I thought you were reading-in a bit too copiously but perhaps you were right. Since then I have read T. J. Clark’s ‘Freud’s Cezanne’ in which Clark like you sees a trail of ambivalent anatomical condensations and shadowy double figures in Cezanne’s paintings and argues that ‘the picture invites—I would say coerces— such reading-in.’
For you art was a lifeline at a time of personal crisis and that made you anxious about the reception of your paintings. While you folded and stowed away your poem you wanted your paintings to be seen and accepted. You were terribly upset when a long time friend did not find time to visit your exhibition. You were equally elated when a distinguished critic remembered your works from the first exhibition and came home on a later visit to Santiniketan to see your works even though you had never known her closely. I was, you held, the uncomforting resident critic. You definitely didn’t like my reluctance to discuss a painting that was yet to be completed. In contrast our friend Deepak was your fervent supporter from the beginning. With considerable talent and always bubbling with ideas he was a master of beginnings and a friend to everyone starting off on a new course. Almost every second day he visited us and never left without looking at your work in progress and saying something encouraging. And then there was Mani-da (K. G. Subramanyan) who looked at your first body of small works on paper and said with a teacher’s shrewdness, ‘you are on the right track.’
You chose story over history and material details over abstract patterns. When we discussed books we had read you always remembered the characters, what they did and the words they spoke, while I only remembered the flavour of the book and the place it occupied in the library of history. Your training as an entomologist had also perhaps sharpened your eye for details. Body parts of beetles scanned under the electron microscope opened up a hidden web of signs and in them you discovered new stories to narrate. As your ability for conscious innovation slowly supplemented involuntary imagination, your love for details seeped into your paintings. As they began to be consciously pursued they took on a decorative character. Sometimes the decorative patterns threw a veil over a dystopian vision and sometimes the ornamentation took on a sharp or violent edge like when you adorned the dress of a blissful couple with razor blades and severed heads.
You gradually found a way of looking beyond yourself and talking about the world, often in an ironic way. The boundaries between the world within and the world outside began to dissolve. Your experience and your opinions flowed into each other and became an undifferentiated confluence. And the more this happened, men receded from your paintings and your images spoke more and more in the voice of a woman. I remember our nephew who was only three then looking at your paintings and concluding that there were no men in your pictures. That wasn’t literally true but he wasn’t entirely wrong either. The female presence in your work was always strong and they became even more emphatic as you began to write the male figures into the margins and out of your paintings. Men did not figure prominently in your stories, nor did their bodies receive the centrality, suppleness and the gestural amplifications you bestowed on the bodies of women.
Your stories were essentially women’s stories and you recognised the social unfairness women were subjected to. But your reference was subtle and without the title occasionally one could have missed it. The homophonic ‘sun’ in Suns and Daughters suddenly transforms the blazing yellow suns decoratively scattered across the deep blue sky into scoffed at counterparts to the earth bound figures of women and girls. But at the same time through the stark diagonal division of the canvas into earth and sky you both underscored and mocked at the overt binary association it invoked. Seeing the world from a woman’s perspective came naturally to you but you refused to wear the mantle of a feminist. Perhaps your training as a biologist and your own research into how body chemicals triggered animal behaviour made you suspect the feminist negation of biological difference. And one of your paintings was teasingly titled He Man, She Man. But should I remind you that for all your social mild manneredness you were at core never compliantly feminine, you simply believed that women merits social equality without forgoing her biological differences.
In your paintings too, a soft surface of decorative patterns hid a harder core of passions. The efflorescence of decorative details with which you covered the canvas was as deceptive as it was enticing. Usually it made your paintings look calm and pleasing but like flowering aquatic weeds that carpet vast lakes they hid deep waters of emotions beneath. Perhaps continuing the habits of your lonely childhood you lived a lot in the inner world of thoughts and feelings. You wanted to be truthful but was reluctant to let others in. So you wrapped yourself in a mantle of embroidered beauty and did not allow the deeper currents to disturb the surface easily. You ensured that only those who were keen eyed and discerned the hidden signs were let in. And even for them reading your pictures was like wading through a submerged garden.
Very rarely you allowed the currents within to show on the surface of your paintings as you did in your penultimate painting, the Crab Girl—her posture oscillating ambivalently between that of a disbalanced and a dancing figure, her body enmeshed in a tangle of clawing crabs embellishing her dress, and surrounded by a sea of staring masks. But, painted between cycles of chemotherapy, even here you managed to turn her struggle into dance and rhythm just as you had succeeded in burying your anxieties behind hopeful smiles.
You believed in chance, you wouldn’t say fate, but chance. Life seems to have taught you that chance is the promise of possibilities, fate a denial of freedom. As a painter you were gradually learning to use chance and guide your pictures towards your thoughts and desires. But even the shrewdest of us are built to stumble. And when we stumble death who is always stalking us strikes and as fate’s ally and agent takes away the initiative from us. Even as you hopefully took every chance your body stumbled and life ended abruptly like a video game. And now that you are gone I remain watching the footsteps you have left across the sand dunes of memories, guarding them from being blown away.