Painter Who Also Sang as a Teenager
Almost six decades have passed since A Ramachandran left Kerala, but not many in even his native Thiruvananthapuram district know that the world-renowned artist has had a brief but interesting tryst with music in his formative years. From his childhood till the mid-teens, Ramachandran used to sing—something that only a few old-timers remember these days.
Today, Ramachandran, who is a Delhiite for more than five decades, is 80 years old. If a Padma award came looking for him a decade ago (the ‘Bhushan’, in 2004), it was deservedly for his contributions to the world of visual art. But then, rewind to the painter-sculptor’s younger days, and one can learn that he used to receive training in classical south Indian music. That was in the village he was born: Attingal, which is today a small town down in the southern Indian state.
In fact, the boy even performed at All India Radio. “Well, that wasn’t proper Carnatic concert. It was kind of semi-classical,” recalls Ramachandran, who also speaks Bengali with ease — courtesy his days as a student-researcher in the famed Santiniketan of eastern India.
Ramachandran, who moved to Visva-Bharati University in 1957 to pursue the study of art under stalwarts like Ramkinkar Baij, Nandalal Bose and Benodebehari Mukherjee, went on to do a whole range of work that revels in creativity rich with shades of exposure to varied cultures of India and the rest of the world. While his early paintings were an angry young man’s anxious and emotional response to human suffering, the style underwent tremendous changes over the decades — more so from the 1970s which also saw a diversification of his interests and activities, according to renowned art historian R Siva Kumar, a Kerala-born professor with Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan.
Ramachandran’s famed and monumental mural-sized Yayati done in the mid-1980s ended his engagement with darker side of human predicament. His more recent paintings portray a celebratory pageant of sensuous beauty.
Today, Ramachandran remembers with amusement the streak of tension he would undergo while singing as a teenager at the Thiruvananthapuram radio station studio. “This red light (during instrumental music interlude) would go green, and that would be the moment you will have to resume your vocals. You have to notice the colour change and proceed,” he says. The late Thrissur P Radhakrishnan was then the director of the station.
Ramachandran began studying music methodically from age five, and went on with the exercise for eleven years. “I discontinued it in 1951, when our family shifted from Attingal to Thiruvananthapuram.”
So, how come lessons in music? “Oh, that used to be typical of our region those days. If you are into a reasonably well-off family and in southern Travancore, the children would study Carnatic music,” he reveals.
In fact, Ramachandran had his sister and brother learning the saptaswaras (seven basic notes) with him at their sprawling Attingal home under a neighbourhood teacher called Ramakrishnan Bhagavatar, who was basically a violinist. “My guru died only recently. His father, Raman Bhagavatar, used to teach my maternal aunt,” he adds.
Ramachandran remembers that his family friends included Krishnan Nair, the father of new-age playback singer K S Chithra, and Kamukara Purushothaman who used to be a popular vocalist of his times.
The teenager also used to be a regular at the Kathakali nights in the locality during temple festivals. The colour and movements of the mythological characters in the classical dance-drama used to entice him. “I seldom missed the shows at Trippadapuram temple in Kulathoor,” he says.
Not that Ramachandran began sketching and painter only later. Drawing was part of his life since the toddler days. In a memoir, the artist notes he would, as a child, “carefully planned to break open the almirah (at home), take the colour box, use it and keep it back as if nothing had happened”.
Then, he was “barely twelve when I painted my Mona Lisa”, the artist notes in Sketchbook of Childhood. The muse was the family’s maid servant called Narayani, “the only woman I saw in my childhood who smoked” and with whom he had a love-hate relationship.
“Why don’t you do my portrait instead of spoiling the wall,” she asked sarcastically. “I took up the challenge…my Mona Lisa had arranged her turban and was standing with a patronising smile on her face. I made her life-size portrait on the wall with Indian red and black which might have looked like a Byzantine fresco copied by a child,” narrates Ramachandran.
Then, in 1957, after doing his MA, the youngster left for Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal for higher studies in art. Rest, as they say, is history.
The artist, who has been living in Delhi since 1964, taught art at Jamia Millia Islamia in the city for 27 years before taking voluntary retirement. In 2002, he was elected a Fellow at the Central Lalit Kala Akademi.
The next year, Ramachandran was awarded the Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram. In 2005, he was conferred the Padma Bhushan — the country’s third-highest civilian honour.
Leading art conservator-writer Rupika Chawla notes that Ramachandran always integrated himself with Indian tradition and environment, deriving faith and nourishment from his roots. “For him, as a prolific reader, western precepts and art history have relevance only when redefined for a specific purpose or analogy,” she adds.
Ramachandran was 78 when he held his first show in Kerala—as recently as in 2013, when Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery organised it in Kochi’s Durbar Hall Gallery.
(The writer is a freelance journalist and media consultant based in Delhi.)