Emotional ecstasy: painter V. Ramesh

Emotional ecstasy and those mystic muses
Painter V. Ramesh on painting four female poets and their experience of mysticism
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V. Ramesh at the NGMA in Bangalore. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
The painter, V. Ramesh, is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bangalore, talking about four female poets and their experience of mysticism. All around us are Ramesh’s large canvases, depicting these four women poets who have been a source of inspiration for his recent work. Ramesh discovered them in the library of the Ramana ashram in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu. He began reading their poetry, mostly through English translations. “Though they were separated by centuries and geographies, the emotional ecstasy that permeated their work moved me,” he says.
The earliest of these female mystic poets, Karaikkal Ammaiyar, lived in the fifth century. She was one of the 63 Nayanmars who composed hymns in praise of the Hindu god Shiva. She wanted the lord to strip away her beauty so that she could worship him without distractions. Frail and emaciated, she worshipped the lord and became the subject of a beautiful Chola bronze. She appears in Ramesh’s painting in the form of a skeleton.
The second female mystic who has influenced this painter is Andal, an eighth century Tamil mystic. Andal is the only female among the 12 Alvar saints who worshipped the god Vishnu whose influence still permeates society. For my wedding, I wore what is called an “Andal kondai”, which is a chignon tied on the right side of your head. To this day, girls who grow up in Chennai learn to sing the Andal Tirupaavai, particularly in the winter (the Tamil month of Margazhi). My favourite rendition is by Sudha Raghunathan (Andal Tirupaavai).
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The daughter of Periyalwar, Andal was discovered under a bush and raised in an atmosphere of devotion. She would create garlands for Vishnu, which her father would take to the temple. Andal would try them on first and then hand them over for the temple. Her father discovered her doing this and chastized her. He made her create a new garland. One night, Lord Vishnu appeared in his dream and said he wanted the garland Andal had tried on. “The god wanted the garland that Andal created because he missed the scent of her body,” says Ramesh.
“There is so much closeness, intimacy and sensuality in that story. In fact, Andal was caught because her father discovered her hair on the garland, and I have portrayed that in my painting.” Ramesh has painted a tuberose garland against a deep-blue background to depict Andal’s use of garlands to access her lord. She died at 15, after composing two famous volumes of Tamil poetry: the Thiruppavai and the Nachiyar Tirumozhi.
The third female mystic who is depicted through falling jasmine flowers in Ramesh’s painting is Akka Mahadevi, who lived in 12th century Karnataka. Akka means “didi” or elder sister. Her Kannada poetry is known for its mysticism and feminism. Her deity of choice was Chenna Mallikarjuna and her vachanas are still spoken and sung in Karnataka. Like the other mystics, Mahadevi too walked out on her family, not an easy thing to do at the time. “All these female mystics had the courage to leave their homes at a time when it was not common,” says Ramesh. “Their spirituality gave them strength and a loophole to find their way out of unhappy relationships.”
The last female mystic who has made her way into Ramesh’s painting is the 14th century poet, Lal Ded. Chased out of home by her mother-in-law, Lal Ded walked around naked. A merchant gave her a piece of cloth to cover her nakedness. She tore it into two and wore them on either shoulder. Whenever someone ridiculed or criticized her, she tied a knot in the cloth on her right shoulder. Whenever someone praised her, she tied a knot on the cloth on her left shoulder. At the end of the day, she showed the merchant that there were an equal number of knots on both sides. “These are apocryphal metaphors that tell you that you should take praise and criticism with equanimity,” says Ramesh.
I liked some of Ramesh’s earlier work—a red suffused heart inspired by eighth-century poet Manikkavachakar, titled Flood My Heart With Your Tender Mercy, and a self-portrait with a tiger. While the emotional exaltation that spirituality offers interests him, the concept of bhakti (devotion) has been co-opted by religious fundamentalists, he says ruefully.
I had not heard of Ramesh. He teaches and paints in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. He lives with his wife and has a fairly regular routine. He teaches in the morning, has lunch and a siesta, and spends the afternoons in his studio. In the evening, he listens to Carnatic music and reads. “Not much of socializing,” he says. He speaks passionately about Carnatic music and its musicians. Palghat Mani Iyer, he says, would not play for female musicians till his daughter married D.K. Pattammal’s son. He wouldn’t play his mridangam even for people like M.S. Subbulakshmi. Only after he became the sammandhi of D.K. Pattammal would he play for her.
The painter’s dilemma is to convey the emotions that he says are easier expressed through poetry and music. “How to paint emotional ecstasy? How to convey it?”
Before meeting Ramesh, I phoned art collector Abhishek Poddar, who is on the board of the NGMA to do a sort of due diligence on this artist I had not heard of. Poddar owns some of Ramesh’s works but I don’t think he is biased when he says: “There are some artists who get their due, some who get more than their due and some who get less than their due. Ramesh belongs to the last category. He is a thinking artist who doesn’t churn out formulaic work.”
I think Ramesh, whose works are priced at Rs.7 lakh-25 lakh, is a scholar who is also an artist. He is interested in mysticism, poetry, music, books and art. When I talk about Ponduru cotton, he says he wears dhotis made with hand-spun Ponduru cotton and plans to wear one to the opening of his own show.
Ramesh’s works are riveting. His dhoti might be too.
V. Ramesh’s works will be on display at the NGMA in Bangalore from 5 February-25 March. The show is supported by Gallery Threshold.
Shoba Narayan plans to read A.K. Ramanujan’s translated poetry after this meeting.

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