Emotional ecstasy: painter V. Ramesh

Emotional ecstasy and those mystic muses
Painter V. Ramesh on painting four female poets and their experience of mysticism
Shoba Narayan Mail Me
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).

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.

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Museum makeover 101

This piece began with a simple question: why did we as a family visit museums so often while living in NYC and why don’t we go to museums so often in India? Jazz Fridays was a favorite ritual for us when our daughter was a toddler. We would strap her up in the stroller, and walk through the Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side, listening to jazz and seeing the exhibits. Ditto for the Guggenheim. When we went for a fancy schmansy corporate retreat thingie at Pebble Beach in California, the company that had invited us held their gala dinner at the Marine Museums amidst the tanks of sharks and fish. Museums have to figure out how to integrate themselves with “life.” Food, wine, music, drama, people, parties. Museums need art, but they also need all of the above to survive.

The Indian museum makeover 101

Museums have to be cultural centres of communities, drawing people in
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Aug 31 2013. 12 08 AM IST
The Homi Bhabha collection at Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art. Photo: S. Kumar/Mint

The “Aims and Objectives” section of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) website was so spot on, it took my breath away. It began with the usual stuff about acquiring, organizing and preserving art. It ended with the following lyrical lines. “Above all, the NGMA helps people to look at the works of modern art with greater joy, understanding and knowledge by extending their relationship with our daily life and experiencing them as vital expressions of the human spirit”.
Even for a sceptic of museums, the lines sing. Joy, understanding, link to life, and—this is key— “vital expressions of the human spirit”. What more can an art institution aspire to? Whoever wrote those lines had an intuitive understanding of art in the Indian context.
What does the NGMA do to further these aims? The Delhi website is a yawn. The Mumbai one is more vibrant. There is a workshop on mask making every Wednesday and Saturday, talks on Rabindranath Tagore, gallery walks and painting competitions. The Bangalore NGMA, without bias even though it is my home city, is the best of all. There are workshops, family days, school visits, and a whole slew of “Outreach” programmes that link films, theatre and dance to art.
I don’t go to the NGMA Bangalore nearly as often as I’d like to; and I am a confessed art lover. Many other people I know have never been to this institution. They don’t understand modern art, they say. Their children could have drawn something better. I feebly tell them that the museum is housed in a lovely old mansion with trees that will calm them down. Using trees to sell a museum is sad.
Wikipedia lists a total of 55,000 museums in 202 countries. India has, by my rough count, about 200. The list is somewhat confused by including planetariums and train museums along with art museums. There must be a dozen art museums of merit in India. What are the aims and objectives of these museums? In this Internet age, this isn’t a trivial question, given that more and more museums are putting up their collections online and anyone with a computer can see these. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has just hired my friend, Sree Sreenivasan to be their chief digital officer. Museums in India cannot afford to be just repositories of art. They have to be community centres. They have to reimagine the museum experience in the Indian context. It can be simple things. For example:
• Indians don’t like large empty spaces. Most museums are large empty spaces, designed along the lines of museums in the West. Indian museums are better off if they are a collection of small interlinking rooms that plays to our tolerance of, and comfort in, crowds.
• If you took a survey of art lovers who don’t visit museums, the reason most would state would be traffic. Museums have to figure out a way to take their art to the people (since the people are not coming to the art anyway). Rather than housing the art in a mansion, philanthropically inclined collectors should consider putting the art in a temperature-controlled warehouse, insure the heck out of it and then take it to large companies, colleges and other places where people congregate. Public art needs to be viewed in a new way in India. More like art for the public.
• Just as cricket reinvented itself with the Indian Premier League, museums need to rethink their function. The Guggenheim in New York holds music concerts within its spaces. You sip a glass of wine, listen to the music and look at art. The Museum of Modern Art could be rented by high-paying corporations for private parties. Why not do the same in Indian museums with their beautiful spaces? The model already exists in the West: they have figured out how to protect the art work and how much to charge. Dom Pérignon recently unveiled one of its vintages in Jodhpur at the Umaid Bhawan Palace. Why not rent the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai for events such as this? Companies such as Rémy Martin, which did an event recently in Udaipur, would certainly be potential clients. They have deep pockets and Mumbai is more accessible to international visitors.
In 1999, Stephen Weil, a scholar at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, wrote a seminal essay about museums. Titled “From being about something to being for somebody: The ongoing transformation of the American art museum”, the piece argues that museums have to be exactly what the NGMA’s aim and objective is. Museums have to be cultural centres of communities, drawing people in. This should be understood “not as a surrender but quite literally as a fulfillment”, said Weil.
One simple way to wrap your head around this concept is to think of museums not as being in the “salvage and warehouse” business as a museum administrator put it, but as serving an educational purpose. Museums as malls? It may be heresy to some but that’s the way art was displayed in the past in our own country. Doubters need only to visit some of our ancient temples where thoroughfares to the deity were dotted with the art of the day.

Shoba Narayan would love to drink a Nandi Hills wine at the NGMA Bangalore, amid the Tagore paintings. The poet would have approved.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns


I’ve been visiting a lot of museums lately. And getting irritated by them. We charge so little as entrance fee. I would happily pay 300 Rupees for the Raja Ravi Varma museum in Trivandrum housed in an old mansion; or for the NGMA in Bangalore. But I don’t need to. When I go in, there is so few people. This column is a rant really.

Want the arts to flourish? Get educated
Along with constructing foundations and museums, consider audience participation
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Aug 24 2013. 12 05 AM IST

When was the last time you visited a museum or gallery? And what did you do there? Art exhibition openings don’t qualify: they are social, not artistic events. I visited a museum last to see the interesting Homelands exhibit organized by the British Council; and the exhibit of Tagore’s paintings and drawings at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, which begged the question: Would the art have interested viewers if the artist had not been Rabindranath Tagore?

I’ve been thinking about funding for the arts and have come to a rather sobering conclusion. We are doing it all wrong. The good news? It is fixable.

The arts are at a crossroads in India. The big name artists have checked out. They create for a global, mostly Western audience. The upcoming artists pander to international tastes as well; walking the tightrope between making their work accessible while remaining “authentically” Indian. Indian collectors such as the Poddars, Nadars, Goenkas, are figuring out what to do with their collections. I have a suggestion for them: along with constructing foundations and museums, consider audience participation.
Starting in early 2001, the non-profit global policy think tank Rand Corporation released a series of fascinating reports on the arts in the US, which should be required reading for anyone operating in the visual and performing arts space. One of these reports, A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts, begins with the following sentences. “Many arts institutions are re-examining their missions and their roles in what has become an increasingly complex arts environment. Concurrently, arts policy appears to be shifting its focus from influencing the supply and quality of the arts to increasing the public access to and experience with the arts.”

What was true in 2001 in the US is true in the India of today. The visual arts are fuelled by a stunningly small ecosystem of artists, collectors, gallerists, writers and historians, many of who treat art as a function of the economy rather than an endeavour that is embedded in a society. Because contemporary visual art is so specialized, it is in danger of being irrelevant to Indian lives. Rather than being stakeholders, the general public is disengaged with the arts. They couldn’t care less what happens to the painters and sculptors who are supposed to be visual representatives of our times.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Let us begin with museums. They are in danger of becoming redundant. A terribly small percentage of the Indian population enters its portals and those that do, don’t understand what’s inside. This is because museums function like zoos. They contain art in a closed space and expect that the abundance of art will give people a chance to appreciate them. This may work in modern Western societies, which are prone to compartmentalization and specialization, but it doesn’t for us. The Indian aesthetic—like that of Bali, Vietnam and the East—is intertwined with life and rooted in serendipity. You go about your business at a temple and suddenly come upon a sculpture that speaks to you. My bicycle repair man has an altar decorated with tiny photos of Christ, compiled into a collage and decorated with yellow paper flowers. Amid the punctured bicycle tyres and metal elements, it provides as much solace as good art.

We mix work and play; families and friends. We eschew boundaries. Yet, our museums and galleries have steadfastly followed the Western model of cordoning artwork instead of coming up with a new model; a new paradigm of displaying art: one that is both appropriate for our culture and does justice to the work.

India doesn’t need more art spaces. It needs arts education. It needs to bring the general public up to speed with what’s going on in the contemporary art world. As the Rand Corporation reports say, three things are needed for an aesthetic experience: supply (which we have in abundance); access; and the capacity for individual viewers to engage in and enjoy the work (demand). Indian art institutions have failed abysmally to cultivate demand. Cultivating demand isn’t about marketing campaigns and public outreach. It is much more systemic and embedded in society. Corporate houses can sponsor art appreciation workshops that will help put art in context. Knowing the jargon of art will help viewers discuss it with each other. Art will never become cricket; but the way that the game has changed to suit audience needs is a good model about adapting to demand.

Assume that the planet Mars is colonized; that humans have found a way to sustain life there. Who would we need to get society going? First on the list of people that we would put on the spaceship out to Mars would be the builders and architects of our spaces: city planners, sanitation engineers and urban developers. Next would be the professionals who provide important services: doctors, nurses, fire fighters, school and college teachers, bus and taxi drivers, and retail workers. With each successive spaceship, a new set of professionals would make their way to Mars, imbuing that society with efficiency, order and communication. The final spaceship would carry those people who would give this brave new world on Mars its soul: dancers, musicians, artists, poets, philosophers, thinkers and writers—people who have no obvious “use” in a society but are the bedrock of a civilized world. For many of us, living in a world without the arts is unthinkable. Listening to music helps us connect with our souls; watching and participating in dance gives joy to our spirit; good theatre holds up a mirror to our lives and thoughts; and the visual arts provoke our psyche while quieting it at the same time. Yet, how many Indians are engaged with the arts in a meaningful way? Very few. I reckon that if you ask the average Indian walking on the street whether Mars needs artists, he will scratch his head and say, “not really”. That is the fallacy that those passionate about the arts have to change.

Shoba Narayan believes that the arts should be brought amid the people since getting the people into arts spaces doesn’t seem to be working. Ergo, think like Carl Hagenbeck who changed the paradigm for zoos.

Arts funding

Like most journalists, I get lots of requests for meetings from people who have ideas to parlay, products to push, locations to publicize, and so on. Like most journalists, I am also prickly about such meetings because I don’t want to be played, as it were. The assumption is: hey, I know you have an agenda, but I’ll be damned if I am going to be your tool in pushing this agenda.
So you go in defensive and doubt everything. So it was with the IFA.
Before I went in, I said, let me write a column about funding for the arts because so many institutions are facing that. It turned out to be a piece about the IFA. Here it is below.

Why we don’t value our arts enough
No arts institution in India pays enough attention to cultivating demand
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Aug 17 2013. 12 06 AM IST
Animation film-maker Aditi Chitre explores visual arts of Nagaland. Photo courtesy: IFA

Arundhati Ghosh, the slim executive director of the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), is telling me about fund-raising, specifically how hard it is to raise funds for the IFA. We are sitting at the French Loaf Bakery in Bangalore’s Richards Town, a lovely neighbourhood with a flavour of the quiet genteel city that this once used to be.
Ghosh says that there are about 400 “Friends of the IFA”, which is arguably India’s only grant-based arts-funding organization. I checked with my art sources in Mumbai and Delhi to verify this claim. There are residencies such as Khoj in Delhi and 1Shanthi Road in Bangalore; art and performance venues like Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) and Prithvi Theatre; prizes to fund the arts such as the ŠKODA PRIZE, which was discontinued recently; arts foundations like Delhi’s Devi Art Foundation and Bangalore’s Tasveer Foundation that sponsor shows and talks. There are private museums like the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and countless galleries that provide an ecosystem for the arts.
There is corporate support for the arts in ways large and small. The Himalaya Drug Company often sponsors theatre performances at Bangalore’s Ranga Shankara, itself an arts incubator and ecosystem. Sangita Jindal of Jindal Steel Works owns and runs the excellent ART India magazine and does heritage preservation in Hampi. The Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) gets more press than the quieter and equally interesting Sanatkada Lucknow Festival that the company organizes. The Tatas have established institutions like the NCPA, but many of their trusts now focus on livelihoods. The Ratan Tata trust, for example, gives only 1% of its funds to ”culture”, according to their website. I couldn’t come up with a single organization that does what the IFA does.
I didn’t plan to write a column about the IFA. I have no connection with the organization and knew little about it till recently. What it does, and has done for the last 10 years, is give grants, ranging from Rs.3-8lakh, to arts projects of dizzying diversity. Gautam Pemmaraju of Mumbai used his Rs.5 lakh to explore the satirical poetic tradition in Dakhani known as the Mazahiya Shairi. Sajitha Madathil used Rs.3 lakh to study women’s participation in three different Kerala performance traditions: Kathakali, Mudiyattam, and Singari Melam. Navtej Johar of Delhi used his Rs.3 lakh to create a dance-drama based on Jean Genet’s play, The Maids. Tejal Shah used her grant to create a video installation that will feature at Documenta, a prestigious arts festival in Germany. Vidyun Sabhaney used his Rs.5 lakh grant to see how patachitra of Bengal, kaavad of Rajasthan and togalu gombeyatta of Karnataka depict stories from the Mahabharat. Kolkata Sanved of Kolkata used its Rs.8 lakh grant to run creative arts workshops with children living on railway stations. Aditi Chitre is exploring the visual arts of Nagaland. And so it goes. This model is problematic because individual companies don’t get brand recognition or PR from contributing to the IFA, although senior executives in various companies underwrite specific projects with a pan-Indian or regional bent. Tara Sinha, a former trustee, for example, funded a conference on Tamil movies, while Sandeep Singhal of investment firm WestBridge Capital underwrote a performance by the Mir musicians of Rajasthan.
By all accounts, the IFA is a worthy organization. Then, why are they having so much trouble raising funds? “The value of the arts is so intrinsic to our lives that it is almost invisible to us,” says Ghosh. “Other developmental needs like roti, kapda, makaan in India becomes more vital to support.” This is true. In the hierarchy of needs that weigh down our society, education, water, poverty, sanitation, livelihood and a whole host of health concerns rise up to the surface. Funding the arts pales in comparison with the exigencies of cancer research or educating the girl child. Simply put, we don’t know how to value art in our society. “Everyone has an idea on what’s art and what is ‘good’ art,” says Ghosh. “If you fund a school, such debates are limited, but not so in the arts.” The income tax exemption of 50% doesn’t help either. Gifts in kind such as land, building or paintings don’t get any exemptions. No wonder more NCPAs aren’t built—nobody wants to donate the land.
I called Lalit Bhasin, a Supreme Court lawyer, and a trustee of the IFA, to find out why he supports the arts. “Every other activity has a support system—not the arts,” he says. “As a lawyer, I can say that we have set up libraries for budding young lawyers. We help with education, medicine and the environment. The arts have been left behind with no one to project or promote it.”
Jaithirth Rao, another IFA trustee, makes a different kind of argument. By focusing on economics and security, he says, we will imitate the Prussian model, and “we know what happened to that model in 1945”. He links the arts to livelihood—I can see the long arm of fund-raising in this. “Our work on Rajasthani folk music, virtually a new genre which seems to be commercially viable has emerged. The work on Tamil Nadu murals could boost tourism. For the next level of economic growth, we cannot be order takers—we need our own creativity. Remember, (Steve) Jobs studied calligraphy in college,” says Rao.
There is another more complex reason why the IFA and other arts institutions are having trouble with raising funds, and it demands another column. Here is a hint: No arts institution in India pays enough attention to cultivating demand. They assume that funding worthwhile projects is enough. It isn’t.

Shoba Narayan is researching demand for the arts for her next column.