Paints and Palettes: Experiments with Colour and Form
Updated: Oct 11, 2022
My mother used to collect the India ink sketches I made, copying pictures of film stars from the Screen magazine. Meenakumari and Dilip Kumar were favourites. But, unfortunately, those scraps of paper are lost forever. An early influence was a poor young man of Tamil Brahmin extraction who lived in the bye-lane going down from the Mahadeva Temple to the Boat Jetty in Kottayam. Sometimes, while returning from the CMS High School, where I had my early education, I would spend hours lost in the mural masterpieces created on the wall of his Veranda. The characters mainly were Gods and Goddesses. Shiva was a recurring presence. Another influence was Johnson, whom I met when I went to Aligarh to do my PhD. As a student, Johnson had respectable seniority even by Aligarh standards. Students came to the University to escape the boredom of life in mofussil towns and villages and stayed on pursuing degree after degree. Rumour was that Johnson’s parents had disowned him because of his refusal to marry a girl of their choice. He made a living by selling paintings in the Delhi art market. He had a style of stark realism with poor women and children staring out of the canvas with eyes filled with despair. Farhan Mujib, a close friend, was also a painter. We were lecturers in the Physics Department. He later left his job to take up art full time. His art attempted a fusion of traditional miniatures and modern-day collages. Farhan Mujib is known as the scientist who brought precision to collages. He collated random pieces of paper from magazines and photographs to create intricate images. He had an exhibition at Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi in 2003. He has also held shows across India. An intense desire to paint re-emerged while I was recovering from a bout of chickenpox in early 1982. I got someone to buy me the basic painting kit of watercolours, brushes and paper from the Kikabhai Mulla Gulamally shop in Khanpur. Paper pasted onto particleboard cut to the required size, and I was in business. The first painting created had three tall rocks in the sea done with various shades of blue. Even the rocks had a tinge of blue. I have had a recurring compulsion to represent rocks in the water. After recovering from chickenpox, I had to go to Gothenburg in Sweden to attend the International Conference on Plasma Physics. Gothenburg shops had luxurious collections of oil painting materials, and I collected a set of oil paint tubes made by Winsor & Newton. Soon painting became therapy. At this time, we were neck-deep in the “Plasma Physics Programme”, the Government of India Project on Intensification of Research in High Priority Areas. We were building India’s first tokamak, ADITYA. Painting relieved the tensions of engineering and commissioning a device of great complexity. A corner in the dining room was my studio. I recall many battles with canvas to create art, to capture the tree-ness of a tree and the jagged cragginess of a precipice. Then, realising that the lack of formal training was cramping my craft, I learned the techniques by reading some basic books. I acquired the book “ A Complete Guide to Painting and Drawing” by Colin Hayes in 1984. Later, while crawling on the internet, I found many websites, blogs and virtual galleries where artists write extensively on their craft. Prof. Devendra Lal, my boss in the Physical Research Laboratory, once told me of paintings he did with bare hands at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research. He convinced me to try this technique to appreciate the sensuality and fluidity of the wet paint on canvas. I found this very productive since one could directly communicate to the canvas bypassing the intermediary of the brush. I realised at that time that each technique creates its art. For example, Jackson Pollock used a drip technique to create abstract expressionist paintings. He did this by poking a hole in a tin of paint and dripping paint on the canvas and earning the name ‘Jack the dripper’ in art circles. Van Gogh used an impasto technique in which the texture of brush strokes or palette knife is visible. His “Sunflowers” is an excellent example. I had an opportunity to visit Tate Gallery to see the Joseph Turner collection during my visit to London to attend the 1984 Fusion Energy Conference. Turner’s vision of violent seas, shearing winds and misty lights are still alive in my memory. During a visit to Russia as a member of an Indian science delegation from the Department of Atomic Energy in 1989, I visited Armitage in Leningrad, with its Titian collection. When I built a house in Bopal, a suburb of Ahmedabad, I created a small studio, hoping to spend pleasurable hours fighting with brush and canvas. We moved into this place in 1989. This was at the peak of our work commissioning the ADITYA tokamak at the Institute for Plasma Research. As Head of the group responsible for commissioning the machine, my days started at 9 am and ended at midnight. Later, I got busy setting up the Facilitation for Industrial Plasma Research, a centre to promote applications of plasma physics, and I found no time to paint. My serious visits to art galleries happened during my 8-month stay in Vienna when I joined the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. My wife joined me in November 2002. The baroque Belvedere Palace housed the Österreichische Galerie displaying the largest collection of works by Klimt. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna had the world’s largest collection of Bruegel paintings. Museum Moderner Kunst (Museum of Modern Art) with many Picasso, Chagall, Klee etc., was also a favourite. Albertina houses the world’s most extensive collection of graphic arts and prints. A fantastic collection of 60,000 drawings, 1 million prints! Gordon Mackenzie’s classic “Water Colourist’s Essential Handbook”, acquired in Vienna, revealed the mystery of “Wash”. Wash is the technique of thoroughly wetting the paper so that paint would spread on its own, creating semi-abstract patterns. Armed with thick, absorbent Acquarello paper and watercolour tubes, I went on an orgy of wash painting. I gave away most of the pictures to colleagues in the Agency. In March 2003, I visited Washington March 2003 as a part of my work at the International Atomic Energy Agency to attend the Fifth Symposium on Current Trends in International Fusion Research. In the Smithsonian Gallery in Washington D.C., I got to see Matisse’s ‘Dance’. Among the Indian painters, I admire Jehangir Sabavala for his abstract expressionistic landscapes of tortured paths between soaring mountains and the pilgrims in their journey towards the promised land. Another painter was J. Swaminathan, who began combining elements from nature in his conceptual landscapes. His series of paintings during the 1970s, which he called Time and Space, appealed to me. The iconography of the archetypal bird, the mountain, the tree, the reflection and the shadow became his tenor of symbolism. In a quaint way, this embraced the symbolic quality of the surrealists. Every artist asks himself: why do I paint? Why did we choose to paint over many other options available for self-expression? More than any other means of expression, painting has an emergent element. We do not always know where the picture is going. Conclusion: there is complex feedback from the image and our state of mind, which changes the outcome. The painter is subconsciously led a certain way determined by the painting. The satisfaction a picture gives an artist is a pleasure of discovering its final form. Ruins and quiet places attract me. So does the impressionistic representation of landscapes. My self-taught journey in painting started in 1982 and is continuing. After coming to Kottayam, I tried painting with acrylic but soon returned to oil. I have gifted my paintings to friends, so I can claim that they are exhibited all over India and even abroad. My website https://www.pucadyil.com/paintings carries my collection.