S. Krishnan S.G.Vasudev

To write about poetry requires a certain measure of gall and self-assurance. To write about art requires humility, in fact fear and rembling. To write about a great poet and a major artist within the same framework is to try to walk on treacherous shoals. Poetry speaks to you in words, which you may make something of, while art stays mute and immutable -- come and get me if you can, it says. It is the height of intrepidity for me to try and speak about Ramanujan’s poetry as interpreted by Vasudev’s line drawings, but a long intimacy with both of them dares me to make the effort.

A.K. Ramanujan, was not only one of the world’s most profound scholars of South Asian language and culture, but a pioneering translator of ancient Tamil poetry into English as well as one of the finest English-language poets in modern India. Vasudev, one of India’s most inventive artists, blessed with an immense curiosity, has created a series of line drawings based on Ramanujan’s poems. As the poems and drawings speak for themselves, I do not intend to intrude my personal responses to them too much. Together they stand as magnificent examples of a poet’s vision seen through an artist’s eye.

A.K. Ramanujan died on July 13, 1993, a little before his 64th birthday. He dated very few of his poems, but in his “Complete Poems,” published by the Oxford University Press in 1995, there is one dated December 8, 1992, and titled: “Pain: Trying to find a metaphor.” A short poem of 18 lines, it screams out in misery and pain which he never confided to anyone but his computer. The last dated poem is simply called “Pain.” Written on December 12, 1992, and revised in its final form on April 11, 1993, this is an astonishingly transparent poem, without any of his beloved metaphors: “The pain in the ankle glowers on, a red-hot / coal pressed now and then against a nerve / nobody can find… / O God of knowledge, busy wizard of diagnosis, father of needles, dials, / and test tubes, send your old companion here, / that mother of mothers, goddess though of ignorance, / send her soon so she can kiss away my pain / as she has always done.” No fuss, no complaint, just put it all into a poem.

Ramanujan was a polymath, a Renaissance man, to use an old-fashioned phrase – he was a keen student of the sciences, an expert mathematician, and knowledgeable in at least four languages. It is his translation from ancient Tamil poetry that he is best known for, but he translated from and wrote original poems in Kannada, besides writing both prose and poetry in English.

S.G. Vasudev, like Ramanujan also born in Mysore, discarded university education in Bangalore to study art in the Madras School of Arts. Here he came under the influence of the fabulous K.C.S. Panicker, and grew into an artist of the rarest order even before completing his course. He and Panicker developed an empathy, and together they, along with a few other dedicated disciples of Panicker, set up the Cholamandal Artists’ Village on the outskirts of Madras --the only one of its kind, then or now.

As an artist Vasudev developed his own style, taking as his theme the tree, and calling it by its Sanskrit name, “Vriksha.” He utilized the idea in several variations: now it was the tree of life, and now of death. The vriksha also, in that mysterious way that is known to artists alone, took on a human aspect, and depicted couples in erotic poses – “Maithuna,” the act of love. He has come a long way now, moving from tree to man. In recent years he has been painting works that he has variously called soundscapes, humanscapes and inscapes – and, more recently, theatre of life. What these paintings have in common is extraordinary use of colour, a gamut of feelings ranging from the tender to the ferocious, and above all, impeccable drawing.

Drawing is a word beloved by all Panicker-afficianados. He always drilled it into his students that drawing was the underpinning of every work of art, not just of painting alone. And there can be no good drawing without the line. If drawing was the key to good painting, the line was the key to good drawing. This become Vasudev’s dictum also, and one can see the strength of his drawing even in his earliest works.

Vasudev had earlier done line drawings for the jackets of some of Ramanujan’s books. In the early 1990s he began basing some of his drawings on Ramanujan’s poetry – original poems in English and Kannada, as well as translations from Tamil and Kannada. Some time after his friend had passed away, Vasudev decided to put together a collection of these drawings as a “Tribute to Ramanujan.”

One of the more interesting aspects of Ramanujan’s poetry is a certain kind of terseness, an economy that just the same presents a full picture. Vasudev effortlessly captures just this characteristic of the poems. He is a rare painter who is not afraid of leaving blank spaces on his canvas. His line drawings have an equal abandon. Even his most crowded scenes have a spatial freedom – nobody is pushing anybody else.

Try the one called “Hopscotch.” Nothing could provide a greater opportunity to make an artist shrill and hysterical. But Vasudev leaves the action on the ground while he engages in making the idea of hopscotch a menacing presence. But does he really? Each drawing, while it might have a life of its own, triumphantly catches Ramanujan’s spirit and essence.

S. Krishnan
(Excerpts from an article that first appeared in the Sunday Magazine of The Hindu, July13, 1997)