This morning I am at Vasudev’s studio in Bangalore, looking at an assorted collection of his work done over three decades. Paintings, drawings, copper relief, and tapestries on the muted grey walls spark an exciting kinesis. Sunlight streams into the room, lending it an opaque incandescence that seems to complement the luminosity of his work. The chronological and thematic jumble in the studio provides an opportunity for viewing his work without the controlled order that curators and galleries bring in.

The first thing that strikes you is that creative time is hardly impacted by the linear tick of the clock. Time, as it is measured in the flow of ideas, in the tides of the imagination, or in the seasons of the mind seems to be free from such tyranny. At a cursory glance so little seems to have changed; yet much has. There has been the slow, undulating motion of artistic growth. You notice subtle changes: the colours and tones have altered somewhat and even the ways of seeing have been transformed ever so gradually.

For Vasudev, 40-plus years of art have moved in a more or less unhurried flow. There have been no abrupt detours, no startling about-turns. Vasudev has always worked with an easy rhythm that emerges from self-assurance.

In the 1970s, when he first began working on his theme, Vriksha -- the Tree of Life, it was as if a carnival was unfolding. Vriksha, a metaphor for the primal forces in creation, simply inflames the canvas with its vibrant energy. Life is feted in an unabashed, pagan way. His Tree of Life appears to have a cavernous appetite that absorbs almost everything that enters the orbit of its vision: monkeys, alphabets and signs, birds, men and women and myriad motifs that he draws from folk and ancient lore. The colours he uses are warm and earthy: Mellow yellows, ochres, amber oranges and moss greens. The Vriksha keeps metamorphosing into new shapes and forms. Sometimes its roots morph into men and women in the act of love, unselfconscious and consumed by the moment. The women are daughters of the earth: sensual and erotic. Vasudev seems to stress the fact that, though the images and forms differ, the spirit remains constant.

This is further elaborated in Maithuna, another idea that Vasudev has explored for over three decades. Maithuna stands for the union between the female and the male principles -- the prakriti and the purusha -- that exist in nature, almost in a yin-yang fusion of being. Maithuna and Vriksha usually intertwine to create a kind of animated utopia in which an atmosphere of total abandon prevails.

In the late 1980s the festive mood dissipates into a deadened, inward-looking phase. The works of this period shock us with the near total eclipse of light. The early effervescence is lost to bleakness as nature appears to have vapourised into nothingness. Men and women with eyeless gazes, looking away from each other, are banished into a chilly dystopia. The colours are dark and swirling, thick daubs and bristly rough edges of cobalt, brisk grey-black strokes and morbid green smears. They echo the disembodied silence that prevails inside the canvas. This period in Vasudev’s art coincides with a tragic period in his personal life and seems to reflect his own sense of loss; it is at this point in time that he loses his artist wife to cancer.

The ‘Humanscapes’ series is almost like a sequel to the mood. Vasudev probes the labyrinthine streets of the mind and follows endless trails of darkness. At this juncture, the ‘actors’ -- for that is what his protagonists turn into -- seem to be more alienated than ever. Their eyes congeal into eerie, airless gazes. The colours he uses are menacingly dark and the canvas almost incarcerates every trace of light. In the Earthscapes series we see the deadness only getting more exaggerated through arid landscapes with clusters of amputated trees. Gone are the pastoral paradise of Vriksha and the naïve innocence of the Maithuna series.

This reverie of darkness is not very prolonged, however. It is almost as if Vasudev, with his natural predilection towards exuberance, cannot contain despair for too long. Packed under the skin of desolation is a need to surface for light once again. When he sheds that last shred of angst he surges ahead with a good deal of élan.

Although change is an important aspect of his work, it is always held tight by an inherent consistency. Change and stability -- the two collude and corroborate. Romantic and realist, dreamer and pragmatist, the creator and the spectator -- Vasudev revels in this pull of paradoxes. He enjoys the contradictions that characterise our world, perhaps because he understands better than many of us that duality is not opposed to harmony.

In the 1990s this is how we see him: taking a new look at things where the summery gaiety that once characterised the early years returns and plenty of sunny yellows, lime greens and pastels flood his canvas. In the He & She series, and in a new set of Earthscapes, there is a newfound playfulness and the darkness thaws considerably to let in a variety of luminous colours. A sinuous energy glides back into the work. All this, once again, coincides with events in his personal life.

Yet it is not as if he is returning to the arcadia of the Vriksha phase. Things have changed irretrievably. This is obvious in the ‘Theatre of Life’ series, where he returns to the business of life with the zeal of a new convert, but not without some restraint. He stands at the rim of his canvas, allowing it to mime the world outside -- its follies, its self-deception, its little vanities. He does a good parody on our performance on life’s stage, where we are sometimes able to pull off our act but, at other times, are caught literally in the act.

In a set of drawings called ‘Hayavadana,’ done in the early 1990s, he uses the mask of a horse to depict the absurdities of politics and the dishonesty that prevails in public life. Vasudev’s spry wit and gentle humour create great moments of laughter on paper but he never gets bitingly harsh. He looks at the societal morass with a non-judgmental eye, merely as an artist portraying what he sees. His ‘actors’ are seasoned veterans on the stage of life. They wear their masks well. The thick impasto strokes give a kabuki-like feel of theatre. Curtains, pleated folds, borders and frames enhance the theatricality of the canvas.

In his more recent work, the actor is relegated to the background while the spotlight is on the audience: the spectator in the act of watching. The stage becomes a metaphor not just for life but also for the mind. Who is the actor and who is the spectator? That is what the artist seems to be asking, slyly. It appears that he is having a little laugh at all of us who turn into narcissistic voyeurs of ourselves.

Vasudev’s themes often spill into one another and they reappear over and again, like old refrains. The Vriksha turns up to meld with the Earthscapes. The Maithuna and the Theatre of Life converge at some point. It is, therefore, no surprise that today Vasudev’s work is close to his work of the early 70s. He uses similar lyrical lines, the feathering out of images and the clear, brilliant colours that were used then. This merging of images and renewal of ideas give his work both freshness and familiarity. When you see a new Vasudev work, you recognise a familiar motif and yet there is always something new. The Vriksha never regains its guileless gaiety but it does acquire a new intensity. Vasudev recounts how years ago, at the time when he was starting out in his career in the early 70s, it was imperative to search deep into the past for new ideas. This paradox describes his idiom well.

Over the years Vasudev has also worked on a series of Ganeshas. Ganesha, the beloved elephant-headed god, possesses a form that is intriguing and mysterious even to his most steadfast devotee. The head of an elephant superimposed onto the body of a rotund, pot-bellied human seems, at first glance, a wacky anomaly. However, Hindu legend is replete with symbols and allegory. Nothing is as it seems, least of all external appearances. The Ganesha form is a symbol for Om -- the primordial sound that reverberates through the universe -- and is said to be the seed of intelligence. In the Hindu order of divinity, Ganesha is the first to be worshipped. He also signifies both worldly and spiritual success. The form of the elephant-headed god has always inspired artists in India. Ganesha is believed to be responsible for the awakening of artistic consciousness: the flowering of music, dance, art and literature.

Vasudev works on Ganesha from a purely artistic perspective. He moves along with this beautifully pliant form to create images that are unconventional and aesthetic. He uses copper, silk tapestry, ink on paper and oils on canvas to depict Ganesha. While he eschews the religious angle, his Ganesha images have a powerful visual impact that borders on spiritual intensity -- which is why, he says, he has discovered to his amazement that his Ganeshas are worshipped in many a collector’s home!

Working in copper, Vasudev makes good use of rich ornamentation. We see the ear of the Ganesha, large and fan-shaped, embellished with intricate relief work. The opulence of the metal gives these Ganeshas a look of grandeur and regality. In his paintings, Ganesha has a more ethereal look. The lines are fluid and free and the colours vivid. Ganesha is almost an esoteric idea on his canvas. In his silk tapestries, Vasudev uses the lushness of silk to create an impression of thickly layered images. This goes well with the essential concept of Ganesha: the metaphors that have sustained layers of meaning for centuries.

Throughout his career Vasudev has worked in several media at the same time. Most of his themes flow from one medium into another, usually following a chronological consistency. Often this creates interesting results. The He & She theme can be quite startling in a tapestry. The texture of the silk and the suppleness of the weave add a new dimension to the ideas he explores on canvas. The natural flamboyance of copper lends itself easily to drama and hence a theme like the ‘Theatre of Life’ pulsates with life on copper. The glow of copper articulates with deeper resonance a certain tone or a nuance of an idea. Interestingly, a painting often resembles a tapestry and a copper relief looks like a work on canvas.

Vasudev enjoys the collaborative experience of working with skilled craftsmen. For his tapestries he has worked with master weaver Subbarayulu for over a decade. For his copper relief work he relies on his partnership with V. Chandran, who has worked with him for over two decades. He enjoys the experience of team work and says the experience of sharing ideas with other creative minds has enriched the way he approaches his art.

This interest in collaboration has led to his borrowing from and contributing to other media and arts: literature, theatre, cinema and crafts. For example, in the 1970s, when Indian cinema was moving away from popular, formulaic, repetitive themes, Vasudev served as art director for a number of films belonging to the ‘new wave’ in Kannada cinema. A few years ago he did a set of line drawings (ink on paper) based on the work of A. K. Ramanujan, the renowned poet, linguist and folklorist who was also a close friend. “Every form of expression is interconnected and there are only thin lines between the various arts,” he says.

This morning, as I watch him arrange a collection of paintings for a forthcoming exhibition, waves of fern greens and lilacs, pale peaches and cobalt blues mingle with the sunlit glow of the room. In the past few years his work has gathered momentum, harnessed more energy and his colours have turned more sensuous and ebullient. Today this is what his work is about: light, energy, intensity and colour. At 66, Vasudev seems as driven by energy and enthusiasm as ever. It is almost as if he is able to draw inspiration from some secret perennial well-spring that he has exclusive access to.

Manju P. Pillai
Biodata