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Aashna Abrol discusses life, art, and Cholamandal Artists Village with the veteran artist SG Vasudev

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Born 1941, SG Vasudev was one of the founder-members of Cholamandal Artists’ Village, established in 1966, in Chennai. Experimenting with diverse materials like wood, metal, ceramic, tapestry, and other found objects, his primary and formal content is withdrawn from nature and its pervading essence. Among all the themes that he has explored, the Vriksha or ‘Tree of Life’ is the most crucial one. In addition, he has also worked on the concepts of Prakriti and Purusha, which embody the mythological theory of creation.

Discussing his works, association with Cholamandal, South Indian Modern Art and The Open Frame opens up unknown pages of history that everyone should revel in…..

AA: You made cartoons and your father opposed your decision to pursue art! Please share with us how it finally happened?

SGV: I had begun my art practice as a caricaturist. At the time, my parents did not know what I was doing and were only keen on wanting me to graduate in the sciences. My father, being an agriculturist, who had enough land around Bangalore thought I would be of help to him. However, that was not the case because my academic grades throughout school were not the best and I could not get into any professional courses.

Nonetheless, G. Venkatachalam, an early 20th-century art critic, who saw my drawings, said that I should study art and pursue it professionally. I was only 18 then; this encouraged me and eventually, I convinced my parents. In 1960, I got admission into the art school in Chennai. Although my father was supportive of my basic necessities, I had to work as designer and illustrator for some magazines to make some money. in 1964, I got National Scholarship of Rs 250 per month, for two years, which sufficed my expenses. In 1967, I received National award from Lalit Kala Akademi, which convinced my parents of my art career. This was a huge step for me in pursuing what I really enjoyed confidently.

AA: Being a founder member of Cholamandal artists’ village and your association with KCS Paniker makes me want to ask you about south Indian modern art. Could you recollect some anecdotes?

SGV: Modern art in south India started with Devi Prasad Roy Choudhury, maybe around the ‘50s. He was the principal of the School of Arts and Crafts- Madras (now Chennai). It was KCS Paniker, who became principal after him, inspired a lot of his colleagues at the art school and many students, who shaped that movement. In the 1960s, they discussed at length how one should be an ‘Indian’ artist and yet globally contemporary as well.

So to achieve this, a few of us experimented with various traditional art forms. Some went into Tantric while a few experimented with text on canvas, folk and tribal art. But they all could bring out contemporary works and were not sucked by the traditional art forms. And at a similar time, "Cholamandal" was created. It was an experiment. To make a living artists extended their art to create new forms in craft. The experiment succeeded. And if even an artist worked on this for about two hours a day, he could make enough for his livelihood. “Cholamandal” was not created for any art movement, as many people think.

SG Vasudev, Tree & Monkeys, Tapestry in Silk, 96 x 146 cms

AA: You also practice fascinating copper embossing, batik, stainless, woodwork, ceramics and silk tapestry. You shift from one material to the other. While some artists stick to one medium for life, your adaptation is flexible and intuitive. Please comment.

SGV: The Chennai School of Art and Craft had an excellent crafts departments. Students were free to explore and learn new techniques. That is how everyone’s interest developed in ceramics, batik, etc. Again it was in Cholamandal that artists desired to learn various crafts, and so they invited teachers from the crafts department to teach. This is where we learnt copper embossing, too!

At this time, we also realised that there is a very thin line that divides art and craft between in India.

“What do you call the people who built Mahabalipuram, Kailashnath Temple, Ajanta and Ellora, artists or craftsmen?!”

My interest in exploring various mediums began by engaging with wood inlay artists and weavers, ceramists. And I strongly believe that Indian contemporary artists ought to have a good understanding of Indian craft, which will help them to achieve some thing different from the western art.

SG Vasudev, Tree of Life, 2011, Relief on Copper, 120 x 206 cms

AA: You were influenced by D. R. Bendre's poem, Kalpa Vriksha Vrindavana, which is a permanent inspiration in your Vriksa series. How has your art practice changed over such a long time?

SGV: As a student, perhaps in my fourth year of art school, I was strongly influenced by Francis Newton Souza. I not only got inspired by his work but also visited Mumbai to meet him when he had come down from London for his exhibition at Jehangir Art Gallery. His influence lasted an entire 2 years until I finally had had enough and was ready to move on...

In 1967, the year I got the National Award of Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi, I had my exhibition of paintings in Dharwad, Karnataka. There I met D.R. Bendre whose poetry inspired me. I did a series of paintings inspired by his poem titled them Kalpa Vriksha Vrindavana. One of the painting is in the collection of NGMA, Delhi. But it was only in the early 70s that I came across a book, Tree of Life, which led me to create a series of my artworks called Vriksha. This theme went on for almost ten years and it also helped me to sort out my technical problems.

SG Vasudev, Earthscape, 1996, Oil on canvas, 108 x 154 cms

The 60s and 70s observed a paradigmatic shift in the major cities of India like Chennai, Baroda, Kolkata, Delhi, Bombay (now Mumbai), etc. However, the scenario of contemporary art had indeed differed from what it was. But we are not privy to the same due to the absence of tangible literature on them. SG Vasudev shares,

“Unfortunately, there is no publication of the art and artists of that period (born between 1935 and 1945) excepting catalogues and a few books by the artists to go with their exhibitions. Neither Lalit Kala Akademi nor any other Art organisation and Art Galleries took up to highlight this period”.

“J.Krishnamurti talks attracted me while I was a student at the School of Arts. He used to come every year to Chennai and give his talks on various subjects. What I liked about his saying ‘ the truth is said only once’. I appreciated his words mentioning that one should solve one's problem's and not look towards any other thing for help”

SG Vasudev, She, 2006, Oil on canvas, 176 x 108 cms

AA: Could you share a little about the She series, where you have titled your work like She and Tree, She and Men, among others? Does it focus on feminist principles?

SGV: She series came out of my Theatre of Life series. Women are at centre stage in all our epics and the entire story revolves around them. A.K. Ramanujan, the known poet,wrote a book on folk stories, where he talks about She speaking to the tree, etc. This book also inspired me. I believe in the mettle of strong women!

SG Vasudev, Theatre of Life, 1998, Oil on canvas, 81 x 178 cms

AA: You have associated, through art and craft, with famous names like Girish Karnad, and your inspiration from J Krishnamurti, AK Ramanujan, GP Rajarathnam’s poetry, KK Hebbar’s artworks, etc seems to have influenced you at every stage of life. Please share such experiences with our readers.

SGV: Through a common friend, I met Girish Karnad, in the early ‘60s, while I was studying at the School of Art, Chennai. We both spoke in Kannada. Became good friends. From Girish, I had got the best of literature books, particularly in Kannada. It enhanced my understanding of theatre, poetry, philosophy. We worked together on the film Samskara based on UR Anantha Murthy’s novel, which also fetched the National Award. He introduced me to several important personalities like AK Ramanujan, B.V. Karanth, among others. Subsequently, I had done many book covers for his various plays. Besides, I did publicity material for several of his films. We were close friends for 55 years until he passed away.

J.Krishnamurti discourses appealed to me while I was a student at the School of Arts. He used to come every year to Chennai and speak on various subjects. What I liked about his thoughts is that ‘ the truth is said only once’. I appreciated his words mentioning that one should solve one's problem, and not look towards any other thing for help. We put our son in Krishnamurti Foundation school in Chennai and later he studied in the Valley School in Bangalore, which is also managed by Krishnamurti Foundation.

I met AK Ramanujan through Girish Karnad, sometime in 1964. I did cover design for his first collection of Kannada poems. I tried to spend as much time as possible with him, whenever he visited Chennai and Bangalore. He was like a walking encyclopedia. Later, in the 1990s, he said that he would like to collaborate with me. That he would read poems that have inspired me to do drawings. Unfortunately, he died. But I continued the project and did drawings on some of his original English and Kannada poems, translations from Tamil and Kannada to English, etc. Also, I had exhibitions of these works at Bangalore, Chennai, New Delhi, London and Chicago (where he lived and died).

G.P. Rajaratnam was a different kind of poet, who became my favourite while I was studying in my school in Bangalore. His particular poem on alcoholic is a fantastic one. Incidentally, he was related to my mother too!

KK Hebbar was a great human being, and I was partly instrumental in getting him to be chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi, Karnataka. He revolutionised the art scene in Karnataka by sending the best students to study in Baroda, Santiniketan, and other places, and by providing scholarships. If Karnataka stands as one of the important centres for visual art it is because of Hebbar. I worked with him on many committees and admired his capacity as an organiser.

AA: In 2018, Bengaluru NGMA conducted your retrospective, A Return to Sama.

SGV: It was in early 2018, I got an invitation from the Director of NGMA, Bangalore regarding my retrospective exhibition. For the same, I had requested Sadanand Menon, a cultural critic, to be a curator for the show. One of his contacts, Miti Desai, had designed the whole exhibition. The exhibition had nearly 400 artworks, most of them from my collection, while a few were borrowed from collectors, Lalit Kala Akademi and NGMA, New Delhi. Sadanand titled the exhibition, selected and curated the whole show. Miti designed the catalogue, while the text was written by Sadanand. Moreover, the exhibition travelled to Chennai and NGMA, Mumbai.

Available on youtube, The Open Frame is an exclusive documentary on SG Vasudev’s evolution of lifelong pursuit of art. Developing textures, like white on white canvas, he believes in building the surface, just like he met all the creative professionals like filmmakers, photographers, etc. Interestingly, he compares this artistic process to the Carnatic music aspects like Ragam, Tanam, and Pallavi (RTP). RTP refers to using ragas, improvisation and variation in the process of singing.

We enquired more about the documentary, where his close companions spoke in detail about him.

AA: In The Open Frame, Mr Sadanand Menon discusses the work of utility versus the work of aesthetics, referring to Cholamandal while the episode of Marc Chagall is also evocative, concerning discrimination between craftsman and artist.

SGV: Yes, Sadanand talks about works of utility and aesthetics. I believe that whatever one does should have aesthetics. I work in many crafts, but never make them devoid of aesthetics.

And as a part of Cholamandal, we were quite aware of this fact. During my visit to Paris to learn technique of stained glass I met a stained glass artist/craftsman. He did, in collaboration, most of Marc Chagall’s stained glass murals. He had worked with him for over forty years. This made me realise the importance I took in being with Indian craftsmen as well as the meaning of ‘collaborating’. Also, one should not have an ego while collaborating with another artist/craftsman. Collaborations have been happening over centuries. No one artist/craftsman has built temples in India. Even Michelangelo was helped by several people while painting the Sistine Chapel. If certain people do not approve of this, it is their loss!

AA: Could you share about your many studios?

SGV: I have four studios. One is in my apartment, the second is my old house where we lived for 23 years, the third is a studio in my farm (seen in a documentary) and the fourth is at my Cholamandal house in Chennai. I feel connected and comfortable working at all of these places


SG Vasudev, Landscape,2010, oil on canvas, 201 x 130 cms

AA: I have seen landscapes, seascapes, mindscapes, metascapes etc. Can we discuss what you mean by humanscapes and earthscapes?

SGV: Humanscape: It is a certain landscape that goes through in human beings. I got this idea when Babri Masjid was brought down. I did a painting with the agony shown in a human being. This led to a series of Humanscapes. Earthscapes: My concern with ecology led me to this series. We destroy our environment, cut trees, burn them, create in balance with nature which ultimately destroy ourselves.

Running parallel, an artist's life and work are coherent, exhibiting a common link. Similarly, SG Vasudev’s practice of so many decades epitomises continuity, which he compares with how a child learns to walk for the first time and continues to repeat developing his/her own style. Hence, it could vary a tidbit, but reflects the thread of consistency. Concluding in his quote:

“My series leads from one series to another one. There is no complete break in between.”

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