playing with memories

facts, fiction, and somewhere in between

Ramesh Nair, artist, Mumbai

I’ve known Ramesh for 20 years. After being introduced by a mutual friend, we worked together, off and on, professionally, on advertising campaigns. Over the years, we became friends and discussed art now and then: meaning, Ramesh shared his art and knowledge, while I tried to learn from it. Later, when I had set up a collaborative blog project as an experiment, Ramesh had contributed his art to it happily. Interviewing Ramesh has been on my mind for a while now. This New Year, it has come true.

Over the years, you have created numerous pieces of art. Are there any themes that run through your work? If the themes are very different from each other, are there any themes which recur/repeat through your work?

As an artist, I have done both individual and set of themed artworks. My “Bricoleur of space” series is one such set of artworks with the theme of modern architectural cubism. The theme for it stays the same, but every artwork has its own creative aspect and burgeoning value in terms of art. My artworks in line drawing follow individual realistic ideas expressed in a creative flow of lines and figures. Every artwork stands discrete to a composition of deep details of a subject.

As an artist, you have worked on, or experimented with, different styles and techniques in your art. Which styles gave you the most satisfaction? Which of them have attracted most fans and art collectors?

I have worked with almost all the mediums. Experimenting with all of them to come up with my own style which I execute in ink and acrylic. I love to work with both the styles. Both of these are totally opposite in creation, medium and ideas. My pen work is adhered to reality and the acrylic cubism style is more of an artwork embracing modern imagination and creative work. The process in making both these artworks satisfy me equally in a different way.

The cubism style has attracted more fans and art collectors.

Now, have you adopted or settled on any specific style? Or, do you switch between different styles? Is switching between styles a difficult process for an artist like you?

I have been working on different styles from a young age and now have settled on expressing my art in two major styles, one in ink and another architectural style of cubism. I personally have a habit of creating multiple artworks simultaneously. Both of my art styles, being extremely different in terms of medium, style, fundamentals and thought process; makes it challenging as both of them need a different state of mind. The output of expressions and creative aspects of an art are enhanced by a certain way of thinking and observations. So switching between styles becomes a difficult process due to deliberate change in the state of mind and mental space. With a long course of practice in doing so; it does get easy to switch on some days.

We are all influenced by where we live, such as geography, culture, language, social interactions and lifestyle. How has your life in Mumbai influenced your art?

Being born in Kerala, I have been really close to nature, Indian mythology, spiritual aspect of our country and people. My childhood and learning phase of life was spent in Kerala, so my artistic interest and fundamental development in the creative space was very much nurtured by the state. I came to Mumbai in 1987 and have been here since then. The city has an influence in the growing stage of my artistic career. It welcomed me with a number of opportunities and access to the world wide spectrum of art and creativity. It helped me grow in terms of my artistic expression, observations and abundance of multicultural details. These attributes helped me with the vision in creation of my own styles in art. As a happening city, Mumbai helped me connect to many other artists and creators through various platforms and converse with them which broadened my way of thinking. My style of cubism was created after I got to closely learn the fundamentals and essentials of cubism from Mr. Kashinath Salve Sir. I’ll always be grateful to my birth place and Mumbai city for all the artistic values I was introduced to.

Has the pandemic influenced your art? Has it created a shift in your artistic aesthetic or appetite for specific subjects or stories? Is the experience of painting or creating art during a pandemic – e.g. staying indoors for long hours, reduced physical and social contact with people, fear of falling sick or the suffering of a family member or friend – different for you from creating art with more freedom as it was in pre-pandemic days?

As an artist, my subjects and base of the artworks are long thought and studied for a long term period. I am habitual to studying the subject matter and going deep in the artworks I create, which makes it a long term process. More than the subjects, the pandemic has affected the process of creating an artwork. With bizarre things happening around, keeping a positive state of mind and getting into the mental space for painting gets tough. Pre-pandemic, every family member used to be busy with their own personal work, so I used to get my time to work on artworks alone. With everyone at home now, it’s a bit difficult. Also with all the regulations, meeting people and visiting places are restricted which hinders my study and observations to some extent. With all these points, there are also positives to it. I could put in more time in my art apart from my professional career which did help me in managing to create a few artworks during the pandemic.

Thank you, Ramesh, for giving me this interview.

Ramesh Nair – in his own words

More of my art can be found here.

Born in the culturally and traditionally rich town of Thalassery (in Kerala, India), myths and legends have had a big influence in shaping and moulding me as an artist as well as an individual. I have displayed my works in group exhibitions nationally and internationally, conducted in various cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Cochin, Bangkok and Dubai.

My work has been largely inspired by the things and people that I pass by in the everyday walks of my life. I have always been in awe of nature, mythical figures and people. All these aspects have in some way or the other seeped into my works – painting, drawing and platograph, which are colour prints of my line drawings. I have exuded the idea of deconstructing physical spaces, playing the role of a bricoleur, finding beauty and recreating it through the technique of Cubism. This series of paintings focuses on different kinds of architectural spaces in an unconventional manner, finding aesthetic essence in their deconstruction.

I find solace in art in such a way that all my works are an expression of myself and what I feel.

The Indian farmer’s plight

The Indian farmer’s life is in danger. Not just now, but it has been so for a couple of hundred years.

Though we would like to believe that the widespread use of industrial fertilisers and pesticides, the introduction of genetically-modified (GM) seeds, the inefficient public distribution system of farm produce, the land-grabbing by the rich and the industrialised, the corrupt government officials, etc are all responsible for ruining the Indian farmer’s life – and, believe me, they all are – there is, perhaps, something of greater concern.

You see, there’s a history – a legacy you could say – to the farmer’s plight. It has been, and still is, a sort of built-in or inherent risk to the farmer’s profession and life… and future.

This risk has everything to do with human progress and our civilisation, and therefore difficult to resist or reverse. The reality, and the tragedy of it, is that the farmer is caught in a time trap. Neither can the farmer stop the accelerating force of industrial and post-industrial life that is squeezing the life-force out of him; nor can he go back to tribal living where life for the hunter-gatherer was, and still is, poor, brutal, dangerous and (ah yes) downright uncivilised.

There was a time when farming was a noble profession. Farmers grew the food we ate, hired workers for their fields and generated employment for many, were primarily responsible for our sustenance for generations to come, and helped build our modern societies. They were the creators of wealth of our nations. They shaped our social values. They were esteemed members of our communities, along with skilled artisans, builders and teachers, while merchants where actually viewed with doubt. After all, what did the merchant do but make money for himself!

Two forces changed all that for the Indian farmer. First, the invasion and colonisation of our country by the Europeans. Second, the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, and then, rather slowly, in India.

As a result, the control of forests and farm land were taken over by those in power (the government and the rich) and deployed for building towns, roads, railroads and factories. And, the mass production of goods – along with the extraction of ores and their conversion to metals which enabled the mass production of goods – took precedence over agriculture. Progress became the buzzword; building great societies became a noble profession. Those who built industries became the new leaders. Merchants and businessmen began wielding power and became the new esteemed members of our communities.

For us, in the industrial and post-industrial era, there has been no looking back since then. For the Indian farmer, however, life has taken a sad turn. Now, with his much-devalued-and-redistributed land, his continuing dependence on mass-produced seeds, fertilisers and pesticides from large industrial companies, and his price-controlled produce marketed through a corrupt and inefficient public distribution system, he is no longer considered a creator of wealth of our nation. On the contrary, he is lucky if he can create any wealth at all for himself and his family.

Once a noble ‘professional’ and an esteemed member of our community, the Indian farmer is now left stranded in his fields. And, if he doesn’t watch out, soon, that too may not be his.

Life of Galileo

If not anywhere else, you can be certain that German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s plays have a place in Kolkata, the capital of the Marxist-ruled state of West Bengal in eastern India. There, I remember my college days spent watching Brecht’s plays staged (usually) at the Max Muller Bhavan, as well as in other theatres, both in English and in the Bengali vernacular, with various contemporary interpretations.

Of all of Brecht’s plays, his The Threepenny Opera was the most popular, with Galileo coming in a reasonably-sound second place, both of which had us thinking in our seats during the play and on our feet while walking back home. For, such were – and still are – typical responses to Brecht’s plays. Brecht didn’t just entertain you, he set you thinking about what’s happening around you.

Even his greatest detractors couldn’t deny the fact that Bertolt Brecht delivered a balance of entertainment and instruction. Because, at the heart of every Brecht play and/or production was the belief that the audience had to be entertained (using ‘devices’ such as songs and humour), as well as moved to thinking about the theatre on one hand and, on the other, the society people were living in there and then – making his plays socially relevant with the times.

Commenting on European drama in the first quarter of the twentieth century, in an essay titled On Experimental Theatre, Brecht (1898-1956) wrote:

“For at least two generations the serious European drama has been passing through a period of experiment. So far the various experiments conducted have not led to any definite and clearly established result, nor is the period itself over. In my view these experiments were pursued along two lines which occasionally intersected but can none the less be followed separately. They are defined by the two functions of entertainment and instruction: that is to say that the theatre organized experiments to increase its ability to amuse, and others which were intended to raise its value as education.”

Bertolt Brecht believed these two functions of entertainment and instruction can – and need to – be married to produce the perfect play. But even more, Brecht believed that theatre had to make sense to people – to be relevant and contemporary to its audience.

To achieve this, Brecht wrote copious notes on his plays, giving directions to himself, the actors and directors, and even rewriting his plays, introducing his thinking, his responses to and his beliefs about the social and political happenings of the time. For instance, although he had written Galileo (one of his most famous plays) prior to the Second World War, he changed the ending and several other sections of the play after the United States dropped the atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

So, in reality, there is a Galileo I (Galileo Galilei written in 1937-38) and a Galileo II (Galileo re-written in 1945-46); although, today, what is accepted and staged as Galileo is actually Galileo II, Brecht’s later version. The effort Brecht put in to make his plays socially and politically relevant to the present times is a practice that is still followed by producers and directors who stage his plays today.

[Citation: 1. On Experimental Theatre by Bertolt Brecht, translated by John Willett, quoted from The Theory of the Modern Stage, edited by Eric Bentley, Penguin Modern Classics, 2008. 2. The Science Fiction of Bertolt Brecht by Eric Bentley in the Introduction to Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, English version by Charles Laughton, Grove Press, 1966.]

Chandramani

For her debut novel Kimsuka Narsimhan has created a fast-paced mystery around the sudden death of an heir to a family fortune. It all happens after Manish Kshetra (the heir) falls to his death from the ramparts of Chandramani, the grand old mansion of the Kshetra family. Was it an accident, a suicide or a cold-blooded murder? The family seeks out the discreet skills of self-tutored detective Ajmer Lalla to ferret out the truth without tarnishing the Kshetra family name and reputation.

Ms Narsimhan’s sleuth Ajmer Lalla is an interesting character: suave, intelligent and prone to wry humour. Chandramani reminds one of Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, though its plot is nowhere near as complex as Ms Christie’s were. Therein lies Ms Narsimhan’s simple narrative skill which keeps the suspense at the edge of every page egging the reader to know more.

And when the resolution happens, it’s not what most readers may expect. Chandramani’s mystery unfolds gently and Lalla’s sleuthing banks more on keen observation and deductive logic than on forensics. It comes as a piecing together of information from, and sifting the likely motives of, several characters (mostly Kshetra family members and friends) who appear and reappear in the story. Since there is no narrated violence, nor graphic details of gruesome deaths, the book is suitable for young adults as well.

Wall art, Gariahat Road, Kolkata

A set of three wall paintings on the walls of Gariahat Tram Depot on Gariahat Road, Ballygunge, Kolkata. If the paintings were on canvas, I believe, they would have fetched a decent amount for the artist, Barun Saha.

Nothing Twice

Eleven or so years ago, I discovered the poetry of Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska and longed to possess a book of her poems. Sadly, her poems, in print, were difficult to find in India.

Then, out of the blue, a friend announced his trip to Poland with his Polish girlfriend (now wife). I jumped at the opportunity and pestered him into obtaining an anthology of Wislawa Szymborska for me – with dire consequences to his life upon his return, should he fail to fulfill my request.

Of course, he had no idea who Wislawa Szymborska was. So, he couldn’t see the meaning in my threat, until his girlfriend enlightened him on Polish literature – and my sincerity. After all, Wislawa Szymborska is something of a national treasure in Poland (she passed away in 2012), apart from being a humanist and a renowned writer.

Happily for me, on 25 July 2008 (exactly 11 years ago today), this friend of mine handed over a brand new hardcover copy of Nothing Twice (Selected Poems) – an anthology of 120 poems by Wislawa Szymborska, both in Polish and in English (translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh), published soon after she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996.

This means, out of the 250 or so poems written by Wislawa Szymborska, half of them are contained in this collection.

Here is the poem from the title of the anthology:

Nothing Twice

Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.

Even if there is no one dumber,
if you’re the planet’s biggest dunce,
you can’t repeat the class in summer:
this course is only offered once.

No day copies yesterday,
no two nights will teach what bliss is
in precisely the same way,
with precisely the same kisses.

One day, perhaps some idle tongue
mentions your name by accident:
I feel as if a rose were flung
into the room, all hue and scent.

The next day, though you’re here with me,
I can’t help looking at the clock:
A rose? A rose? What could that be?
Is it a flower or a rock?

Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It’s in its nature not to say
Today is always gone tomorrow

With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we’re different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.

[Citation: Nothing Twice, a poem by Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, from the anthology Nothing Twice (Selected Poems) by Wislawa Szymborska, published by Wydawnictwo Literackie, Poland, 1997.]

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