S G Vasudev: Poetry in Lines
The following is an excerpt from ‘Linear Progressions: Tracing the Line in Karnataka’, by Nalini S Malaviya, published in Karnataka Lalithakala Academy Journal.*
S. G. Vasudev (born 1941), also a consistent practitioner of drawings has exhibited them extensively. Vasudev’s drawings are minimal and spare, with a strong narrative content. His drawings have been often based on the poetry of A. K. Ramanujan, beginning from the moment when he designed the book cover of Hopscotch. Vasudev has had a long relationship with Ramanujan’s poems and has created several series of drawings on them.
Vasudev’s drawings on black canvas are a stark contrast to his paintings, minimal and free from any embellishments. Vasudev’s relationship with drawings extends for more than two decades and he is a firm believer in the power of line as a basis for any art practice. These are minimalist renderings, spare and reductive, with every dash and dot in precise placement akin to punctuation marks in textual prose. The thematic content of his drawings coincide with the phases of his expressions in other media such as copper, canvas paintings and tapestries. The series Vriksha originating in the early eighties depicts the tree of life as the centre of the cosmic energy and the cycle of life. The He & She drawings from the early nineties feel weighted and are disquieting with vast empty spaces, while another series Earthscapes dwells on the devastation caused by man and highlights the resulting anguish. The Theatre of Life from the late nineties forms a theatrical backdrop and contemplates on the notion of the world as a stage. Apart from these there are several drawings which are instantaneous depictions of his observations.
The narrative quality of Vasudev’s drawings gives it an illustrative feel. And the almost childlike nature of the line lends spontaneity. However, there is distinct clarity in the thematic depiction, which relies on storytelling.
*Interwoven, an exhibition of S G Vasudev’s drawings and tapestries from late 1970s to 2022, has been organised by KCC. This exhibition has been curated by Nalini S Malaviya.
Venue: 1st floor, KCC
Date: 25th February – 25th March 2023
Curator’s Notes for Interwoven
The Bangalore-based veteran artist S G Vasudev has established himself as a prominent contemporary modernist from South India, with a significant body of work emerging from his five decades of practice. He studied at the Government College of Art, Madras, an important centre for arts education in India, especially in the 1960s, when it was at the focal point of a cultural dialogue that actively re-examined aesthetics of art production. Concurrently, the post-independence period was marked by an emphasis on determining a cultural and national identity, and during this period, intersections of arts and craft traditions became increasingly fluid and organic, with vernacular motifs, symbols and regional literary influences proliferating across creative streams. Vasudev went on to become a founder member of the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, a school of thought that directly emerged from the arts and cultural discourses at the College of Art, Madras, and which was attentive to traditional imagery and the poetics of the line.
Given the prevailing atmosphere, Vasudev adapted and integrated craft traditions extensively in his practice to establish an idiom that celebrated the local and the regional ethos. Copper relief and, later, tapestry as a medium, brought to life his paintings—woven in silk that translated the painted imagery into vivid detail using threads and the loom.
In this exhibition, Interwoven, the focus remains on select tapestries, created over almost the last three decades, and drawings from his early period to several that are recent and being exhibited for the first time. Interwoven examines the image as it navigates across media and adapts its textural and material nature from paintings to tapestries. And the line drawings that interpret analogous themes to collate a significant body of work that offers deep insights into Vasudev’s art practice, his ideology and philosophical thinking.
The traversing of the image, from one material and medium to another, individually, and in collaborative mode, lends interesting points of comparisons and departure. Simultaneously, it is a reaffirmation of art and craft intersections, of artist and craftsman partnership, and the transliterations and iterations of myths and motifs from an Indian, regional and cultural context as evident in the suite of tapestries and drawings.
In his 50-odd years of artistic career, S G Vasudev continues to draw inspiration from multiple sources – literature, art, music, performance, and events around him. Emotional connects, human and animal relationships, nature and ecological concerns, and the transience of life are some of the discourses that form the subtext in the multiple narratives that he explores. The socio-ecological constructs expressed through his characters and motifs represent a collective consciousness.
He has examined themes such as Maithuna, Vriksha, Tree of Life, Tree of Life and Death, Humanscapes, Earthscapes, Theatre of Life, She and He and Rhapsody, at various stages in his drawings, paintings, and collages, the latter, a recent and direct outcome of the pandemic. His penchant for revisiting his primary conceptual moorings has essentially resulted in numerous interpretations around them that offer parallel colloquies, creating multifocal points of readings.
Revisiting these themes from renewed perspectives at diverse periods in life introduces plurality of engagements and insights, leading to additional pictorial elements lending complexity and layers to their reading. The interconnectivity and relationships between the myths, motifs, and metaphors create stimulating points of overlap and divergence from visual, visceral and emotional sites of viewing. The sinuosity of the line, in its rhythm, fluidity and poetics with an innate sensitivity, whimsy and grace, lends a timelessness to the image. The imaginaries continue to expand, assimilate and embrace newer pictographic topographies that emanate from an ever-widening artistic horizon.
Interwoven is as much a connecting link between the image and the material and media, as it is a thread that interconnects the plurality of influences on Vasudev’s art and his interpretations. It traces the shifts in narratives of the artist’s characters, motifs and pictorial maps as they congregate, intermingle and disperse amidst nature.
Tapestries of Life
Tapestries as a medium of artistic expression have been popular across the centuries, and perceived as functional, aesthetic and creative work, at various points in time. As a fine art medium, it experienced a revival in the 20th century, largely due to the efforts of Picasso and Matisse. Vasudev witnessed this surge in interest in tapestries during his travels to Europe, which was further fuelled by a visit to Marc Chagall’s studio in 1980. An interaction with the stained-glass craftsman who had been assisting Chagall for 40 years encouraged him to associate with an Indian craftsman in a similar fashion and to explore tapestry as an extension of his own aesthetic and material sensibilities. Thus, was born an association with Subbarayalu, a master weaver based in Bangalore, in 1995, a fortuitous association that has continued for more than 25 years.
The collaboration has led to several tapestries being woven of Vasudev’s paintings across the years. As a far greater tactile expression of the painting, each tapestry is a harmonious amalgamation of colour, texture and spatial configuration. It reveals the intricacies of the painting in silk threads—dyed and coloured in precise detail to reconstruct the image. Dr Pramila Lochan writes about the process of weaving that a stand loom is used to hold the warp and to facilitate the interweaving of the weft of silk threads in selected colours, often specially dyed for the purpose. She elaborates, “The loom is the ground for preparing a base in warp threads stretched lengthwise while the weft of coloured threads weaves patterns that transform paintings into silken imagery. The artisan interweaves each coloured weft over portions of the warp to form the design.” A laborious process, each tapestry takes 3-4 months to complete, depending on the dimensions and complexities of the painting.
The tapestries recreate but do not attempt to reproduce the oil paintings. An active discussion between the artist and the craftsman allows the collaboration to deepen, the image to evolve, and its lines and colours to adapt to the material. The resulting imagery embraces the tactile medium and extends the aesthetics of the fibre to ensure the exclusivity of the tapestry as an original work of art.
The reverse part of the tapestry is equally exquisite, an abstract landscape that demonstrates the abundant love, dexterity and craftsmanship of the weaver. Patterns and textures on the reverse of each tapestry, form unique compositional imageries in silken threads, with the meticulously placed knots and counts adding another textural layer.
The tapestries presented as part of Interwoven encompass select works from Earthscape, Elephant and Man, Maithuna, Man and Tree, Manscape, She, Theatre of Life, Sun and Tree and the Tree of Life. The images in the tapestries reconstruct the paintings, the oils on canvas, with their assured brushstrokes, the intense colours, and the bold linear fluidity that characterises Vasudev’s art.
He explains, “Whether it is man, woman, tree, sky, earth, sun, moon, all have to co-exist. That is what I see in life and that is what I reflect in my work.” The Tree of Life palpitates with life with the abundant flora and fauna that inhabits its form—within and in its folds. It celebrates the spirit of synchronicity, the celestial thread between all living beings, and man-made artifacts. The repercussions of human intervention are vast, and its impact on the delicate balance between man and nature forms the subtext. Kernels from numerous sources ranging from art, literature, films, television and music intermingle into a visual chronicle, akin to a theatrical panel, with a story to narrate. The Maithuna series celebrates the physical, spiritual and metaphoric relationship between man, woman and nature.
The multiple works from the Theatre of Life are an animated depiction of life, with its theatrical and performative moments, of joy, celebration and playfulness, and often portray masked emotions. Earthscape and Manscape are complex in their rendering, juxtaposing multiple motifs on the tree of life, the Vriksha, which first emerged in the Maithuna series as a living, breathing host of an intricate and fragile habitat. Fragments of faces composed of leaves and other organic matter, contesting for space and survival, render a powerful reminder of the frailty of nature and environment, and act as a persuasive plea for ecological conservation.
In visible contrast, Vasudev’s drawings are minimal with distinct large white or black spaces marked by bold self-assured lines in ink, that flow effortlessly on paper. The apparent simplicity of the composition as an aesthetic device constructs the narrative content with a tender fluidity and lyrical definiteness. The sensitivity inherent in the spatial delineations, produces zones for contemplation, with expanses marked by natural pauses, and unhurried strokes embracing stillness.
The drawings over the 30-year period form a significant repository of works that include and represent the transitions and the transformation of the image to the current reductive format. Fantasy, Head, Rhapsody, She, He & She, Tree, Mountains to the recent Portrait series effectively exemplify the transition from the urgency and the clamorous voice and vocabulary in the earliest two works to the quietude of the later drawings.
Vasudev’s love for classical music is perhaps best reflected in his drawings. The notes, the chords, the pauses, and the notations appear as linear or abstracted forms, while complete or partial motifs and characters are outlined in minimal detail and embellishments dot the surface. There is a continuous flow of improvisation that accompanies the Raga, the mellifluous notes of Carnatic music which usually play in the background when Vasudev is in the studio. The surface of the paper sparkles with exuberance, articulating a melodious harmony, where birds fly and sing, the characters appear joyous, and man and nature seem perfectly congruent. The series Rhapsody, in particular, personifies this rapturous journey in life and the lyrical harmony of coexistence.
The tree or the Vriksha, central to life and mother earth, which appeared on the periphery initially in Vasudev’s works, gradually moved centre-stage, and later metamorphosed into the Kalpavriksha, the wish-granting tree, symbolic of wisdom, divinity and spirituality. It occupies a recurring theme as a symbol of plenty, and as a haven to the birds and animals that abound, inhabiting the space amidst its branches – it makes an appearance in the Tree, in its various avatars. The Mountains appear animated with undulating slopes alive with fauna and foliage while dotting the terrain. Yet, remnants of lost land and species remain poignantly etched as indelible markers from the past.
The Portrait series was done in London in the autumn of 2022 and is inspired by the cornucopia of art, theatre and performances in the city. The tree, the people and the city collide and converge effortlessly, in a delightful union, with forms, characters, and motifs juxtaposed in a fluid configuration.
Feature Image: Fantasy, 21x21cm, 1971 (by S G Vasudev)
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Nalini S Malaviya is a Bangalore-based art consultant, curator and writer. She has been writing for the media since 2003 and has been an art columnist for leading newspapers. She has contributed to the Financial Times, Times of India, Bangalore Mirror, Deccan Herald, several art magazines and artist books, among other publications. Nalini is the Founder/Publisher of Art Scene India, www.artsceneindia.com - a significant resource site and a digital archive, with extensive documentation of the Indian art scene over the last 15 years. Some of her curatorial projects include Enchanted Breath, Convergence—an online exhibition as part of an art and media collective, Bend, Parallax of Visual Memories, Reimagining: (Un)Reality and Space, Irreverent Gene and Polynomials of Relevance with leading contemporary artists from across the country.