Yayati, or a Painting in Praise of Sensuousness
Born in 1935 in the small town of Attingal in southern Kerala, Ramachandran’s early life was spent in the midst of rural beauty; and soaking in the sensuous exuberance of nature was his first aesthetic experience. This went hand in hand with an exposure to art, especially to that of the faraway artists of Bengal, through the pages of The Modern Review. These two experiences led him to seek training from a local artist and to his first exercises in painting. In 1950 when his family moved to the nearby city of Trivandrum, his cultural interests broadened and he took up the study of music and literature. Alongside his training in art and music, he continued his formal education and acquired his masters in Malayalam literature in 1957. As a student of literature, Ramachandran was drawn to the work of the Progressive Writers and their efforts to bring about social change through their writings. In marked contrast to this, his own work as a painter and a musician, he realised, were an aesthetic practice without demonstrable social commitments. A chance encounter with a reproduction of Ramkinkar’s monumental sculpture The Santhal Family made him realise that art committed to progressive values was not only possible but indeed existed.
This led him to Santiniketan and to take up the study of art anew under Ramkinkar. In Santiniketan, he saw that Ramkinkar’s art with its obvious social commitment existed in tandem with a larger programme that saw art as part of a broader visual culture that integrated with the life of the community and added an aesthetic dimension to it. It also made him take a renewed interest in traditional arts including that of his native state. But what shook him most was the dehumanizing suffering of people he encountered on the streets of Calcutta which was in stark contrast to the beauty of nature and the modest but relatively peaceful life he saw in rural Kerala and Santiniketan. At the beginning of his career, agitated by the spectacle of human sufferings he saw around him, and fuelled by the moral charge of Dostoyevsky and the pessimistic vision of the existentialists, Ramachandran committed himself to an art that recorded and commented upon such human predicament. It was an emotional response and a moral undertaking. This made his paintings darkly anguished and satirical. In them, his natural ebullience and his susceptibility to the sensuous beauty of the world—visible in the drawings he made for himself, both for pleasure and self-instruction—were set aside and an attitude of impersonality appropriate to moral high seriousness was assumed. Like the self and the world which found expression in the privacy of the studio but did not spill into his canvases, his interest in traditional antecedents was another aspect that did not find expression in his early work.
Yayati marked a definitive reversal and an effort to write these repressed aspects—of his self, the world, and his artistic legacy—back into his work through quotation, stylistic appropriation and role-play. Arriving after the unrelenting pessimism, the lacerating satire, and the painful torsions that mark his work thus far, Yayati gives way to a tapestry of colour, sensuality of bodies and scopic pleasure. In it, it is not the tragedies of contemporary life but the enduring beauty of the world that catches his attention. The abruptness of this shift makes it disjunctive; and its unmistakable comprehensiveness underscores its intentionality. With Yayati, Ramachandran’s art acquires a new purpose and direction akin to a change of faith.
In retrospect, it may not be difficult to see that there was a swelling undercurrent of erotic energy in some of the works that preceded Yayati. But the decisive impulse came during a visit to Manipur in 1983. While sketching the local women, Ramachandran found himself responding to the visual charms of their bodies in a way he had seldom done in his art before. This led him to do a set of paintings depicting Manipuri girls which, in a marked departure from his previous works, is free of figural distortions. Such straightforward naturalism without the emotional amplitude and the formal rhetoric of Baroque, or the convulsive poetry of Surrealism was something Ramachandran did not find elevating. Thus these paintings, though not significant as works of art, announced a deeper need he felt at that moment to recognise the human body and the world in its wholeness. This need probably came from an eye ailment in the early eighties which for a while made it difficult for him to paint. For a resolute and fully engrossed artist like Ramachandran, this should have been an alarming mid-career crisis which suddenly brought home to him the impermanence of the world and made its beauties, in danger of slipping away from him all too soon, very desirable.
Such thoughts and emotions led him to develop a new vision of the world, and to invent a new poetics of gesture and artifice to express the sensuality of the body and the world. He made his first move in this direction with the first version of Yayati completed in 1983, in which we frontally confront a nude who holds herself in the posture of a yakshi, not alluringly idealised but riveting in her earthy eroticism. She stands like a transfixing icon at the centre of the painting which otherwise represents life ticking away at varied paces, and includes a de-plumed peacock hobbling behind her, a lesser companion digging her teeth into a slice of juicy melon, a tree coming alive with flowers, and clouds rolling by. Amidst these images of the changing world, she stands as a monumental icon of untamed and unchanging eroticism. Her tribal identity signifies not her ethnicity but her primordiality, and her resistance to be civilised and tempered. Her sculptural solidity, her bodily inaction, her poise—in a visible contrast to the setting—heightens the awesomeness of her unsublimated eroticism and the archaic threat she poses to ‘civilized’ lives.
This sudden disruptive eruption of the erotic condensed into an iconic image thick with suggestive ambivalence in the first version of Yayati is given a leisurely unwinding in the second and definitive version, in which the initial impulse is also considerably sublimated. The process of coming to terms with his mid-life rupture, and canalizing it through an idiomatic mediation into his art was taken up in a series of drawings begun alongside the first version of Yayati and led up to the final mural. Their immediate inspiration came from a group of itinerant Gadia Lohars who had set camp near his house and drew his attention with their colourful costumes and strange ways. But as he began to draw them, cutting through the grime and alienness that wrapped them, the contours of an ancient and wanton life began to emerge.
While some of these drawings showed the Lohars at their daily chores, others, especially of young women, assumed an autonomous life. Dislocated from their social context and divested of their colourful costumes, they form a catwalk of sensual nudes. The unwavering, evenly precise lines with which they are drawn suggest that they are the end-products of a process moving from perception to projective transformation, from seeing to transfiguration. We only have to juxtapose some of these drawings—the carrot-nibbling girl with the watermelon eater leaning against a tree, or the girl being groomed by her companion with the one discovering the face of death in a mirror, the hammer wielder with one in a similar pose sans hammer—to notice this transformation. In the second group, the figures are not only nudes but also reminiscent of fulsome yakshis, of the erotic women in Mithuna sculptures, and of the languorous lovers and princesses in Ajanta murals. And through this cross projection—binding the living bodies of the Lohars to ancient art—he gives a cultural lineage to an exploration triggered by personal predilection and initiates a process of assimilation that would have a lasting impact on his art.
He began painting the larger version of Yayati in 1984 and completed it towards the end of 1986. It was a mammoth project with 60 feet of painted narration in life-size and 13 sculptures. The Mahabharata, to which he had already turned for an apocalyptic vision of human destiny in End of the Yadavas and for his image of Gandhari, mother of a hundred calamitous sons rendered as a personification of Fortune, was once again Ramachandran’s source for the story of Yayati. His story, as told by Vyasa, is a cameo on individual destiny within that larger saga about human valour and tragic destiny. Yayati is a powerful king of the Lunar clan and a winner of many wars. He is also an inveterate hedonist who enjoys the companionship of beautiful women including that of his two wives Devayani and Sharmistha. He is cursed for his intemperance by Sukracharya, father of his incensed wife Devayani, and inflicted with premature old age. To escape his fate, Yayati pleads with his five sons to lend him their youth in exchange for his kingdom. The youngest of them, Puru, finally accedes to his wishes and frees him from his curse. Yayati returns to his life of pleasure once again but even after aeons of indulgence he finds his desires insatiable and eventually realises that indulgence only feeds human desires. He then returns his son’s youth, takes back his decrepitude and leads a more satisfied and wiser life.
Yayati is not one of the central characters of the Mahabharata but Ramachandran found his story deeply moving. Unlike the usual hero he is not miraculously powerful or invincible, or the usual brave man who undertakes impossible tasks against all odds. He is a hero who is flawed, is vulnerable and all too human. It is this aspect of Yayati that appealed to Ramachandran. Explaining this in an interview he said: ‘He is a human being with normal human failings and foibles. He is self-centred, even selfish.’ And more importantly, ‘Unlike the major characters of the Mahabharata, he is not bound by a traditional set of values… He recognises the call of the body and spirit. He does not negate one for the other. This makes him a complete man.’ A man complete with human desires, aspirations and failings, Yayati is the ordinary man as hero and his story, Ramachandran recognised, is the story of everyman expressed in the form of an archetypal myth.
Yayati was thus conceived as a monument to human vulnerability, a temple to man who does not aspire to be God, and to the sensuality he finds irresistible. Its twelve canvases (each eight feet high) are grouped into three thematic segments, Ushas, Madhyanha, and Sandhya. This threefold division marks the passage of time.
Ushas marks the beginning, the time when life begins on earth, not historically or collectively for man but experientially for each individual. It is the archetypal beginning relived by each individual, the moment he awakens to the elemental magic and sensuality of the world. Ramachandran begins this segment with a magnificent tree whose branches bring forth not only leaves and flowers but also myriad creatures. It is a Speaking Tree or rather a ‘begetting tree’. An oracle and a riddle rolled into one, it combines beauty and grotesqueness into a large florid gesture and symbolises life’s mystery. Beneath it is a radiant peacock looking up fascinated at the ornate extravagance of the tree and as if trying to unravel its strange message. With its tail carrying the colophon we may assume that the peacock holds some personal significance for the artist in this work. Beyond this motif, the world unfolds laterally in a pageant of figures—seated or standing, fruit in hand or at the toilet, but always in languorous self-display—trees with luxurious foliage and vulval flowers, and composite creatures. The earth lit by the genial light of dawn grows greener and greener as it rolls out, and life runs wild crossing the boundaries between the vegetal and animal worlds, beast and bird, bird and man with noticeable ease and fluidity.
Madhyanha is the time when the earth and its creatures are ruled by the sun and enlivened by its fierce energy. Under its blazing light, the green earth turns into a molten red and yellow; the elements disentangle, assume autonomous identities, and a definite hierarchy. Thus in this segment mythical hybrid creatures disappear, and while the plants and trees remain, it is the human figures that matter. And they are on fire. Madhyanha opens with a serpentine figure seen from behind, but whose swirling rhythm promises a fuller offering. She is followed by three seductive companions fashioning phallic objects with phallic tools who turn the blacksmith’s labour into a concrete metaphor for the poetics of human arousal. This leads expectedly to images of dalliance, and in the concluding canvas of this section the first male figure appears; a tattooist at the feet of a languorous beauty, an artist embellishing her like a Chinese connoisseur putting his seal of admiration on to a valued picture.
Male figures mark the beginning and end of the last segment, Sandhya. It begins with a blue-bodied tiller. Plough on shoulder, well built, striding with robust steps, he is a man of action and a collaborator but also one who interjects a cyclic order into the theatre of sensuality. An agent of sustentation and revival, he also implicitly invokes decline and death, and indeed death is foreshadowed in the mirror held by the girl sitting next to his striding figure. But this flash of death does not bring the pageant of sensuality to a halt. In the following canvas, a dotara playing Ramachandran in the form of a bird-man or kinnara—blue like the peacock, blue like Krishna the flirtatious lover-God—serenades a girl on the swing to whom a companion holds out a slice of ripe watermelon, Ramachandran’s fruit of carnality. This is followed in the penultimate panel by a consenting Europa riding a sturdy man-bull and in the final canvas by a young vivacious dancer, a featherless peacock and a decrepit old man. Double bent with age and standing like a closing bracket at the very end of the painting, he brings its lateral progression to a halt, reverses it with his gaze and turns the whole painting into a retrospective vision—a theatre of sensuality viewed from the vantage point of an imminent end.
The decrepit old man is not Yayati and the painting was not conceived as a narration of his story as told in the Mahabharata but as a perennial metaphor. We are told that this figure, he realized after it was done, was based on an old folk painter he had once met as a student in Santiniketan. Thus in a way the figure represents an alter ego and makes the painting personal. For Ramachandran, Yayati represents not an individual, but a recurring existential predicament that brings everyman at a certain time in life face to face with his vulnerability; the defining moment at which the impermanence of human life and the enduring sensuality of the world assumes a terrible clarity, and the psychological conflict that arises from it is the thematic core of Yayati. The last three canvases, which were in fact the first to be painted, capture this in a nutshell. And the other nine canvases, which were added to them, form a long prelude that prepares us to experience this central crisis of Yayati’s life in all its intensity. And the sculptures form an epilogue to this moment of existential cataclysm. Collectively titled Ratri, they represent the period of endings, the time of darkness and despair that haunts the man from whose grasp the world is drifting away as in a dream. It is the world from which light and colour has drained out leaving man to grope with tantalising masses in thickening darkness. Feeding on his fears and frustrations the world once again loses its set contours, and night becomes the space of hybrid conflations, creatures of mixed identities, of incoherent sphinxes and inward-looking figures.
In Yayati, the dark ending enclosed within life is also the centre around which the three fold vision of life is articulated. Ramachandran does not display Yayati, like his other mural-sized paintings, extending laterally along a wall. His return to the study and documentation of the Kerala murals in the mid-seventies should have brought home the realisation that most of these traditional murals were not merely painted on walls but also articulated in a definite architectural space. Architecture thus forms a matrix for the murals on the one hand, and on the other hand the murals whether they wrap a building or go around the inner walls of a room, transform the architectural geometry of the spaces they occupy. This is something murals conceived as laterally expansive painting do not fully realise. Yayati too is a mural conceived without reference to a given architectural site, but there is a conscious effort in its installation to transcend this and turn the mural itself into a site.
Invoking a painted temple in a more than metaphorical sense, Ramachandran displays the panels not in a continuum but mounted onto three freestanding boxes or cabinet-frames, arranged around a square to suggest three enclosing walls of a room. Starting about two feet above the floor the painting runs edge to edge on each side with Ushas, Madhyanha, and Sandhya surrounding the viewer like the walls of a painted chamber representing three stages of life. Thus one does not merely view Yayati but steps into its field as one enters the charged space of a chapel or a temple. Initially a painted door was used to mark this crossing over from the space of the gallery into the space of Yayati. And the constellation of thirteen small sculptures, each a foot high, that constitute Ratri are placed on a low platform between the three painted ‘walls’. At its centre is a bull representing a libidinal numen; surrounding it and marking the four corners of a square are four seated man-faced lion-bodied composite figures, and beyond it, marking the cardinal directions are four seated and four standing female figures, ascetic and withdrawn, with ambivalent sensuality and hieratic gestures. Arranged like a mandala they lay down a regulatory geometry for the whole installation. And Ratri becomes the hub of dark emotions around which the vivid vision of Yayati revolves.
While Yayati is painted from the vantage point of an aging male alienated from the sensual pleasures of the world, the male figure arrives only at the end of Madhyanha. Before this, he is foreshadowed and his libidinal energy is invoked but he is not given a definite presence. Woman in contrast has a larger and longer presence in Yayati; although her presence grows marginally from Ushas to Madhyanha to Sandhya, she is coeval with the world. In Yayati, woman isn’t the second-born — shaped from a male rib, but the primeval one who calls man into existence and shapes him by her desires. In his first appearance, man is youthful and romantically lost in her body like a poet lost in the object of his contemplation. In the next image, he is physically more endowed and carries a plough — announcing his virility. In the third instance we encounter him as an impish artist — half-man half-bird — paying a musical tribute to female sensuality. In the fourth occurrence, he is a bodily lusty and mentally seasoned half-bull half-man, and on the last occasion we see him as an old man whose only attribute is the power of recall. Man arrives late in Ramachandran’s vision of the world but once he enters, the human content thickens and the world becomes more homocentric. He evolves and declines in a short span but he also brings change and temporality into the world, and his surrogate — the peacock, reiterates it.
Man’s arrival thickens the human drama, but it is woman who plays the lead role in this theatre of sensuality. The trees are her surrogates and as a mark of their sisterhood flaunt flowers that bear her gender sign like an insignia. The female body — luxuriously inactive, poised in indolent postures, gracefully rising on toes, arms lifted into gestures with a tinge of lethargy, and undifferentiated in work and dance — does not change or age in Yayati. While all the male figures disregard the viewer, in telling contrast the female figures (except three in Sandhya — the one who foresees man’s death and two more which were painted before the mural’s programme was fully articulated) regard him with self-conscious sly looks and half smiles. Unchanging and un-aging, Ramachandran’s woman lives in eternity while his man lives in temporality. Yayati’s crisis rises from the friction between time and eternity. Like the apsaras of the myths, his woman is an untiring enticer but his man finds himself inadequately endowed to respond to her eternal youth. She is as old and as fresh as the world she inhabits, however, with her marked artistic lineage she is also a product of artifice. Paradoxically, in Ramachandran’s Yayati, it is the feeble man who is more earthy and rooted in reality, and the woman in the last count is a creature of his imagination.
Remembering that these figures were inspired by robust tribals would help us to grasp the extent of cultural sanitization that has taken place between the first and second versions of Yayati. The primeval sexuality copious in the first is attenuated into a reified sensuality in the second. The process of casting the Lohar tribal in the formal matrix of classical sculpture and painting — already noticed in the drawings — is pushed further in the mural. This is particularly true of the female figures. Not only are they all given classical postures but a number of them can also be traced to specific images, especially from Ajanta. Besides the adoption of specific motifs, there are also other stylistic reverberations of Ajanta running through Yayati — such as in the cornucopian proliferation of figures, motifs and symbols, their rhythmic interweave; and the forward surge of the figures from the wall into the viewer’s space.
However, Ajanta is only one of the traditions that inform Yayati. The trees with their ornate heaviness invoke the thirteenth century sculptural extravagance of Hoysala art, the flowering plants recall Mughal textiles and flower pieces, the modelling of the figures through shading rather than pure linear means reveal a substructure of western realism, their varied complexions echoes the emblematic colouring of the body in the visual, ritual, and performing arts of Kerala, and the general brightness of the palette is closer to those of the miniatures and the Japanese decorative arts. Thus in Yayati, Ramachandran draws not on one but several stylistic antecedents, some of them even mutually incongruent. He holds them together more by ebullience than by systemic coherence, and sometimes the strain shows as in his effort to conjoin representational and compositional conventions derived from the linear style of Ajanta with high keyed colouring that tends to suppress modelling and flatten shapes. Then, for all its seductive opulence and ornamental profusion a formal disquiet, comparable to the psychological tension at the heart of its thematic body, runs through the heart of Yayati’s linguistic body as well. Thus contrary to appearance, its style does not convey a sense of seamless harmony. And further, this is not a visual idiom based on the aesthetics of realism and it does not lead us back to the artist’s models and their existential reality; it belongs more to the fictional tradition that turns cowgirls into Radha, and is thus inherently disposed to turn Gaudia Lohar girls into native-cousins of Monalisa.
Ramachandran’s appropriations from traditional arts in Yayati differ from the use of traditional elements in his earlier work. In his earlier work, he sometimes borrowed motifs from traditional works of art for their expressive quality or iconographic content and transposed them onto another plane of sensibility and/or language. In Yayati, along with the motif he also appropriates the language and the aesthetics of traditional arts. And in spite of the somewhat unresolved eclecticism of Yayati, it clearly marks the beginning of an effort to spin different strands with indigenous lineage into a unitary personal idiom. To evolve a language which like that of traditional Indian painting, and contrary to the modernist dictum, connects visual representation with an aesthetic common to different arts, and allows the image to stand a little apart from reality, to remain immersed in visual experience and yet not become wholly naturalistic, and to embrace both the abstract and the decorative or in other words to achieve a blend of keen observation and artificiality. Beginning with Yayati, this becomes a part of Ramachandran’s response to Eurocentric modernism and his strategy for re-linking contemporary practice to traditional sensibilities and art languages. He found a precedence to his efforts in the work of the Santiniketan artists, especially in that of Nandalal. However, Ramachandran’s approach differs from Nandalal’s who while exploring the possibilities of evolving new hybrid idioms based on linguistic convergence between different visual traditions remained essentially a realist committed to representing local realities. Ramachandran on the other hand, while turning to indigenous sources continues to restate experiential facts, as in his earlier work, with a distinct baroque efflorescence.
The turn away from Eurocentric modernism we notice in the representational idiom is also noticeable in Yayati’s theme. Ramachandran, unlike most modern artists, did not shy away from literary allusions and narrative subject matter. Owing to his own background in literary studies from the beginning of his career, he did feel it was legitimate for literature and art to share common goals and aesthetics. Dostoyevsky was his first inspiration in painting. While he turned to him for aesthetic and moral guidance rather than subject matter, he was quite willing to mine literature as freely as he mined painterly antecedents for his subject matter. A painter’s commitment to the visual he felt did not preclude him from using literary allusions to add emotional or thematic depth to his motifs. Similarly as a student of vernacular literature Ramachandran, unlike his contemporaries, was familiar with the work of writers who used characters and episodes from native literary classics to unravel and comment on the present. Although this was a pan-Indian phenomenon it had many practitioners in Malayalam literature, and among the contemporary writers and filmmakers of Kerala who tried this some were his close friends. Yayati belongs to this tradition of Indian modernism.
Among such literary antecedents, V. S. Khandekar’s 1959 novel, Yayati, is thematically the closest to Ramachandran’s mural. However, Ramachandran’s use of the story differs from Khandekar’s on two counts. Khandekar narrates the story of Yayati quite faithfully and uses it to mount a critique of modern materialism. Ramachandran, unlike Khandekar, is no moralist.
He identifies with Yayati and uses his story as a metaphor to understand his own existential predicament and give it a universal dimension. His identification with Yayati was, as we have already noticed, instinctive and prompted by a personal crisis. In the beginning of the eighties, he had good reason to feel contented. After twenty years of tireless work, he had carved out a space of his own on the Indian art scene. He was also beginning to experience a modicum of material success. The days of uncertainty were positively behind him. He was only in his late forties and life ahead promised to be more satisfying. Then most unexpectedly he had an affliction in one eye and it became impossible to paint. For an artist at the height of his powers and success this was the cruellest predicament he could find himself in. The world he felt was drifting away from him and in Yayati, he discovered the name of the predicament he found himself in, its archetype. Suddenly Ramachandran, an artist who had so far looked away from the brighter and sensuous side of the world, experienced an intense desire to embrace the world in all its sensuality and celebrate it. And Yayati became his perfect alter ego, a companion in distress and an alibi for his own exploration of the sensuous.
In the beginning of his career driven by a Dostoyevskian passion he had discovered a Christ-like image of man in the gutters of Calcutta and in the eighties faced with an existential crisis he found a second image of man in Yayati. The first helped him to explore the absurdity of human suffering and the second would help him to unravel man’s endless desire to see the world as his beloved and to lose himself in the pleasures of her body. Yayati marks its beginning.
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Prof. R. Siva Kumar is an art historian and curator. He has authored over 15 books on modern Indian art and curated numerous exhibitions including Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism, the retrospectives K. G. Subramanyan and Benodebehari, and The Last Harvest: Paintings of Rabindranath. He is a professor of Art History at Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. In 2018, he was awarded 'Lifetime Achievement Award for Art History and Art Criticism' by the Government of West Bengal.