This is the second part of the interview. In case you haven't read the first please click HERE.
Note: Please click on the images for an enlarged view.
Tom Vattakuzhy in his Studio
Deepa: How did “Lessons of Life” happen?
Tom Vattakuzhy: I am over fifty now. I have seen many lives - how they lived, how they died and what they left behind. The impetus for these works comes from reflective thoughts on my own lived experiences, the lives I have come to see around and the values we uphold. We all know and are certain that there is a full stop and we are getting closer to it day by day. Yet, we tend to become aggressively materialistic. We engage in all sorts of vicious vices to win the rat race as though the bliss of life rests on all such things and our life is eternal. I am reminded of Mitch Albom’s ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’. In that, dying Morrie says we all are striving to learn how to live but the biggest learning in life is not how to live, but how to die. Once you know how to die you would know how to live. I think it carries a message for almost all of us to muse on.
Lessons of life
Oil on Canvas, 160 x 64 cm
Deepa: The play of light is captivating and dramatic in your works. What makes it interesting, however, is that the light seems otherworldly and doesn’t seem from this part of the world. Why is light such an important aspect in your works? What made you the “The Seeker of Light”?
Tom Vattakuzhy: I think there is a natural yearning for light in all of us. Haven’t you noticed young children enchanted with light? Look at their toys—they are mostly with flickering light. I think we are wired that way; there is a predilection towards the light. In my childhood days I dreaded darkness, even the darkness under my cot in the early mornings. I used to lie on my bed up till the beam of morning light dropping through the window reached the floor near the cot so that I could jump onto the light and run off to my mother, busy with morning-chores in the kitchen. I remember getting past the deadpan stillness of my solitary noondays watching the patterns of light on the house-courtyard. I have several memories of that kind to recount, memories of different hues and shades; funny it may appear though. Anyway, coming to your question, I think what we need more today is light. True that our modern science and technology has advanced to such a dimension that even midnight can be turned to look like dazzling midday. But, in the course of this progress, we are losing the light – the light within us; our interiors are getting shadier and murkier. If you look around and see what the ever-growing consumer culture does to our social values, cultural values, religious values, etc and see where we are heading to, you will understand it without having me to elaborate on it. So the light I use in my works is not a physical light, at least I am trying to make it so and I don’t know how far I am able to, it is up to the people to judge better.
With the painting ‘The Seeker of Light’ I have certain experiences that brought me to paint it. But I am afraid that would intercept your perceptions on it. You would tend to read my story in it rather than making it your own or linking it with your feelings or experiences. As I said earlier, what we need is the waves, not the stone that caused it.
The Seeker of Light
Oil on Canvas, 122 x 90 cm
Deepa: One of your paintings that portrayed Mata Hari and which resonated with da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” became quite controversial. What is your thought about that painting? How did you come to paint that with an allusion to “The Last Supper”?
Tom Vattakuzhy: It was a very unfortunate episode in my life. I was really shocked at the way the scandal brewed and the extent to which it flared up. This was a work I did for a drama that focused on the last days of Mata Hari’s life and her death. She was a Dutch exotic dancer sentenced to death on charges of espionage during the 1st World War. Paulo Coelho also has written a novel on her titled ‘The Spy’. Incidentally, it was also published in India around the same time. But I could read it only after I did the painting. Anyhow, the drama I illustrated carried an allusion to the passion of Christ. A discerning reader could see through the veiled layer in its use of biblical language and the sequential development of the events. I had a discussion with its author over his inspirations and thoughts about it even before painting it. I also had done a little research on her and came to the impression that she was essentially a victimized woman. I read about her troubled childhood, the sexual assaults on her, her torturous married life and the death of her child and so on. The survival instinct in her was perhaps so strong that she climbed up in life by hook or crook and became popular as a dancer. What touched me most was her unabated longing for true love. She agreed to work even as a spy; for the permission to enter the enemy-country to be with her injured lover. But even he betrayed her leaving her broken-hearted. So, it was with this brief understanding of her that I began to paint it. There was a flash of thought across my mind that the setting of the drama and the setting of the painting ‘The Last Supper’ is one and the same – a nunnery. The Christ of da Vinci at the most emotional and dramatic moment of his life – the moment of his last meal with his disciples with the impending betrayal and his death on the cross took over my thoughts. I felt it corresponded well, in some essential respect, with the mood and spirit of the drama. So I painted her last meal with an allusion to da Vinci’s painting as a gentle, compassionate and humanistic expression that I could possibly think of to paint a woman who underwent a lot of sufferings at the hands of a patriarchal society. To my line of thinking, I do not see Christ as a picture. Nor do I seek him in a picture. I seek him in essence. I seek him in every human being. My Christ has no gender, caste or race. He is there in everyone. When my mind fills with compassion, love and humanistic emotions I feel a Christ in me. I look at da Vinci’s Painting as a painting, as a work of art, not as an idol for worship. I haven’t either heard or seen anyone going to the museum to kneel down and pray or worship there.
Deepa: It was even withdrawn from the stands soon after being published. How would you like to respond to that act? In this context what would you like to say about an artist’s freedom of expression?
Tom Vattakuzhy: To tell you the truth, it shouldn’t have been so because the withdrawal actually amounted to endorsing that the painting was blasphemous. It was a countersign of approval and in effect a promotion for such tendencies towards exercising a dictatorial control over the freedom of expression. I wish media were an open platform for voices from both the secular and religious sides to enable a meaningful discourse. It is only through open discourses that we possibly come to the truth and sort out differences. When I say it, we shouldn’t fail to notice the flip side of it also. Despite its withdrawal on the day of its release itself sensing the distant prospect of controversy, a month-long wide-spread protest was carried out. It actually makes us dubious of its actual motives. When we read this controversy owing to ‘the unflinching fervour of faith’ in line with the series of incidents in the church in the subsequent periods involving the churchmen themselves, I think, the true colour of their ‘zealous religious fervour’ is self-evident. Anyhow, I believe that at a time when darkness comes all around us, media being one of the pillars of democracy, they have a lot to do.
You are well aware of the controversies in Kerala in the recent past. There were a number of people attacked either for their writing or their speech or their political views. M. T. Vasudevan Nair, Kamal, S. Harish, Kureeppuzha Sreekumar, Sunil P. Elayidam - they were all subjected to the fury of intolerance either from the religious side or from the political side. I don’t like to see it in terms of artists’ freedom of expression alone. This ever-growing intolerance towards dissenting voices is a vice invading all realms of life. I remember a quote from George Orwell, “If liberty is to mean anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Consolidation of fascist tendencies is a clear sign of our weakening democratic values and that is what we are seeing more and more. Our society and social institutions including religion are driven more and more towards amassing money and power. They want only following and songs of praise, no dissenting voices and no questions. When the ones we look up to also act like milk-and-water who will bell the cat is the question for which we do not have a clear answer.
Deepa: Have you worked on self-portraits? Does “The Painting Studio of a Local Artist” allude to yourself?
Tom Vattakuzhy: I haven’t done any self-portraits as self-portraits. I haven’t felt that way. But when I paint figures something of me comes through. People have told me that the figures I paint have something of me remaining hidden somewhere, something not so effable but perceivable. I say it could be my soul. Art is often autobiographical. So it is probable to have some traces of me, though unconsciously, get transferred. I think art cannot be otherwise.
The Painting Studio of a Local Artist
Deepa: Your current work?
Tom Vattakuzhy: It is about Palm Sunday and it is in the process of shaping up. I have just applied the first layer of colour.
Deepa: Do you get time to work on your own paintings other than the illustrations that you are assigned to? Though there may not be any difference in the approach of technique as you mentioned, do you feel emotionally different towards them?
Tom Vattakuzhy: I was not engaged in it on a day in and day out manner. I did not want that either. The one I worked for of late was a monthly literary magazine. So there was no need to break my neck for it. I used to get free time for my works in between. But once I was at it, I had to work like a well-oiled machine to meet the deadline.
Deepa: You were a student of the late Master KGS and you have even written an article on him “KGS ennavanmaram”. What do you think is his influence on you? How have the days in Santhiniketan helped you to mould/evolve you as an artist-person? What do you think is the role of institutions in shaping the artists? What do you think is the difference in Kalabhavan and the regular fine art colleges? If need be, what according to you need to change to help improve the art culture in colleges?
Tom Vattakuzhy: I remember KGS as a committed artist and teacher. By the time I joined he had retired and was continuing there as a professor emeritus. He used to come every day to the campus. His favourite place was the concrete bench under a large tree in front of the graphics department. He did most of his teachings through his informal chatting with students. He loved to talk. His idea of teaching was not focused on transferring the technical skills, but on evolving our artistic sensibility and personal vision. He often communicated it through metaphors or little stories. His concept of art can be abridged to a tree that grows with its taproot embedded in our traditions, and its cultural fabric and secondary roots spreading far and wide to the soils of other cultures assimilating water and nutrients for it to grow. He never tried to mould his students to be the secondary planets that orbit him but inspired them to a larger world for them to learn from and gently suggested possible avenues that better suit their proclivities. He always said that the creative journey of an artist is a personal one and he should seek for ‘a personal ladder, not a public escalator’. I think his teachings on art have contributed to a great deal in laying the foundation to my perceptions of art. However, I must say that by the time I joined much of its ideas had already been eroded. KGS was the only remaining model of that Modernist movement. Many of the teachers of late generation did not seem to either conform to or measure up to its ideals but maintained a sort of allegiance to it. Many of them went after different priorities or aesthetical approach in their art practice. But they all respected him and his presence gave us a sense of stimulus or safety that children feel when their dad is at home. R Sivakumar, our art history teacher, took a real interest in the detailed study of the Santiniketan initiative as an alternative approach towards Modernism at the time when the East-west schism was at rife in our cultural milieu. I remember I used to cut my scheduled classes to attend his art history lessons for art history students. He is an exemplary art historian. Students used to keep a row of tape recorders before him to record his classes. Though Somnath Hore was retired by the time I joined, I used to take my works to him for his advice. He was a very frail and silent person who preferred to be away from the glare of any public attention. The major body of his works was on human sufferings and wounds. I still remember what he once told me, “Tom, you have to unlearn all you learned to be an artist. After the unlearning process, something will be left in you as residue. That is what you have internally absorbed, assimilated and has become you. Begin anew from there.” And I think that holds true when we think of art institutions in terms of its relevance or role in the shaping of an artist; it leaves a residue in you that you use as the essential nutrient for you to begin, to grow as an artist.
When I ponder over your question about how Kala Bhavana stands different from other fine arts colleges, I don’t think there is anything that makes Kala Bhavana remarkably different today. There may be little shifts and changes here and there in the syllabus, but almost all the fine arts colleges that I know, follow more or less the same Modernist pattern. Of course, there may be differences in the quality of its deliverance and it is dependent on the merit of its teaching faculty. But if we go back to its initial times I think Kala Bhavana had a greater significance in terms of setting up a new model towards art and its learning. This could be a rare happening in the history where an art institution wielding the guiding beacon had an impact, at least to a certain degree, in the course of its cultural history. It set forth a teaching philosophy based on a triangular structure with tradition, originality and nature and did not impose it breathing down the necks of the students, but gave them the freedom to seek out their own ways through their own personal initiation. And it did not seek out to produce professional artists, as is perhaps understood today, and it did not also believe in the making of Art with a capital A. Art was conceived as a kind of cultural activism where the artist engages himself with the life of people and culture around him and bringing art close to their life by making various kinds of artifacts, toys, textiles, utensils, illustrations, public murals, public sculptures, paintings etc. They also conducted fairs to reach out to people I have heard stories of Nandalal even selling his works by the road to the pedestrians at an affordable price. Their whole pursuit was to bring about a new perception of art that would improve the quality of life.
Nandalal Bose held the view that art is something that cannot be taught but learnt by being sensitive to our cultural facts, traditions, living environments etc. So the role of a teacher or an art institution was not to impart the technical skills as it used to be in the earlier times but to sensitize them and to provide them a learning environment for their personalized visual explorations. This view holds true with the conceptual fabric of Modernism as it, by and large, turned its back on the technical virtuosos and the self-expression became the mainstay of a work of art. This shift in concern put the role of an art teacher or the relevance of an art institution under a precarious situation. It may have led many art colleges to stagger for the lack of a charismatic pedagogical methodology and resourceful teachers. It led to an unhealthy situation in many institutions where the teachers tend to shrivel up to a sort of placidity and the students were left to stumble around – all in the name of art being self-expression. This situation may have caused a rift between the students and the teachers where they both become unhappy at each other. This present scenario is getting further worsened with the winds of conceptual art as being an extension of self-expression is gaining momentum and the very purpose of an art institution itself in its existing fashion is in question. So I think there are a lot of issues concerning the actual role or purpose or its functioning that needs to be addressed and I am at loss for any quick fix answer.
'Lessons of Life' - 3
Oil on Canvas, 122 x 90 cm
Deepa: What’s your take on Conceptual art (of today)? Have you tried it? Would you like to?
Tom Vattakuzhy: A few decades ago conceptual art was a remote and distant phenomenon happening somewhere on earth, but today it has become a reality. It has come to our doorstep as a new fashion or trend. This is a new change - a change from art being an object, to art being an idea. From the time art entered a new phase called Modernism, art began to be fractured into a multitude of concurrent movements and gradually to undercut all its traditional standards and values. This reductive or subtractive attitude in search of perhaps, a greater or purer meaning swept art along the path of rebellion and negation of all that went before them and finally to the very negation of art itself. This trajectory of Modernism reminds me of a naughty boy opening all the fleshy layers of an onion to see what is inside. I think it was a wrong turn art took from the early 20th century onwards where it became an affair of itself and got so embroiled in it that it failed to address the issues of people and keep close to the pulse of life. This lineament of change necessitated an orientation in art history to have access to the works of many of its masters. When you look at literature or cinema for that matter, they also went through the same phases of all the upheavals as we did. But they could stand close to life and influence life whereas art became too self-conscious of itself and embarked on a philosophical query of itself and its self-worth and became an elitist affair. Coming to conceptual art, I do not see it as a breakaway but an extension of Modernism. I remember reading somewhere that the main contribution of art from its modern times to ours is ‘making Raphael into graffiti and graffiti into Raphael’. I think that is where we stand now.
I do not believe that art is in a linear progression from Lascaux to our times. All times have produced great art and if it still inspires and moves us it has a quality that the passing times or changing situations could not wipe out. My interest is to follow what my inner self responds to. I do not want to climb the public escalator, just because so many are climbing on. I prefer to rather step aside and listen to the little murmurs from within and paint as a poet writes poetry or a musician plays music. The music is what matters, not the instrument I used. The instrument is only a vehicle for music, not music. I do not see any intrinsic value or special merit attached to any medium. But I do acknowledge the fact that each medium has its own intrinsic qualities which are not interchangeable. What you can do in one may not be possible with another. It largely depends on the artist and what he has got to convey. As with different tools serve different functions or utilities, different mediums are also well suited for expressing different concerns or ideas. What is achievable with painting may not be possible with an installation or performance art and vice versa. It largely depends on how sensibly an artist chooses his medium to suit what he has in mind. But conceptual art did not come into existence as merely a potential medium of artistic expression, as though it appears to be couched by many today. It began as a reaction against the commoditization of art. It sought to dematerialize art by rejecting any tangible form that can be made into a collector’s item and so it is conceived in a way that it exists only in the minds of a viewer as an idea or a concept, hence its name. It, in fact, effected in evaporating whatever little of aesthetical values and notions of originality left over from its predecessors and making it very democratic where anything goes. This is where the crux of the matter lies. I doubt, how much realistic ground it holds today and also how many of our artists honestly adhere to it. I leave it to the artists themselves to ponder over. To come to think of the art market, it gets hold of anything that yields a profit; even a pack of shit, if its uniqueness and art historical importance can be put in place as a selling point. I am not to fault them because it is only a profit-driven business as in other areas of business. The point that many of the conceptual works that left any tangible remnants are in the collections of whom it is fighting against is where it gets defeated or challenged. Conceptual art has become a collector’s item for its novelty and is being accommodated into the gallery space as just another way of artistic expression. So, conceptual art that broke down the distinction between art and every day could not be free of consumerism against which it is fighting. It has been reduced to only a hypocritical style statement and amounted to only burning down the house to smoke out the rat.
I don’t think anybody would disagree with the fact that the ever-growing capitalistic traits have given rise to the consumer culture that pervades all realms of life. And it has come to the proportion now that it even dictates our life values, self-worth and personality. The amount of material wealth and possessions one could accumulate has, by and large, turned to be the touchstone of one’s happiness or success in life, and has become the sole goal of life. It is not far to seek that it eats into all humanistic values and breeds social vices like greed, envy, jealousy and so on. It is needless to elaborate on this as we all know and experience it in our day-to-day life. The pertinent question here is - what we artists can do to curb it or at least to curtail its resultant self-erosion in the human minds? Defacing art or letting to erode all its virtues is not an answer – it is only suicidal.
Story Painting 2
Deepa: What would be your advice to all the young artists’ out there?
Tom Vattakuzhy: My only advice is to keep the little fire in you burning. Don’t let this fire flare up and burn you by chasing what is not in you. If you feel the present art establishment does not inspire you don’t hesitate to go out of it. Keep your eyes wide open and listen deep inward to the little voices within rather than the maelstroms from elsewhere. There is no meaning to anything in this world other than the meaning you give it.
Oil on Canvas
You can reach Tom Vattakuzhy at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Tom Vattakuzhy for taking his time out and all his support to help me put this interview together. My attempt through these interviews are to provide insight and bring art closer to daily life and common understanding by conversing with various artists about their process, techniques, perceptions etc.
Hope you enjoyed this two-part interview. Please do leave your feedback here in the comments or you could mail me at email@example.com
Image courtesy: Tom Vattakuzhy
This interview took place in person where I recorded our conversations (in our native tongue, Malayalam and English) and later I translated-transcribed and edited it.