Tom Vattakuzhy – a printmaker, illustrator, painter or rather a story-painter – is a magnificent human-being first and foremost. Humble, down-to-earth and soft-spoken his works imbue a sense of those traits accompanied by an air of melancholic lyricism with a touch of lustrous, mystic divinity most ethereal. A well-read man with strong and candid views as a detached observer gives him a resilient foothold in our current times when people seem so biased and judging all along. A confident painter who feels that he doesn’t have a way with words and yet when talking to Tom I noticed a unique sense of humour and his way of satire is quite brilliant. He doesn’t mix it up with his emotions. Tom has exhibited widely and has won merits, scholarships and accolades including the State Award - Kerala Lalithakala Akademi Award, AIFACS(All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society) Award, New Delhi and the Haren Das Award, Kolkata. He has been fortunate enough to be guided and moulded by doyens like K G Subramanyan, Somnath Hore and M V Devan. Tom has taught in prestigious institutions before assuming the role of a full-time artist. The most distinguishing feature of his works is the effect of light on the characters and their surroundings. Even an ordinary subject assumes divinity and garners reverence. There is a sense of harmony even amid suffering, a kind of poetic justice seems to be pervading, sometimes pathetic fallacy wherein one finds not only the “aura-emitting-God-like” yet unsure humans but also its most humble animal subjects and inanimate objects. Tom once mentioned that it is 'Humanism' that he is interested in among all –isms and it stands true in his portrayals.
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Deepa: How did your journey as an artist begin?
Tom Vattakuzhy: My Journey into an artist’s life was not an easy one. There was no beaten path for me to pursue. So I had to try out different paths as trial and error to reach the field of art. There was generally a lack of orientation and the right people to guide and even if it did, perhaps, the other straitjacketed circumstances wouldn’t have made it possible. So my initiation into art was mostly a fly by the seat of my pants. I, first, did a diploma course from a local art school and then studied at a couple of other art schools, spent a few years doing commission works like portraits, billboards, illustrating periodicals, etc. Later, I got a job as an art teacher and worked for some years and eventually quit my job and joined a bachelor’s degree at Santiniketan. That was in 1991. Completed my Masters from M.S University of Baroda in 1998. In retrospect, I think it is a paradox that I quit my job to study art while many are studying to get a job.
Deepa: You are a print-maker by education. Then why did you shift your focus to painting and illustration? Do you still engage in print-making?
Tom Vattakuzhy: No, I no longer engage in printmaking. True, it was printmaking I did for both graduation and post graduation. I opted it primarily because of my financial constraints. Printmaking was the only less expensive course of study. Painting incurred a lot of expenditure for colour, canvas, and all. Sculpture also was not much different. Money was needed when it comes to casting. With printmaking, I had to bear nothing other than the cost of printing paper. The department would supply the rest. Secondly, printmaking was a discipline I was not at all exposed to and had no clue about its technical nuances. Santiniketan being the premier institution in India that offers a specialization in Printmaking at the graduation level I thought of learning it from there. Thanks to Somnath Hore and his untiring efforts Santiniketan had a well-reputed printmaking department. When I come to think of it, even at the time of Nandalal Bose, prominence was given to printmaking as perhaps they thought of tapping its virtue of multiplicity to make art reach out to more people. Anyway, my seniors there like K.K. Muhammed, Murali Cheeroth were also there learning printmaking and may have encouraged me at some level. I did not continue printmaking as on one hand, I felt it is very tiring and taxing and on the other hand well-equipped studios are very few and far between.
Deepa: Is there a narrative in the making even before you start painting or is it more of an intuitive process of evolving?
Tom Vattakuzhy: I think it is difficult to give a linear description of how it happens. When you drive a car, you are not bothered about how or in what all combinations its inner mechanism works to take you where you want to go. It somehow works and you drive, you focus on the road rather than its inner mechanism. So is the case with the working process. However, for me, this intuitive-evolving process happens even before I start painting. I haven’t really investigated how it arises. I then enter into a sort of incubation period and if the urge to paint it still persists in me I set out to make preliminary studies until I feel confident to paint. Even while painting, certain improvisations may happen may be in the colour scheme or in form or in the focus or so. It is an ongoing process until I complete work. I do not approach a canvas with a blank mind and arrive at something in the process of painting.
Deepa: The characters and incidents in your painting seem to be from around you, from your everyday life inclusive of animals as in U. Nandakumar’s story 'Damayanthikkadhakal' and elderly people as in ‘Innale Vannavar’, 'Ninneyorkkunnu Njan' etc. There is a lot of emotion and sensitivity along with a harmonious existence. What makes you choose the subjects? What aspects interest you? Is it because of the stories on which you get to illustrate or are you generally an animal-nature lover? Are you consciously attributing a sense of harmony with an underlying tinge of anguish which is evident in many of your works?
Tom Vattakuzhy: In fact, I approach them as I do a painting; there is not much of an essential conflict either in approach or in the working process. That is why I prefer to call them “story-paintings” rather than illustrations. I do not think of it as a visual translation of a particular scene or character in the story. I tend to go to the essence of it -- the spirit of it, ponder over it – ponder over the impression it has left on me and I start off from there. And in the process, when it comes through me certain elements of ‘me’ will also get mixed with it. And it is perhaps in this mixing or melding that a sense of anguish and what you call, animal-nature love and all come into play. So for me, illustration is a visual supplement or interpretation of the core of the story. And it can have a dual existence. On one level, it can be a stand-alone painting and on the other, when kept alongside the story, it can establish a kind of insightful complementary relationship with one another. The only hitch in doing illustrations is perhaps that there is often a constraint of time; you may not get an unqualified time span to conceive and ponder over a work as you wish; there is always a deadline.
Deepa: Now that you mention about the process of illustration, you have illustrated the novels of eminent authors like M T Vasudevan Nair, P. Padmarajan, N.P. Mohammed, C. Radhakrishnan in magazines like Bhashaposhini, Mathrubhumi weekly, even ‘Aithihyamala’. How were these experiences? Do you feel restricted in your work when you illustrate for others? What is your thought about illustration in general?
Tom Vattakuzhy: In fact, illustrations had an immense influence on me in my toddling years in art. I had done a lot of drawings after the works of Namboothiri and A.S. Nair in those days. I suppose anyone of my age with an artistic inclination must have taken a leaf out of their book at some point of time or the other. I was enticed by Namboothiri’s minimal lines evocative of actions, gestures and expressions so effortlessly, while A.S. astonished me with his ability in creating certain feel and mood through his generous seemingly impulsive, unrepressed hatchings. I mention it now from the impression their works left on me long back. They were relatively popular among the common people also. I remember people discussing their drawings in the library in my local town. Then, of course, M.V. Devan was also quite known for his relentless discourses on art and the illustrations he did earlier. Anyway, I am saying all this to point out that illustrating was regarded as a top-tier art practice. And perhaps that was the only thing people got to see as creative in those days. Although the winds of change were slowly forming around the corner, it couldn’t pick its way through the society at large. I began to do Illustrations around 1988 or so. The first novel I illustrated was ‘Karunalayam’ by K.Surendran. Then I continued illustrating for others as you mentioned. Incidentally, I remember the thrill I had when the handwritten letter from the celebrated writer M T reached me inviting me to illustrate in the Mathrubhumi.
The common practice of illustrating in those days was to draw the characters or scenes or situations described in the literature. So, I also followed suit. Illustrating novels were really challenging because you had to draw often the same characters, the leading ones in the novel, several times and in several situations. What I used to do was to by-heart such characters by drawing them from various angles at the very start itself, so that I could draw them in any way. The only relaxation was when I could move over to other casual characters or situations that I don’t have to repeat. Despite all these, what gave me a ‘kick’ in doing them was the liberty I could take in the drawings. But later on, when my perceptions on art gradually forked off doing illustrations of that mode began to weigh me down; it felt like I have to switch over to another mental framework to do that. So I lost interest and discontinued. Then it was of late I resumed it in a way that does not call for a mental conflict or switching over.
Today, I think there is some discord about the merit of illustrations as fine art among artists. They hold the view that it is a lesser art as the seed of the idea for the work is not purely of the artist, but risen out the story and done with an end to give a visual explanation of the text. So the authenticity of its vision or the artist’s subjectivity is at stake. Yes, coming to think of it in those terms, illustrations may not measure up to the notions of such tight-laced subjectivity. Though we cannot go back in time, it would be amusing to imagine at leisure times what the Masters of European art and Indian Miniature Artists would have done. Anyhow, I guess that art will not sustain without it having a bearing in the society; it cannot just be of a niche group of galleries, dealers and auction houses alone. Art needs to be brought close to life and the ethos of it. So, to that end, to reach out to people, to facilitate visual literacy, I feel illustrations can go a long way. It was with that end I ventured into it in the recent past. Whatever said and done, I hope you won’t fault me in saying that Illustrations bring art to daily life and so it is a form of public art. But unfortunately, not much enthusiasm is seen in fostering it, even when we lament over the paucity of the public appeal for art. It is often done as an occupation, not as a passion. That is what hampers it. However artists like Bhagyanath, Bara Bhaskaran, Sunil Asokapuram, K sheriff, Devaprakash, etc. are giving a new face to it. Each one has a distinct approach to their work and I think they are bringing a welcome change to it.
Deepa: “His works take root from the existential angst especially that of the middle class, upon the present day socio-cultural milieu.” I had read that about you. Would you like to elaborate on that?
Tom Vattakuzhy: I don’t know if it can be taken as an overarching statement to describe my works. But, yes.... there is an undertone of that kind in my works. You also mentioned about the element of anguish in my works while discussing earlier. In my college days, I was drawn to a kind of existential philosophy of some sort and liked the works of Giacometti, Ingmar Bergman, Albert Camus, Hermann Hesse and the like. For example, the lithograph titled ‘Wouldn’t it be the most painful experience, if, in the last moments on the cross you knew that your life, sufferings and torments, were futile?’ had that sort of a bearing. There is a vein of an introspective quest for the meaning or essence of life pulsing through my works. The chasm between the real and ideal, lived and the preached has also been a point of concern leading to the fundamental questions like ’who am I’?
Deepa: I find poetry infused in your paintings - a kind of lyricism juxtaposed with melancholy particularly in “Song of the Dusk” series. Why the melancholic strain? Would you like to talk about the series?
Tom Vattakuzhy: I haven’t done several series of paintings on a particular theme or subject continuously so far. It hasn’t occurred to me that way. I haven’t tried to force it out of me either. I think that is not the way it should be, at least for me. The first painting in that series was done in around 2010 when I was in Qatar. It reminds of the kind of Kafkaesque evenings of loneliness and alienation I got past in the wilderness of the late evening desert. The other one has more connection with my childhood memories. The next one I did in the same title was a large painting. This was at the time the news was rife of a young girl brutally gang-raped and murdered in Delhi in 2012. I used the title ‘Song of the Dusk’ as a generic title for a few of my other works that followed at different times as there was a common thread connecting them on some level. That could be the air of melancholy that permeates in all of them - a melancholy tinged with a sense of eerie but ethereal feel.
Deepa: Some paintings seem to imbue spiritual undertones and you sure have mentioned about your religious upbringing and being inspired by Altarpieces. How much of a religious person are you? What is spirituality according to you? Or are you more of a mystic?
Tom Vattakuzhy: Look, if religions foster humanity, love and compassion, and make our world a better place to live I am religious. The element of spirituality in my art practice is not linked with any religious spirituality, though it involves certain qualities of it. It transfigures the ordinary and integrates with myself and my experiences. It is a personal journey, a meditation, a deep listening to myself and the world around me. It is a spiritual act; it makes you feel as though you are in a timeless personal bubble akin to some images in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delight’. It is a kind of search for the essence or meaning beneath the surface of things. In that sense, I am a mystic or aspire to be one.
Deepa: In this context would you like to talk about your “The Mystic” for the intriguing effect it has on the viewer? Is “The Mystic” a story-painting of yours illustrated for any particular story?
Tom Vattakuzhy: I don’t know what impression the viewers may have on this. They view it the way they like and integrate it with their experiences and visions. I think that is the way it should be. So, experiencing a work of art can also be a form of spiritual, contemplative experience. In fact, talking about the motive, it is my younger son who brought me to paint it. He got an apple snail from the brook beside my house and brought it home. He wanted it to move. It didn’t. He grew impatient. He tried to force open its mouth plate but to no avail. He came to me complaining. I told him to leave it alone undisturbed and watch it patiently. After a while, he grumbled that it is too slow. I calmed him down and told him that it is slow because it probably enjoys and experiences every bit of its journey, every grit of sand it inches on. Perhaps what mattered to the snail was not the end but the journey. This is a little conversation I had with him. I think perhaps the painting grew out of it. I remember what my teacher, K.G.Subramanyan, remarked when asked about the motivation behind his works. He said that the motivation is like a stone thrown to the serenity of a water pool causing a series of waves spreading across it. And what appeals to us is not the stone but the waves it creates. So what matters in a work of art is not the stone but the ripples it creates in the mind of an artist.
No, it wasn’t done as a story-painting. It is confusing, isn’t it? Sometimes viewers have difficulty to discern my paintings from the ones I did for illustrative ends. Since I do not think or approach them differently, it is natural also. But, the medium I use for the story-paintings are often gouache because I can complete a work with a lesser time span.
Deepa: Getting back to the question of ‘Who am I?’ mentioned earlier, would you relate yourself to being an existentialist? Existentialism vouches for free will and making rational decisions in an irrational world by embracing the nothingness in existence which also involves taking up responsibility for our own actions. You also talked about Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delight” which again points to exercising the free will and its consequences in general terms according to my understanding though it has much deeper sense to it. What I see in your works are more inclined towards the resignation of destiny and an underlying belief in metaphysical principles as opposed to the basic idea of existentialism. Am I wrong in understanding that?
Tom Vattakuzhy: I don’t consciously strive to shoehorn myself into any particular school of philosophical thought. When I paint, I paint; it is an inexplicable intuitive process; it is like a revelation. I haven’t tried to analyze or understand it by the logic of any philosophy as such. However, as you said there may be a sort of metaphysical or transcendental element imbued with an existential attitude in my works. And I assume it might be from the realization that life is so ephemeral or transient like a fleeting light. And that life has no meaning other than the one we give to it.
Deepa: Renaissance influence seems prominent in your works. Would you like to explain why Renaissance in particular?
Tom Vattakuzhy: Coming to think of it, it is not Renaissance art alone I am interested in. I am interested in the works of Pre-Raphaelites, Magic realists, Surrealists, and so on. There is a long list of artists I like. Talking about Renaissance art, there can be remnants of the deep impression it left in me in my adolescent days. Having been a village boy as I am, the chances of getting to see any art in those days were very rare. The museum guide my uncle gave me on his return from Rome with several colour plates of Renaissance art was like a treasure for me. It touched me so deeply. Then a magazine called “Soviet Union” which used to be brought to the local shops chiefly for the purpose of covering the school texts often carried some paintings. This also had an influence over me. When I think of it, there are many memories of that sort. Anyway, what I am trying to say is that the first exposure one gets can have a strong hold on our mind.
Deepa: O yes, on second thoughts your art does relate to Pre-Raphaelites more – the nostalgia and the romanticism, the dreamy yearning like the Pre-Raphaelites, the hues and details, inspired by literature and illustrative in nature.
Tom Vattakuzhy: See, People are free to view it the way they like. And if you discern some closeness on a certain level with the works of Pre Raphaelites I won’t fault you. I like their works - their psychological approach and the kind of soft spiritual tranquillity in them. Especially the works of Rossetti, Edward Brune Jones, etc. can be seen as an example. But I don’t think there is any conscious effort on my part to bring my works in line with theirs. Of course, they are great painters. Their works have a sort of mesmerizing quality and I think a good work of art should have it. It is not about the formal or technical virtuosities of a work of art. I respond to paintings that deal with people and their feelings. As I said earlier, I look at a broad range of painters and I keep adding to it. I don’t have a particular artist or a group to point out as my sole mentor or model. In fact, all artists are my masters, I suppose. There is always something or the other I have learned from them. If I say a few names from our young practicing artists I like the works of Aji V.N, Umesh, Sujith S.N, Ratheesh T and so on. These are just a few names that popped up in my mind. There are more.
Deepa: You draw inspiration from Masters like Holbein, Klimt, da Vinci, Duchamp, etc. Was there any specific reason/context that inspired you to allude to their works like “The Ambassadors”, “The Kiss”, “The Last Supper” and “Death of Art”?
Tom Vattakuzhy: Actually, all the works, excluding the ‘Death of Art’, were done for illustrative ends. This was a visual strategy I adopted. First of all, certain literature carried an obvious echo of certain paintings, some alluded it while some called forth memories of certain paintings. Illustration being a kind of public art, I thought an allusion to familiar paintings would arouse curiosity to the illustration and thereby to its literature. And then, for the essence or vibrations of different stories are different, there is a perennial need to seek ways and means to capture the feel or experiences that its literature inspires. I took it as a challenging exercise as it helped me in some way to invent certain visual syntax and to widen my visual vocabulary.
To be continued
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.