An Interview with V. Ramesh

Indrapramit Roy of Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, in a candid interview with the artist

An exhibition titled “Remembrances of Voices Past” opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru, on 5th Feb 2014. This one and a half month-long exhibition showcases a decade-long journey of Vedantabatla Ramesh, better known as V. Ramesh. It is a journey covering a period from 2003 to 2013 that is significant in its depth and ambition. It was not a common occurrence till a few years ago to have a show of an artist in his mid-fifties at the National Gallery, especially one as media-shy and self-effacing as Ramesh. Thankfully, things are changing for the better, and that calls for celebration.

I have not known many people who can so readily laugh at themselves and yet produce works of infinite intricacy that are breathtaking in their, if I may say so, spiritual depth. These are very deeply felt works of a person unconcerned with the ways of the art world digging a lonely furrow with a rare conviction.

Born in 1958, V. Ramesh had studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University (M.S.U.) of Baroda, and spent most of his working life away from major art centres at Vishakhapatnam, where he has been teaching painting for nearly three decades at the Fine Arts Faculty of Andhra University. He works mostly in large format canvas and some small-scale watercolours. Ramesh’s oeuvre has through the years consistently revealed a preoccupation with a meditative terrain. His most recent works deal with women saint-poets from the Bhakti and Sufi traditions, conflating text and image in a mélange of layered narratives mixing painterly delight with contemplative depth. His intricate textures and transparent layering lends the imagery already replete with cultural memory a power that is at once recognizable and yet mysteriously majestic.

This interview was conducted over telephone and e-mail and Ramesh’s responses are precise and short in an almost Zen-like manner, so much so that sometime framing a question takes more space than the answers. Nevertheless, hopefully they will cast some light on the works and ideas of a major artist working in India today.

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Indrapramit: The earliest examples that I have seen in your oeuvre from the late ’80s and early ’90s revolved around the fishing folk from the coastline of your native Vishakhapatnam. The subaltern bodies strained with work had what one noted writer referred to as a ‘matter-of-fact-heroism’. Then, there was a noticeable shift occurring around the late ’90s when your figures started getting more evanescent, and paintings more layered. You experimented with found imagery, text, transparency and generally seemed more interested about the process of painting. How did this change come about?

V.Ramesh: During the mid-nineties, I faced what seemed then to be an existential dilemma. There was a sense of having reached the end of one’s tether. The earlier images of subaltern bodies and the mode of actually using paint no longer excited me, and I could feel perhaps a sense of lassitude and fatigue setting in my work. There was no way out – except perhaps to stop working. I did not stop but started working on small papers with dry pastel. These were very different almost abstract kind of works roughly relating to landscapes. I had a show of these in Baroda and I remember Surendran (Nair) wondering what had happened to my works! But that break was needed.

Indrapramit: You have mentioned elsewhere that for the past so many years your work deals with the idea of transience or impermanence. This is of particular interest to me…

V.Ramesh:As I am never tired of proclaiming, it was a serendipitous visit to Ramanashramam in1998 that acted as a catalyst in changing the direction and nature of my work. I saw a different facet of life and that made me introspect. After that I came back to oils and started working on large scale again. This eventually grew into the show called “A Thousand and One Desires”. I tackled the idea of desire, of greed, of avarice… sentiments that were totally absent in the ashram. You might say I started at the wrong end of the scale but that’s how it was. The nineties and the beginning of the new millennium were very fraught times in this country.

Indrapramit: Every time I encounter your painting I get the feeling that here is an artist contemplating what has almost become an anathema in our brazen times, that you are actually touching upon some very fundamental questions about the nature of life, love, body, lust, spirituality, death and some such profound issues.

V.Ramesh: I look at it as a contemporary human being’s search for the unity underlying the disparate elements of the world. You might call it the reality beyond the surface; a search for truth that lies beneath the ever-accelerating flux of today’s world that became my own quest.

Indrapramit:  Do you feel that the increasing marginalization of painting in the discourse of contemporary art has something to do with your subtle, nuanced and painstaking manner of painting, or do you feel the whole question regarding the role of painting, admittedly the old media, is superfluous?

V.Ramesh: The ability to draw the viewer within, through this state of flux, through its layers of paint and images, to be able to transcend these outwardly seen and perceived phenomena, one has to adopt strategies and improvise modes of expressions. I still believe in the validity of painting – it is a sacrosanct space. The day it does not feel that way I would be the first one to abandon painting.

Indrapramit: How did you get interested in Bhakti poetry and the poets?

V.Ramesh: For quite some time Bhakti or Devotion was singled out as the leitmotif in my work – not merely as an underlying unseen presence, but something that could be felt as an emotional exaltation. In the beginning when I was attempting to find an appropriate language and devising strategies to find an equivalency to this emotional exaltation, I found there were really no immediate precedents. In a way it was convenient to appropriate the voices of these poets and use them in my work.

Indrapramit: You have been teaching since 1985 nearly for 29 nine years. How do you feel it has impacted your work over the decades?

V.Ramesh: Teaching has taught me to be patient, as well as to have a sense of humility and effacement of one’s ego, especially when it comes to presuming that one knows almost everything as a teacher. You realize that is not the case and that is a humbling experience. You are not really filling an empty vessel but mentoring people to find their own voices. So, all these qualities I think have stood me in good stead when it came to my own work.

(Indrapramit Roy is an artist who teaches painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU of Baroda and knows V.Ramesh since 1989)

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