By Joyce Yarrow
In 2011, I visited Varanasi to research background material for creating Marilyn, a major character in the novel I was co-authoring with Arindam Roy. Since Marilyn was a painter, my musician friend, Nawal Singh, suggested I consult with Suresh K. Nair, an artist who was teaching at Banaras Hindu University (BHU).
Nawal introduced me to a tall, cordial and at first shy man, who served us tea and looked at me curiously. Nawal served as translator, while I asked Suresh questions about his process for creating murals in the traditional Kerala style. As Suresh described the process in detail – including how to prepare walls for painting by covering them with layers of lime, sand and tender coconut water – there came a wonderful moment, when he realized that I was actually questioning him in the persona of the artist Marilyn, a fictitious character in a book, rather than as Joyce. A grin lit up his face and from that point onward, Suresh K. Nair and I became fast friends.
I have always admired those, who see their careers as a life-long learning experience and, no matter how successful, are not afraid to change course and continue to explore and experiment. Suresh is one such artist, and his work spans from the traditional to the modern in a seemingly effortless wave of creativity.
So, it is with great pleasure that I present this new interview, in which he shares the story of his early development as an artist and his continuing exploration of using public spaces to create art that holds great meaning for himself and his community.
Suresh K. Nair
Joyce Yarrow: When did you first realize you were meant to be a visual artist? Which works of art spoke to you and how did you develop?
Suresh K Nair: I studied in a very good school called, Adakkaputhur High School, in the culturally rich Valluvanadu region in Vellinezhi, Palakkad District in Kerala, South India. Recently, Vellinezhi was designated as an Art Village of Kerala by the State Government. The school has a very good library, where I saw many contemporary literary magazines and newspapers. Here I became interested in viewing illustrations, cartoons, caricatures, paintings and photographs by the eminent artists of Kerala. On the other side, I observed the living traditions of performing arts like kathakali, bharatanatyam, mohiniyatam and theyyam and thira and was exposed to the great temple murals of the regions. So I was influenced by both the traditions and meeting most of the artists. Just after schooling, I realized visual art was the best area to study and explore to know myself and the world.
Additionally, my art teacher, Kunnath Mana Krishnan Namboothiri, advised my parents to provide me with art training and I joined a regional art institute, Silpa Chithra College of Art, Pattambi, where I studied for two years and acquired a basic art education. It was here that I started observing the contemporary artists of Kerala.
Although my family does not have much traditional roots in art, my grandmother, mother and aunts used to act in small theatre performances. I was told my grandfather used to make some crafts for the home.
Part of my art practice was sketching, and I became interested in making sketches of moving figures; finally, I began to draw the traditional kathakali dances in my village and started going to other districts of Kerala too.
Gomata, Holy Cow with gods and goddesses and world map
While making sketches of kathakali (classical dance of Kerala) at a temple festival, I met a French artist, Brigith Reveli. She commissioned me to draw various activities and postures of kathakali. I created drawings of navarasas, various mudras, postures as well as the green rooms of kathakali, other musicians and drum beaters, including the audience. This was my introduction to the art world, and Brigith Reveli helped to exhibit my drawings and paintings in the French Cultural Centers in Trivandrum, New Delhi and Paris.
Butterfly, Acrylic on Canvas, 2013. More than 750 butterflies.
Butterfly with a thousand eyes, ESSL Museum, Vienna (permanent collection)
JY: What attracted you to traditional mural painting, and how does it contribute to community life in India?
SKN: Just after my basic art education from the Silpachithra, I decided to go for advanced studies in art in a fine arts college. At that time, I read in the newspaper that the famous Guruvayur Temple was going to start a five-year course on traditional mural paintings of Kerala in a gurukula style under famous mural maestro, Mammiyoor Krishnan Kutty Nair. I applied and was accepted. This was how I came to know that in India, each state has different great art traditions.
I was attracted to traditional arts due to the connections of nature and life of those days. Most of the temples, churches and mosques are decorated by murals and is illustrated by Classical texts like Ramayana, Mahabharata and day-to-day life. This is a great contribution to the community life in India. Personally, I benefitted much knowing each art and cultural traditions of India.
Vishnu lying on Serpent Ananda (Natural colors, Kalady, Kerala, 2004)
In 2005 to 2006, I received a Fulbright Fellowship to do a project at the Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia. This six-month experience enhanced my ideas about public art projects, and I viewed almost all the murals of Philadelphia. I also studied Mexican murals. Just after the Fulbright Program, I return to Kerala.
In 2007, I joined Banaras Hindu University as a faculty member. The condition of the city and the blank walls of Varanasi gave me a new idea: Varanasi City as a mural city. I started observing the city, and different sites for the murals in public spaces. I found more than five hundred interesting sites for doing murals. Slowly, I started introducing my murals; so far, I’ve done sixteen mural projects in various public spaces. This is a great change for this ancient City. I also introduced the idea of a new project, “One House One Mural.”
Five Elements: Public Mural Project at Little Flower House School, Nagwa, Varanasi (Cement)
Partition: Public Mural Project at the India Pakistan (Wagah) Border
Cement Relief Mural, Collectorate Office, Kottayam Kerala2013
JY: When and why did you make this major shift in your work from preparing walls and painstakingly painting on them to spontaneously generating drawings inspired by music?
SKN: As part of my search for a theme for the murals, I researched the city’s history, important people, places, monks and yogis. Finally, I connected with the music and performing arts communities, as these played a prominent role in the city. I visited more than twenty-five fairs and festivals, music concerts and Ramleelas. I found music to be very interesting and compelling. From 2008 onwards, I started drawing while listening to music. In each concert, I would create more than one-hundred drawings. It’s become a kind of calligraphic practice. And at the same time, this practice has taken me into trance states.
My new murals began to reflect my musical drawings. I started with an abstract kind of style but sometimes it comes with imagery.
Drawings Created during Concert in Varanasi
JY: Do you feel this shift in your work has changed you personally, and if so, how?
SKN: I have made a great shift from my early art practice to the present practice. I had five years of formal training in traditional Kerala mural paintings. This gurukula style of art practice, Santiniketan Art Practice, gave me a wide range of travelling and working experiences, including experience with small children, university art students, masons and craftspeople. These labors prompted great natural changes in my latest works. I have taken all the changes positively.
Cement Relief, Santiniketan, 2001
I have a tendency to engage in experimentation. In my Santiniketan student life, I spent much time teaching small children and I actually learned many things from them as well.
Workshop with Children
While my early practice was very traditional – done in temples and private spaces – most of the new works are done in public or open spaces.
Public Art Project
JY: It is amazing to see you dancing as you paint! Do you receive images in your mind as you dance?
SKN: As I mentioned before, I was born in a culturally rich region where a lot of classical, folk and contemporary art traditions thrive. These childhood experiences helped to make me dance. In my early art practice, I did drawings of traditional and classical dances like kathakali, bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam and Krishnanattam. I also studied some martial arts of Kerala, Kalaripayattu. These are my early experiences.
While studying in Santiniketan, I also saw different traditional and contemporary performances from other states of India. I joined theatre workshops by the eminent artist, Badal Sircar, from Calcutta. I was also inspired by the new trends of performance art.
So, in the beginning, my fingers and hands used to dance; now the total body is involved in dance according to sounds and music.
Suresh K Nair’s TEDx IIT BHU Performance
These different cultural and creative contextual experiences are reflected in my works.
Yes, I am receiving images in my mind while dancing, doing drawings and hearing music. I find this is a unique art practice, its taking me to trance
JY: Does your interaction with the audience influence the work?
SKN: Of course. Audience response enhances the work of art.Their appreciation is important, especially when working with the public spaces. Society and public influence is important.
Most of the works done in public spaces are fashioned only with the support of the people. Once spaces are provided by the society, regional masons, local laborers and art students get involved. So it is an integral kind of interaction and performance.
Students working on a Mural Project at Faculty of Visual Arts, Banaras Hindu University.
Photograph Series from Suresh K Nair’s TEDx IIT-BHU Performance
Joyce Yarrow is a Pushcart nominee and the author of the Jo Epstein mystery series: Ask the Dead and Russian Reckoning. Her most recent novel, Rivers Run Back (Vitasta Publishing, 2015) is a romantic thriller, co-authored with Arindam Roy and set in India and North America. Joyce has worked as a screenwriter, singer-songwriter, multimedia performance artist, and most recently, a member of the of the world music ensemble, Abráce. Follow her @joyceyarrow or visit her blog athttp://joyceyarrow.blogspot.com.
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