Monday, December 16, 2013

OBITUARY - C N Karunakaran (1940-2013) : Death of a Painter

C.N.Karunakaran (1940-2013): Death of a Painter
JohnyML remembers C.N.Karunakaran, veteran artist who passed away on 14th December 2013.
( Artist C N Karunakaran)
C.N.Karunakaran is no more. He was 74 years old. There are some artists who choose to live in their own birthplace, work there, gain recognition amongst the same linguistic groups, live a happy life and pass away. They do not aspire for recognition and appreciation of their art beyond the geographical boundaries that they have chosen to be in. C.N.Karunakaran was one such artist. Being in one place is good or bad for an artist is a different issue, perhaps to be debated and determined by art historians. Before geographical boundaries became fluid as they are today, there used to be artists who showed their mastery and love for art and life living in their own place of birth. They might have moved from their own villages to a far off city to study art and even moved back to a city which was closer to their birthplaces. C.N.Karunakaran was one among those artists who had always gravitated towards their roots, by choice. That does not mean that Karunakaran was not exposed to the world. He too had travelled and exhibited in other parts of India and abroad and even gained recognition and appreciation. But going back to the comfort zone was important for him. When artists like him disappear from the face of the earth we suddenly feel a heavy silence descending upon us. We think of the enormity of such humble and simple lives. They too had lived here. They too had created art. National recognitions in the form of Padma awards or a retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art did not come to him. However, he was an artist of the people. When he became the Chairman of Kerala Lalitha Kala Akademi, no one questioned his relevance. People knew him as an artist who had been working and exhibiting for almost fifty years. Such familiarity makes artists relevant for people. An artist who could be seen and touched. An artist with human follies. An artist who could create beautiful paintings. An artist who does not look like a film star who wears designer clothes and always expects flash bulbs. C.N.Karunakaran, in our times of biennales and art fairs, looked like an ordinary man. Being ordinary is an extraordinary feat for anybody.
( Work by C N Karunakaran)
Born in 1940 in a village named Brahmakulam, near the illustrious temple town Guruvayoor, C.N.Karunakaran studied art under masters like D.P.Roy Chowdhury and K.C.S.Paniker. While K.C.S.Paniker moved from his Impressionistic and Post-impressionistic ideas to find an indigenous visual language he had found, before he settled on the Tantric and traditional scriptures as his visual inspirations, the traditional murals with their enormous possibilities of stylization, embellishment and narrative vigour. Artists who studied under him found their fountains of inspirations in Paniker’s two different phases of art: one, of the stylized mural language and two, of the Tantric traditions. Though K.C.S.Paniker’s latter phase of neo-Tantric art became very popular and found more followers and practitioners, the former phase too was appealing for artists like M.V.Devan, Namboothiri and C.N.Karunakaran. They played with and around these two possibilities and finally took to the stylised mural traditions as their source of sustenance. While Devan and Namboothiri vigorously employed this stylised language in their magazine illustrations, which Karunakaran also had done as magazine illustration was one single available interface where literature and visual art could meet and reach out to people, and generate a new awareness about visual art before the so called abstract art came to confuse people in the name of ‘modern art’, Karunakaran, unlike his contemporaries employed the same language to create his paintings also. The dual approach in the creation of visual aesthetics, practiced by the former Madras School artists (a clear distinction between craft oriented art works for popular consumption and art oriented works for exclusive aesthetical contemplation, which was one of the founding principles of the Cholamandal Artists Co-operative), however was discarded by C.N.Karunakaran. He used the same language for his illustrations as well as paintings. Even a lay reader could distinguish C.N.Karunakaran’s drawings from those of Namboothiri, A.Sivaraman Nair and M.V.Devan. What makes all this relevant and interesting is the fact that they all were/are distinct in their own styles. Even when we dispute the idea of ‘original’ in our late capitalist-post-post-modern times with its homogenised art language with no geographical boundaries, the aesthetic distinctions created by these artists make us stand and think about the rigour shown by them in creating an indigenous style, which is clearly regional and yet national, which is emphatically cultural specific (of Kerala) yet encompassing the national culture.
( work by C N Karunakaran)
C.N.Karunakaran’s paintings are quasi-mythological. They play out the ‘leela’ of nature. Man and woman are the archetypal protagonists in this ‘leela’. They are full of love and erotic potential. They are sensual and sensuous. A cursory look may tell the viewer that Karunakaran is just illustrating another classical literature in his paintings. But the more one looks at these works, the more understand that they are not from any literature or mythical stories. They are the people of all time. The nature is everywhere and we are the people in them. He, in his works or through his works, helps the viewer to become the protagonists in the theatre of nature. He asks one to shed the artificial garbs of progress and modernity, and join nature for a different kind of life. The flat two dimensional surfaces clearly comes from the mural traditions of India, especially that of Kerala. The protruding eyes could be attributed from Jain, Pahari and Rajasthani miniatures to Jamini Roy. But his loyalties are more to the murals in Kerala and the stylisation developed by Paniker in the second phase of his works. Karunakaran takes off from where Paniker had stopped. The expressionistic coarseness is smoothened out and they darker tones seen in Paniker are lightened up. And there is an eternal spring in Karunakaran’s paintings. The yellows, reds, oranges and light greens give a special kind of luminosity to his paintings. Sometimes we feel that they are painted with a set pattern, like a traditional artist who works from within a grammar. And at other times, without breaking the rhythm of the painterly surfaces, Karunakaran lets the characters on a loose trail. Life is always in a celebration mood in his works. Karunakaran, however does not indulge in copying the mural traditions the way the students of the mural schools do today. He takes it away from there and while imparting an idea of such beautiful aesthetical traditions, he takes the viewer along a path that he has prepared for himself.
( Work by C N Karunakaran)
In 1973, C.N.Karunakaran started an art gallery, Chitrakootam, in Kochi. It was the first private art gallery in Kerala. He exhibited his own works and his contemporaries. Perhaps, he was the first gallerist who could deal with the limited number of rich people who bought art during 1970s. Till 1990s one could see Chitrakootam Art Gallery at the MG Road in Eranakulam though by that time Karunakaran had left his direct associations with the gallery. He also led the activities of Kalapeedham (the Seat of Art) for a while as it was initiated by his friend, M.V.Devan. Karuanakaran, against all odds wanted to be a full-time artist and he could realise that wish by doing illustrations and art direction for movies. One should remember that when the film world was still lucrative even in 1970s, Karunakaran did not fall for the lure money. He designed sets only for those directors who were ideologically progressive and walked on the left side of politics. He also worked as the art director for Malayalam movies such as Aswathamavu, Ore Thooval Pakshikal, Akkare, Purushartham and Aaleesinte Anweshanam. Their films became the parallel or art house cinema and Karunakaran was associated with only such movies. His tenure as the Chairman of Kerala Lalitha Kala Akademi was fruitful as he could spearhead several cultural programs with the help of art loving ministers in the government and able Akademi secretaries like Ajayakumar and Satyapal. 
( work by C N Karunakaran)
My association with C.N.Karunakaran started sometime in late 1990s. When he came for his solo show at the Art Konsult Gallery, I went to meet him. He wore a half sleeve shirt and white dhoti; that was always his dress code. I was a struggling art critic in Delhi but a well known name as a political journalist in Kerala. Karunakaran knew me and recognized me. On a few other occasions I could meet him in Delhi and in Kerala. On one occasion, at Kalapeetham, where I was invited to interact with Paris based artist, Akkitham Narayanan, after listening to my arguments on modernism and its pitfalls, Karunakaran had walked out of the hall, interestingly from a session which he himself was chairing. After the session, to my surprise I found him waiting for me outside. He told me that while he did not dislike me as a person, he disliked my arguments. I smiled at him. Later a few years back, when a book was published on C.N.Karunakaran’s life and art, I was invited to write the lead essay by the editor. C.N.Karunakaran was one of participants in the show, ‘Thekkan Kaattu’ (The Southern Wind) which I am curating for the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Kolkata. Two weeks back when I called him for getting the works collected, he told me that he was not keeping well. He added, ‘Ozhivaakoo.’ “Please keep me out of it.” That one word echoes in my mind today when I write this. Now I understand the word not just as a request to keep him out of my show. He was aware of the arrival death. He was preparing himself to go. He could not have taken another assignment. Yes, he has gone to the world of the yakshas and yakshis that he has created with his life.



Exhibit 320, New Delhi presents a series of documentaries on a group of artists. The screenings titled, ‘Artchiving : An Artist’s Perspective’ is a series of documentary films made to document the artistic processes of a group of artists.

The show is curated by Ranjita Chaney Menezes and the documentaries of contemporary artists of the country like Gigi Scaria, Nandan Ghiya, Sonia Mehra Chawla, Sumakshi Singh, Sunoj D will be screened.

The preview is on 17th December at 6: 30pm and the show is on view till 18th January 2014.

Doob Gaya Hum..Duba Diya Humne

(Work on display)
Alliance Francaise D’Ahmedabad presents a solo show of photography by renowned photographer Dr Deepak John Mathew. The show is titled ‘Doob Gaya Hum...Duba Diya Humne’ which deals with the subject of water. Shot in Tehri and Haridwar, the photography show addresses the abuse and intervention of humankind in nature, in a subtle and poetic manner. The resilient river, a natural resource seen as a misused and abused entity reflects in the quiet images.
Dr Deepak John Mathew is an award winning professional and a reputed judge and mentor globally. Dr Mathew heads the Photography Design Department at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. Dr Mathew has developed the curriculum and designed the first post graduate Dual Master level program in Photography Design in India. 
The show is on view till 22nd December 2013.


Mumbai Art Room, presents a show ‘Nagas’ curated by Kikrulhounyu Pappino. 
 ‘Nagas’ is a terminological exhibition, of a generic ethnic group comprising several varying tribes, as conceived in museum displays.

The unique identities of the Nagas is specifically inherited and rooted in museum collections, exhibitions and its manners of documentation. Historically, the museum took responsibility as the repository of artifacts as well as their displayer. The influence of the museum in shaping ideas is shown through this exhibition titled 'Nagas'.

The aim of the exhibition is to showcase the value of ideology in ethnographic museums. It attempts to show how the museum-concretized term – through its artifacts labeled by the dominant collectors and the representational ethnographic museums, in text, catalogues, notes, dioramas, and manners of display - became an animated idea and relevant term for classifying and identifying Nagas.  

 The exhibition is on view from 17th December 2013 to 31st January 2014.


Dyu Art Cafe, Bangalore presents a group show of nine artists. The show is aptly titled,‘Nine’ and displays works by nine upcoming artists works from the contemporary scene of today.

The participating artists are Anto George, Anupama Alias, Jayamol P S, Leon K L, Mona S Mohan, Reghunandhan K, Sanam Narayanan, Sebastian Varghese, Upendranth T R.

The show is on view from the 15th December 2013.

(News Reports by Sushma Sabnis)

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