Raja Ravi Varma Award to Paris Viswanadhan & BD Dethan

Paris Viswanadhan and B D Dethan present contrasting vignettes as painters. A look at their career on the occasion of both artists winning the prestigious award from Kerala Lalithakala Akademi

Paris Viswanadhan’s earning the Raja Ravi Varma award for 2018 has coincided with the top artist’s 50th anniversary of settlement in the French capital. The Kerala Lalithakala Akademi announced the prestigious honour this October, simultaneously naming BD Dethan as the winner for the subsequent year.

The autonomous body, run by the state government to promote visual arts, has been giving the award since 2001 in memory of the celebrated painter Ravi Varma (1848-1906). The 1962-founded Akademi is based in Thrissur, 280 km north of the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram.

Viswanadhan, 80, hails from down-state Kadavoor near Kollam city. Dethan, six years younger, is also from (erstwhile) Travancore: he grew up in a quiet suburb of Thiruvananthapuram, which was then the capital of the kingdom. Advocates of abstract art, both Malayalis work in a range of mediums. Even so, Viswanadhan’s work retains traces of a concept of space he earned in younger days through tantric mandalas and geometric forms, while Dethan is known to seldom stick to one style.

Viswanadhan grew up watching his father Palliyavila Velu Achary work as an artisan with deities as his specialisation. Life wasn’t easy for the toddler or for his blacksmith family, more so because the Second World War was on. Amid widespread scarcity of food, there was no likelihood of the boy enjoying the sight of the Arabian Sea shores greened by coconut palms.

Sands of time

Instead, little Viswanadhan’s initial impressions about beauty emerged from the dynamics of Vastu Shastra and its employment in the design and layout of temple architecture. That was the household’s traditional vocation. Images of squares, triangles and circles got etched in his mind—so deep that their various combinations (in multiple hues) stayed on in the subconscious.

Viswanadhan was only 14 when he got a customer, whom wanted a wooden statue. His father’s temporary absence at home led the teenager to do the carving-and-painting assignment—his first serious tryst with art.
A close familiarity with the ethos of ancient Vastu no way moulded Viswanadhan into a traditionalist. Far from it, at college he was a rebel with Leftist leanings. And, soon, a dropout.

Then, at the age of 20, he left Kerala to join the Madras School of Art. Its principal, illustrious abstract painter K C S Paniker (1911-77), sensed Viswanadhan’s potential. When Paniker subsequently launched the Cholamandal Artists’ Village just outside the metropolis in 1966, Viswanadhan was part of the first 20 members of the commune. There, the youngster’s idol series lent the art world novel oil-on-canvas configurations that used bright hues to portray goddess Kali or symbolise lingam and yoni.

After two years, though, Viswanadhan flew to Europe. That was to take part in a group show at a few cities across the continent. Paris was supposed to be a mere stopover. By a quirk of fate, Viswanadhan got a career break—so vital, he continues to live in the French capital.

With India, yes, he continues relations. In fact, when the country got its first biennale in 2012, Viswanadhan was a participant at the Kochi-Muziris edition of the contemporary-art festival. Sand, his 1976 work inspired from existential pangs following a near-fatal car accident off Berlin, won massive appreciation as an installation at the 96-day event in Kerala.

Dreamy adventures

When Viswanadhan’s Sand was on display at the Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi eight years ago, B D Dethan was holding a December-end exhibition in Sooryakanti Art Gallery of Thiruvananthapuram. Parinamam, his mixed-media work at ‘Small is Beautiful’ by 12 artists, wasn’t big-size. “Recreating” from existing printing material, he finished it pretty quickly, too.

Suryakanti, with which Dethan has been associated since its inception in 1999, has been a regular buyer of his works that keep changing styles with every series. And each of them takes an average of four years, though his masterpiece, Kali, took double that time when completed in 1992.

“I don’t stay with a style for long. As soon as I finish a series, I discover the prospect of a new (kind of) painting,” says Dethan, who did his diploma from School of Arts in Thiruvananthapuram and went on to work in an array of government institutions in his city: Jawahar Bal Bhavan, Department of Town Planning, Museum and the State Institute of Encyclopaedic Publications. “Despite busy office work, I don’t take a break from art.”

If Dethan’s Kali is a black-and-white series of unhappy faces typical of the modern era and sketched on canvas in pen or pencil, Botanic Fantasy (2009) deploys strong-colour acrylics to conjure up a clutch of surreal images. As Nude Complexion, he has done two series (in 2004 and ’15) but they are far from similar in looks—the second is in monochrome blue.

Dathan lives amid the greenery of downtown Vellayambalam, but is wistful about his childhood in Ulloor. “There, days would begin with the sound of the rooster. In wintry months, there’ll be mist,” he recalls. “In city, I miss all that, but it is fine.”

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