The figure of the artist as an outcast with a personality that verges on insanity and self-destructiveness is a recurrent yet barely understood trope of modernist narratives. Today, with the withdrawal of modernism, this solitary figure has become only more obscure, romanticized, and even stereotyped. However, the ongoing pandemic that forced many into seclusion has inadvertently offered the opportunity to finally return to examining, with greater reflectivity and sensitivity, the missing pages of history.
The mythopoetic universe of K Ramanujam (1941–1973) appears to be an impenetrable citadel watched over by the peering eyes of demigods – a nocturnal world shielded by “an army of muses” to use the artist’s own expression. Despite the encouragement that he received from his mentor KCS Paniker at the Government School of Arts and Crafts and later at the Cholamandal Artists’ Village (Chennai, Tamil Nadu), Ramanujam lived practically as an outsider because of his speech impediment and alleged schizophrenia. Born into a conservative Tamil Brahmin/Iyengar family in Triplicane, the middle school dropout sought solace in Chandamama (‘Uncle Moon’), a South Indian children’s magazine beloved for its Puranic stories and intricate illustrations. As an adult, driven away by relatives, the penniless art student slept on the streets surrounded by Tamil cinema posters and gigantic hoardings. He frequented film shoots in Kodambakkam, fascinated by the elaborate sets created for mythological dramas. Further enriched by the Vaishnavite symbolism and Alvar Bhakti poetry tradition that he may have encountered as a child, Ramanujam’s artworks processed these experiences in sublime forms, at an intimate scale and in a material execution minuscule and modest. Finding admirers worldwide even during the artist’s lifetime, these intricate works often feature Ramanujam himself lounging cheerfully in the processional tableaux, having created and now commanding a world mysteriously his own. In reality, however, the artist’s quest for love and dignity remained unfulfilled, pushing him to take his own life at the age of 33.
Art had the power to both pull Ramanujam into, and rescue him from, the profound, alienating forces of darkness. In his haunting absence, KNMA attempts to present how Ramanujam’s deep wounds and intense passion for the world around him peopled his solitude and art. Paying homage to him with the first solo exhibition of the artist to be held outside his native state, we invite everyone to partake in the moonlight parade of K Ramanujam. ~- Roobina Karode
(1941 – 1973)
K Ramanujam was born in 1941, Triplicane, Chennai (Madras), into an orthodox Iyengar family. In spite of his physical and learning disabilities, Ramanujam was recognized as a promising art student at the Government College of Art and Craft, Chennai. Encouraged by his teacher KCS Paniker, he joined the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, Chennai. Fascinated with Ramanujam’s works, the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa commissioned the artist to create three large murals for the Hotel Connemara in Chennai. The artist received the National Scholarship from the Ministry of Education in 1962 and participated in the Commonwealth Arts Festival, London in 1965. He took part in the National Exhibitions of Art organised by the Lalit Kala Akademi and in numerous other group shows in Copenhagen, Oslo, Vienna, Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai. The artist passed away in 1973.