V Viswanadhan speaks with Madhu Jain about how artists, if they are to grow, need to leave what is comfortable behind
Traditionally, artists have not been considered a part of society. Nor have they thought of themselves as being so. What about you?
Growing up, whenever I went to visit my grand-uncle who lived in our old family house, he used to say “Viswa from the eastern house has come”. When I went to our village, people would say “Viswanadhan from Palliyavila (the name of our house) is here”. In the next village they would always add that I was from Kottakkakam. In Kollam, they called me Kadavoor Viswam. In Madras School of Art, I became Malayalathan. As a student visiting New Delhi, I was considered a South Indian. In Paris, I am a Hindou—the French call us that. In Kerala today, I am called Paris Viswanadhan.
[Otherwise] where am I from? Am I the eternal outsider? It really has to do with how others see you. One becomes the other for others—oh, the language of defining! The Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing once said that a dog does not call itself a dog. An artist has to ask himself if he is an insider or an outsider. If I had remained in my village near Kollam in Kerala, I would have had to be part of its society. Fortunately, I was thrown out of college. My family, friends, everybody looked at me as if were a gone case. I left when I was very young, still open to other experiences, other ways of seeing. I went to Madras, where I was a stranger, an outsider—as were so many others in the Madras School of Art. You have to be an outsider; you need to have enough distance to be able to look at society as well as yourself.
Does leaving home and becoming an outsider make for a better artist, more creativity?
In our tradition, if an unknown person came to the gate people thought he represented the unknown, the other. So, we were never afraid of the other; we accepted him as a representative of the invisible, perhaps even God. We trusted the unknown because the other was within you. We no longer have any trust in the unknown. We have lost the ability to give whatever we had. That spirit has disappeared in modern life.
When I talk about the unknown—that which is outside us—I am talking about what an artist is looking for. It is something not defined—the indefinable. If, as an artist I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t need to go there because I would already know where I have to reach. If you merely follow a traced path, you are not really creating.
An artist has to be an outsider. If you look at ancient societal structures, the place of the artist was outside. Rather, he was placed outside defined and structured society. And because of this he, paradoxically, had a place in every strata of society. Everybody accepted him as a stranger.
When you are an outsider, or society makes you one, you have a certain freedom. In the Gupta period you never had to pay for the use of water, as the others did. Artists were spared, because art was beyond what was needed for society. It is no longer easy for an artist to be an outsider. I live in France, and now have to be part of an organised society: I declare my income and pay my taxes. Does it really make me an insider?
In the past, people would say: “Oh, he is an artist; he is in his own world.” They wouldn’t consider him crazy. He was accepted the way he was, like a fakir perhaps. Monks created the spaces for worship in the Buddhist and Jain sites. But once they completed the structures they moved away, usually to another site to start all over again. When you are creative, you can’t be stuck in one spot.
So, you really do need to go away?
Paul Gauguin was a successful stockbroker, [he] married and had children. He started to paint seriously after he retired. Gauguin moved to different places in France. Eventually, he wanted to get away from European civilisation, from organised society, and also from the community of artists. Apparently, he once even looked for a boat to go to India, but found one to Tahiti.
Picasso left his birthplace. Matisse left the north of France, Le Cateau-Cambrésis, for the south, Vence. The Dutch painter Van Gogh, once in the south of France, found his heaven. But you don’t have to go very far to be an outsider. You can be one in your own home, because you are in your own world. Raja Ravi Varma may once have been part of the royal court in Travancore. However, he was always an observer, always looking in, as if from the outside. In fact, one of the young girls even asked him, “Uncle, why are you looking at me like this?” The painter travelled far away from Travancore to broaden his horizons.
Are artists—the real ones, as you would put it—essentially different from those who are completely engaged in society?
Perhaps artists are in their own world, and writers and poets even more so, dialoguing with the invisible and the unknown. To be creative, you need to have the sensibility of observation—to see things and beyond. It is the play between the visible and the invisible. Remember the lines from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race . . . And he turned his mind to unknown arts.”
Many artists can solve problems, technically that is. But the real question is: do they have perspective? Today, with all the technology and technique, the need for sensibility is disappearing. There is an old Tamil saying about cooking utensils: “Can the spatula taste what it is cooking?” A real cook can tell if there is enough salt just by the smell. It is the same with artists.
Zen artists often work for some time and then walk to the mountains. They want to see what they have done already. You need the distance. Going away provides that. And you can then think about what you will do. Distance is important. Otherwise, you are like a spatula, just a tool. It is also of profound concern to the artist, whether he deals with it openly or not. The emptiness around things may help him visualise. For Alberto Giacometti, the visible and invisible mattered: the void was essential for imagining things.
Can an artist be an outsider today? Do eccentricities help?
It is not so easy to be an outsider today, even though it is essential to be one for a creative person. Talking about outsiders and insiders reminds me about an essay in which Jean-Paul Sartre analysed the two Italian painters, Titian and Tintoretto. Sartre wrote that the latter was a better painter. While Titian was an insider and a part of the society he painted (nobles and the wealthy), Tintoretto—or “little dyer”, because his father dyed clothes—was an outsider, a social outcast. Throughout his life he did exactly what he liked, expressing himself freely.
What made Van Gogh and Gauguin? The fact that they had something of the outsider about them, call it madness? Neither fit the social structure, but they had their vision, which they showed to the world through their ecstatic way of living. What made Paul Cézanne move away from the art circle of Paris to Provence? I think he wanted to be away from the social structure where the “Masters of the Academy” ruled. He wanted to trace his own path in sync with nature. Perhaps, he wanted to be just an artist.
Why was Paris such a magnet for artists and writers? Did outsiders congregating there make them insiders in some way?
An American artist once gave me invaluable advice: “Try and find other artists wherever you go: you will find a place amongst them.” In Paris, I found an acceptance of what I was doing, not of who I was. Most of the artists who made history in Paris came from elsewhere—Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Nicolas de Staël, Kandinsky, Man Ray . . . Artists coming from far and near made the Paris art scene. Successive migrations from the time of the Great Famine, the Potato Famine and the two world wars helped create this vibrant, very special scene. The “outsider look” you could call it.
What about closer to home, in India?
Things are changing. Artists who never left Kerala have begun to say that it is not the right place for them. If they had known more about Raja Ravi Varma’s travels and the Double Enders project, which brought together almost 70 artists living outside Kerala and exhibited their work in other cities a few years ago, it would have made them more outward-looking earlier. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale has also played an important role in creating this awareness. In Kerala, writers like Vilasini, OV Vijayan, Kakkanadan, Anand, M Mukundan brought a different outlook to literature, compared to writers who never stepped out of God’s Own Country. Remember Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things: her vision itself is that of an outsider.
Artists can’t be formatted.
Velu Viswanadhan studied under KCS Panicker at the Madras School of Art. In 1971 he won the Golden Palette at the International Festival of Painting in Cagnes-sur-Mer. His work has shown in leading Indian and international galleries. In 1998, a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, spanning 30 years of his work, was held in New Delhi. Viswanadhan divides his time between Paris and Chennai.