About My Work - Ms. Madhu Jain

Ms. Madhu Jain

Shridhar Iyer is what you could call an accidental artist, straying into the field of art by the most unexpected of routes. Born in the district of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu in 1961 he was brought up in Madhya Pradesh, and has for long made Bhopal his home. It was pretty much a bumpy journey getting here, and to this vocation - with lots of detours and distractions: he wanted to go into the army at one stage, become a banker at another, and even studied law. All professions that could not have been more at variance with the son of a father who retreated from the field of politics to the quieter pastures of religion to become a priest in a temple in Madhya Pradesh.

It was a chance encounter with the late J Swaminathan, one of India's most important post independence artists and spirit behind Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal that changed his life and path. Nothing is typical or ordinary when it comes to Shridhar Iyer. Broke arid scrounging for 'survival he saw an advertisement in a paper for a job in the newly built Bharat Bhavan. It was a fetching-and-carrying kind of job for what was at the time a princely sum of Rs 300. So I immediately left my law studies and went there with a few friends. We were rowdies, hustlers, collecting money where ever we could."

Shridhar got the job of gallery attendant, and stayed on, and on. It would not an exaggeration to say that it was "love at first sight': A whole new world opened up for this iterant traveler. He came here for just three months but stayed on in Bhopal and in the world of the arts for over two decades. Shridhar talks in metaphors and images - actually in smells and fragrances. The "khusboo" of the place (drying wet walls), the sense of drama in starting something new, "the sense of ritual': the hustle-bustle of poets and painters - all this reminded him of the ambience in his father's temple. "For me the smell of the drying walls was like chandan (sandalwood)."

Then there was the charismatic J Swaminathan, the bearded father figure of the place. Just watching him, listening to him as well as to the other artists sparked an interest in his own creativity. Swaminathan never tired of telling those around him that you did not need to go to art school to be an artist: anybody with a vision and commitment could become an artist. Shridhar began by writing poems and plays. It wasn't until 1984 that he began to draw. It was something he slipped into quite easily, almost unconsciously. For him it was not very different from his childhood preoccupation of stringing garlands for his father: "I had the habit of sitting on the ground putting together garlands. It was not very different from sitting on the floor and draw on small pieces of paper. Drawing for me is like painting ... As a child I wanted to find ways of making my father happy. I used to pick flowers that had fallen from trees and then make the garlands for my father's puja. It made him very happy. He never asked me how my studies were going, but he always used to ask about the garlands were."

This love of ritual, of a repeated activity is still part of his repertoire. It was that early act of putting together of the flowers, one by one, which can be discerned in his paintings. There is barely any modeling in his rather playful paintings, buoyed by a childlike glee but executed with a controlled abandon. You can almost spot a personal Morse code in them: dots, lines little arcs, ideograms and squiggles that recall hieroglyphics. Shridhar Iyer's new show of paintings is aptly titled Jatra : A Procession of Colours, Lines & Images': For him this series is about a journey, the one an abstract idea or thought takes towards form, from the immaterialized to the materialized, from the unconscious into the conscious.

The genesis is, he explains, his fascination with the origin of forms. "I began to contemplate where forms tame from. What was their origin, what came first from nature? I like to imagine what happened when that first drop of Brahma fell…. What I like to capture is this journey from a drop from Brahma to the form it takes. Or for that matter our journey as individuals - where we start and what happens to us.”

These paintings may appear whimsical, but they are quite deliberate, and calibrated. Spontaneity interrupted you could say. Take the brush strokes, those swooping black lines and arcs that appeared to have been done in a burst of energy. However, they are, as the artist says, sometimes left midway, at times for as long as fifteen days while he figures out where he wants them to go-or how thick or thin they should be, or how much they should be curl into themselves.

It might be a personal pictorial vocabulary-some of it picked up in Madhya Pradesh. But the atavistic and inner world of the artist has thrown up most of the "alphabets" in his work - even the more distant echoes from Tamil Nadu find their way here. For instance, some of the signs and neo-hieroglyph notations recall the canvases of K.C.S Panicker, the founder of the Cholamandal Artists Village in Chennai.

Critic .... Mr. Nadkarni has cogently described the central theme of Shridhar lyer's work as "the flow of energy through the universe” : He captures it in its many avatars - from the playful and chaotic to the more foreboding and intense.

The artist's use of colour is also quite individualistic. Shridhar Iyer's extensive knowledge of tribal art allowed him to dispense with the rules of colour handed down by schools of art. Swaminathan used to send him to various tribal belts in Madhaya Pradesh, Andhara Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka to collect work from tribal artists. Shridhar was, in fact, one of the key people responsible for the establishment of the much - acclaimed Roopankar Museum of Tribal Art in Bharat Bhavan. What he learned from was "bindasi" - the sense of abandon or fun in his relationship with his palette. "They were not scared of colour. They could easily put a bit of yellow in the middle of red. There was this masti. Bas yeh hona hai." So you have these intense reds, bursts of egg yolk yellows, inky blacks that recall Chinese calligraphy on a trip.

Swaminathan brought out the artist Shridhar lyer - moulded him so to speak. And years later in 1995, entrepreneur Naresh Gujral pushed the rather reticent artist further on his artistic journey, enabling him to experiment by lending him both moral and financial support. "He is like an elder brother to me. It is much more than a relationship with an art patron."

It's been a long yatra for the artist so far - not only paintings but sculpture, theatre, video installations form part of his repertoire. But in the end it seems it is a circular journey : he never strays too far from his childhood - of being the son of a pujari. He makes painting a ritual act, pouring water over the surface of the paper or canvas as one would holy water : he applies colour in the same spirit. Or as he puts it "These rituals give me a sense of purpose and purification” : This painter-pujari never begins a work without a puja.

Ms. Madhu Jain
New Delhi