Through a kaleidoscope

There is a photograph I particularly like, of an aged Matisse sitting on a wheelchair with a pair of scissors in a room strewn wildly with coloured paper. It was the stage of his life when, losing strength in hands and legs, he had turned almost exclusively to collage work — he called it “painting with scissors”.

It was the time he created the stunning Blue Nude series. Strangely, for something that critic Peter Schjeldahl would call “the most consequential visual-art form of the 20th century” after Picasso and Braque’s Cubist revolution, collages and photo montages have not managed to escape a certain degree of benign neglect. This is especially true in India where collage artists are rare and under the radar. In this scenario, it was pleasing to attend a preview of Chennai-based V.V. Ramani’s latest exhibition of papier collé (collages made only with paper). There is a freshness and authenticity in the works that deserve attention. Ramani’s work, as many Indian collagists’, is intriguing also in another way. Collage (from the French coller: to stick) was essentially a ground-breaking technique that not only collapsed all the rules of ‘high art’, whether in its use of low-brow ‘second-hand’ material or in its imagery from quotidian life, but also redefined how Cubism evolved. Its shock value is largely gone now, of course, but it’s interesting how many Indian collagists have seized the iconoclastic technique while sticking to conventional themes from mythology and legend.

VV Ramani's 'Ganga'. Photo: Sharad Haksar

These preoccupations are evident in Ramani’s works as well. A ‘Ganesha’, in vivid reds and blacks, propped on a facing wall as I enter, is reminiscent of Reddappa Naidu’s series on the elephant god, but there are touches of imagination that make it uniquely Ramani’s. A thick paint brush forms one thigh, as if to recall the god’s role as scribe; the forehead markings appear to be a light bulb filament generating creativity; and the modaka is a teapot.

But ‘Gopala’, sitting a little out of sight, is vastly more interesting. Evident here are quirky signs of irreverence that raise the image above the purely iconic. Here, theme plays out technique, meshing spiritual with material, pastoral with urban. Krishna’s top-knot is a Byzance perfume bottle and the cow’s eye is a fried egg, sunny side up, and they inhabit a green grazing field. In that sense, the piece is closer to what Picasso and Braque were trying to do in the early 1900s; using unconventionality of form and material to disrupt the expected and create an active tension in the work.

It is easy to be dismissive of collage, but the sheer effort and vision involved is hard to overlook. Ramani speaks of the hours he spends to find the right shade of blue. It is evident in a piece such as ‘Ganga’ where myriad strips of variegated blues form the flowing waters and diverse scripts frame the face, almost as if it were a river of learning, especially because the eyes are open books. It took the artist two months to find the right bits of paper.

How consciously does Ramani pick these scraps? It is hard to say, and as Ramani acknowledges, it is often only much after the piece is done that he realises that his subconscious has been at work and the images he has chosen to cannibalise are part of whatever has engaged him consciously in daily life, like death or sickness or celebration.

Ramani also plays with reproductions, with his versions of Munch’s ‘Scream’ or the ‘Mona Lisa’, and they are beautiful in a straight way rather than how a Vivek Vilasini takes a Richard Hamilton and breathtakingly Indianises it.

The exhibition, curated by Ashrafi Bhagat, traces Ramani’s move from mixed media to papier collé and from the iconic to the abstract. In the iconic period, there is the dramatic ‘Navarasa’, which won him a State award. Again, it’s the use of particular images in particular ways that stands out — the spool of wire that forms the mouth in Fear, for instance. The triptych of the three gunas is pleasing in both dimension and rendition, with Ramani employing just splashes of coloured bits to establish the dominant mood. ‘Meenakshi’, I particularly liked, its gem-like colours gleaming with a brilliance that one senses from across the room. It is an amorphous image, Meenakshi and Rati and Andal fusing in the infinity of the turquoise blues.

As he moves into his abstract period, Ramani’s hand is still sure, as in ‘Seasons’, but there is a loss of sharpness and punch. And because collage has the ability to lend itself to an audacious morphing of the everyday into disturbing and even grotesque forms, one is less willing to settle for the merely pretty.

Hannah Hoch pushed the envelope too far — ‘Roma’ or her self-portrait or ‘Bouquet of Eyes’ — for any collagist to be able to stay comfortably in the safe zone. Bangalore’s Mandira Naidoo, who has unfortunately stopped exhibiting, showed early promise; her Dadaistic cows, made of x-ray film scraps, and her Rajasthan series broke boundaries. One would like Ramani to do so as well.

On view till April 2 at No. 1, 3rd Street, Nehru Nagar, Adyar, Chennai.