Review by Georgina Maddox
February 15, 2015


Surendran Nair drawings, prints and water colours (1970s-1990s)
Curated by Roobina Karode
?January 24-July 20, 2015?
KNMA, Noida

Most people who enjoy a touch of surrealist wit, coded with poetic symbolism and skilled draftsmanship are familiar with the paintings of 58-year-old artist Surendran Nair. His early drawings are however lesser viewed and any opportunity to do so should be grabbed with both hands, since it is a peep into his formative years and a trip down memory lane—albeit sans nostalgia.

Recently, the Noida branch of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), opened an exhibition of a 185 early works comprising Nair’s drawings, prints and water-colours that trace back to the 1970s. “It was a time when we would grab anybody that was in front of us and begin sketching. It was a daily practice, like exercise,” said Nair who studied painting at the Trivandrum College of Fine Arts and later Graphic Arts at the Maharaja Sayaji Rao Faculty of Fine Arts, Vadodara.  

“All the sketches were rapid and did not take me more than ten to fifteen minutes. My main intention was to capture the essence of the person before me. I have never done academic drawing,” he adds. The broad and strong Expressionist strokes that characterize Nair’s work of this time may be contrasted with the fine delicate lines of his later water-colours that led up to the style that defines his current oeuvre.

Walking through the gallery, one can glean hints of the thoughtful expression on the faces of his compatriots: painters N N Rimzon, K M Madhusudhan and K V Sasikumar, performance artist Ashokan Poduval and sculptor Alex Mathew, to name a few. They appear lost in thought while reading thinking or smoking as they perhaps ponder theories that reflected their strong Marxist idealism and an indigenous bent of mind. The Kerala Trivandrum College of Fine Arts fostered a unique style that was in contrast to the academic realism of other art colleges like the J J School of Art; Nair’s work of this time reflects those concerns.  

Another section of portraits were done during the 1980s when the artist moved to Baroda (Vadodara) where he began his trajectory as a graphic artist. Many of these works reflect his close association with the Radicals: A group that comprised of Anita Dube, K.P. Krishnakumar’s and Jyothi Basu.

The Radicals were perhaps the first group to address issues of neo-colonialism, market forces and the commercial-capitalization of art.  In one of the sketches we get to view a young Anita Dube who looks right at you, her long hair falling around her shoulders and her forehead marked by a small bindi.  Her soft facial contours and wide-eyed expression may be contrasted with the artist’s current avatar of cropped silver hair and the strong lines of experience that etch her visage.   

In another we are introduced to a slightly pensive Krishnakumar who appears to be lost in his thoughts. His strong cheek-bones, long muscular neck, arched brows and noble forehead are all essayed with confidant strokes. The founder of the Radicals Krishnakumar was a key figure in both Kerala and Baroda, until is tragic suicide a result of his disillusionment with the art world. One cannot help but feel a ting of poignancy underlying this work in its later viewing.

In a lighter vein one encounters a portrait of his partner and feminist artist Rekha Rodwittya. She is captured smoking a long cigarette while trying in vain to swat the mosquito hovering above her head. It captures, with gentle humor, the camaraderie the two shared even in their youth.  

The most humorous comments however are reserved for his self portraits that are rife with a candid, jocular self-critique. With a dragonfly hovering next to his face Nair appears sleep-deprived with a hint of eye-bags and a slightly bemused expression as he lights a cigarette from a flaming candle. In a tragic-comic moment the other dragonfly appears to be engulfed in the smoke emitted by the candle and the cigarette.   

Other works present Nair’s early etchings, where one gets a hint of his surrealist symbolism and ancient allegory entering his work. The compositions are fairly detailed in some instances introducing a glimpse of landscape but the human figure continues to dominate his composition. In one etching young girl discovers life, in another three fisher men prepare for bed, in a third a large torso of a man is covered with tiny windows to his soul. Each window is occupied with a cryptic icon. This work reflects notions dissent and belonging. 

 “As I progressed as an artist I found it harder to sketch, in fact I decided not to—mostly because this was a form of escape that I would resort to when I hit a road block in my paintings. I continue to make preparatory drawings for larger compositions but the practice of creating a huge body of work has ceased,” observes the artist. “While these works are not nostalgic of the times, I view them as important milestones in my journey as an artist.”

The beautifully mounted show ends with a series of watercolours that herald Nair’s mischievous, ironic and quizzical underpinnings as hybrid creatures dance and pose across his composition. It does however indicate the end of sketching.