Where an artists hail from and where s/he now resides are two of the most significant facts in the process of art making. Certainly the local history affects the appearance and meaning, since the places where s/he has lived with its attendant physical, historical and cultural attributes conditions what is known and how it is perceived. A conscious awareness of place informs the works of a wide range of contemporary artists and in this respect the recent works of Santhana Krishnan bears testimony to it. Hailing from the town of Kumbhakonam in Tamilnadu where he grew up and was educated as well, Santhana brings to his new series on ‘doors’ a greater awareness of temporal spatiality through history and culture. In his works time and space coalesce to contain symbolic meaning as the place intersects with time, to narrate the significant story of doors that had a specific character since it defined the social status of its owner. Through such an approach, Santhana is also positing the spectator within a collective memory to constitute a relationship with history and hence memory as temporal space.
The advancement of his ideas in this recent series of works is noticed in the treatment of side walls adjacent to the doors, appropriating the space as a canvas for the representation of popular culture. By recreating a strong tactile feel of the old withered or dirty plastered walls, and its surface painted with imagery derived from popular culture as film posters of the 70s, the ubiquitous images of the goddesses from Ravi Verma’s calendar art, the advertisement of ABT Parcel carriers or the Maruti Travellers with Hanuman carrying the part of the mountain containing the sanjeevani herbs, he contends with another art form juxtaposed in his work. The significance of these fragments of visual culture serves as pretty pieces of advertising within the rural space to produce titillating effect. This marks the progression in the visual repertoire of Santhana, which establishes for him the allure of the visual environment, and the everyday engagements and memories that people attach to it. Interfacing with popular culture brings his art into the realm of postmodernity and the representation of the sacred images is appropriated within the public domain, thus evacuating it off its aura to establish as popular imagery. The weaving of reality and imagination in the contouring of his visual language thus opens space in his compositions to foreground an aesthetic of shared common culture namely his realistic style and the popular art. Through these he is recreating a nostalgic space which continues in the present as his reinvented painted imagery.
The viewer imagines that the door is the main protagonist in Santhana’s works; this proves to be contrary, since the artist is symbolically using an object like the door to convey deeper significance of lost memory and an art of craft namely the decorative doors. The ‘lost’ in the artists works marks the presence and hence moments of time and place. This implicates the place which is his hometown and the time reflects upon his childhood memories internalized within him, particularly the style and forms of the entrance doors of domestic houses, having passed it daily on his way to school and later to college. Through these works the artist is making a strong plea towards keeping fresh the memory of a tradition of craft, reflecting an accumulation of meaning with the culture theorists adopting the term space to refer to the social and psychological attributes of a place, as the instance of the doors of the houses which not only reflected the social position of its owner but served as a space to inscribe varied information related to the occupants of the house as the number, electricity details, vaccination dates etc. The significance of his doors besides marking a liminal space of outside-inside and protection-security, the artist is also gesturing towards the gradual replacement with contemporary designs and materials. Thus he marks the doors as a site of culture, reliving it through painted images that he recreates with a visual language of hyper realism to be placed as an object ‘past’ within a sanitized gallery space, transforming a mundane to a sanctimonious status.
Santhana’s art works comprises of installation as doorframes with one half consisting of a real wooden door and the other half a painted canvas stretched on plywood; and painted canvases of doors opening into the interior of the houses. Through the juxtaposition of the real and the imaginary, his works narrates the story of re-living in a culture of specific designed houses, where through a realistic visual language, the eye is led through a series of doors to the innermost part of the house. The interior space manifests the lived moments through variety of domestic utensils now either lost or made obsolete by contemporary life style. Reinforcing and extending the idea further his painted canvases convey similar sentiments and emotional feelings. Each frame of Santhana has a narrative voice implicating the art of a tradition through descriptive objects rendered with verisimilitude as electric fittings, copper or brass water heaters, metal milk cans, buckets, water pots, cooking vessels, tea pots, ceramic jars for storing spices and pickles, metal pounders with pestle, the tulsi tree planted within a traditional masonry container, the clothes line with sarees etc. The recreation of these quotidian domestic objects in use, integral to every household, has acquired valence as antique, because of its rapid disappearance from use as well as from memory.
In reliving the haunting yet nostalgic imagery of variety of styles and designs of doors, Santhana is also engaging with a slice of traditional culture. In recovering the gradual disappearing art of the craft, namely the doors and its doorframes; the aura of the ‘original’ is lost, yet there is authenticity in the application of certain elements that is reproduced as a copy such as the motif of the nagabandhanam at the lower side base of the frame, the design of grills or the patterned coloured glass. The tactile and appropriated forms of the doors though having lost its aura create powerful sentiments of a pastness though its presentness in his works.
An endearing quality about his paintings and mixed media works lie in developing intimate details that otherwise escape notice; for instance, the crows, the slatted underside of the chajja within the courtyard, the heavy uncouth locks, the disheveled pots, the hand pump or the lantern. The painstaking process of rendering every form and its associative texture is truly admirable. It should be emphasized; that for Santhana the craft of the art of drawing developed out of his passion to render experiences of reality as he perceives it. Since there were no distractions in a small town as Kumbhakonam his time was spent in drawing and painting what was immediately available as the domestic animals, houses and farmlands. He brings to his paintings vividness and clarity of every detail that articulates a metaphor of memory. The finer nuances that he recreates underpin the evocative nature residing within, compelling the viewer to a closer scrutiny of his interiors that offers diverse visually titillating narratives. His colours also sing of the vernacular bordering almost on the popular. The colours are garish with bright yellow ochres, deep blood reds, muddy van dyck browns, singing blues, ash greys, royal purples, deep pinks and blues and sun set oranges. The kitschy representation of the sacred icons above the doorways besides adding interest, belong to the popular surrounding the devotee every day. The kitsch idiom heightens mass appeal while emulating the world of wall paintings and temple sculptures.
Ms. Ashrafi S. Bhagat M.A., M.Phil, Ph. D. is an Art Historian and an Art Critic. She is an Associate Professor and Former Head, teaching at the Department of Fine Arts, Stella Maris College,[Autonomous] Chennai. She writes exhibition catalogues for artists and on issues of modern and contemporary art in newspapers, magazines and journals.