Through the large windows, the foliage and tree top freshly washed by mid-summer rains, I see three owls calmly sleeping. The artist smiles at me. "Look, what do they need?" I remain silent. I want the artist to speak. He continues: "They just need a place to sit and sleep. At night they fly away to hunt. They come back in the morning. At times they look at me turning their necks in impossible angles." I strain my eyes at them. As if responding to a cue, they open their eyes in unison and look at me.
I know that Gopikrishna, the artist, isn't just putting up an act. The trees, the foliage, the creepers and the vines that adorn the self-designed studio-cum-residence of Gopikrishna are carefully cultivated by the artist himself. His works, often qualified randomly as 'surreal' or 'Brueghel-esque' have a lot of trees and foliage in them, though most of them seem animated by their 'unnatural' extensions into creatures and species that are seen perhaps only in the imaginations of George Louis Borges.
Born in Sreekaryam, a suburb of Thiruvananthapuram in 1965, Gopikrishna has always been a devotee of the 'remaining patches of nature' in and around the city. Ask any friend of Gopikrishna about his personal traits as an artist (or as an art student many years back), they would all say one thing: Gopikrishna was a loner and he remains one. And there is a reason for his loneliness: this loneliness was a choice when he was a student at the Trivandrum Fine Arts College in early 1980s. The students of those days were an agitated lot. Each student who joined the college was fresh and normal like any other teenager. But within a month into the course, they all started turning into some different beings, always talking about revolution through art and the social purposes of art. For Gopikrishna, seeing the metamorphosis of his fellow students perhaps was the initiation into the world of magical transformations of beings, which has been manifesting in his works for the last three decades.
Gopikrishna's works have a protagonist or a few protagonists, all in many ways resonating with the characteristic traits of the artist himself, at least in the looks. They are all loners even when they are engaged in apparent absurd group activities. The early dissociation of his individual self from the collective ideological process(ing) of art during the student days comes to take many forms in this dissonant metabolism that we see in Gopikrishna's paintings. Loner as he was, instead of making art through collective discussions and for a common end, Gopikrishna looked for the fast fading green patches in and around the city. Pedaling through the asphalt laid paths under the blazing sun, with his drawing equipment, Gopikrishna went to these places, sitting there alone, captured the varying moods of nature. Drawing it was a pleasure, which took him to the ultimate sense of 'losing' it (the ego). The meditative experience that he had from these weekend sessions was much more alluring than the socially 'responsible' art that brewed within the crucibles of library, canteen and classrooms of the Trivandrum Fine Arts College. Gopikrishna didn't discount his friends' art, but he was simply not interested.
A.Ramachandran, the veteran painter, gushes praises for Gopikrishna, and does it for the right reasons. As a nature lover (as a rightful descendant of the doyens like Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ram Kinkar Baij and K.G.Subramanyan) Ramachandran has always painted directly from the nature. While Ramachandran devoted himself to developing a naturalism that's peculiar to the mural traditions of India, by adding a lot of realism to it, Gopikrishna chose a different path of developing his realism as perceived by his inner eyes. In his words, "I don't have any explanations for the incidents that take place in my works. But they are from there. They happen exactly the way they are seen in the paintings. I cannot force them to be different." Hence, Gopikrishna's early exercises in drawing directly from nature could be called the internalization process of the external world. The alchemy of aesthetics that occurred in him during those days must've created a different world of reality for him, which one of the early judges of his works commented upon as 'painful paintings.'
This comment came in the year 1995, when Gopikrishna was finishing his MFA in Painting at the illustrious Delhi College of Art. After passing out in 1988 from Thiruvananthapuram, he had spent almost six years at home, painting from a fairly large attic studio created for him by his father. Then he thought of continuing his studies. During the annual display, one of the campus combers came from a reputed gallery in Delhi and looked at the works of both Gopikrishna and Aji VN, who too was a student there. The gallerist looked at their works for a long time, which gave them goose pimples. They thought that they were going to be picked up and raised to the level of professional artists by offering shows or commissioning works. Nothing happened; he moved on and selected one of the students whose works both Gopikrishna and Aji thought as 'not up to the mark.' Later, they asked the chosen one about the secret behind his works. He didn't say much but simply commented: "You've done painful paintings. They need happy paintings."
Looking around, I understand that Gopikrishna hasn't learnt a lesson from that incident.
Sometimes being adamant and learning no lessons pay better than making adjustments with one's own soul. Both Gopikrishna and Aji held on to what was closer to them. We don't hear much about the other whose paintings were picked by the Delhi gallerist, but we do hear about these two artists even if it took more than a decade for recognition to come.
In Delhi too, the image of Gopikrishna being a loner followed him. But the artist has a different take on that. "Most of them who knew me or tried to know me missed one point. There is not a single place in Delhi and its surroundings where I hadn't cycled around. I used to go to all the green patches, parks and the ruins of Delhi. Sitting there I experienced the history and stories that made Delhi. I was not alone because the spirits that made Delhi were with me. And I kept on drawing and painting them."
Was Gopikrishna a child prodigy? "I have never been one," he asserts. He started taking art seriously only when his father suggested he could be an artist. The suggestion wasn't vague or casual, for it came from an artist himself. Sreedharan Nair, Gopikrishna's father, was an artist himself. Born in 1920, Nair was related to the Travancore Royal family and also got trained under the Raja Ravi Varma 'school' of painting along with the then masters like Devaraja Aiyar, Govindan Asari and O.V. Velu Asari. They all painted in the Ravi Varma style, taking inspiration from the already established themes and from the secular as well as mythological narratives. The palette more or less remained that of Ravi Varma. Nair was slightly different from the others though. He studied the Western Renaissance art closely and also was keen in copying several western masters including Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael. Besides, Nair collected a lot of Oleographs that came out of the Ravi Varma Press, and took a special interest in developing a painterly style based on the oleograph representations than the Ravi Varma paintings themselves.
Strangeness came to Gopikrishna's mind when he was too young to understand the ways of the world. One day he was told that his mother was dead. Orphaned at an early age, with a young sibling and a father trying to negotiate his financial problems, Gopikrishna found himself in a peculiar island of loneliness. Nair, who wanted to be a professional artist, finally had to take up a job in the Transport Department. Gopikrishna was trying to tell something to the world, though he didn't know which medium would help him express himself. And when he started working on paper with pencils, the initial formations were just doodles. Then he found images and themes evolving out of those doodles. It was a Tagore moment for Gopikrishna, who was then 17-years-old.
The centrality of figures, the multiplicity of limbs and heads, and the liberal habitation of beasts and eerie birds speak a lot about the aesthetics of Gopikrishna. The careful cannibalism of the oleograph structures, images and aesthetics created by Raja Ravi Varma seems to be the basic foundation for his feverish imagination. The beautiful gods and goddesses with multiple limbs, heads and other attributes, consorted by female entities, or beastly or avian entities, flanked by heavenly flying beings and the encryption of benevolence and good omen that populate the oleographs, transform into different male, female, beastly and avian imageries. They create a new ensemble of actions and happenings at times, taking them to the lowly stations of life, and at times to the royal existence of the feudal lords. There are glimpses of divinity and monstrosity in the same frame. The embellishments of the conventional oleographs are cannibalized to create a new ornamentation that allures and repels the viewer at the same time. Along with the lowly and royal lives, one could see the emblems and symbols of colonial presence, and the struggles of the erstwhile royalty in the face of extinction.
Remove your shoes just outside the steps that lead to the veranda from the granite paved courtyard. The drawing room is a high ceilinged spacious atrium which has antique furniture running along the walls. Each item there has a touch of history, and suddenly you realize that you've seen all of them some fashion in the works of Gopikrishna. The cherry red tiled floors reflect the white washed walls on which the artist has displayed many number of original oleographs collected from various sources and the original works by his father. This home doesn't look like a museum of innocence, but it's more like a museum of pain or a museum of dreams. Gopikrishna’s wife, Indira, welcomes you with a smile. His son Anantha Padmanabhan is an Integrated Psychology post-graduate student at the Hyderabad University and daughter Sumitra is a 10th standard student.
Gopikrishna collects all what he could from the city of his life. He is full of Travancore history. And Travancore history is full of coups, conspiracies, abdication, love, revenge, chivalry, loyalty, magic, horror and war. C.V. Raman Pillai, the most eminent author of historical novels, had caught the history of Travancore in all its moods in his famous works such as 'Marthandavarma,' 'Dharma Raja' and 'Rama Raja Bahadur.' The coups and conspiracies that made and broke the modern Travancore also tell us the history of its resistance as well as subjection to the colonial forces. Intrigued by these conspiracies that still make and break the city, Gopikrishna creates his paintings which seem to resonate with the stories from the history of Travancore. As a true devotee to the master history teller, Gopikrishna got his children named after the characters in Pillai's novels.
From the comfort of a low chair, sipping the sugarless tea Indira has brought along with a few pieces of ripe mango and a local delicacy called ilayappam', I listen to the stories of Gopikrishna. After his graduation in 1988, Gopikrishna went on painting at his attic studio, which his father had prepared for him. Nobody bought any work and nobody even cared to look at his works. As young artists do even today, Gopikrishna too sent his portfolios to many galleries in Mumbai and Delhi, which came back without even a note of thanks. Aubrey Menon, an Indo-Anglian writer, was living in Thiruvananthapuram in those days with his friend Graham Hall. Both Gopikrishna and Pradeep Puthoor were regular visitors to their home for 'spirited' discussions on art and literature. Menon, who liked the works of these two artists, was who wrote about them first in the then famous Illustrated Weekly of India. Gopikrishna shows me the Olivetti portable typewriter of Menon, who had gifted it to the artist many years later. It sits pretty on an antique stool, like the tools that have created monuments in granite.
In the year 2000, Gopikrishna did a solo exhibition titled 'Gates to Decivilization' at the Durbar Art Gallery, Kochi. Anoop Scaria of Kashi Art Gallery, who happened to see this show, was hugely impressed. Scaria was the first one to give a sponsored solo at his Kashi Café Art Gallery in 2002 and 2004. By that time Indian art market had boomed. Solos followed in Delhi's Palette Art Gallery and in Mumbai's Art Musings. Gopikrishna, the recluse artist, however remains the same after his market success. "Market hasn't changed the pace of my working. I don't do commission works. Whatever sales happened so far has happened either through solo or through group shows. I can't do works based on demands. I don't make calls or pick up calls for selling my art. I am an ordinary householder, cleaning my house and studio everyday with my wife, purchasing vegetables, tending plants and trees, looking at nature and listening to any kind of music."
The more one looks at the works of Gopikrishna, the more one feels a sense of crime and punishment. Gopikrishna isn't guilt-ridden or remorseful like a Dostoevsky-ian character, but his works seem to be an outcry for justice. At the same time, the bestial presence reverses the logic of the human world. There is a bit of madness in these works. Gopikrishna creates a world where justice is delivered even through the cruelest of the ways. Pain is tinged with an erotic pleasure as a release or cathartic effect. Fertility and eroticism together tries to overcome the difficulties of barrenness using the images of fish, snake and sprouts. In these works, if anything is mocked or lampooned, it is the human beings, because according to the artist, human beings are the greatest errors in the earth. The errors are to be erased either through correctional methods or through pure allowance of the grotesque.
The three owls are still there. "This three is something very important for me. Look at that drawing, a three-headed man. There in the painting you see a three-headed bird. I haven't yet figured out what this three means to me," Gopikrishna says. I tell him about the triads of religions; Brahma, Vishnu, Maheshwara; Father, son and the Holy Ghost; the Three Times: past, present, future; the three heads, the three eyes, the three weapons. Gopikrishna looks at me and smiles.