B.D. Dethan: Painter of Hard Times

Johny ML

Angst doesn't ooze out from the smiling personality of B.D. Dethan, the well-known artist from Thiruvananthapuram. But his paintings impart the inner turmoil of the artist as a contemporary human being caught in various socio-political throes. Artists are the followers of human sagas, and at times they create such sagas too. An artist becomes contemporary in sense and sensibility when his works transcend times and remain in the 'present,' expressing concerns of the current times. Passing through the layers of times, they remind human beings of the hard times and the good times they had spent at some point. They are the lessons to be learnt from and forewarned of. Those artists who are visionaries could conjure up a world that would remain timeless, always telling the fellow beings to discern right from the wrongs. Dethan has such visionary abilities, as his works done even in 1960s and 70s still tell us the saga of the present times ridden with genocides, discrimination, intimidation and false charges of sedition.



Born in Thiruvananthapuram in 1946, Dethan obtained Diploma in Painting from the School of Arts, Thiruvananthapuram (now College of Fine Arts.) Difficult were the times when he was growing up as a young man; India had just gained independence and it was trying to 'make a new India' (much before we could come up with something like 'Make in India'.) At the same time, the hopes people had pinned on to the grand dreams of Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime Minister, were slowly waning. The first Communist experiment in Kerala had been failed by vested interests. Indira Gandhi was rising in power. Aesthetical experiments for an egalitarian modernism based on indigenous practices were on the anvil. Poets, painters, actors, film makers and theatre personalities were flagging issues of the growing totalitarianism, which had eventually resulted in the declaration of the Emergency in 1975. Art was pure resistance for many, if it wasn’t anything else. Dethan grew up in the middle of all these, and as a young man, he couldn’t have thought of anything else than painting the dark portraits of his immediate times.

'Kali' series was the result. Dethan, as an artist, wanted to register the memories of the dark days in Indian politics; his works were a sort of remembering. It had the aspiration of a visual Mahabharata. The days of Kaliyuga (the Age of Deluge) was a metaphor that Dethan had adequately chosen to paint the truth of the times allegorically. Through exhibitions as well as magazines and newspapers, these works reached thousands of people in Kerala and elsewhere. Poets like late Dr. Ayyappa Panicker responded to Dethan's lines and shapes with their poetic prowess. Perhaps, after stalwarts like A.S.Nair, M.V.Devan, Vasudevan Namboothiri, it was Dethan’s drawings and paintings that got etched in the minds of the literary Malayalee. Even the philosopher, writer, political commentator and cartoonist O.V. Vijayan was painting darker visions in his creative works including cartoons. V.K.N was another genius who had the immense ability to make people laugh with his dark humor.


Dethan is one unique example of those artists from Kerala who have taken a firm decision to live in Kerala itself and reach out to the world through their visual experimentation. The provincialism, if not parochialism, seems to be a hurdle for many such artists, but Dethan could overcome such shortcomings through the constant renewal of his themes and styles, but without losing focus on the human predicament. So many intellectuals and intelligent artists who activated the cultural scene from 1970s to the new millennium were interested in addressing local and global issues by elevating both to the universal level. Dethan too carefully crafted his paintings in the high modernist universal language. One just cannot say whether Dethan works from Portugal or Peroorkkada. The universal visual language that he uses in his works has helped Dethan to be everywhere even while being in one place forever. It is a shame for the cultural Malayalee to accept that an artist of Dethan’s caliber has not yet been adequately understood, claimed, exhibited and celebrated by the state of Kerala. There have been no efforts to present the artists of his generation in the national art centers like New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata through cultural collaborations with respective agencies there.

Humble, pleasant and absolutely unassuming, 'Dethan mash' as he is known among his friends, never makes any effort to be in the limelight. On a summer day or a monsoon day, you could see him walking briskly with an umbrella along the streets of Thiruvananthapuram. A major series of paintings, which he periodically revisits, is called 'Parinamam' (Evolution.) There is something Kafkaesque and surreal about this series; everything is in a flux here. Dethan goes back to this series and comes up with something very fresh because he believes the times we live in are in a constant flux and are in transition that anticipates an evolution, if possible, through a revolution.


Dethan started painting the Parinamam series after M.P. Narayana Pillai had completed writing his surrealistic and mystical thriller, Parinamam in Kalakaumudi weekly. Perhaps, Dethan was impressed by Pooyilyan, the protagonist in the novel, and his mental meanderings. But in Dethan’s world of Parinamam, there are no protagonists per se. They are the jumbled up images like Guernica of Picasso. Dethan stands close to both Picasso and M.P.Narayana Pillai, an artistic achievement that I appreciate as a critic. Dethan has abstracts and figurative nudes in his oeuvre; he does all of them periodically depending on the 'feel' of his living times. And when he opens his latest show titled ‘Parinamam-101’ in Thiruvananthapuram today, he celebrates his 50 years as a creative artist.

(Dethan’s exhibition `Parinamam-101’ is on till March 25 at Suryakanti Art Gallery at Sasthamangalam, Thiruvananthapuram)