evolved technique of water-wash
Sangita Kalacharya Vidvan Shri S Rajam is a many splendored jewel of Indian art and music. He is the musicians’ musician, held in very high esteem by the connoisseurs of Carnatic music; he is the creator of sublime art in the pristine and ancient tradition of Chitrasutra; he is an excellent photographer who produced outstanding photographs of temple architecture and sculptures; and in his youth a hero of early South Indian films who composed songs and sung them too. The most amazing aspect of his involvement in several branches of arts is that he excelled in each of them, created a unique niche of his own and yet remained unaffected by his success. And, above all he is a remarkable human being with a flame-like imagination and a teacher with an understanding heart. He is often, aptly, described as a simple man of singular achievements in a plurality of fields. It is hard to cite anyone, in the contemporary world, as comparable to Shri S Rajam. He is a rare gem; and like any precious gem he is away from public gaze.
Even as he is mellowing sweetly into his nineties, he retains the sense of wonder and awe at the marvels of life. He continues to work with zeal, regularly, at his art; and says with a child-like delight he is discovering and learning a few new things each day. As regards music, his other passion in life, he is still active in it as a teacher and as a guide; and he continues to participate in academia and in the discussions at various Sabhas
I have special regard, appreciation and reverence towards Shri S Rajam, because I view him as one of the few gifted artists of the twentieth century who breathed fresh life into the ancient tradition of Chitrasutra, not by talking or writing about the ancient art but by diligently practicing it with devotion and sincerity over a long period of more than sixty years. My admiration of him is heightened because he is perhaps the sole true representative and votary of the Chitrasutra in the modern era. To use a favorite phrase of Sri Sankara, Shri S Rajam is a Sampradaya-vit, the one who understands Sampradaya the good tradition. Shri S Rajam pointed out, “Intradition, only good things should remain; the bad should be ignored and not continued. This is tradition”; and said, “Be modern in outlook; there is no problem with that. But learn to appreciate the beauty and elegance of your culture. Safeguard it, develop it and carry it forward for the benefit of the next generation ". The present article aims, mainly, to talk about that aspect of Shri Rajam’s artistic genius. But, before we resume discussion on Shri Rajam as an artist, let’s take a quick glance at a few facts and his other achievements.
S Rajam was born at Madurai on 10.02.1919 to Parvathiamma (also called Chellammal) and V Sundaram Ayyar, a leading advocate of Madras. Sundaram Ayyar was a scholar, a person of culture and a lover of Carnatic music. He,a connoisseur and patron of music, wrote music reviews for 'The Hindu'; and his views were respected by artistes such as Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and others. S Rajam later in his life recalled, “In case my father felt that a particular sangati was out of place, Iyengar would drop it”.
It is said; at the suggestion of Pudukkottai Dakshinamoorthi Pillai (1875 - 1925), a noted mridangam and khanjira vidwan of those times, Sundaram Ayyar constructed a spacious hall on the first floor of his house at Mylapore in order to hold the concerts of the musicians he admired , such as Ariyakudi Ramanujam Iyengar, Madurai Mani, Ambi Deekshithar, Muthiah Bagavathar and Karaikudi Sambasivam. Sundaram Ayyar, it is said, supported and sponsored a young and talented musician Ramaiya who had come to Madras in seqarch of a career in music. Ramaiya later flowered and flourished as a noted singer and a composer of great merit; and gained fame as Papanasam Sivan (1890 - 1973).
Musicians, writers and scholars frequented Ayyar’s household which was a sort of cultural hub in Mylapore of those days. The atmosphere at home was conducive for nurturing love for art and culture in the young hearts of the children at home. Rajam’s younger brother, by about eight years, S Balachender (1927-1990) grew into a larger- than - life personality; a remarkable veena player with a unique style of his own; a forceful writer; an accomplished actor and an eminent director. Rajam’s two sisters: Jayalakshmi and Saraswathi too were very good singers. (Shri VS Gopal who writes and sings delightfully on Sulekha is Saraswathi’s son. We are in company). Shri Rajam also had a twin bother S Gopalaswamy and a younger sister , the youngest in the family, S Kalpakam Balakrishnan . She too was an accomplished veena player.
Rajam had his music training at a very young age. Sundaram Ayyar had engaged Ramaiya (Papanasam Sivan) to train Rajam and his sister Jayalakshmi. Rajam was thus the first disciple of Papanasam Sivan. The talented disciple performed as early as in his 13th year.
Rajam who was then in P.S. High School was an avid movie fan; he hardly missed a silent movie that ran in the tent cinema behind his school. Little did he realize then he himself would very soon be a movie star. The year 1934 proved to be a very important year for Rajam a handsome lad of fifteen years; and for his teacher Papanasam Sivan who in his mid-age (say about 44) was in search of a stable career in music. The year saw them launched into successful careers in films and music.
The noted film critique historian Madabhushi Rangadorai who gained fame under his pen-name Randor Guy has described the circumstances that led Papanasam Sivan as also Rajam and family into the world of films. Rajam’s first film was Seetha Kalyanam (1934), a Prabhat Talkies production directed by the well known Marathi and Hindi filmmaker of his day, Baburao Phendharkar. The strikingly handsome fifteen year lad Rajam of sharp features and slim figure played the leading role of Sri Rama, while his sister Jayalakshmi played the leading- lady Seetha. (That raised quite a few eyebrows). The film, in a way, was a family venture, as Rajam’s father Sundaram Ayyar played Janaka, while Rajam’ s other sister Saraswathi played Urmila and Rajam’s kid-brother Balachender played a child musician in the court of Demon King Ravana. The music was provided by Rajam’s teacher Papanasam Sivan.
The film Seetha Kalyanam and its music was a huge success.It launched Rajam and his teacher Papanasam Sivan on their way to stardom. Some songs set to music by Papanasam Sivan and sung by Rajam became hits. To mention a couple of those: ‘Nal vidai thaarum…’ (Raga Kalyani- based on Saint Thyagaraja’s ‘Amma Raavamaa…’); and, ‘Kaaranam ethu swami….’ (Raga Kaanada -based on Saint Purandaradasa’s composition ‘Sevaka kana ruchirey...).
Following that success, Rajam’s second film was Radha Kalyanam (1935), produced by Meenakshi Movies and directed by C. K. Sathasivan (better known as Saachi). Rajam played the lead role of Krishna while Radha was played by the beautiful looking star of those days M.R. Santhanalakshmi who perhaps was elder to the hero Rajam. The music to the film was provided by the noted singer-composer Sri Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar.
Rajam’s third film as hero was Rukmini Kalyanam (1936); and Rajam played Krishna again. The film was directed by the famous Marathi filmmaker, actor and Baburao Phendharkar’s brother Balji Phendharkar.
Of the three films in which Rajam played the leading role, it appears, the first film Seetha Kalyanam, was true success; the other two were not so successful. But, by then the handsome brothers S.Rajam (18) and Balachander (10) had gained fame as 'Prabhat Prodigy Stars' and 'South Indian Prodigies'. They toured several cities in India and in Sri Lanka, performing duet-concerts. It is said, like the legendry Lav and Kush, the two handsome and talented young lads were the darlings of art-lovers and the cynosure of all eyes.
Shri Rajam played leading roles in three Tamil films Seetha-kalyanam, Radha-kalyanam and Rukmini-kalyanam; and also sang. By then Rajam was married and his wife was not in favor of his acting in movies. Shri Rajam later humorously remarked, all his three films were Kalyanams and after his own Kalyanam there could not be any more Kalyanams. Shri Rajam’s association with the world of films was relatively brief but it was highly successful.
In the years thereafter Shri Rajam visited many temples in India and Sri Lanka; and stayed for a while in the 7th century temple of Sri Kailasanathar at Kanchipuram.
Shri Rajam did however later in 1942 played a supporting triple role of Lord Muruga, the boy-Murga, and the hunter-Muruga in a hit movie Sivakavi in which the doyen of Tamil films Tyagaraja Bhagavathar the singer- actor played the lead role. Rajam’s sister Jayalakshmi played the leading lady in the film; while Rajam’s father Sundaram Ayyar played guru , the teacher of young Sivakavi.
Later in 1948, Shri Rajam composed music and also sang the song ‘Kaathal puyalthaniley thurumbupol…’ in V. Shantaram’s ‘Nam Nadu’ the Tamil remake of his Hindi film ‘Apna Desh’.
Shri S Rajam thus was a pioneer in the development of the Tamil films. Shri Rajam blessed with an agile mind and good health is today the senior-most living hero, the leading-man, of the Tamil film world. His contribution to Tamil films is recognized with pleasure and gratitude.
Shri S Rajam is a well recognized, much admired and an honored performing musician. In his home state, Tamil Nadu, he enjoys more fame in the world of music than in art. In one of the interviews to a music journal, Shri Rajam quietly remarked towards the end of the interview “Not many may know that I am a painter; and I do original classical paintings. I divide my time between painting and music.” Such is the humility of the grand-old man of Indian arts and music…!
Shri S Rajam served for about 35 years as music supervisor and a Grade A artiste at the All India Radio (AIR), where he popularized Carnatic Music and also Thirukkural singing.He performed full duration kutcheris based on Tirukkural couplets. During his tenure, he recorded rare compositions of the Vaggeyakars, produced many operas and musical plays. He later mentioned that His most cherished program with AIR was the presentation of Silappadikaram as an opera with a huge orchestra. “Our culture is a very ancient one and we have the responsibility of passing it on to the next generation in its truest form. I shall strive to do my best in this regard and may even write a book”.
Between 1970 and 1982, while serving AIR, he led a team of artists on a music tour to Africa presenting a percussion ensemble; and toured USA performing 32 musical concerts in various cities. He also performed in Burma, Sri Lanka and Canada.
His lecture demonstration on rare Ragas and kritis, vivadi ragas, as also on the compositions of Koteeswara Iyer are admired by the connoisseurs. His special interest in vivadi ragas , as also Lakshana and Lakshya aspects of Carnatic music is well known.
Shri Rajam continues to serve on the expert committee of the Music Academy at Chennai. His simplicity and willingness to help anyone who approaches him on subjects related to art and music has endeared him to all and to the young in particular.
Over the years, many honors have been showered on Shri Rajam. Just to name some of those: He was awarded the title “Isai Kadal” (ocean of music) by the Tamil Sangham, Karikud in 1988. He was accorded the Sangeetha Nataka Academy award in 1992; and the Kala Acharya in 1996. I understand that at the 76th South Indian music conference and festival of Indian Fine Arts Society to be held in Chennai during Dec 18, 2008 to Jan 4th, 2009, Shri S Rajam would be honored with the title, 'Sangeetha Kalasikhamani'. No honour is too high for Vidvan Shri S Rajam.
While reminiscenceing his musical training, Sri Rajam fondly recalls how his father Sundaram Ayyar took him, while still a lad of ten, to the well known musician Ambi Dikshitar for music lessons. Talking about his Guru, Shri Rajam mentions that Ambi Dikshitar had a deep voice of low sruthi that could easily touch the panchama in the lower octave; and Ambi Dikshitar’s voice was well suited for rendering, with clarity, the grand and slow paced compositions of Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar. Rajam was amused that his teacher a descendant of the Mutthuswami Dikshitar lineage should commence his lessons with a composition of Sri Thyagaraja (enta nercina in shuddha dhanyaasi).It was a rare privilege, he remarked , and a great fortune. Later, of course, Ambi Dikshitar taught Rajam many compositions of Mutthuswami Dikshitar, most notable being the navagraha kritis.
He had the privilege of being trained in music by a galaxy of stalwarts. He recalls with gratitude and pleasure, “I have undergone training from many Gurus. I learnt Dikshitar kritis from Ambi Dikshitar. It is from Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar that I attained Pathantara suddham and perfection in singing fast tempo. I learnt depiction of vakra, varjya ragas ; and swaraprastara from Madurai Mani Iyer. Papanasam Sivan though a composer himself taught me lots of Tyagaraja Kritis... Madurai Mani Iyer taught me Nagumomu with chatusruti dhaivata; while Papanasam Sivan taught me in suddhadhaivatam, the correct way.... Although I have learnt from many gurus, I crave to express what we have not heard from other musicians.”
One of the musicians he admired most in his youth was Smt. Veena Dhanammal (1867-1938) renowned for adherence to traditional values and profundity of music expression. He heard her in the latter years of her life. He spoke of her from his heart “It was Dhanammal’s music that haunted me in my early years. Dhanammal was Saraswati incarnate – she sang and played the veena alternately. I was fortunate to attend her Friday soirees some 40 times. I would sit very close to her ; and when she sang Akshayalinga vibho, she shed tears while doing niraval on the line ‘padarivana’. Shouldn’t we have the same intensity of feeling while performing? How can you be a real singer if you are not a rasika yourself?”
S Rajam’s favourite composer is Koteeswara Iyer (January 1870 - October 21, 1936) popularly known as Kavi Kunjara Dasan. “I am deeply interested in Koteeswara Iyer’s compositions ” S Rajam said,” I do not compare any other composer with him, I find great pleasure in singing his compositions”. Koteeswara Iyer was the first composer, after Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar, who composed krithis in all 72 melakartha ragas. His monumental work, "kanda ganamudam" has songs, in praise of Lord Muruga, composed in all the 72 melams. The songs are in chaste Tamil.
Shri S. Rajam has the distinction of being the only musician to have sung all those 72 compositions; each krithi being accompanied by raga, neraval and kalpana-swaras. He said,” It is vital to understand the meaning and bhava of a composition to make an emotional presentation or render the song with insight “. His rendering of Koteeswara Iyer’s songs is recorded in a set of ten tapes / nine CDs . S. Rajam has also published a book giving notations for all the 72 songs.
Music & painting
Shri S Rajam is the golden link between music and art. He provided a visual identity and a tangible idiom of expression to Indian classical music through his paintings. For instance, just to mention a few, his series of paintings Origin & Classification of Swaras (inspired by Sangeetha Kalpadrumam of Harikesanallur Muthaiah Bhagavatar), illustrating the origins and charectestics of each of the seven notes of Indian music, explaining their nature and their relation to the Hindustani and Western music systems, is a remarkable work of great learning and sublime art. I have not come across a like of it anywhere.
Similarly, his series of twelve paintings illustrating Venkatamakhi’s melakartha scheme by classifying the 72 mela ragas into 12 chakrasor segments; associating each chakra with a month of the year (from April- March) ; and illustrating them through soulful and imaginative paintings is a marvelous example of the delightful amalgam of innovation , scholarship and superb artistry. It is a unique piece of visual poetry and music. This series was also meant as a tribute to Venkatamakhi the great musician-musicologist (1635-1690).
And, his series of paintings illustrating the kritis and prarticularly the Navagraha kritis of Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar are, of course, legendry; and have passed into the folklore of music, astrology, and tantra traditions and of classical school of painting.
Ranganayakam kriti of Dikshitar
In each case, he poured into puranas, epics and ancient texts searching for details and for the right idioms of expression. His involvement was complete; and he was totally absorbed into his work. While recalling his experience while painting the Navagraha series, he mentions, “Inexplicable incidents occurred, a reminder that Dikshitar’s compositions are invested with awesome power. While painting Surya, gusts of wind would snatch the paper from my hands. Embarking on Rahu, I found a snake skin hanging from a creeper and even a live snake coiled beneath the finished painting.”
His portraitures of the composers in the classical traditions of Indian music are benchmarks; and now, after his advent, one can scarcely visualize the hoary composers but through the eyes of Shri S Rajam. His portrait of the trinity of Carnatic music (Saint Thyagaraja, Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar and Sri Shyama Shastri) which he painted when he was barely twenty years of age is a true classic; it is a universally acclaimed archetype and one that is even worshipped.
Hallmarks of his portraits are their authenticity. He studied and researched into his subjects thoroughly, grasped the essence of their character and achievements. His portraits therefore bring out not mere the physical resemblance of the subjects but more importantly the essence of their very inner being.
There are some interesting stories associated with his portraitures of the Music Trinity. In the case of Saint Thyagaraja, the old drawings available at that time (before 1940) showed a weak, melancholic person with his chest bones protruding and having a rather sickly countenance. Shri S Rajam felt offended by the old portraits; and was hurt the saint was shown in a poor light causing injustice to his genius. Shri S Rajam strongly felt that the portrait should aptly project the character and greatness of the person, his achievements, his genius and his mellow glowing sattvic nature; and not just his physical resemblance.
Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar was an Upasaka of Sri Chakra and the Devi; he was an advaitin in his outlook. There was always a certain serene detachment about him; and in his eyes. In Shri S Rajam’s portraits, Sri Dikshitar comes across as a calm, composed, handsome young person of lime-color (golden hue) complexion. He always wears a green (or a blue) shawl over his left shoulder, and sports rudraksha -mala around his neck. His veena is upturned ; with the face of the yali looking up.
His portrait of Sri Shyama Sastri which eventually turned into an Indian postal stamp has an interesting story around it. Sri Shyama Sastri too was a Devi Upasaka, but charged with intense devotion and a poignant longing for the Mother. He was a deeply religious person who adhered to the prescriptions of the scriptures. He always had a dash of vermilion (Devi –prasada) right between his eye brows and stripes of Vibhuthi across his forehead; he sported a tuft (Kudumi) and appeared with stuble on his chin because he shaved only once in a fortnight just as an orthodox Brahmin would do. Shyama Sastri - was a dark, handsome, serious looking person, rather absorbed in himself and with slight rotund around his waist. He was always dressed in a gold-laced (zari) dhoti and a red upper garment (uttariya). He was fond of chewing betel leaf (paan); his lips are depicted dark red (He is occasionally shown with a paan petti, a small box to hold leaves and nuts). Shyama Sastri's tambura had a yali-mukham, not usually found in other tambura depictions.
Another interesting incident came up when Shri Rajam had to paint the picture of Venkatamakhin [1635-1690 , the great musicologist who devised the melakartha system of classifying ragas in the Carnatic music] as an introductory painting for the Apr 2008-March 2009 calendar brought out by L&T, he had no earlier pictures of Venkatamakhin to guide him. His research into the archives of Kanci mutt led him to an interesting detail showing that Venkatamakhin who was also a skillful vainika wore his long hair in a coil such that it did not touch his body; he coiled it atop his head. Shri S Rajam then pictured Venkatamakhin with coiled locks of hair, rudraksha-mala; and surrounded by musical instruments such as veena, tambura etc. as also scrolls of ancient manuscripts, lending the picture an air scholarship and a spiritual aura.
It is said, nowhere is the bond between the arts stronger than that binding painting and music.As sister arts, music and painting share a common vocabulary. Both arts are often referred to as compositions; both talk in terms of tones and shades; and there is a certain rhythm and fluency in both. In the present Indian context, nowhere do both the arts find their fulfillment, in creative as well as traditional sense, in one person than in Vidvan Shri S Rajam..
The Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara, an ancient text dated around sixth century AD, states that one needs to understand music to be a good painter. That might be because the rhythm, fluidity and grace of music have to be transported to painting, in order to make the painting come alive and open its heart to the viewer (sah-hrudaya). That ideal requirement found its fulfillment in Shri S Rajam an eminent musician who is also blessed with a unique gift of creating sublime art works. He practiced both the arts with devotion and dedication over long years of his fruitful life.
I mentioned earlier that Shri S Rajam has been a true exponent of the Chitrasutra tradition in the modern era. Let’s get to know a bit more about Shri S.Rajam’s art, mostly through his own words and pictures; and about his inspiration and guidance...The Chitrasutra.
The Ealy years
Rajam took to art quite early in his life. By the time he was about fifteen years of age (when he was in Eighth grade) he was sketching fairly well. His father, Sundaram Ayyar as also his friends and relatives who too were artists, encouraged Rajam to hone his skills. He thereafter discontinued formal schooling in his senior year in High school to join the Government School of Arts and Crafts in Madras (1935). He appears to have had a great time in the Art School. He not only had a brilliant academic career but also enjoyed the friendship and support of his friends and teachers. The Principal was so impressed by Rajam’s talent,that he allowed the boy to complete the six-year course in just four years. Later in his life, when he was in his eighties, Shri Rajam while talking about his technique of water-wash said, “I learnt it all from my teacher Shri V. Doraisamy Achari ”. Rajam’s Art - school-mates included KCS Panicker, Dhanapal and Kodur Ramamurthy who also flowered into great artists.
The young Rajam’s visit to the caves of Ajanta was a turning point in his life; it had a profound effect on him; and changed his life and artistic career forever. The ancient art of Ajanta brought about a sea change in Rajam’s outlook of art; his style of depiction in painting; and his attitude to life in general. He realized, painting was not just a technique of putting paint over a surface; it was a way of understanding and expressing your emotions about the life around you; it was a way of looking beyond the forms and appearances that meet the eye; and above all, it was about giving expression to a deeply spiritual experience that springs from the artists very inner being. The practice of art, he said, was a Sadhana, to be pursued with dedication and reverence.
The traditional style of the ancient murals at Ajanta so overwhelmed S Rajam that he suspended his painting activity for a while and got immersed in search of a style of his own that would at once be creative, traditional and soulful. He did eventually, after years of practice, succeed in his search and came up with a unique style that answered his quest and prayer.
Mr.Lewis Thompson ( 1909-1949) of England -- a poet turned philosopher and Sanyasin – was also instrumental in Rajam adopting the Oriental school approach in his painting techniques. “I owe it to Lewis Thompson who came to Ramana Asrama, where I used to sing occasionally. He was an English poet, deeply interested in Indian philosophy, ten years my senior. He used to write his verses in tiny books. He was responsible for my development and growth in Indian art. He molded me. He would say, “Art must represent nature, not reproduce it. That’s why you see that Akbar is bigger than the horse in the miniatures. Learn perspective but ignore it once you have mastered it.. The size of the figures depends on their relative importance. “
The following is a brief note on Mr.Thompson.
Like many western intellectuals of the early twentieth century who travelled East in search of spiritual wisdom, Lewis Thompson too abandoned his attachments and allegiances; and plunged into the depths of Eastern philosophy and spirituality. He departed from England when he was 23 years young (July 26, 1932) and lived in India for the remaining seventeen years of his short life. While in India, he wandered the country living off of what others would give him in the form of food and lodging. Thompson was not interested in finding a guru; but he came into close contact with various luminaries, including Sri Ramana Maharishi, Anandamayi Ma, Aurobindo, and Krisha Prem.
During his wandering years in India, Thompson practiced severe self-discipline of an iterant monk and produced some hundred-odd poems; an endless stream of aphorisms; maintained journals over his life in India as a marga, a spiritual discipline; wrote a large number of letters, and various miscellanea.
On June 19, 1949, Lewis Thompson was found wandering dazed and penniless by the River Ganges. Taken to a small room, he languished for two days, writing the last entry in his journal and his last poem, Black Flower, before lapsing into a coma. He died alone in Benares on June 21, 1949.
His journal and a collection of his poems Black Sun were published posthumously during 2001, with an introduction byRichard Lannoy. Lewis Thompson's work is deeply spiritual, lush with Hindu imagery; and is sensitive, mystical and erotic. He was later described as ‘one of the most original, brave, brilliant and prescient of the pioneers of our contemporary mystical Renaissance’; and,’ as one of the century’s most intrepid spiritual explorers and a ravishing mystical poet’
He learnt to visualize his design clearly before giving it a form. "I contemplate on the photograph for many days," he says, "and form a clear picture in my mind. Then, much later, I transfer the image to the surface of the painting”. Thus, imagination, observation and the expressive force of rhythm became the essential features of his paintings. Through sustained practice, he learnt to make his pictures come alive with rhythm and expression.
In addition , he also studied the ancient texts on painting and sculpture such as the Chitrasutra of Vishnu-dharmottara, the Kashyapa shilpa sutra etc, along with the epics, puranans and countless dhyana-shlokas which describe precisely the form , appearance , countenance , proportions and the nature of each deity. These texts became his guiding influence; and helped to enhance the authenticity to his depictions.
He also read extensively on the contemporary art-historians and scholars such as Ananada Coomaraswamy, Stella Kramrisch, Gopinatha Rao and others. These helped Rajam as an artist to gain a broader perspective of Indian art.
An unusual Maverick
The initial years of Shri S Rajam’s art-career were stressful; and acceptance did not come easy. He was branded a maverick, perhaps in the sense that he painted like no one else did. And, not many shared his philosophical perspective on art. He was criticized, mostly, for not belonging to a school of painting. But, that did not deter him in the least. He did not succumb to the trend of the day just for the whim of it. He was convinced that his style was authentic, creative and rooted in the tradition of our culture. He asserted he was not a ‘copier’, but one who painted in his own way. He said, “My art is in representing nature and not in reproducing it”. It is our fortune Shri Rajam stood his ground. Since then, he has been composing his own one-of-a-kind masterpieces for more than six decades. And, today his classical genius is not merely well accepted but revered as an icon of creativity and grace rich in tradition.
Even so, Shri Rajam is disappointed with the drift of the times. "Hindu heritage and tradition is ancient and priceless," he laments, "but devotional art is dying in India and almost extinct. Unfortunately, we Indians ape the Westerners. This attitude wounds me a lot. In tradition, only good things should remain; the bad should be ignored and not continued. This is tradition. The art schools in India have failed to bring forward tradition…., Artistic creation is lacking in arts schools. The training imparted is purely technique oriented, and this by itself is not of much use."
His message to the young and budding artists of India is this: "Study scriptures to improve your knowledge. Be modern; there is no problem with that. But know the beauty and elegance of your culture."
Shri Rajam’s art and the Chitrasutra
While talking about his approach to art, Shri Rajam said,” my art is not, nor was it ever meant to be, realistic or photo-like replicas of life, but rather intuitive perception of life”. He asserts that in his paintings and line drawings, he attempts to imprison the important moments of the subject’s life to help the contemplative spirit of the observer. His pictures might depict the resemblance but, more importantly, as he said, they aim to bring out the essence or the soul of the subject.
When Shri Rajam said that, he was not merely making a statement but also was echoing the prescriptions of the Chitrasutra which stressed that the concern of the artist should not be to just faithfully reproduce the forms around him. The artist should try to look beyond the tangible world; and beyond the beauty of form that meets the eye. He should lift that veil and look within. The Chitrasutra suggested, the artist should look beyond “The phenomenal world of separated beings and objects that blind s the vision of the reality”.
The Chitrasutra emphasizes that art expression is not about how the world appears to one and all, but how the artist would experience and visualize it. Art is an expression of his unique creative genius, imagination, enterprise and individuality as an artist. Its purpose is to present that which is within us; and to evoke an emotional response (the rasa) in the viewer’s heart.
Shri Rajam’s art creations are excellent illustrations of these principles of the Chitrasutra in the modern times. In his mission, Shri Rajam followed the approach of the classical Indian Art rather that of the west where art directly reproduces the nature and its physical form as it appears to one and all.
Abstract & Symbolism
While explaining the special features of traditional Indian art, Shri Rajam in his interviews and articles stresses the point that the traditional Indian art relies more on symbolism than on realism. He says, an artist’s power arises from observation translated into visual poetry through similes and suggestions. The eloquent expression of a painting, that is, its Bhava, according to him,consists in drawing out the inner world of the subject. It takes a combination of many factors to articulate the Bhava of a painting; say , through eyes, facial expression, stance , gestures by hands and limbs, surrounding nature, animals , birds and other human figures. Even the rocks, water places and plants (dead or dying or blooming or laden) can be employed to bring out the Bhava. These aspects gain greater importance in narrative paintings, which demand special skills to depict the dramatic effects and reactions of the characters, in its progression from frame to frame.
The concept of the abstract and with it a whole set of symbols and symbolisms, that Shri Rajam was discussing, were also the concern of the Chitrasutra. The text suggested the means to render the absolute and the undefined into tangible visual forms. It said, the objects in nature could be visualized or personified endowing each with a distinct personality in order to illustrate the essence of their character. Accordingly, in the traditional Indian art, the elements of natures like rivers, sun, moon etc were personified, bringing out their virtues and powers through eloquent symbolisms. Birds and flowers, trees and creepers too were depicted with a loving grace and tenderness. In certain cases, idyllic nature scenes were created just to convey a sense of joy and wonder.
Shri Rajam’s art abounds in such symbolisms.
Shri Rajam talks about the way he prepares before commencing on a painting. It is highly interesting. His approach is methodic, thorough and a classic example for others to follow. He studies every available material about the subject, such as the epics, scriptures, the legends; and, archived documents, earlier paintings and photographs in case of personalities. He visualizes his design, contemplates on it and lets it sink into him. He explains “The subject should be visualized with absolutely clarity in the mind’s eye, before setting pencil to paper. I let the preliminary sketch ‘sit’ for a few days, then review, making corrections and changes. Initially I color the background using a soft wash technique originating from the Santhiniketan School, a special feature in all my paintings. Then I define the main figure through light and shade, with highlights in white. I aim to bring out the grace of the human form and poses, for example tribhanga, with the drapery serving to accentuate form as exemplified in Buddhist sculpture.”
Even to this day, after nearly seventy years of painting, Shri Rajam visualizes his design after careful study and research into the subject; and only then attempts to draw. He says, "I form a clear picture in my mind. Then, much later, I transfer the image to the surface of the painting."
Rekhas, the lines
The Chitrasutra regards the lines –Rekhas- that articulate the form of the figures as the real strength and virtue of a painting; and the ornamentation and coloring as its decorative aspects. Chitrasutra favors employing the graceful, steady, smooth and free flowing lines. The Chitrasutra does not favor straight or harsh or angular or uneven lines. Its masters valued the effects best captured by least number of lines. The economy of lines and simplicity of expression were regarded as the sign of the artist’s maturity.
These too are the characteristics of Shri Rajam’s paintings. The first thing you notice in his works is the strength of the lines that defines precisely the form of the figure. He says, “The line is the life of a painting. I developed my own style, taking from the model of our ancient culture.” He explains that in the oriental traditions, the lines – the Rekhas- are of prime importance unlike in an oil painting. It is the lines that define the substance and form of an oriental painting. He describes his style as closest to Shantiniketan style, emphasizing the lasya –lyrical –aspects.
[ The Shantiniketan School of art, sphere headed by the renowned artist Abanindranath Tagore, was a revivalist movement that was strated by around 1905. It strived to revive the traditional Indian techniques of art and art styles, deriving inspiration, mainly, from the murals of Ajanta. Its style was, basically, a refined and harmonious blending of simple beauty of expression brought to life by graceful lines and an essential Indianness. The Shantiniketan art done mostly in watercolors depicted Indian religious, mythological, historical and literary subjects. Its style, endowed with the beauty and vigor of its lines, sense of proportion, grace and charm soon became an authentic idiom of Indian art expression.
Shri S Rajam derived inspiration from this tradition too. ]
The lasya – the lyrical - aspect which Shri Rajam was talking about refers to delineating beautiful figures and their delicate inner feelings through graceful, steady, smooth and free flowing lines that capture their essence . His line-drawings are full of grace and vitality. The delicate touches and intimate details that he deftly adds, enliven his figures.
Simplicity which is natural and pleasing
Shri Rajam says, he aims to infuse into his paintings a simplicity which is natural and pleasing. He stresses the economy of lines and simplicity of form as central to his approach. It is upon this background, he says, he is able to introduce “personal innovations” into his works. That is the reason; his paintings are a rare blend of traditional styles with his unique touch.
It is because of that approach you find a natural quality and grace in Shri Rajam’s paintings; they almost seem effortless. The vigor, the strength and the power of a heroic figure are brought to life by the vitality of its lines; not by his fat muscles or his sheer size. With use of shading different parts of the body, it produces three dimensional effects in the images. Even the demons in his paintings are never muscular or excessively fat. The outlines are strong and very sure; and there is an easy and natural depiction of volume, evidencing a good understanding of the rhythm and the structure of the human body.
His figures are never rigid and static. Their stances are always suggestive of flowing movements of languid grace and charming rhythm. Their distinctive display of smooth motion and the sense of balance are lovely. The painted figures of the “heroes” present a profound sense of peace and joy even while placed amidst activities and contradictions of life
Shri Rajam’s works are excellent illustrations of the principles and aspirations of Chitrasutra.
Another distinctive feature of shri Rajam’s works is the use of soft color schemes, uniquely decorated costumes; and delicate, deft cultural "touches" that lend authenticity to the context, period and the status / nature of the subject. He often lets elements drift partially off the canvas. But above all else, there is a flow of curve in all of his designs that projects a certain distinctive grace of smooth motion even in stillness.
The other is the use of proper colors: soft and subdued, the lines firm and sinuous and the expressions true to life. The colors, at times contrasting and at times matching are artistically employed to create magical effects. That effect is enhanced by the skillful shading of the body-parts, giving them a three dimensional appearance; and providing depth to the picture. These were precisely the principles that Chitrasutra too recommended.
The Chitrasutra aptly remarks, when a learned and skilled artist paints with golden color, with articulate and yet very soft lines with distinct and well arranged garments; and graced with beauty, proportion, rhythm and inspiration, then the painting would truly be beautiful.
How very true that is in the case of Shri Rajam..!.
The Chitrasutra tradition regarded the eyes as the windows to the soul. And, it said, it is through their expressive eyes the figures in the painting open up their heart and speak eloquently to the viewer. It therefore accorded enormous importance to the delicate painting of the soulful and expressive eyes that pour out the essence of the subject. The lively sets of lustrous pools of eyes continue to influence generations of Indian artists; those eyes are, in fact, a hall mark of Indian art works.
One finds a vindication of these principles in Shri Rajam’s paintings.
Gods & Goddesses
A lot of figures depicted by Shri S Rajam are of gods, goddesses, sages and demons; as also of the kings, queens and the composers of the bygone eras. His involvement in their creation was total; he not merely researched into their every available detail but also tried to get into their spirit. "Practically speaking, to paint the Gods and Goddesses, you must imagine them aggressively," says Rajam “There are rigid rules of grammar regarding proportions. Yet, the artist has to assume the freedom to compose his picture according to his aesthetic sense. There may not be a physical resemblance to the subject; but one should surely try to bring out the essential nature of its character.”
You will, therefore, find in Shri Rajam’s paintings the virtues and powers of the gods and demons made explicit by employing varieties of forms, symbols and abstract visualizations. That artistic liberty, freedom and felicity of expression is a characteristic of classical Indian art, as also of Shri Rajam’s art. He quotes the text (Chitrasutra) and says, “Rules do not make the painting; it is the artist with a soul and vision who creates the art expressions”.
Many of his creations have now turned into objects of worship; and adorn the walls of the temples and pooja-rooms. That might be because, Shri Rajam’s art awakens the divine presence within us; and we respond to the sublime images brought to us in his art. When that happens, we are filled by grace and there is no space left for base desires and pain: we have become that deity.
Shri Rajam’s art has that magical quality, which brings out the essence of life and the grace that permeate the whole of existence.
Even his secular art is rich in expressive realism, reminiscent of the paintings at Ajanta, Bagh and Sittannavasal. They testify to his love of naturalism - in the depiction of the human form and in the depiction of nature. Yet, his pictures always seem to suggest to something beyond the obvious, stimulating the senses and igniting the imagination of the viewer.
Shri Rajam says, he first paints the outlines , then colors and goes on to finish with lines.
The medium used by Shri Rajam is watercolor on cured plywood, veneer, handmade paper and silk (not the mulberry silk but the tussar silk, the non- violent silk, at the suggestion of The Paramacharya of Kanchi). It is said that in his earlier days Shri Rajam made the paper himself. As regards silk, he says one has to be very careful while painting on silk, because mistakes and wrong lines cannot be corrected or erased easily.
Each painting of his will have about 25 layers of color; and will be washed ten to twelve times before it is completed. His technique involves washing the paper by dipping the brush in plain water and dabbing it all over the painting. This he does every time after applying a couple of layers of color. "Do you know why I do it," he asks. "It is to remove the excess colors from the painting. Only the subtle brush strokes and effects remain and all that is garish is washed away. Do you know I lose more than 30 per cent of the paints this way? It is a loss. But my painting will survive without problems and its life will be as long as the medium on which I do it”.
Shri Rajam calls this process “water-wash”, which according to him is an oriental technique, unique to Indian and Chinese painting. The Chinese method, he says, is also the same but the number of washes is not as many as in the Indian method. He explains, “A wonderful quality of this oriental wash technique is that the painting can be washed in water and no colors will come off except the final touches of tempura colors “.
He says, such repeated washing –treatment helps the color stay on the surface and last longer, because through the process, all the colors are absorbed by the handmade paper on which the pictures are painted. Luckily, the handmade, rag paper etc. that he uses can withstand his water-wash treatment. Not only that, strangely the paintings do not smudge and they emerge all the more beautiful after being subjected to water- wash.
He uses transparent watercolor while building the layers, and applies opaque colors in the final stages of highlighting and finishing. As colors are applied from light to dark, it enables the undertones of previous colors to be visible. This gives, according to him, a misty and toned effect suitable to portray the imaginative subjects.
The process is laborious and takes nearly ten washes and about a week to ten days to finish a painting. But, he says, it worth doing it because the method ensures that colors last longer and stay bright. And, even in case the painting gets wet, the colors remain unaffected.
Shri Rajam recommends that the watercolors be preserved behind glass and ensured that no fungus develops between the painting and the glass.
Considering the volume of study, research and work involved; and the time taken to complete a painting, the prodigious output of Shri Rajam is totally amazing. For this scholarly-painter phenomenon who has entered his nineties, his work is his worship. His zest for work is enormous; and says he is "just beginning”. Even at his age, he is as inspired and enthusiastic about his work as he was in 1940 when he took to painting seriously; and he is no less prolific. Shri Rajam now in his nineties paints for about three to four hours every day. Art and music are his passions and they keep him young.
The paintings produced by him over the years, I reckon, run into a few thousands. I am not sure whether either Shri Rajam or anyone else has kept a count of his artistic output. I understand, there have also not been serious attempts to put together a sizable number of his paintings, save a volume of his 300 paintings brought out by Himalayan Academy, Hawaii (see www.HimalayanAcademy.com).
There have not been many formal exhibition of Sri. S. Rajam's works either, except perhaps the one held in Los Alamos, NM, USA in 1981.
The arrays of subjects chosen by him are vast and diverse. They range from the gods, goddesses, demons, Vedic sages, characters from puranas, literature, history, planetary deities, music composers, Nayanmars , Thirthankaras and Acharyas of various periods and inclinations ; festivals , fine arts folk arts and so on and on.
His works are distributed over book- covers, countless magazines published in various languages, book illustrations, compilations, chronicles, life histories etc. Yet, he feels he has not done quite enough and could have done more; "There is so much more I can do” he rues even at ninety.
Anyone, even vaguely familiar with his paintings cannot help but wonder how a person, amidst his various interests , pursuits and preoccupations in life, could achieve so much in various other fields of his activities and yet produce countless sublime and soulful precious works of art .. And, all that in one life time…!
That is the genius called Acharya Shri S Rajam, the very incarnation of the Vedic seers he admires and adores. May God grant him the strength and the will to continue in his endeavors.