Far Away and Long Ago | The artist in the Gurkha Army hat

Cholamandal artist KG Ramanujam’s pen-and-ink drawings were stylised and child-like and, on closer inspection, revealed his virtuosity

It was in February 1978 when we - Raj Iyer and yours truly - arrived in Cholamandal Artist’s Village, by the sea, 14 kilometres outside Madras. The purpose of this visit was vague. A 16 MM black and white film on Mahabalipuram was in the offing. At artist Haridasan’s invitation we went to stay there in absentee artist Vishwanathan’s cottage. The good man lived in Paris. The artist’s village was romantic, even idyllic given the fast changing times. It was founded by KCS Pannicker, the well regarded artist and one –time Principal of The Government College of Art in the city.

There were a few well designed houses there; in one lived veteran J Sultan Ali, in the recently deceased Pannicker’s where his son Nandgopal, the soon-to-be famous sculptor, stayed with his wife, and the one, a bit closer to the sea, belonged to SG Vasudev and his wife Arnawaaz. The other dwellings included thatched cottages. In one lived Gopinath and Kofa, a Burmese artist. Very likely Douglas Chatfield, a very interesting artist, stayed in a cottage too. The Artist’s Village had a small art gallery, and it was there that one first saw the singular drawings of KG Ramanujam who had died tragically five years earlier at thirty three. His life story, though sketchy, was brought into focus thanks to Vasudev, Arnawaaz and Gopi.

He had been a poor boy who sold sketch pens in the street. He was not ‘’good looking’’, had a speech problem but was blessed with a genuine talent for drawing. It was probably, KCS Pannicker, who first recognised his potential and got him into Art College. His complex about his looks was matched by his undying love for women or was it the ‘idea’ of woman and womanhood? He tried to sublimate his desires through work, mainly drawing incessantly but this too could not offset the feeling of rejection that came to resemble a festering wound within him.

The drawings on display in the art gallery at Cholamandal were in pen & ink whose dream-like quality seemed to be the creation of a sensibility that was unique. The drawing was stylised, child-like, which on closer inspection revealed virtuosity. The motifs were similar: a mustachioed man in a Gurkha Army hat is seen in profile, sometime direct, at others, three-quarters or more. He is rowing a boat; seated opposite him is a lady. Sometimes there are women in the boat whose roles are subsidiary. The background is often hallucinatory there may be period buildings hovering over which are faces of monsters. The impact of these works was most intriguing. Gopi was happy that a perfect stranger had reacted so positively to his late friend’s work.

The drawings on display in the art gallery at Cholamandal were in pen-and-ink whose dream-like quality seemed to be the creation of a sensibility that was unique. The drawing was stylised, child-like, which, on closer inspection, revealed virtuosity

When asked about the curious, recurring imagery in the drawings, that of the man in the Gurkha Army Hat and the mysterious lady seated opposite him in the boat, Gopi said, ‘’ The man is Ramanujam. The woman is his ‘queen’ (attainable only in his work).’’ ‘’But why the hat?’’
Gopi responded, "He had gone to Tirupati and shaved off his head, offering his hair to the Deity as was the custom. On his return he took to wearing a hat he had got hold off from somewhere.’’ One wondered why had Ramanujam gone to Tirupati? Was he an overtly religious man? Was it the desperate need to find the love of a woman that had taken to the Hindu pilgrimage centre? Whatever may have been the reason, the imagery that resulted after this trip was both unsettling and impressive.

Arnawaaz, sadly gone these thirty years or more, said in 1978, “He was so desperate to get married. Once Gopi had gone along with Ramanujam with a marriage proposal to a girl’s house. (It was the conservative thing to do given the circumstances). She thought that Gopi was the prospective bridegroom, and promptly said ‘yes’. When she learnt that it was Ramanujam who intended marrying her and not Gopi, she immediately changed her mind. It was a great blow to the poor man.” Arnawaaz was clearly sympathetic to the artist’s grief that was eating into him. Ramanujam, lived with his family in an old ramshackle house that had a well in the courtyard. In one of his moments of absolute desperation, he threw himself in the well. Arnawaaz remembered, ‘’His cries of ‘Amma’, ‘Amma’ had family members rushing out to rescue him.”

S G Vasudev, remembered Ramanujam’s complete lack of worldly sense. “An Indian collector had come from England and was very impressed with Ramanujam’s drawings. He offered 150 rupees per drawing and wanted three of them. Despite my telling him not to enter into a deal with anyone in my absence he sold the drawings to the man for 350 rupees under the impression that the buyer was trying to short change him!’’

Geoffrey Bawa, the Sri Lankan architect, greatly taken up with Ramanujam’s work, had commissioned him to do three large murals (wall drawings really) for the Connemara Hotel in Madras. Even that very well-paid job could not prevent him from killing himself as the darkness of the soul enveloped him on January 4 1973.

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