A child clinging to its parent, two figures at a long table engaged in a soulful conversation, a grandfather sleeping on a chair, a pandemic funeral next to a church, an indoor rehearsal for Palm Sunday—in the art of Indian painter Tom Vattakuzhy, scenes such as these are all lit, by the bulb or the moon or the sunset sky. His quotidian episodes are dense and deep, they communicate the splendour of being itself. Even when the characters are at rest, existence is active and energetic around them. The air is always heavy. The people have rich, mysterious inner lives. Also, inanimate things like curtains and toys make their presence known in an emphatic manner.
There is much more to the paintings than the sources of luminosity natural and artificial. It is as if divine grace has penetrated and permeated the settings, transfiguring them with an otherworldly glow. The artworks are powerful meditations on the grandeur of life and living, even when encountered in its most ordinary and stripped down form.
The artist, who hails from the town of Muvattupuzha, Kerala, in south India, says about his work: “If one asks me what I paint, I would shrink away as I do not have a straight answer. I do not work to fit myself into any political or ideological tag. I also do not consciously align myself with any ‘isms’ or trendy fashions in art. For me, art is a meditative solitary journey. I am concerned with exploring the psychological moods and feelings that I experience that do not have words to describe. At best, what I can say at this moment is that I am a painter of interiors—interiors of lives I see around, lives of the silenced, the marginalised and the alienated.”
Born in 1967, Tom Vattakuzhy joined the fine art school Kalabhavan, Santiniketan, West Bengal, in 1991 where he graduated with a degree in printmaking in 1996. His exposure to the life and works of Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij and his close associations with doyen artists like K.G. Subramanyan, Somnath Hore and art historian, R. Sivakumar had a significant impact on the formation of his artistic priorities and way of life.
Upon completing his master’s degree from the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University of Baroda in 1998, in lieu of keeping him and his art practice in line with the winds of the changing art scenario, he delved into an unlearning and relearning process reassessing art from medieval times to the present assimilating what his heart responded to. This became a crucial step in his artistic career and significantly influenced the formation of his visual language with a structural solidity and organisation. From 2010, he devoted himself solely to his art.
With the intention of bringing art close to society, he engaged himself in illustrating periodicals with virtually stand alone paintings that he preferred to call “story-paintings”. A controversy over one of his works resulted in the retraction of the magazine itself, leaving him disillusioned and demoralised, and he finally did away with the practice in 2016. One of his history paintings titled ‘Death of Gandhi’ received nation-wide acclaim and found its way to the cover painting of Kerala budget in 2020. He has been the recipient of awards like AIFACS Award, New Delhi in 1997 and 1998, Kerala Lalit Kala Academy Award in 1997, National Scholarship, HRD New Delhi in 1996, Haren Das Award, Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta in 1995.
Tom Vattakuzhy is represented by Art Centrix Space in New Delhi, a gallery founded in 2014, dedicated to exhibiting contemporary Indian artists working in a range of styles and themes, while preserving the tradition and culture of the subcontinent.
Links: Gallery website (artcentrix.com/artist/tom-vattakuzhy-605dba5857cb7) | Instagram (www.instagram.com/tomvattakuzhy)
FOCUS: Where I will bring to your attention a charity and a business operating in the artist’s place of origin or addressing their themes. These initiatives are not affiliated with the artist or their galleries. You could donate to, buy from or invest in them.
CHARITY—Hope Kerala (Alappuzha, Kerala, India). They help orphans and destitute children build their lives.
BUSINESS—Bhava India (Thiruvanathapuram, Kerala, India). They are dedicated to empowering women from rural areas by training them to make eco-friendly products. Plans are underway to use the same model in urban areas by identifying similar groups and engaging with other mentally/physically challenged people.