Meet the artist who created 4,500 works of miniature art during the lockdown
Art is the expression of one’s innermost feelings, and the pandemic has provided plenty of fodder to artists. From absolute newbies to well-established names in the art world, this period has been one of artistic flurry the world over, with many professionals dabbling in mediums and forms they never had the opportunity or inclination to explore earlier.
Suresh K Nair, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Painting, Faculty of Visual Arts, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi, is known for his larger-than-life art in the form of murals.
When the pandemic put a physical stop to his preferred mode, the 48-year-old artist swiftly changed to what was most accessible then – miniatures.
“Once, while waiting for my flight from London to Lisbon, I noticed a woman walking with a dancer’s gait. I felt inspired to draw her but my sketchbook and drawing materials were checked in with my luggage. Finally, I took my own visiting card and drew her image on the back side of the card... thus was born the artistic idea of creating images in a miniature style that fit within the limited size of a visiting card,” shares Suresh.
How it all started?
Born in a village in Palakkad, Kerala, Suresh discovered his love for art in his high school library when he came across the rich literary magazines of Kerala.
Miniature art by Suresh Nair
He credits his artistic education to Guruvayur in Kerala, Santiniketan in Bengal, and through a Fulbright scholarship, Temple University in Philadelphia.
Each of these institutions have influenced his practice of creating visual elements based on different sources and styles.
From the classical dance forms of Guruvayur, to the writings of Rabindranath Tagore, and traditional forms of music to Mexican mural art and other contemporary art practices, all find place in his work. When he finally settled in the vibrant city of Varanasi, he began incorporating its varied sounds, music, and rituals too.
“The reverberating Vedic chanting, the evening Ganga arati, the sounds of cycle rickshaws, the Ramleela of Ramnagar, Drupad Mela, and the Kabir Festival enthralled me with their divine sounds, and inspired a body of ten thousand drawings based on Indian Classical Music,” he explains.
Murals emerged as his chosen form of art when he joined the Institute of Mural Painting in Guruvayur. He specialised in traditional Kerala murals by capturing their history, tradition, iconography, aesthetics, and techniques.
His large works of art can take anywhere from one to six months to complete, depending on the techniques used and the complexities of the space. These art works are usually commissioned by government bodies or philanthropic individuals or organisations, looking to gift something to the public at large.
His first work was at the India and Pakistan Border at Wagah, commissioned by an IAS officer from Chandigarh, which was followed by a government-sponsored mural in Nepal to spread the message of peace. Suresh has also created murals for private schools, art galleries, government offices, and temporary structures for literary festivals throughout the country.
In 2019, he created the Wall of Peace along with his students from BHU in Cherpulassery, Kerala.
The switch to miniature art
Though miniature painting began as an experiment, the lockdown turned it into a cathartic act for Suresh. He shares,
“I have found a kind of meditation, and the practice has become a visual mantra that gives a lot of positive energy to the body.”
Just before the lockdown in March 2020, he was assigned a project by the local body of a village in Kerala to provide each villager with a miniature painting as a token of brotherhood. The pandemic was unexpected, but he had already invested in around 5,000 interesting cards from Kerala, which helped him keep the work going.
Artist Suresh K Nair
Quite ill at one point during the lockdown, he locked himself in a room suspecting he had contracted the virus. He was nervous and panicking, as it was proving difficult to book an RT-PCR test. Though it turned out to be mere dust allergies, the tension of this period reflects in his work.
“As I was confined to a room, I worked on 4,500 handmade visiting cards of size 2 x 3 inches, and it became a kind of autobiographical narration of my experience, expressed through the hundred and eight Karnas, the thousand Buddhas, traditional shadow puppets of Kerala called Pavakkoothu, yogic postures, and daily observations,” he says.
Once restrictions ease, he plans to distribute these works to each house in the village with the help of the local government, which has agreed to provide funds for framing.
“My works are essentially autobiographical. The recent pieces entitled ‘Thousand Gestures’ in miniature form signify the isolation enforced by the global pandemic. I believe the art is miniature and minimal at the same time. We are all living minimalist versions of life during lockdown, and my work highlights that,” says Suresh.
The shift in medium from large to small was not a difficult one for him, as he was used to practicing on smaller mediums before attempting large artworks. Interestingly, his entire collection of lockdown miniature paintings come together as a large work and will be displayed as such in the Birla Academy of Art in Kolkata soon.
“This will be called the ‘Minimal and Monumental’ show,” he shares with pride.
Suresh was recently selected for the prestigious ‘BeFantastic Fellowship 2021’, where he learnt new media art forms such as animation, photography, performance, video art, and the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
This fellowship programme is organised by the Swiss Arts Council and the US Embassy, in association with the Goethe Institute / Max Mueller Bhavan in Bengaluru.
Suresh likes collaborating with others on big projects as well. As a Professor of Art in BHU, he often invites students to work with him, along with masons, laborers, and locals to assist in the creative process.
Most of his works are done on walls or public spaces, but some are done on paper or canvas, which he is keen to sell to discerning collectors.
However, it is the ‘Thousand Gesture’ project that is truly special for him.
“I believe it is the first time that all the residents of a village are receiving paintings from an artist, which makes it a historic project. I will be sharing 4,500 of my miniature paintings with the residents of the village called Vellinezhi Kalagramam. This place was declared an art village by Dr Manmohan Singh’s government in 2012, which provided funds and patronised over 1,000 artists that live and practice across 45 genres of art here,” he says.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had once declared that every home in India should have a work of art. Prolific and visionary artist Suresh Nair is attempting to live up to this legacy.
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