Biswajit Balasubramanian was tasked with sketching 12 Tamil poets. But there was one hitch — he had only heard of some of the names and their photos weren’t accessible. “I had to aim my imagination to do so,,” says the celebrated cartoonist of his two-dimension paintings of renowned Tamil poets from the Sangam period to later Centuries.
For the Madurai-born artist, the non-existence of any visual records, for instance, of the 12th Century poet Kambar or the 17th Century court poet of the Ettayapuram zamin, Umaru Pulavar, was a challenge. “Umaru is hailed as one of the greatest Islamic poets but even the Tamil Language Centre named after him in Singapore could not provide a photo,” says Biswajit, also the founder of the two-decades-old Forum Art Gallery in Chennai.
But he was not dithered by such challenges. “The cartoonist in me came to the fore. I love intricate patterns and believe geometry makes your painting humorous in a warm way,” he says. Based on his understanding of each poet and their literary work dug up from research, Biswajit used his imagination to the hilt.
It took him two months to sketch 12 poets. In some cases, he laid hands on some old paintings of the poets and filled his drawings with bright, happy colours. The creative exercise was triggered by a request put forth to him by the Director (Operations) at J C Residency, Rishwant Jayaraj. It all began with the idea of having a calendar highlighting one famous poet of the South each month. Says Rishwant, “Instead being confined to a gallery, if such art are put up in public spaces with informative footnotes, more people will notice them and also learn something new.”
Known for thinking out of the box, Biswajit sketched the poets one by one, swirling around distinctive foreheads, prominent jaw lines, characteristic head gears, defining moustaches and pottus. The other facial features were minimised to keep alive the mystery of guessing.
How do you sketch Avvaiyar, he asks, since it was the title given to several poetess during different periods of Tamil literature? And when most people draw their imagination from the 1953 Tamil film! So Biswajit chose to portray Avvaiyar as a modern woman, with short, curly hair. “It may sound whimsical but the results look fresh,” says the artist, who loves to woo young audiences. He feels in this age of Internet, whatever is done outside it, should be innovative. And undoubtedly, the burst of geometric designs and vibrant water colours punctuated by repetitive patterns and cartoonish imagery in his latest series evoke curiosity. And more importantly, gives youngsters a peep into the world of classic Tamil literature.
Every project is as much a learning experience for Biswajit. Last year, he was in Madurai to paint the walls of the Bharathiyar Park and he adopted the same theme of visual realism. This time around, the 12 panels of two-dimension shadow paintings of legendary poets including Thiruvalluvar, Kambar, Bharati, and Kannadasan, are reminiscent of both contemporary graffiti and ancient imagery.
“In contemporary art, there is the need to forge a universal language and at the same time, be in touch with local nuances. You can tweak without going out of context,” says Biswajit, who has pulled off the project convincingly. From the regular calendar, prints of his neon sketches have moved on to desktop calendars and cute picture postcards and have also found a permanent place in the corridor of Hotel J C Residency.
Biswajit started with Thiruvalluvar and that took him the longest to finish. “I had only heard most of the names but did not know much about them. Once I started researching, I began to understand the depth of their works and the journey became interesting for me. I had to decide on an appealing format,” he explains.
Biswajit’s style is neither realistic nor does he follow a fixed form. “I am only driven by the need to be different,” he says, while on a day’s visit to interact with Madurai’s art lovers and explain his work to them. And now with his latest series, he has paid another tribute to his city of birth. Biswajit promises us more — a 600-page graphic novel on his childhood and the history of the Sourashtra community in Madurai.