Death of Gandhi: Tom Vattakuzhy's arrival on the national scene

V K Cherian

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Death of Gandhi, Oil on Canvas

After a long time, a Malayali artist working from Kerala, is making news nationally. The 55-year-old Muvattupuzha resident Tom Vattakuzhy was not just the most photographed painter with his work at the recently concluded India Art Fair in New Delhi but also an art collector's delight with a hefty tag on it.

Tom's work 'Death of Gandhi', Gouache on Canson paper, 102x128 cm, 2019, had already made a wave in social media, with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeting it on a Gandhi martyrdom day and Tushar Gandhi, Gandhi's great grandson adopting it as the cover of his book on the murder of Gandhiji. Tom was surprised by the reception of his work as it was an artist's trial meant to be a requiem for Gandhi. Just as mourning the death of Jesus immortalized by various artists over centuries like the 15th century sculpture popularly known as Pieta by Michelangelo in Rome's Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, Tom's painting depicting the grief over the death of Gandhi has hit a chord with the people across the spectrum going by its popularity on social media and also among certain sections of the political spectrum.

Tom exhibited the finished work - 'Death of Gandhi, Oil on Canvas, 9h x 6w ft, 2023-' - for the first time soon after this year's martyrdom day of Gandhiji in the 2nd week of February in New Delhi. And to his surprise the hugely crowded Art Fair participants celebrated the painting - making it the most photographed work in the whole exhibition where senior and junior artists and galleries across South Asia were showcasing their recent works. One was not surprised to see poet and politician Pritish Nandy tweeting the photo of the work and calling up Tom to congratulate him. Apart from connoisseurs like Pritish Nandy, corporate honchos like Spice Jet Airlines Chairman Ajay Singh were seen spending time observing Tom's work. Not just seniors from the art fraternity or corporate executives, but also young art enthusiasts to art collectors all came in numbers to experience Tom's creation. The painting was purchased by Kiran Nadar Art Gallery at Noida, NCR Delhi, for a huge sum, which can make Tom's fellow artists in Kerala go green with jealousy.

I was intrigued why Tom decided to do a painting on the death of Gandhi, as the paper drawing itself was so popular. He says the first one was more of a drawing before he transferred the entire concept into oil on canvas, with details, making the lament, the central theme of the painting. A closer look at the paper drawing and the oil canvas painting reveals it all. In the painting he has expanded not just the number of people around the murdered Gandhiji, but delineated their facial expressions and body movements witnessing a tragic historic occasion, keeping the fallen Gandhi figure at the centre. The drawing was more focused on the murdered Gandhi and in the painting by bringing in the theme of lament strongly, he raises the painting to a classical level; the level which Pieta and other similar works on the death of Jesus have reached in the art world over centuries. As a long time illustrator of Mathrubhumi and Bhashaposhini journals, Tom had earlier decided to release paper drawing of his painting on social media to test waters, little expecting it would incite such a wide response from Rahul Gandhi to Tushar Gandhi and such a huge fan following on the digital arena. His earlier painting 'Supper at Nunnery', on the tragic life of Mata Hari, the 1st world war German spy woman of Dutch origin, had put him at the centre of a controversy when it was used in Bhashaposhini magazine as an illustration.

Supper at Nunnery

'Supper at Nunnery' which depicted the tragedy of her love-less life erupted into a controversy as a group of believers saw a striking resemblance to the Last Supper mural by the Italian renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci at a church in Milan. The original painting represents the last supper of Jesus with his 12 disciples, where he announced his imminent betrayal by one of them and the tragedy which follows. The Supper at Nunnery was an allegory of many betrayals and gloominess in Mata Hari's life, before getting shot by the French authorities on charges of spying for Germans. The conservative, fanatic protestors described the painting as a nude Maria, the mother of Jesus. That made the artist in Tom hypersensitive about the social impact of his painting in a society increasingly plagued by conservatism and ignorance of the creative process of art. Which artist wants to take any chance with such an audience who makes anything viral, especially the negative aspects on social media, without getting into the details of a complex issue?

Since certain political honchos wanted to minimize the cruelty of Gandhi's murder, Tom, the artist, wanted to test waters socially and politically before finalizing his painting on the Death of Gandhi. Gandhiji was killed almost like Jesus for no definite personal reasons, but for the ideology he stood for with his life and his teachings. That way both the killings are lamented by generations in history and have an impact on people, when reminded of any narrative, artistic or just plain spoken words. I myself have witnessed people, including Tushar Gandhi, going silent while narrating the incident, at the venue on one occasion.

India Art Fair facade designed by Sameer Kulavoor

In a way Tom, the painter, like all great artists depicts not just the physical element of his work, but brings in the associations, social and mental and artistic dominions in entirety. For anyone who has heard about Gandhi murder, Tom's painting brings in the historic tragedy of the killing of a saintly person and the helplessness of the people around, as depicted in the work. The popularity of his work at the art fair and earlier on social media can be attributed to this historic association. The viewer becomes part of the lamenting crowd portrayed in the painting. The gallery note on the artist and the work says :''Tom Vattakuzhy is a figurative painter, printmaker and illustrator. His carefully rendered paintings, rich with light and subdued tones, are nestled between the real and the surreal. His intuitive and deliberate compositions evolve from the observed reality, and he mixes them with something inside of him which lends them a mysterious and contemplative quality. His poignant figures, eloquent in gesture and posture, are imbued with a series of evocative associations and memories.''

Tom started as an art teacher in a school and was lucky to be mentored as an illustrator of Mathrubhumi Weekly, when M T Vasudevan Nair, the iconic Malayalam writer, was its editor. He went on to take his graduation from the Kalabhavan of prestigious Shantiniketan University and then his post graduation at Baroda University, School of Fine Arts, under the tutelage of artists like KG Subramaniam. Tom represents the best of Shantiniketan and Baroda Art schools which are the foremost art centers of the country as of now. He admits that he was deeply influenced by KG Subramaniam, but KGS told his disciple to look at him from a distance so that he can see the world in a more realistic perspective. Like KGS, Tom's work has a deep humanist touch to it with an almost a neo classic impressionistic style. No wonder his 'Death of Gandhi' is capturing the mood of the country in a politically trying period, that too without any controversies. One thought his earlier work itself was sold off as it was hugely popular following tweets from Congress President and others. But, Tom says he has not sold the earlier one, as it is not a complete work.

Crowds at the India Art Fair

He has been the recipient of awards like AIFACS Award, New Delhi in 1997 and 1998, Kerala Lalitkala Academy Award in 1997, National Scholarship, HRD New Delhi in 1996 Haren Das Award, Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta in 1995. The painting 'Death of Gandhi' was showcased by a New York-based Gallery at India Art Fair, taking its initial popularity to new heights.

Tom's grand entry into the national art scene, also happened at the India Art Fair 2023 which is the most happening of art melas in India, where Galleries across South Asia are vying to get a space.

A Gallery owner who did not make it to the fair this year says that participation at the fair puts them in a different league and ensures sales of the works showcased. Above all there is an assured participation of art professionals, art collectors, Gallery people and art enthusiasts across the spectrum at the four-day fair in the otherwise non discrepant mela in South Delhi. The way Angus Montgomery Arts organizes and assembles such a huge crowd in four days to the artistically constructed temporary halls is in itself a lesson in attracting the best of art enthusiasts in the country. Interestingly, governments have no role in it, either in organizing or in participation. The artists and Galleries appeared completely satisfied by the arrangements and outcomes. Sure, heavily government funded Kochi Biennale and similar art fairs have to learn a lot from the India Art Fair, which is organized by a corporate body where artists and Galleries vie to participate.

(VK Cherian is a senior mediaperson based in New Delhi and writes on arts, films and technology.)

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