Obituary – Venkat.Swaminathan (1 June 1933 - 21 October 2015)
Venkat.Swaminathan should be seen as a phenomenon – a continuation of the cultural unity forged by such great souls like Buddha, Agastya, Kalidasa, Abhinavagupta and Sankara.
It was a time when the entire Tamil literary landscape was being progressively getting occupied by leftists and Dravidianists. In what were called ‘small magazines’ then, a war was being fought. A school of Indic art criticism which has continuity in modern times from Ananda Coomaraswamy to Kapila Vatsyayan was being systematically marginalized by the emerging Marxist school, which then had the backing of Soviet Union. In Tamil Nadu Venkat.Swaminathan was almost the lone sole voice that faced the onslaught and mercilessly exposed the flaws of Marxist aesthetics in the context of its approach to Indian art. He went even beyond that.
One should remember the times
That was a time without Google. And Marxists through Soviet publishers had better access to world literature even if with dogmatic blinkers. So to an astonished audience, the Marxist art critics spoke about Sergei Eisenstein and his ‘montage of attractions.’ They tied it to dialectical materialism and said that its materialist roots can be traced to Pavlov’s behaviourism. To the budding young, intelligent leaders, these Marxist scholars were the only window to such a universe out there. Venkat.Swaminathan pointed out how Japanese aesthetics played an important role in shaping Eisenstein’s ‘montage of attractions’.
In a brilliant article titled ‘From the grave of Marx a voice’, he pointed out how Soviet dogmatists were destroying the spirit of human inquisitiveness and expression not only in art but also in science. Perhaps it was the first detailed intellectual expose of Marxism as a pseudo-science and a flawed framework. Ve.Sa as Venkat.Swaminathan was popularly called in literary circles, was attacked as ‘bourgeois’ ‘enemy of the working people‘ and ultimately as ‘CIA agent’ by leftists.
But Ve.Sa went on – expanding the horizon of the mind of his Tamil people. He brought awareness and in-depth understanding of all the classical, folk and contemporary art forms through his essays. He always sensitized his readers towards the true forms of art cautioning them against pretensions. So naturally he earned a lot of enemies. Even those artists whom he had introduced and praised, if they make a wrong move in his perception, would be condemned mercilessly. His acidic pen often peeled the progressive masks and exposed the utter artlessness of their pretentious propaganda art. He was equally ruthless when lumpen elements damaged the canvas of M.F.Husain’s paintings. He was well aware of the eccentricities of the painter, for example, the painter’s support of emergency and the way he depicted Morarji as a monkey.
Ve.Sa also made his readers look into the still extant and vibrant fountains of life that lay in Indian art forms. He relates an incident. When an art critic suggested to the famous painter Prafulla Mohanty, that his paintings seem to have been influenced by Swiss-German painter Paul Klee, Mohanty showed him how the forms of Jagannath, Balram and Subatra of Puri predate the expressions of Klee by centuries if not millennia. Mohanty, then asked the art critic, narrates Ve.Sa, “So who inspired whom? Puri Jagannath inspired Klee or I was inspired by Klee?” Ve.Sa also points out how Indic manifestations like Chozha bronzes and the Hoysala sculptures incorporate in them an element that transcends time and also the limits of the possibilities of the medium of expression.
One wonders if there was another art critic in India who talked to his readers about how the painter Muthu Koya from Lakshadweep transgressed the religious barriers and teased the structures of power, yet rooted himself in Islamic calligraphy, how Ghulam Rasool Santosh brought Tantric art to the fore, how Siva.Krishnamurthi has made us relive the greatness of our classic iconography’s evolution, how folk-theater artist Kannappa Thampiran embodies in his performance localized elements that blend and evolve the common narrative of the great Indian stories.
When Ve.Sa the scholar extraordinary had the chance to interact with the traditional street theater artist Kannappa Thampiran he exuded the mindset of a submissive disciple in front of a Guru. He asks the theatre artist if he could incorporate in his plays modern ecological values. And the venerable old artist points out how the burning of Kandava forest by Arjuna had later amplified repercussions in the Kurushektra war: a powerful principle in ecology expressed so subtly yet forcefully.
Ve.Sa should be seen as a phenomenon – a continuation of the cultural unity forged by such great souls like Buddha, Agastya, Kalidasa, Abhinavagupta and Sankara. His voluminous and sustained commentary on the literary works of modern Indian authors cutting across the linguistic barriers, on the performance art forms from puppetry to art films, sculptures, paintings, etc. makes him a great modern integrator of India through art and literature. He never succumbed to ideological vested interests. A deep atheist none perhaps savoured the taste of sacred art of India as he did. He loved both Carnatic and Hindustani music, and he enjoyed the aesthetics of every religious ritual. Even the leftists who despised him longed for a pat from him.
This great worshiper of Saraswathi passed away on the day of Saraswathi Puja. Till the very end, he was active and was writing a series of articles. Tamil Nadu in particular and India, in general, had lost a great connoisseur and critic of all forms of art – modern and ancient.
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