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Journeys into the Sublime: V. Ramesh's Works, 2003-13.

I shall call modern that art which presents the fact that the unpresentable exists. To make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which neither can be seen nor made visible.... But how to make visible that there is something that cannot he seen?

Jean-Francois Lyotard, 1982

TO MAKE VISIBLE THE INVISIBLE IS A TOUGH PROPOSITION FOR AN ARTIST WHO has to engage with such elements as line, space, colour, texture and light to articulate concepts that are so abstract as emotions, sublimity or spirituality. Verbally these concepts can be clarified with a profusion of words, but artistically they pose a challenge within the restricted field of artistic elements.

Remembrances of Voices Past by the Vishakhapatnam-based artist Vedhanbatla Ramesh (born 1958) was the first solo show to be hosted by the ngma (National Gallery of Modern Art), Bengaluru, supported by Threshold Art Gallery, New Delhi. Held in February-March 2014, it comprised 27 works--large oil paintings and watercolours--executed between 2003 and 2013. The large gallery space was wrapped in a mantle of meditative and near spiritual silence, made more palpable by the realistic and quasi-abstract styles of the painted works.

At the heart of Ramesh's oeuvre is his attempt to interpret the intense and personal vision, emotions and experiences of the Bhalcti saint-poets and philosophers of the 7th to the 20th century, such as Karaikal Amma, Andal, Akka Mahadevi, Manivachakar and Ramana Maharshi in south India and Lalla Moj of Kashmir, by revisiting their work and rekindling the spark of their piety and selfless devotion in search of truth. The collection is rich in images of the sublime, where the viewer is forced to grapple with the seen and the unseen, the fathomable and the unfathomable. Using allegories and metaphors gleaned from the poetic narratives to visualize the saints' intuitive spiritual experiences, Ramesh's works are not only emotionally rich but also spiritually elevating. Apparently the artist's psyche was in sync with the spiritual vibrations made manifest through his reading of select poet-saints--as expressed in his evocative self-portrait in the painting "Keeping Faith". It is within the framework of what I term "subliminal spirituality" that I wish to situate his works and offer a critical reading.

The Concept of the Sublime

The idea of the sublime goes back to the 1st century CE when it was developed by the Greek philosopher Longinus. It was reinterpreted and recontextualized over the centuries, being later taken up in the 18th century by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, and in the 20th century by Jean-Franqois Lyotard. Lyotard's analysis of the postmodern sublime is a reinterpretation of the Kantian notion, which in turn was prem modern sublime is a reinterpretation of the Kantian notion, which in turn was premised on Burke's, deriving from Longinus. While for Longinus the sublime was neither beautiful nor logical but emotionally powerful, Lyotard initially became interested in the sublime to consider its political, rather than aesthetic, implications with reference to the writings of Kant. Later through his publications in the 1980s and '90s he began to apply the concept of the sublime to ethics, art and theology. His sublime connects to feelings conceived beyond limits of experiences, which makes it relevant in Ramesh's works that connect with ideas of reverence and transcendence, bringing an awareness that "the unpresentable exists" even if not known or represented. Postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson references the sublime in "relationship to and [as] the representation of the machine" which, in the technological era, represents the "boundlessness" and "terror" of the global network of power that blankets us and fills us with awe. Within this context the artist poses the query "Who am I?" amidst rampant materialism and the capitalist mindset.

Using the idea of the greatness of the soul, Ramesh sublimates the notion of grace in narratives that echo the voices and philosophies of the Bhakti poets and Ramana Maharshi, buttressed with imagery derived from Indian mythology and its representation in the visual art tradition. Many of the works have affinities to Chola bronzes or the iconic forms of Buddhist or Jain saints. In visualizing these ideas, Ramesh's art inevitably points towards providing a sense of renewal, regeneration and strengthening. This signposts the artist as a philosopher, whose thought-images are the reflections of common-sense intuition, showing the viewer how to look at the world and express unusual ideas in innovative, creative and new ways. He also prompts the viewer to look more deeply at varied questions of existence, such as: Why are we here? What is beyond our comprehension? and Where are we going? Though the nature of sublimity and spirituality is amorphous and elusive, it nonetheless finds relevance in Ramesh's ideology, which essentially synthesizes his perceptions of life's experiences through art.

Walk through the Walls: Spirituality in an Age of Materiality

With a post-graduate degree in Painting from M.S. University Baroda, Ramesh has been an artist and teacher at the Department of Painting, Andhra University, Vishakhapatnam since 1985. His interest in art was aroused from a young age at the knee of his grandmother whose stories Ramesh would visualize with enthusiasm and interest. The narratives became grist for the artist's mill later in life when he was attracted to the philosophy of Ramana Maharshi and the Bhakti poets. Endowed with extraordinary skills in representing the phenomenal world, he extended his dexterous craftsmanship to articulating the spiritual visions of the sage philosophers.

Ramesh's visual language till then had essentially been figurative, except for a brief patch in the early 1990s when he painted abstract works in pastel to bring his art out of the rut of the particular subject of the fisherfolk he was painting. According to Ramesh, "I had reached a dead end, when sheer luck or destiny brought me to Ramana Maharshi's Ashram. It proved to be a great retreat, and a catalyst even [in] how I looked at things." The seminal year was 1998: while he was showing in Chennai at Apparao Galleries, he visited Sri Ramana Ashram at Thiruvannamalai. This visit spiralled his artistic career to another level, opening vistas of a realm of life at a higher plane. He became immersed in the philosophy of Ramana Maharshi, and spent time absorbed in reading the poetry and literature of various south Indian Bhakti saints available in English translation in the library of the ashram. Says Ramesh, "It was an epiphanic moment ... and the emotions of that moment have stayed with me all the time.... When my glance first fell on a black and white photograph of Ramana, I was instantly captivated by an image full of grace, wisdom and childlike innocence." The encounter proved to be a timely intervention in Ramesh's career, when he consciously moved away from proletariat themes to interface with the poetic voices of the past that beckoned him on a metaphysical journey through his art.

Standing at the crossroads of his career, the anxiety to push the creative folds further gestured to deep connectivity on questions of existence, in response to which the voices from the poetic past allowed him to craft interpretations in his art with subtlety and poetic grandeur. The intense reading of Bhakti poetry and Advaita philosophy led him to visualize works that featured in a series of shows--A Thousand and One Desires (2005), Painted Hymns (2007), My Heart Would Be Enough (2008), Why Cross the Boundary (2012), Sanctum Sanctorum: A Corner for Four Sisters (2013), culminating in Remembrances of Voices Past (2014), which included a selection of works from the previous shows. Over the past decade his energies, artistic endeavours and passions have focused on the construction of the spiritual, moving toward sublimating his inner responses within the Indian cultural tradition. In doing so Ramesh has also attempted to contextualize the timeless philosophy of relentless searching for truth, dissolving the ego and seeking communion with a higher being. These practices are now lost or have suffered amnesia within contemporary reality, which corroborates Jameson's reading of the postmodern sublime premised on materialism and consumerism--as the presentation of the enormous, awe-inspiring, terrifying and ubiquitous, yet unseen and decentred, global network, with its infinite capacity to ferret out hidden and private secrets. Ramesh by visualizing the utterances of the Bhakti poets has rekindled and revisited their philosophies, venturing into an arena not explored by many figurative artists hitherto. His oeuvre is reflective of his responses to challenges within postmodernism including the loss of self, a world devoid of meaning and various other maladies associated in essence with the loss of the spiritual.

Strategizing Representational Modes

To represent the intangible, the visible but unknowable, Ramesh took recourse to a figurative visual language that was either realistic or quasi-abstract. He used various techniques, combining oil painting with screen-printing, or watercolours and gouache employed fortuitously to correspond with his concepts and provoking the intangible to become tangible. The process of achieving Lyotard's notion of sublime--"to make visible that there is something that cannot be seen"--allowed for innovation, freedom and liberation. It was in conflating innovation with a sense of freedom that Ramesh was able to work out his painting methods strategically for subjective expression.

The hyper-realistic style, through which Ramesh represented the outer world, became the means to reach other realities. Of course he had no set rules and predetermined patterns in the execution of works, though it was important that his reading was thoroughly internalized before he commenced painting. He sometimes began by copying a line of verse, and the intensity of the written words magically gave him a lead to paint in the same intense way. When the image was not satisfactory, he applied a layer of paint, which did not obliterate it but left an elusive trace, thus making layering an important dimension of his method in the realization of his concepts. These constructed layers, going up to 15 or 20, offered richness and depth in the opulence of colours and textures. Ramesh says, "A lot of people think that in my case layering is a technique, but it didn't actually happen consciously. When I was not happy with something, I would rub it off and paint over it but the viewers could still see it. And then I realized that it gave an insight into my working process..." To further his ideas he resorted to screen-printing linear rhythmic patterns (as in "The Poet's Passion", 2013--a series of eight works, four done in gouache and others in watercolours and in oils) or images (as in "Karaikal Amma", 2012 and "Untitled" [Ramana], 2006) that intervene within different layers. His colours, though few, have a scintillating character, glowing from within, a consequence of layering intelligently and with self-assurance. The rich reds, brilliant deep blues, dull earth browns, creamy yellows, mordant greens and spiritual whites construct his devotion. Thus, a certain amount of planning has gone into Ramesh's works, as ideas and concepts were internalized allowing for a liberal and innovative approach in the application of technique. Sometimes the developments in the painting process were related to the artist's mood. The palimpsest resulting from layering conveyed the fragility of time and the ephemerality of the mortal body.

Ramesh's reading of devotional poetry was rooted in reverence, giving way to transcendence through his art that found appropriate collaboration with his painting methods. Interestingly the layers were reinvented as metaphors in the artist's journey of seeking the truth. For instance, four of his "The Poet's Passion" paintings are rendered in watercolours, a medium he was apprehensive about. He overcame the fear by challenging himself to paint on a large scale. He screen-printed with water-based pigments on Canson paper, and washed the printed image immediately or sometimes allowed it to remain for a day before washing it--a method reminiscent of the Bengal wash technique--which left: an indelible trace that was either soft or stubborn. These elusive offerings of images on paper maximized his creativity; he intervened further when required by painting on them or using the screen to print on them. One therefore often finds a luminous glow emanating from his works that naturally corresponds to the glowing mystical emotions experienced by the Bhalcti poets in their moment of becoming, enriching the vision of the artist in its realization.

The elusive imagery or the text which peeks out translates as the artist's search, with the many-layering and the softly diffusive forms offering parallels of the effacement of the self or ego and the quest for communion with the divine, as for instance in the painting of Alcka Mahadevi, which creates a numinous field of transcendent experience. The shadowed imagery in white against a deep night-blue dissolves into a suffused form, expressing the profound immanence, immediacy and intimacy in the experiences of a mystical saint with the higher truth. Thus, to create the necessary coequivalents of transcendent experiences through painting, Ramesh has arbitrated with different mediums--watercolours, screen-printing and oils; visual language that is both realistic and quasi-abstract; and a technique of layering that conceals and reveals forms manifesting brilliant realization of his ideas. The quasi-abstraction serves his intentions in paintings such as "The Woods" (2012), "Akka Mahadevi" (2012), "Untitled" (2006) and "The Poet's Passion" (2013).

A Critique

Ramesh's paintings are essentially his interpretations of the experiences of various Bhakti saints in their search for truth. His aesthetics affiliate effectively with his desires in establishing a correspondence of his art with the philosophy of Advaita or nonduality. The realization of the truth in Bhakti and Advaita was made manifest when the relationship between subject and object could be truly discovered with personal consciousness transcending all limits and directly awakening to nonduality or non-distinctions, creating awareness in the realization of the self primarily through experiences. The lives of Karaikal Amma (her abandonment of the beautiful body by seeking a boon of ugliness), Lalla Moj (the tyranny in her married life and her resolve to do away with clothes), Akka Mahadevi (her search for her Lord "White as Jasmine") and Manivachakar (his songs of despair for reunion) illustrate their experiences of the rejection of the trenchant material world encountered in their journey, where hostility, aggression, resentment, anger were manifest. They cast off the sensuousness inherent in the phenomenal world and erased distinctions to awaken their "self" to a higher truth.

Yet there is an inherent binary that persists in Ramesh's oeuvre, namely the sensuous and the spiritual realized through his visual language of hyper-realism and quasi-abstraction. These mediations constitute the artist's subjectivity, clarifying his intentions in representing the Bhakti saints' lives, philosophy and passionate pursuit of contemplating a higher reality. The sensuous in painterly terms of overarching visual tactility is apparent in the painting titled "Andal", which has a near-real representation of a tuberose garland placed against a spiritual blue background comprising written lines from Andal's poetry. Andal was the only female Bhakti poet among the 12 Vaishnava Alwar saints of the south. The garland was made by her for Vishnu, but she adorned her body with it before offering it to the deity, an act noticed by her father, for which she was reprimanded. But Vishnu appeared in the father's dream and requested that Andal should always wear the garland before it came to him. According to Ramesh, "The god wanted the garland that Andal created because he missed the scent of her body. There is so much closeness, intimacy and sensuality in that story. In fact, Andal was caught because her father discovered her hair on the garland, and I have portrayed that in my painting."

A similar tactile sensuousness is manifested in two "Untitled" works of 2012 with representations of lit and unlit lamps. In this instance the sensuousness overlaps the inherent conceptual binary of ignorance and knowledge, indirectly gesturing towards the duality perceived in this world. Advaita offers a response to this question, which inherently resides in maya or the illusion of the world. The perception of duality is attributed to ignorance which causes the unity of Brahman or higher knowledge to be denied, and multiplicity perceived instead. To achieve a higher state of mind, one has to journey through life's experiences and make a transition. Creating a correspondence with his technique, Ramesh employs tenebrism or intense contrasts of tonal values of light and shadow in painting the lamps, which enhances the works' conceptual valency. Another "Untitled" painting (2012) inscribed "He verily is the richest man in the world who has no desires" is a simple, straightforward representation depicting a mendicant/Ramana in a landscape inching towards a path that leads to a mountain--a metaphor of the higher "self". The artist shows spatial depth, which provokes questions of material and perceptual seeing but paradoxically conflates the idea of a journey from the realm of the profane to that of the sacred. The technique of stippling in the representation of the road and the mountain is suggestive of the desires and greed that one has to overcome, rendered against a fuschia-pink mottled background. The written text initially is not perceived but as the viewer gets drawn into the work she/he reads the philosophical message, which suggests the idea of "richness" as either material wealth or spiritual experiences. In the painting "Remembering Lalla Moj" (2011) the viewer intent on reading the text may tire, but the craft of Ramesh's art makes this work subtly sublime through the juxtaposition of the verbal and the visual. The visual is limited to two knotted pieces of cloth and a vessel filled with stones and grain, two important signifiers in the life of Lalla Moj.

Ramesh's pervasive pursuit through his paintings to visualize the philosophies of Advaita and Bhakti mark an eloquent testimony of his arbitration with the mystics through appropriate narratives. His oeuvre assimilates various strands of culture (interest in Carnatic music and in philosophy), aesthetics (realism and quasi-abstraction), psychological forces (perceptions and experiences) and social realities (materialism and consumerism), adding to the rich complexity of his works. Contextualized within his culture, the concepts are not bounded but open, to be interpreted as the viewer desires. In this connection, French philosopher Jacques Derrida referenced the phenomenon of multiple interpretations when he suggested that the meaning did not reside in the art work, but in the reading of it. Hence the art work was "read" within different contexts, each offering new meanings. The "viewer" as a matter of fact was invited to become an equal partner in the meaning-making process. Thus "viewers" of Ramesh's works bring their own life experience and contextual interpretations. The author's voice is not lost or silent in the paintings; but artist and viewer combine in a collaborative effort to interpret and explore the works in order to better understand the presence of the sublime and its spiritual underpinnings.

Ramesh's oeuvre of the last decade has been centred on spirituality. In collapsing his personal experiences with his prolific reading of philosophy he has created a unique and poignant body of works replete with devotion, reverence, memory and transcendence. Ramesh embodies the notion of a contemporary artist working with spirituality and making a significant impact on the landscape of the art world with extraordinary vision and rare brilliance. He allows the viewer to journey along with him, to become physically and spiritually immersed in intuitive and persuasive encounters with amazing images and painting techniques. Within the serenity inherent in Ramesh's momentous works, the viewer grapples with the gratification of effort, between pleasure and pain, joy and anxiety, exaltation and depression; and wrestles with the broader concepts of reverence, devotion, the sublime and the spiritual that his art demonstrates. His works therefore provoke and evoke an experience of the sublime that is complex. The power of his painting lies in the evocative enigmatic field of representation urging the viewer to dialogue with it. Through the sublime feelings thus evoked, Ramesh uses his art to communicate his deepest thoughts, aspirations, emotions, sentiments and epiphanies.

Caption: V. Ramesh with one of his works.

Caption: 1 "Karaikal Amma", 2012. Oil on canvas, 244 x 168 cm.

Caption: 2 "Untitled", 2012. Oil on canvas, 213.5 x 152.5 cm

Caption: 3 "Be Still", 2005. Oil on canvas, 122 x 244 cm.

Caption: 4 "Keeping Faith", 2011. Oil on canvas, 305 x 244 cm.

Caption: 5 "Untitled", 2012. Oil on canvas, 213.5 x 152-5 cm.

Caption: 6 "Remembering Lalla Moj", 2011. Oil on canvas, 244 x 183 cm.

Caption: 7 "The Poet's Passion", 2013. Oil on canvas, 122 x 91.5 cm.

All images courtesy Threshold Art Gallery, New Delhi.


Blocker, Gene H. and Jennifer M. Jeffers, Contextualizing Aesthetics: From Plato to Lyotard, Washington: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999. mary-of-advaita-vedanta.pdf.


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Title Annotation:PROFILES; Vedhanbatla Ramesh
Author:Bhagat, Ashrafi S.
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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