"I cannot even put on an eye liner without going back and forth! And here is Laxma Goud, who doesn't stop creating magic once his ink pen touches paper," laughs Ratna Rao Sekhar. Art critic and an editor with a career spanning four decades, Rao decodes the enigma of one of India's finest contemporary artists through some of his earliest drawings in a new book, titled K Laxma Goud: In Black & White.
Goud, a Padma Shri awardee, is one of Telangana's best known artists and teachers with an oeuvre that is as accommodating as it is challenging, and spread across mediums as diverse as watercolour, ink, terracotta, ceramic, batik and even jewellery and textiles. One of India's finest printmakers, the 80-year-old artist is known as much for his line and form, as for his mercurial temper and prodigious output.
The book has some of the earliest pen and ink drawings of Goud, right from 1966 and includes those that he has done in this decade, and they number well over a carefully chosen 100 odd works. Done in small format (something at which the artist excels), the book also has essays by some of the most prominent names in the Indian art world, like (the late) KG Subramanyan and Jagdish Mittal.
Rao, who worked through the pandemic, has completed it in a little over five months, which was aided, of course, by not only her familiarity with the artist's work but a friendship with him over the years.
The journey of an artist
Rao shares that over the years she has had many conversations with Goud on their respective bodies of work " her writing (he had always told her to be fearless and not worry about what others think) and his painting (where he clearly has been fearless); they spoke about his travels around the world, his observations, and his long-standing admiration for Pablo Picasso.
"I had wanted to document our conversations in a book but that did not materialise. When the pandemic came and brought life as we know it to a standstill, it seemed I had gotten my wish." she recalls and adds " "When his son-in-law Kapil asked me if I could assist in compiling Laxma's early ink drawings in a book, I accepted with alacrity as I thought it was a vindication of his trust in my capabilities to be given a ringside view of his life and work."
Artist Laxma Goud at work
Goud's black and white drawings in pen and pencil have been stashed away in folders and have rarely been seen by people outside his immediate family and few friends. Rao, who is not a trained art historian, says she reacted to the works instinctively, having followed them over the years.
And it is this very instinct that speaks to the reader. The works selected show the entire range of Laxma Goud's celebrated mastery over drawings. These are not idyllic vignettes of rural life but stark reminders of the differences, the sexual politics and identity issues of one of the most backward areas of the country (Nizampur in Telangana), where the artist hails from.
Rao chose works which appealed to her eye and recorded some of the best drawings that show his growth. This includes a rare drawing from his Baroda days where his mentor KG Subramanyan is seen drawing in his notebook. For the rest, the book showcases men and women (the men in their gongadis and the women in their ear and nose ornaments and saris) and alternately, in unabashed act of sexuality.
The sexual identity at the core of the book
What shaped Goud's works is the mentorship of his great teacher, Mani da, or KG Subramanyan, in Shantiniketan, and his exposure to the vast art collection of Jagdish Mittal in Hyderabad.
After seeing Goud's inclination towards drawings, Subramanyan had told him there was no diktat saying that drawing could not be art, and pointed towards the works of Paul Klee. Goud explains in the book: "It was my teacher, Mani da, who had given me the confidence that drawing too could be art. I painted too, but he liked my drawings better. I told him I'm more comfortable with drawings than colour. So, he asked me, who said you have to be a colourist to be an artist?"
Subramanyan in fact told him not to look to the West for inspiration but cast his eye on the things he was familiar with, like his own village and its people. Goud returned to Hyderabad and dug into the well of his consciousness and found inspiration in the parched earth of Nizampur. This still inspires him, and he continues to draw the men and women he saw in his childhood ceaselessly even today, even if it's in colour now.
The results of this churn are his early drawings, a naked description of Telangana in all its poverty and starkness. Rao states, "The fact that he created such powerful images with just an ink pen, using discarded bits of mounts of different sizes, is in itself significant. They transcend their relevance to a particular region and reflect the universal anguish that dispossessed people are facing everywhere now, doubly grim because of the pandemic."
Rao adds that much like Picasso's work 'Guernica', that became a symbol of the devastation caused by war, his ink drawings could be a symbol of the people suffering in a capitalist society. Sexuality, apart from suffering, is another major theme in his works.
Sex, seduction, and the act of copulation are described without any filters in some images, where men are portrayed as animals who gaze at women with unbridled lust.
The element of shringara is not used for shock value; it is, in fact, located at the very core of his work. They also show his innate ability to transcend traditional rules: the use of space, the extending of a drawing beyond a classical rectangle and the shifting of subjects to the left, all bearing testimony of his genius. The artist's depiction of sex as a primal need shows his conviction in showcasing what he believes in.
In a foreword written for The Guild Art Gallery, Mumbai in 2003 " which has been reproduced in the book " the late KG Subramanyan notes that Goud injects into each work a kind of earthy eroticism. He explains it by saying: "His landscapes teem with trees that are luxuriously tumescent; his animals are randy; his buildings seem decked up to be sites of erotic encounters. Even in his innocuous female groups, the individual figures are uninhibited and physically challenging."
The artist reaches out to his well of consciousness and extracts glimpses from his early life. From a shepherdess stringing wool to the sights and sounds of the milieu he grew up in. There is also a powerful, raw energy, an anger even in his work which stems from the early years of his struggle when galleries rejected his works and he had few buyers for his drawings, Rao who spoke to him extensively, says.
These sexually laden works were powerful and compelling, but they were not something that you could decorate your walls with at that time (or now). "They said only paintings were art, that these (drawings) were not art. Even now I think of myself not as a painter or a colourist, but as an artist," says Goud in his conversation.
While others would have been balked at the challenges, Goud, who walked from gallery to gallery with portfolios of his works, asks " how can you be an artist without having undergone hardships?
The legacy of Laxma Goud
A virtuoso, Goud's legacy lies in his desire for perfection. As a teacher at SN School of Arts and Communication, where he was appointed as the first head of the department of fine arts, he inspired generations of students; and every contemporary artist of note in Telangana today speaks of the profound influence Goud has had on them.
From the way he sits at his desk and works, to his fastidiousness (he frames his own works for clients), his rich output (even letters to friends were full of sketches) or even his work ethic (neither the pandemic nor age has deterred him), everything is centred around his work.
Rao, who plays Gertrude Stein to Goud's Picasso through the book, says that the artist's conviction in his beliefs have been instrumental in his success. She notes: "This very book could have been done by a gallery, but he refused to refine his judgement to suit another's aesthetics. All his life, he has lived by his own rules. He even went to Europe to meet his idol Picasso, at a time he could ill afford, but then once he sets his mind on something it is difficult to stop him."
This book is a compendium of early Laxma Goud, and the work of a multifaceted genius. They allow rare access into the artist's mind in the process, igniting the imagination of people " from students to art connoisseurs. They also prove that art is universal; that issues of sexuality and suffering of a small village in Telangana can become artistic fodder in the right hands, much like Renior's paintings from the Renaissance era.
For Rao, this has been a journey into the artist's mind and she says, "Laxma's hand is always on the move as his mind that is ever agile. It has been an enriching journey to understand the mind of a great artist who believes that aesthetics is to be found everywhere. He would appreciate any beautiful jewellery I wore much as he would appreciate the skill of a weaver in an ikat sari. Like Subramanyan, he believed art was all around us."
All images courtesy of Kapilesh Dundigalla