Surendran Nair:

On a Winged Being 

Kavitha Balakrishnan


The continuous streams of collective imagination, swiftly associated with the frameworks of religion, morals and an essential sense of nation, project some integral parts of speech, vision and body. Understood as ‘faith’, ‘devotion’, and ‘spirituality’, these streams are handed over as objects materials fables rituals and related everyday practices. The presence though tentative, of such expressions in the public domain always generated debates. Sections of modernist societies look at the increase of religious evocations in public domain as a possible threat to ideologically secular harmony of the state[1] in the context of some others inflating them for the making of racial/caste-wise majoritarian regimes where human body and its self-image will be politically sorted surveyed administered and manipulated for its link with an ‘imaginative present’ that can so efficiently twist the ‘banal’ into sacred and beautiful. So much so that these integral parts of speech protrude only absurdly in modernity’s any skin-saving game. Sometimes they appear as an extra organ on the palm. They open the pores of the body with windows swords and eggs. Resultant pathological body-images then speak by ‘the self’ of large part of the world that uses elements of ‘unhistoricized past’ as ‘life-defining’[2].

Now what matters in the art world is: Can exclusive habits of the art world contain such a ‘self’ for some entirely different reasons, while our supposedly more political public domains take this ‘self’ more categorically as a ‘communal’ one and debate around threats caused by it? This discussion demands much larger space than this column. But for the moment, I think certain ‘contain’ of individualism in the discourse of art is perhaps crucial in the making of an artist like Surendran Nair in Indian art scene over the last two decades. One is wonder-struck when this contemporary painter’s parts of  speech of life is almost similar act in consciousness as that exerted by spirited (though regarded simply ‘ancient’) practices of piercing, shedding, devoting, dancing, decorating, mesmerising, mounting, sacrificing, bleeding, heating and wetting in exuberance, all that one oh-so-struggled to hide to become ‘modern’!

However, there is hardly any pure space for the continuous traditions of ‘body-do’ and speech that exist today. Extant is a censoring and falsely ideating regime for political negotiations of communally homogenising identities that regard certain ‘continuous imaginations’ as too sacred and community-specific to be employed in personal creative schemes. In this state of affairs, an artist like Surendran Nair came in with colour-rich and calculated dream-dialogues projecting a meta-critic of the ‘communal subject’s continuous strategies of self-authorising through cosmic forms. Nair’s iconic spectres catch the ‘cosmic man’, but in syndrome. It is also a difficult ‘trickster act’ that breaks in, just as unconscious does, to trip up the rational situation[3]. In a way, Nair’s is a (dis) continuous game of rationalisation[4].

What are the particular cues one can possibly pick up to trace his twist of ‘cosmic male’ into something of a prolific folk-dreamer who can at once script the comical, highlight ironic destinies of his societies, cultures and people? How could one kill ‘too much of supernatural powers’ endowed in one’s life, still retain the realm of senses?
This artist is apparently a carrier of variegated collective dreams of ‘East’ and ‘West’, ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, well encrypted with manipulators of those dreams, the political realities of homogenizing all individual imaginative variants, the bad behaviour of singularities as the artist titles one body of his work. Over the years he has made no random attempts, but concerted effort to live the life of an artist brooding over the alterity of his ‘modern’ ego. One can better punctuate it than interpret it. So ‘Up Close Personal’ this time attempts to weave some alluding collective contexts of this ‘winged’ artist.

Writing and picturing ‘self’ in animals

Standing erect, the man, but a bird, rather a Swan?or the Man? Visible part of a man is erect by torso. Lower abdomen is a stand-still swan, perhaps a ‘crane-being’ for its pretty long limb? Uh, naming of these elements seems immaterial. That creature is scooping in the blue cloudlets, air in which man erects, but the soil coloured beak of the swan…what a pride of existence! The swan’s ‘only leg’ is in a dark red lotus…but the leg is so tall…as if it is an extended pillar, but something of a ‘stick’ too. The slender stick….but look down, it comes from a pillar post of a deserted city…with slender cypress in rows and viridian meadows in squares… so much in order… and those little tomb houses …. the saffron alleys and pathways…the clouds rip apart..into soft little bundles”
I am referring to the painting; ‘Vertigo, The Bad Behaviour of Singularities’  Cuckoonebulopolis series. 2004-05. My effort perhaps slips into something like a script written after an abrupt pictorial enactment. Or is it that the painting in reference at once looks like a flat endorsement of some previous and familiar scripts? The painting brings to mind those imperial pillars in designed city plans and the capital. What about this ruminating ‘swan-self’ erect over symbolic lotus? Reading the painting does not necessarily yield a simple script of composite existence (as it is in a therianthropomorphic image). Here is actually a twisting drama of ‘self’ and ‘animal’ that consciously re-locates presupposed metonymic harmonies in the memory of civilisations, often enforced as ‘historical’. Here self is plea for clarity and culture while ‘animal’ is a plea for mystery and loss of culture. National and religious symbols are reallocated into the drama of a ‘painter-man’ scripting in person some collective metaphors. Notably, this happens in the pretext of the exclusivist notions of religious fundamentalism in India taking greater strides in 1990s, demarcating a majority-religion with uninterrupted lineage from the time of Vedas. Interestingly, reappearance of therianthropomorphic gods (like Ganesha for example) into the Brahmanical pantheon (of gods who had once shed their original animal bodies and assumed permanent human forms) interfaces with the reversal of progressive thought[5]. Surendran Nair’s projection of apparently therianthropomorphic iconography too fell upon a reverse situation of Indian history.

On a general note, one can see that animals existed in man’s creative punches as politically encoded fables and sculptural reliefs and paintings. ‘Perhaps every eagle and swan and bat may be the man and woman and bird and word of all men and women and birds and writing”[6]. Decoding them, never allowed for any one-to-one corresponding knowledge of it, rather it made a feeling of enormity at disparate instances cutting the codes across. A painting that writes parts of animals/objects onto human parts may tempt us for ‘reading’ it with some familiar symbolism but any reading by all means has to remain discreet, tentative and open to changes in alignment.

So appropriating animals/objects in a combination attitude, artist’s ‘man-self’ on one hand hints at a political contingency and on the other hand it harnesses possibilities of roving readings / viewings to push the meaning of an indexical subjectivity of the ‘ordinary’ into a scheme of the netherworld.

Genes of the morals and ‘the morale’

Folk conscience often employed animals to convey human meanings. Animality, understood differently in different periods, is a state of deraison, and turbulent emotion and it is there in the genealogy of morals.[7] As Nietzsche puts it, the situation that faced sea-animals when they were compelled to become land animals or perish was the same as that which faced by semi-animals, well adapted to wilderness, to war, to prowling, to adventure: suddenly all their instincts were disvalued and suspended. Perhaps that happens with a ‘modern Indian man’ and ‘modern Indian artist’, a semi-animal of tradition and modernity.

Somewhere in the beginning of 90s some Indian artists had started feeling something of an ‘existential’ pang like, ‘from now on, this creed has to walk on its feet and bear itself whereas hitherto it had been borne by the outsider waters; be it ‘Western’, ‘Eurocentric’ or whatever, a dreadful heaviness lay upon now’. Perhaps this is like that is further weighed upon in this decade, demanding transcendence upon the return of the canons and ‘real capitals’ (heavily realigning the ‘symbolic’ ones) in contemporary art of globalisation wherein Surendran Nair came to enjoy some pride of place. Possibly that is why in Nair’s personal mythology of existence, he problematises Icarus and Narcissus, the western mythic idioms of ‘ego roaring to success’.

Yet, not all who would be are Narcissus.

Many who lean over the water see only a vague human figure. …. but if somebody sees himself everywhere? Even in others he perceives himself, thereby bringing to light their deepest secrets. The disturbing theme of the double, the image, the counterpart, the enemy brother, is found in all his works[8].
Limits to remember – uses of mysteries  

Nair was two years old when he lost his father. He saw father’s dead body from the side. Difference between dead and live body of father seemed beyond the scope of any technique of re-presentation. Yet ‘father’ is a system of (apparently lost and tentative) social nourishment that memories of others could excitingly solicit.

When one listens to Surendran speaking of his elder cousin (a Malayalam teacher) and his friends who were hard-core film buffs indulging in heated arguments, walking long distances through the paddy fields, one is evoked to a rich texture of young men’s real fantasies of a particular location and time, i.e, first generation post-independent youth of a regionalised context of Kerala walking along luxuriously nourishing landscapes, intrigued by self and society in films and literature.

Nair just after his 10th standard, came across a short story ‘Ashwathamavinte Chiri’ by Kakkanadan a modernist Malayalam writer. He was suddenly intrigued at the abstract mystery of the story and its diction. But to keep the mystery intact, he didn’t read it again for long time!

rt in his teenage ambience was another different kind of inaccessibility or mysterious mantle that was for long stuck upon some idea of Ravi Varma. Doing Pre-degree course, he found in the college library, a small book of European Renaissance drawings. He tried to copy two drawings, self-portraits of Leonardo da Vinci and Brueghel. During that time Picasso passes away and an elaborate article comes up in magazines. By 1975 he joins Govt. College of Fine Arts, Trivandrum that had then just started giving degree courses in fine arts. There were disparate attempts to touch upon the experience that can be called ‘art’ and its takes on life. Persons and events at various corners levered into ‘art experience’ of sorts.

Some partially successful attempts to access mystery of art ‘out there’, (an aspect of utopia), in effect projected the limits of representation and reality. Accessing art education in a transitional stage of a regional institution started breaking the ‘out-there’ mysteries of modern art but fatal bureaucratic obstacles only increased desire for access further in a different direction, in the mode of an art-student activism that led hunger strikes and street campaigns through poster making aiming to raise immediate public conscience for art. On a personal level, so long as there is no image of father, Nair went on imagining the progenitor in the poetry of rituals. He performed the annual shraddha, homage ceremony to maintain a connection across worlds with the spirits of one’s ancestors till he was twenty five years old, an almost poetic way he then thought to come to terms with reality through the stylised articulations of mystery and distance, being encoded language working at many intimate levels, weaving the visual, verbal and beautiful object-world that can continuously alter meanings with space and time.

During art-student days, he produced sketchbooks of viscous figures, like a loner day-dreamer. His works looked quite different from those sturdy ‘progressive’ and almost ‘Beckmanian’ yet ‘Malayali’ contemporaries who envisaged themselves as ‘radicals’.

A sense of literality and difficult local preferentiality remained in his sketchbooks. When many of his fellow artists settled on to some lingua-franca of ‘the narrative’ or ‘the modern’ or ‘the expressionistic’ or ‘the abstract’, Nair remained with his fluid references. So it is difficult to approach this artist through any shifting paradigms of Modern Indian art scene. Perhaps he may belong to the unconsolidated generations of ‘romantic fantasy masters’ with a regional upbringing (in childhood and early art-student times. He has been living in a town ambience of Baroda since late 80s too). Speciality of ‘fantasy masters’, be it a temple oracle or a modern painter or a deserted housewife or any such, is that they hardly hide the experience of spirit caste and sexuality for the purposes of an assumed ‘urban subjectivity’ that is generally forced to veer in the puritan, exclusive and existential ‘othering’ paradigms. Say of an ‘avant-garde’ identity in the life of an artist, for that matter.
‘Literariness was a reason for criticism when I was studying. But raised around me were issues altogether different sort of. Though for some time I tried abandoning my ‘literariness’, later I understood that one should resolve one’s issues rather genuinely through the situations. People came and went in my surroundings, all had many kinds of stories to tell.  There was this distant relative who used to come home in my childhood. She used to tell me stories with classical tinge. There was another woman telling stories of animals. Somebody came as security guard for the rice grains harvested from our paddy fields used to tell darker stories. (From a telephonic conversation with this author)

Perhaps in pursuit of genuine interactions faithful to his premises, Surendran remained an interesting ‘Nair’, getting displaced from the ‘feudal’ and also from the ‘modern’. He has been making collective biographic pictures of both these categories with an alternate visionary zeal of an outsider, thereby perhaps making space for a third (largely victimised and misrepresented) political being i.e. the problematic of ‘communal subjectivity’.  Titles to the pictures irresistibly became too lengthy and vivid for them yet remained as crisp as annotative phrases. (ref: his works in the series ‘Doctrine of the forest’ 2007)

For quite some time, he is in the making of a system of the double, the discreet twins, through some sort of ‘third party monologues’.

Cross-bred monologues 

Nair may have arrived at wonderfully flat, delicate and razor-finished language of painting, but more importantly he startled the multiple-oriented art world viewers by evocations of enthnographically scripted subjects. Take for example some of his ‘Actor at Play’ set of works. Self-conscious and imaginary alignment with a masked and witty dance performer primarily acts out pictorial props of threads, links masks, capricious suspensions and light-mounts. They also evoke particular social threads of cultural identification.
Any performance can have a wide range of imaginative alignments, manodharma, so to say. It can even take up an inactive ego for its display[9]. ‘The docile’, the other image of soaring ego, has its own drama. Docile is a dominated yet easily adaptable self that haunts a proverbial state of being[10].
In many ways Surendran Nair’s cross references may remain personal, not-so-specific, folk or proverbial. But unlimited caprice with a range of materials both ancient and modern, like strange flowers, fruits, face-dos, and the drapery does not go unnoticed at all.
There is a willing suspension of cultural/religious meaning on the indulgent pleasures of flat artistic details wherein impossibilities and irreverence rules.

Abominable wings, suspensions and censorable rehearsals

Painting of wings, wild and unfamiliar flowers, threads and ornaments, bananas, jackfruits and nameless other fruits, blood filled warps, scissors, tongue in palms, ripe rice-grains fixed in the hole of anklets of ancient performances, palm without mother figure, suspended water plants, the conceit designs like loin belts, scorpion bags, fish-tail show that one can find in Nair’s oeuvre things that are strange expelled cursed and soared up and hence suspended down.

Wing is mind. It is understood as metaphor for fantasy, the non-existent, hence folly. It is tied up, suspended or held in a flurry. Sufferings of the swan with neck swiftly cast down, is a human condition written by bird. Swan is not an abominable bird, but some of the most glorious ones with huge wings who soar and swoop are so.

Impure animals are forbidden just like women and some of the men for their engagement in impure things[11]. As part of their ‘rehearsals’, they even get atop ‘irreverently’ with full fledged wings, on the pillars signifying law, the state and the monumental ‘tradition’ and hence there harks at once the regimens of censor[12].

But animality is mostly tamed sort of, in these paintings as Surendran Nair’s scriptorial strategy shows. ‘Wildness is a normative as well as descriptive category. It resists conventional mores and it threatens to overwhelm. It is dangerous but from such danger and the struggle against it, can come brilliance, revelation and the breaking in of other powers, power of raging passions, possibility of revelation from sources other than reason’.[13]

Images of impurity suspended, can also speak and mutate in joy and awe. Let me refer to his sketches in the series ‘Labyrinth of eternal delight’ 1996.
An almost parabola done in delicate graphite, an egg, it has perhaps something to do with a sword. Then on, it creates a hovering tension between violence and birth though it is employed as a pictorial element, a tasteful form. It is a constructed space to call forth many species of ideas, of seeing and of speaking. The loudspeaker turns a red-tongued being. The window opens the torso inside out and puts torso in proverbial situations of revelation. The wing-hands of a bird-man alter into a red tongued loudspeaker that becomes a pipe later. And one shift senses into curious fables that inform one’s polity wherein leaders walk in front ideally imagining the best for the followers. But fatal perish is inscribed in the fables that do not leave the viewer.
Thereupon the man drew forth a pipe and piped……brothers, sisters, husbands, wives. Followed the piper for their lives….From street to street he piped advancing…Until they came to the river Weser…Wherein they plunged and perished
Perished wing (of mind-life) is artificially tied. ‘To tie’ is a ritual guided by the thread, be it around the tree or onto the body. To suspend / hang is an act of beauty. It can also put things into a state of vulnerable tension that can be further resorted by absurd clamping, be it the divine performer’s loins that twist the phallus conveniently into a water pot fixed on the hips (Horn OK please Cuckoonebulopolis series 2007)
Shifting locations of (umbilical) cords

Nair pushes the limits of mythic continuum in modernity’s iconic self-imagination. The limits were exerted long back by cultural artefacts of colonial modernity that registered powerful ‘Indian’ faiths in the authority of western science. Science, in the Indian consciousness was actually getting dislodged from its ‘proper’ locations in the laboratory and relocated ‘improperly’ in the signs of faith, like for example, an umbilical cord.[14] When constitution of educated class as modern subject was at stake, a scripting of Hinduism with the sign of science was also largely in response to the attacks on indigenous beliefs and customs mounted by missionaries and colonial officials. There was pursuit to a rational system variously constituting a ‘religion’ called ‘Hindu’ resorting to the ancient (vedic) greatness of thoughts but all the while shaking away textures of feelings poems and perceptions of imaginative life in that system. Further there is this continuous forging game of identity resorting to ancient greatness running through a monotheistic regimen.

air virtually creates a voyeur out of an idea of a cord. From the sacred abdominal or the navel, almost in an erotica, it runs through many images inside out. It turns a thread, an artifice that ties the metaphorical wings. It hangs the fish, rather not so sacred (non-veg.) offerings of ancestor worships that are only secretly woven within modern man’s personal life of faith.
The thread is a travelling image too. It guides one to strange landing of gazes. It oozes like a water drop down into strange receptacles. The flowers fall upside down in a slimy slender and elongated stem.
Surendran Nair twists a sacred part of social speech, the thread running into so many possible personal secret and indulgant projects of an iconic self.
The Penis (in ego) but shrinks into a black hole

Transcendence is a solitary habit, like that of a ‘swan-crane’ being. Though ‘singular behaviour’, it is ingrained with a taste for subjective relationship with others, as in the dilemma of Narcissus. It is inextricably part of utopias and related ethical judgements. It can locate ‘beauty’ in any abominable situation. More than any Indian artist of globalising times, Surendran Nair contested male ego with enormous love and taste. As a gesture of it one can see also that he chose to live with Rekha Rodwittiya, one of the convinced feminists in Indian art since 1980s.     
The demon king with thousand penises (Ravana) in our memory suddenly appears as goddess with light on all those multiplied bodily slits of curse and desire[15]! (Ref; Pernoctation I The wounded Majesty, or the anatomy of Fate. Cuckoonebulopolis 2006) She is often encrypted with his mother-tongue. (ref: For Rekha, Corollary mythologies 1996) But there is of course the man who smells the branches full of white pala flowers over the head of the deer that gives him his beautifully ‘horny’ composure. (Ref: The blooming of Birnam woods. Corollary Mythologies, 2000)

Rethinking tradition

One should note that these hellish suspensions and slit-slang encryptions in Nair’s paintings evoke particular social dynamics of castes and classes that occurs in largely democratising contexts that thoroughly reworks on ‘tradition’ and its agents. Entangled on caste-wise strategies to claim spaces, are the heightened anxieties about the ‘authenticity’ in commoditisation of ritual performances. Yet there is an emphasis on creativity, aesthetic sense and the abilities to shift popular taste and introduce new artistic performances. Filippo &Caroline Oscella observes in their enthnographic work on kuthiyottam,(mock human sacrifice-ritual famous for its songs and scale) discussing relationship between ritual change and out-migration in southern rural Kerala:

‘while low-caste and new moneyed sponsors (of annual ritual performances) do not have either the symbolic or practical capital necessary to conduct ‘traditional’ rituals, their ritual naivete allows for an acceleration of processes of introduction of new styles and innovations. Migrants are thus veritable innovators introducing new aesthetic forms and a novel sense of religiosity[16]’ 
In the way rituals are today sustained and forged as ‘traditional’ practices by upper caste and as semi-professional ‘innovations’ by lower castes (earlier kept-away communities), people run up and down in the caste-ladder-imaginations of privileges in the globalising scenario of large scale migrations and corresponding socio-cultural changes.