R.S. Shankar

S. Ravi Shankar Directors Statement

Ravi Shankar is certainly one of the most talented artists working in South India today. Born in 1960 in Madras and brought up in Triplicane, Shankar admits that he wasn’t naturally drawn to art as a child. There was ‘no burning desire’. His elder brother, Bhavani, meanwhile became a student of their artist-father, C.L. Subramanyam. Ravi was being prepared for engineering though his mind was elsewhere. He remembers fondly the fishermen’s children in the area; the wonder he felt at their adventures at sea. It was the first imaginative door opened by Shankar. Little did he know that these real life/dream life experiences of a human’s personal world would one day be a feature of his art.

Against the wishes of his parents, Shankar Joined the Government College of Arts & Crafts in Madras. He was drawn to art, the process of creation and self-exploration, and the college offered him a vehicle for this. Under the guidance of Professor R.B. Bhaskaran (now one of the foremost artists in South India), Shankar soon found a personal expression for his printmaking. This artform allowed his experimental nature to blossom and gave him the freedom to move forward in a multitude of directions at the same time. After a well-received Bombay show in 1987, one art critic claimed: ‘It is no exaggeration to say that such experimental force has not been witnessed in any of the graphic shows we have had in the city’. On the back of this success, Shankar and his new wife, artist, Sajitha Shankar, moved into the now world-famous Cholamandal Artist Village in Madras and together set about moving their art forward.

His prints, particularly his etchings, were investigative in a way that his other artistic experiments failed to be. His 1983-4 black and white prints devoted to a dwarf elephant in the Madras Zoological Park and his etchings and serigraphs of the mid-1990s are still remarkably fresh today. It was his scholarship award and subsequent travel to Edinburgh in 1996 that cemented his love for the medium. By the turn of the millennium, it was obvious that Shankar’s talents stood firmly in the field of two-dimensional portrayal of the human condition. What was also emerging was his fascination with human experience and how it is written/shaped into the human face. Inspired by his printmaking, monochromatic expression -or at least a limited palette- was already taking hold of the artist.

In 2004, Shankar enjoyed his most successful solo exhibition to date at the Alliance Francaise Gallery in Chennai. Here he exhibited a new series of works (some watercolour paintings on paper, others acrylic paintings on wood) of different human subjects. Each work was cut to the shape of the subject matter -whether it be a face or a head and torso- almost to draw attention to that that is human without distraction. This series is possibly the closest relation to the drawings in this exhibition. Though more colourful, one could perceive Shankar starting to create his own style of human representation: an isolated focus on man and woman and the internal and external world that shape them; the outline of the represented face becoming a canvas for his/their imaginative projections. One notes the beginnings of today’s complex iconography in these painted faces: birds flying, doors opening, dogs barking, faces emerging and landscapes in the distance.

It was in 2005 that Shankar left the world of colour behind him and set about creating a series of bold, large, black and white pen drawings on paper. The result was an astonishing series of highly skillful, and not to mention, cryptic figurative works that continue today in the fourteen new drawings commissioned for this special exhibition. Each work is testament to an artist that has now found a space within the creative world to exhibit his innate talent. They relate back to the dramatic regales of the sea told by his childhood friends, sharing the same enthusiasm for the real life around him though with a mature nod to the importance of memory, dream, experience and personal interpretation on all ‘real life’ that happens in the world. The intricate pen drawings also relate to his love of printmaking; from a distance, you would be forgiven to think these drawings were engravings or etchings. The more you look at any one area, the more exhaustingly detailed the drawing appears to be. It is no surprise that in the execution of the fourteen works for this exhibition, Ravi suffered a painful wrist injury – the effect of repetitive strain.

One instantly notes the complexity of Shankar’s coda of experiential meaning and symbolism. In ‘Chatting from office cabin’ (2006) the girl’s arm is inscribed with the worker’s clock – an artistic tattoo that becomes symbolic of modern India, referring to the thousands of workers in the technology industry thriving in cities like Bangalore. In ‘I had my heart set on the dark horse with white socks’ (2006), Shankar pits Indian folkloric style against disjointed images of his time in Scotland. The horse’s head has ornamentation reminiscent of Indian jewelry, though its Indian rider wears a kilt. The world is reflected in people’s surfaces. Faces emerge next to the lining of a pocket. Numbers and lettering tell from skin within a patch of muscle. If ever there is a meaning to be gathered, it is that we are all the product of our world. Parallel with this idea, however, is the action within each piece. There is always a verb in process: eating, marriage-fixing, sleeping, driving, playing, riding, dreaming, drinking, chatting – everyone is activated. Thus, just as we are the products of our world so are we the producers within that world – creating the drama of life. As a viewer, we are constantly dared to de-crypt Shankar’s drawings. Characters and their surroundings become vessels for never-ending scrutiny and diagnosis.

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