A small, single-storey building on a narrow lane in Madipakkam, Chennai, is almost unremarkable at first sight. Entering through its iron gates and past a small courtyard, we are greeted by P Krishnamoorthy, popular artist and award-winning production designer (art director) - minus his iconic shoulder-length mane.
With his kind eyes and easy smile, he shrugs saying, “The doctors asked me to cut it short.”
Reputed for his paintings and set designs, his contributions to Indian art have been substantial and game-changing. The man before us has designed sets for Hollywood directors like Manoj Night Shyamalan as well as several acclaimed directors in India.
Dressed in traditional veshti and a bright teal kurta, the five-time National Film Award recipient invites us into his house.
Born in the coastal town of Poompuhar in 1943, Krishnamoorthy shares that he began sketching from a very young age.
“When TKS Brothers’ 'Raja Raja Cholan' play came to town, I took one of their brochures and sketched its cover. I remember how a lot of them were surprised to see me do that. It was perhaps in 1959,” he muses.
Krishnamoorthy fondly recalls his uncle, Swetharaniyam, who was a major support to him back then while the others in his family remained largely skeptical of his interests.
“It was only with his encouragement that I took up art after high school. Nobody else in my house was even able to fathom why or how someone could pursue art instead of engineering or science,” he says with a laugh.
It was also during his earliest days that Krishnamoorthy found inspirations from varied art forms that were abundant in Thanjavur. From Pattinathar Utsavams (an action-play temple festival), to music, drama and temple sculptures, Krishnamoorthy absorbed as much as he could from his native town.
“Once in every 15 days there used to be some kind of temple festival and I had a great appetite for dance, drama and music. I did not leave out literature either. I used to love listening to my uncle read out from classics like Silapadhikaram and Shakespeare’s plays even when I was a kid,” shares Krishnamoorthy.
It was during one of his trips to the temple that he met popular Tamil illustrator, PM Sreenivasan (Silpi).
“It was he who introduced me to the idea of sketching temple sculptures. Until then I did not even know it could be done,” he says.
These laborious hours that he spent inside temples, sketching from its many pillars, helped him greatly as an artist. Several of his later paintings have taken the forms that he gathered from these initial experiments.
Krishnamoorthy then made the acquaintance of Kerala artist Madhava Menon who was then a professor of art at the Chidambaram Annamalai University.
“Upon looking at my sketches, he asked me to join the School of Arts in Madras. And with his guidance, I travelled here," he adds.
Krishnamoorthy dwells deeper into the recesses of his memory to recall with great detail his formative years in the city - ‘The golden period of six years’, he calls it.
“When I first came to Madras, being an ardent lover of dance, I joined Kalakshetra. I was perhaps their first male student," he shares.
Generally, a very shy person by nature, Krishnamoorthy found that he could not cope for long amidst so many women. “I came from a very conservative upbringing and it was a very new environment for me. So I had to discontinue six months later,” he adds.
In 1960, Krishnamoorthy joined School of Arts to formally begin his learning. “Ours was the brightest batch. All my classmates went on to excel in one field or the other. We were the most exciting class that perhaps pushed the boundaries in the college,” says Krishnamoorthy.
It was also during this time that he widened his circle in the city. From writers to sculptors to archaeologists, he befriended several intellectuals to further expand his knowledge.
“I spent a great number of hours at the Madras Museum, sketching sculptures. I read archaeological papers that were published by scholars to understand period fashion and elements. I spoke to literary authors to gain a perspective into their world. I lapped up pretty much everything that came my way,” he says animatedly.
Krishnamoorthy attributes his style to that of abstract-figurative art. “It was very novel back then. My forms were inspired from the Indian sculptures and they have a dramatic yet timeless quality to them,” he says.
The call of cinema
He also dabbled in designing sets for theatre plays and dance performances. “I was innately drawn to such things,” he admits. It was through one such experience that he got acquainted with many prominent personalities like writers Jayakanthan, Ashokamitran, playwright and actor Girish Karnad, theatre personality BV Karanth, and singer Balamuralikrishna among others.
“Girish Karnad was my fan. He was always very appreciative of my work. In fact he was the first to purchase one of my paintings,” he recalls.
Krishnamoorthy went on to play a major part in the setting up of the Cholamandal Artist Village in the city in 1966 along with KCS Paniker, his principal, and many others. He spent a great deal of time in his early 20s working for the establishment of the village and was its founder secretary for a brief period.
“Eventually I fell out from the organisation. Misunderstandings are bound to happen,” he shrugs.
It was while Krishnamoorthy was hoping to move out from the city that he found an opportunity to be a part of cinema.
“Girish had recommended me to GV Iyer when he was looking for an artist who could help them design a logo for their film," he says.
Krishnamoorthy shares in great detail how he went on to hand-paint 150 invitation cards in just two days with the emblem that he designed.
“The entire team was highly impressed and that was when GV Iyer personally came up to me and said that I was to be his art designer. I was overwhelmed,” says Krishnamoorthy.
Thus Krishnamoorthy entered the Kannada film industry with GV Iyer’s Hamsa Geethe in 1975.
“As a newcomer I experimented a lot in this film. This film for me was filled with a lot of ups and downs. While I faced severe criticism in certain aspects, many also appreciated the kind of effort I put into it,” he says.
He goes on to add how the film faced opposition and says that it took almost three years to be released after filming. “Those three years were the dark days in my life. I couldn't sign any other projects until Hamsa Geethe released,” he recalls.
Hamsa Geethe, a film on the life of 18th century Carnatic musician Bhairavi Venkatasubbaiah received two National Awards post its release. Krishnamoorthy had undertaken intense studies to bring out the themes from 18th century. On his eye for detail, he says, “I collected about 180 paintings to be used in one song sequence. There was also the 150-year-old saree, heavily worked with gold zari, that I found at a zamindar’s palace in interior Karnataka to be used in the film.”
Krishnamoorthy shares an anecdote from the sets - how he had to convince cinematographer Nemai Ghosh, who had his own rigid style, on a different technique that he wanted to try.
“I was an inexperienced youngster and many did not understand what it was that I wanted. But in the end, with a lot of effort, we filmed that scene,” smiles Krishnamoorthy.
The song that he’s referring to is Himadri sute pahimam. The song shows the teacher-disciple clash in singing styles and towards the end has an abstract representation of colours mixing with music. “I wanted to infuse the art forms,” explains Krishnamoorthy.
Krishnamoorthy went on to work with GV Iyer on other films like Adi Shankaracharya (1983), Madvacharya (1986) and Ramanujacharya (1989). His first National Award was for Madhvacharya.
While in 1983, he also did Kann Sivanthaal Mann Sivakkum in Tamil, Krishnamoorthy found more freedom to work in Kannada and Malayalam films. The kind of films that were being made in Tamil were vastly different as well.
Being an artist, Krishnamoorthy did not find language to be a barrier. He has worked in Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, French and English films.
He speaks with great regard on his foray in Malayalam cinema. “I made an acquaintance with director Lenin Rajendran and worked on Swathi Thirunal. Following this I did a number of films in Malayalam,” he shares.
He received Kerala State awards for his work in Swathi Thirunal (1987) and Vaisali (1988). He also bagged two National Awards and one Kerala State Award for MT Vasudevan Nair’s Oru Vadakkan Veerakadha. The film is regarded to be one of the greatest Indian films to be made. His film Perumthachan (1991) with MT Vasudevan was also highly regarded as one of the best films to have been made.
Photographed from a Tamil magazine - Nerkannal
All through his journey, it was not characteristic of Krishnamoorthy to stick to just one thing. While he worked on long schedules for films, he also took to designing theatre and stage backgrounds in addition to directing a few of them. He also shares how he hand-painted sarees for a few years to make ends meet.
Having worked in different languages, Krishnamoorthy’s identity remained a mystery to many.
“With the number of Malayalam films I’ve done, they perhaps thought I was a Malayali. However, invitations from Tamil, my home turf, came very late in life,” he shares.
Following Kann Sivanthaal in 1983, he reentered Tamil with Pasumpon in 1995. His work in National Award winning Film, Mogamul (1995), gave him a break in the industry.
Krishnamoorthy has worked in several Tamil films like Indira, Sangamam, Thenali, Kutty, Pandavar Bhoomi, Azhagi, Bharati, Julie Ganapathi, Imsai Arasan 23rd Pulikesi, Naan Kadavul. He also won two National Awards for his work in Bharati. His last film was in Tamil - Ramanujan that came out in 2014.
Krishnamoorthy has also worked with directors like M Night Shyamalan (Praying with Anger) and Jag Mudhra (Perfumed Garden).
Did he have plans to don the director’s hat?
“Inspired by Sundara Ramaswamy’s novel, Oru Puliyamarathin Kadhai, I sketched out a rough script. Media Dreams came forward to produce the film but somehow things haven't worked out yet,” he says.
Having largely worked in period films, Krishnamoorthy comes from a school of thought that believes in extensive research and multi-disciplinary approach.
“I remember rummaging through people’s attics to find old vessels, clothes and other such items to study a particular a period. Now, however, everything is available online and so I believe people do not “search” anymore - in its truest sense. The right kind of situation to learn more is not available anymore,” he opines.
An avid collector of artifacts, the artist is unfazed when he tells us that he had given his collection to someone who promised to return them but hasn't done so yet. His paintings too are now housed at one of his admirer’s homes in Ashok Nagar, to be safeguarded. As Krishnamoorthy talks about his passion for plays, literature, art, music and cinema interchangeably, it is evident that the artist, even to this day, loves to talk about the art forms more than his own creations.