Interview
In his recently-translated book ‘Sketches’, the nonagenarian artist describes the characters who've touched his life and a long-ago Kerala, in pictures and words.

KM Vasudevan Namboodiri doesn’t take you through his journey from birth to an adult in his seemingly careless autobiography, Sketches.  Better known as just artist Namboodiri, you imagine, he must have sat on a wooden armchair, a hand to his famous white beard, and picked out with a pencil he used for sketching, one random memory after another, from his long nine decades – eight when he wrote the original in Malayalam. One or another of his sketches of figures and places, vague and vivid at the same time, hang in many homes of Kerala or in the pages of Basheer’s novels. The work of an artist who has lived through the decades before independence, after it, the hippie years of Kerala, the Emergency and many more. He turned 94 last September 13, and around then came Gita Krishnankutty’s English translation of his book Rekhakal.

The book is full of sketches, one on every page, accompanied by a few words Namboodiri has added to make his pictures ‘complete’. In an email interview, Namboodiri writes, “It is not the matter with adding words or sketching first. It usually happens in a flow.” You catch multiple sketches of the same person, sitting, standing, face covered in lines, expressive and otherwise, sometimes as a half-drawn figure left in mid-air. You also have the detailed pictures of a long-ago Kerala and the practices in vogue then.

MT Vasudevan Nair, Kerala’s respected writer, has worked with Namboodiri during his Mathrubhumi days, and writes in the Foreword of the book, “These are glimpses that touched an artist’s heart and because of this, its composition is unique. It seems as if words have been transformed into sketches, granting us the ability to create a huge canvas from a few lines. We watch forms take shape from random scratches and turn into characters pulsating with life.”

Order in his random musings

There is no chronological order, MT comments. There is however a certain order when you look for it. Namboodiri may have titled his chapters after the characters and places that are important to him, but you watch him as an observer, his silent musings, his growth as an artist from a child making clay figures to studying at the School of Arts in Madras, and then a newspaper cartoonist and distinguished artist. Either an unintentional biography or else a clever way of telling his story while writing about others. These others, surprisingly, do not include his family members, barring a few lines in passing about ‘Ettan’ who worked as a driver, or Chembai’s presence at his wedding, but without even mentioning the bride’s name.

“I haven’t thought about this question till now. Personally I don’t like to include statements regarding my family in any affairs,” Namboodiri says. So it is mostly friends and men he’s found inspiring, in one way or another – be it Chembai the great musician, KCS Paniker the great artist, a doctor who went to great trouble to treat the village folk, Aravindan the filmmaker and so on. Women are surprisingly absent in this list – even the chapter called Naniyamma is about the title of a pocket cartoon he did for Mathrubhumi.

Namboodiri says, “Behind every successful man there is a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife. I don’t think it’s necessary to mention them to show their worth.” His lines are short, in the book and in the interview. If only the interview could be an exchange of sketches in questions and answers, Namboodiri would have been a happy camper.

Speaking in sketches

It is in chapter 5 that you come across the first reference to his art.

In the days when I used to visit Varikkasserry, I used to make figures out of clay—but not to show them to anyone, I never did. One day, Poonthottam Namboodiri, the artist, found out about them and congratulated me: ‘Your efforts aren’t bad at all!’”

This is the chapter about Kavu Namboodiri, one of the many characters who have, as Nair says, touched the artist’s heart.

I had known him from the time my uncontrolled passion for art had put an end to my studies and I was trying to enrol in drawing classes in Madras, Namboodiri writes in his chapter about Kavu. His own feelings – like “uncontrolled passion for art” – are almost camouflaged among his elaborate descriptions and sketches of others. It is easy to imagine him as a man who practices that in life – make his presence little known except when it comes to his art.

Against untouchability

Even his thoughts about the many social evils such as untouchability and caste differences practiced at the times he has lived in, is hardly written about. Namboodiri mentions social reformers like VT Bhattathiripad who strived to make a difference. It is in his description of Bhattathiripad that you catch a glimpse of Namboodiri’s own thoughts about the subject.

V.T. Bhattathiripad, the well-known social reformer, was for them a person who had betrayed their traditions. Weighed down by the burden of feudalism as they were, it was impossible for them to understand the measure of his greatness.

‘Them’ here is a reference to certain rigidly orthodox Brahmins. In his interview, Namboodiri says, “Untouchability is still a social evil. It is against humanity. I strongly oppose such kind of evil mindset.”

He agrees that it was his ‘natural deliberate decision’ to keep his politics out of the book. Only once you find a mention of the land reforms act being unjust to Chembai, who had amassed the little money he earned to buy land and then lost it after the act came into effect. In the first chapters he also writes and sketches elaborately about Brahmin households and practices. Again as an observer, who grew up visiting these ‘illam’s (ancestral homes of the upper caste Hindus). Nothing more.

‘Music is my strong passion’

In his detailed chapters on accompanying filmmaker Aravindan in his pursuits, you keep wondering about Namboodiri’s tastes in cinema. He likes it obviously, just as he does music. He has even gone for Hindustani lessons once but didn’t continue with it. Namboodiri’s vague but interesting reply to it is, “Still music is my strong passion, sometimes stronger than sketches.”

It has been 16 years since the original book came out in Malayalam. I ask him, alas again in text and not sketches, if there’s something more he’d add now, from these years that passed in between. The man of few words says, “There are many incidents, but everything can’t be included in the book.”