Other than making note of the spherical shape in the centre of the picture and all the shades of brown thrown into it, it will be futile to try and describe the large painting Vincent Kanjiramkulam has perched among his smaller works inside his gallery in Thiruvananthapuram. But it is a painting that bears history of the artist’s life, created before the summer of 1994 when a disease took him away from his art for 20 years, and revisited in 2014 when he was back on his feet. It is called ‘Life Cycle’, Vincent says on a January evening, days after an exhibition of his paintings was held at the Lalithakala Academy.
Outside Anandakala Kendram, the gallery which also doubles as a centre for learning, is a beautiful porch lined with scores of potted plants, trees, and creepers, with benches in the midst. Maniyan, one of the stray cats Vincent has taken in, strolls back and forth eyeing the plate of snacks on the teapoy. “Kids coming here for vacation classes have spoiled him like crazy,” Vincent says, laughing. His fondness for the wild life, for plants and animals and everything touched by nature, pops into his words and action, as in his paintings.
There is a world of difference between Vincent’s artworks post 2014 and the ones he left behind in ‘94. He was then about 31 years old, married for just a few years, painting and writing poetry and running Anandakala Kendram for four years. “I began to get chest pains often and consulted a doctor for it. It was wrongly diagnosed as a heart attack and I was treated for it, when it was in fact an attack of the gastroenteritis. All my time fell between hospital visits and home. I got really ill, lost 20 kgs and was reduced to bones. I got typhoid multiple times. My mental health deteriorated. It was like I was in a coma,” Vincent says.
Vimala, his wife, took over the running of his art centre, began a small business selling flowers of the plants they grew, and looked after Vincent. He would not be alive now if it was not for her, Vincent says. He adds that trying Ayurveda finally worked for him, and helped in his revival.
In his second innings – he says he ‘died’ many times in between – Vincent painted furiously, in a mad rush. All of his works reflect the revulsion he felt towards the human race, the species that he calls the most cruel on earth. “They are killing each other, they are destroying nature, destroying everything,” Vincent says. His paintings would turn red to portray the blood that fell, or the colour of fire that destroyed farms and mountains and nature itself.
It is difficult for Vincent to not turn philosophical when he talks about art. Back in his 20s, when he was a young man pursuing arts, he had gone in search of truth, beauty and virtue, he says. His paintings of those more innocent years still hang in corners of the gallery, immune to the changing times. Oil paintings, many of them, strike semblance to the real life figures and objects he saw — humans too among them. “But all that quest for truth and beauty, reading up about it, understanding the philosophy, took a toll on my mental health. After finishing my degree in Fine Arts, I came home and did not go out for a month,” he says.
Vincent had grown up at a time when there was no electricity in Kanjiramkulam, a village in Neyyattinkara, on the outskirts of the capital city. He used a single pair of clothes for a whole year.
But he managed to finish school and go to college, to study Malayalam Literature. “I used to write poetry even back then,” he says by way of explanation. He wrote his first poetry book Yathrakaran (traveller) in 1985. But then he would scoot from the University College where he studied Literature, to the Fine Arts College a little way away, and spend a lot of time there. After graduation, he did take admission to do Bachelor of Fine Arts, and got tutored by the likes of Kanhayi Kunjiraman and Kattoor Narayana Pillai.
When he opened the art centre in 1990, it became a space for artists and actors and writers to gather. Vincent still keeps sculptures created during workshops in the 90s in his gallery.
In 2014, when he ‘came back’ to life, friends urged him to do his Masters in Fine Arts, and found places where there was no age limit. By 2020, Vincent finished his PG. “Kanhayi sir was a huge help in these times,” he says.
Ten years after ‘waking up’ again like the fictional Rip Van Winkle, Vincent keeps himself busy, exhibiting his works, painting everyday, conducting workshops for little kids – whose drawings are religiously pasted on the outer walls of the art centre – and writing books too. His last book is another poetry collection, titled Rahasyam + Parasyam = Satyam.