As a boy, Vasudevan used to secretly make figures out of clay during his visits to Varikkassery, the ancestral home of a big family in his town in Malappuram. It was his first tryst with art that he had showed no one. One day, however, an artist in Varikkassery, Poonthottam Namboodiri, saw his work and commented, “Not bad at all.” Poonthottam might not have guessed that the boy would grow up to become one of Kerala’s most revered artists of all time, that people all over the world would know him as Artist Namboodiri.
KM Vasudevan Namboodiri died early on Friday, July 7. He would have turned 97 in two months. People who knew him and followed his works found it hard to believe that Namboodiri could cease to exist. Lean and healthy, with a dangling white ponytail behind him, Namboodiri seemed very active even in his last years.
To understand the place he had among Malayalees, we need to go back a few decades when doyens of Malayalam literature – Thakazhy, VKN, SK Pottekkatt, MT Vasudevan Nair, and Basheer – created their best works and got Namboodiri to illustrate it for them. Only MT is alive today and it is with his most known work, Randamoozham, that Namboodiri really made a mark. MT took the less-celebrated brother among the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, Bhima, and sculpted him anew in Randamoozham. Namboodiri captured the brighter and more beautiful world of MT’s Bhima and made humane sketches of the women and men in his life. Bhima is not monstrously huge and Hidumbi is no demoness in Namboodiri’s sketches.
In a documentary on Namboodiri called Varayude Kulapathi (Emperor of Lines) by Binuraj Kalapeedam, MT talks of his friend as a talented artist who could bring alive life’s moments and its special expressions. The two had worked together at Mathrubhumi magazine for years.
Filmmaker Akhil Sathyan, who made a documentary about Namboodiri meeting Malayalam superstar Mohanlal, says, “I have heard my father (filmmaker Sathyan Anthikad) say that people would wait for new chapters of Randamoozham, which was then serialised in the Mathrubhumi magazine, both for MT’s writing and Namboodiri’s sketches. MT, it is said, would finish his chapter and give it to Namboodiri to illustrate and then wait eagerly to see how the artist visualised it.” In the documentary, titled Gandharvan – Two Legends and a Painting, the two artistes converse and share stories from the past, and talk about the mythical painting ‘Gandharvan’.
On Namboodiri’s passing, Mohanlal wrote a grief-stricken tribute, recalling their friendship and the many paintings of the artist that he owns, especially ‘Soundarya Lahari’, a work that Namboodiri took five years to finish and gift the actor. Even though Namboodiri was not all that keen on working in cinema, he collaborated with a few who were his friends and created exceptional artwork that won awards. The first of these was for legendary director G Aravindan for his very first film Uttarayanam, which brought Namboodiri the Kerala State film award for best art director.
“The Gandharvan in Padmarajan’s last film Njan Gandharvan was also designed by Namboodiri sir,” Akhil observes. Padmarajan was another memorable filmmaker and writer in Malayalam cinema and Gandharvan, a celestial being in mythology, comes alive in the film with a golden headband that glowed like fire in the darkness. Yet another award-winning filmmaker, Dr Biju, paid tribute to Namboodiri, calling it a big recognition for him that the artist had illustrated one of his stories in a magazine when Biju was still a beginner in the field.
Later on TV and in documentaries one could see Namboodiri live in action, drawing fast strokes and seemingly simple lines that formed faces and figures and pretty backgrounds. In a later era, he might have become one of those speed artists who could sketch portraits in seconds.
Namboodiri makes live sketch of Kerala's first CM, EMS
Recalling the great artist’s humility, Akhil says, “Cinematographer KU Mohanan once narrated how when he was a teenager he went to an exhibition in Kannur and saw a crowd swarming a man. It was artist Namboodiri, who had fans like a superstar in those days. Regardless of the crowd, when Mohanan asked him how to create an art form with brass, Namboodiri sir straightaway went and showed it to him. He was that simple, and unbelievably humble.”
He seemed to be a man of minimal words too. In October 2019, when TNM interviewed him on the release of the English translation of his memoirs Rekhakal (Sketches), he said he didn’t include much about his family because he didn’t want to. Even though he kept his musings to himself, he made clear his views against social evils such as untouchability in his memoir.
But in his short notes alongside long and wide sketches about the people and places of his younger years, Namboodiri left out the women in his life. “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,” Namboodiri had said then.
The only woman’s name in the book was Naniyamma, but that was the title of a pocket cartoon series he did for Mathrubhumi.
Before his Mathrubhumi days he did a stint at the Cholamandal Artists’ Village in Madras (now Chennai). He had first taken off to Madras in the 1950s to study at the School of Arts there because of his “uncontrolled passion for art”. He associated with many great men of the time, including KCS Panicker, who founded the Cholamandal commune, and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, the prominent Carnatic musician.
Namboodiri also used to teach at the Kerala Kalapdeedam, says Kaladharan, artist and founder of the Nanappa Art Gallery in Kochi. “He played a role in building a gallery at the Durbar Hall ground in Kochi and it was during his time as chairman of the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi that the academy built its own office in Thrissur,” Kaladharan adds.
Artists of all ages have looked up to this nonagenarian who created so much in so many different areas – painting, sculpting, and illustrations – and had absolutely no airs about him. “I grew up reading Malayalam text books that had his illustrations, and as a child, I would draw over them. The first time I met him, during the PK Padmini memorial camp in 2019, I became emotional and cried. He seemed upset by this, but consoled me,” says artist Babitha.
She takes a breath before adding, “What can I say about him, he was a legend in every single way.”