It is every critic’s desire to stumble upon the unseen and call it his discovery. For an art critic this moment could be studying Padma Shri Dr Siramdasu Venkata Rama Rao’s work. Born in 1936 in Gudivada, Andhra Pradesh, Rama Rao was always inclined to his creative side. Add to this — his thirst for more knowledge.
“Sometime ago, The Illustrated Weekly used to publish a double-spread coloured photograph of local artists and I was extremely inspired by it,” says Rao. Determined to be an artist, he studied under a local teacher K Venugopal. “I then studied under the noted traditional artist K Srinivasulu at Kalakshetra, Chennai. It was the progressive art director Madhavapeddi Gokhale, who convinced my father, a woodcarver-turned-builder, of my talent and paved way for my admission at the Madras School of Arts and Crafts, Chennai,” says Rao.
His journey started when he met KCS Panicker and began working in oil. He amalgamated folk art training and modern expressionism and till date uses the same flow of colours in his non-figurative work. In 1962, after becoming a Commonwealth Fellow, Rao shifted to the UK and for his career there was no looking back.
“I had two years in my fellowship and I was determined to take something back from the West. I looked at Picasso’s work for inspiration and knew his work was inspired by artists from Africa and masks that later helped him invent Cubism. I gave myself a year and half to work and six months to test these new skills,” says Rao.
In the time he had allotted himself, Rama Rao wanted to challenge Western artists in their own form. He invented a new form of painting. Unlike other artists, he painted directly on boards and used oil paints to give the illusion of a water colour painting.
He also painted on large canvas. He explains, “I treat oil with the same see-through translucence I had learnt from wash-painting techniques at the Madras School of Art. This way, I can evolve a certain element of three-dimensionality in two-dimensional space.”
“Sir William Coldstream, the then principal of the prestigious SLADE School of Arts, London, saw my work and asked how I sourced such a huge canvas. When he looked closely, he inquired if I had used water colours on board. I told him, he was looking at an oil painted board,” says Rao, also a published author and poet.
He soon shifted base to the US, where he later settled down in Chicago and taught as an art teacher. Rao’s list of awards and exhibition are a mark of his unparallel talent. His lithographs were bought by eminent art historian Sir Herbert Read, the Tate Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. He exhibited with leading artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Georges Bracque, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Jackson Pollock. For his contributions to the field of art, Rao was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2001.
Now back to India after almost 41 years, he plans to exhibit his work in Delhi.