Looking back at a high-five 

Kattoor Narayana Pillai who was a former principal of the College of Fine Arts in Thiruvananthapuram, emerged as one of the postmodern artists who is looked up to in art circles.
Artworks of  Katoor Narayana Pillai. (Photo |B P Deepu)
Artworks of Katoor Narayana Pillai. (Photo |B P Deepu)

KOCHI:  Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, as stated by the ‘anonymous’ British graffiti artist Banksy. This sentiment resonates with the creations of Kattoor Narayana Pillai, former chairman of the Lalithakala Akademi, who has completed five decades in the world of arts. 

The passage of time has etched wrinkles on Kattoor’s hands and added a silver hue to his hair. Yet, his vibrant and meticulously detailed canvases spiritedly convey relevant subjects such as ecology, man-animal conflicts, social issues, and more. 

Over the span of his 50-year artistic exploration, Kattoor, who was a former principal of the College of Fine Arts in Thiruvananthapuram, emerged as one of the postmodern artists who is looked up to in art circles. Notably, he never got bound by a school of art throughout his journey. And he credits the influence of K C S Panicker for his approach. 

“I never followed a particular style; rather, I explored and curated my own canvases,” says Kattoor. “I think those experiments churned out the artist in me. I learned and worked on various mediums and styles that excited me over the course of time. Looking back, I am content, having been able to travel step by step with the artistic changes that happened around me.” 

Kattoor has “experimented” with several mediums like linocut drawings, painting collages, etching, pen drawing, charcoal, watercolours, calligraphy, and portrait drawings. And he keeps exploring realism, surrealism, abstraction, and drawing. 

“I started off in the early ’70s, and, back then, oil paint and watercolour dominated serious art. Acrylic became popular in the ’90s,” he says. “Sometimes, unintendedly occurring images and elements add depth to my works.

For the past six years, I have been revisiting my own paintings and studying them in detail. I formulate extended versions of specific art elements and shades in my work to generate new ideas. That said, one of my subjects was geometrical patterns and figurines that were visible in my mixed media works 10 years ago. My love for Malayalam, which has pictorial beauty, also made me delve into calligraphy. My last major work was done in 2022, where I used mixed mediums and collage.”

Beyond their aesthetic charm, Kattoor’s works captivate viewers through diverse textures and intricate patterns. This is evident in the 80-odd paintings he has produced over the past decade. In a deliberate departure from conventional norms, Kattoor leaves his works untitled, urging viewers to experience the art without the “influence of labels”. Some of his post-Covid paintings, echoing themes of nature, convey the profound impact of human activity. For instance, a rectangular canvas resembling wet and dry paddy fields symbolises agrarian abundance marred by human encroachment. 

“I used packing paper for the texture. I dipped the roller into acrylic colours and rolled it over the paper. It is a collage, as the canvas depicts various textures similar to a real paddy field in Kuttanad, which is dry and wet at the same time,” he explains. “We humans are social beings. I am more into nature and ecosystems, and my paintings primarily reflect such themes.” 

Another notable artwork portrays an ecosystem cycle involving animals, insects, and humans against a vibrant green backdrop. Drawing inspiration from the ‘Lakshmana Upadesam’ in the Ramayana, Kattoor conveys the notion that life is brief and revolves around recognising humane elements, rather than succumbing to complexity.  An acrylic canvas from 2012 portrays a group of birds and rats facing each other on a tarred road, highlighting the encroachment of modern civilisation into natural habitats, and the plight of animals in search of refuge and sustenance.

Notably, Kattoor has organised various national and international art camps and exhibitions as well, offering insightful reflections on the evolution and relevance of art in society. “Among the public, just like how transformation occurred in stories, theatre, and poetry, art also has undergone changes,” he says. “The artists of today are creative, hardworking, and committed.

But among the common man, paintings and artists are often not recognised for their beauty or importance. It’s rare to see a painting or creative photograph on our house walls; it’s mostly locked inside mobile devices. So art appreciation looking at walls like in old times has come down,” he says.  

Kattoor, however, is upbeat about art education and propagation in Kerala. “Compared to other art institutions across the country, I believe effective academic art is being taught in a greater medium and approach here,” he says.

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