In his work of mid 1990’s, several tendencies come together. There are quotes from Raman Maharishi and figures that merge with the landscape, as in woman/Landscape and Yellow Landscape (1996). In a 1991 catalogue, in which his main preoccupation was painting lives of fisherman, Ramesh wrote ‘Painting becomes for me an approximationof the visible world - of “life”, creating in the process a new order of realities and contradictions which perhaps would encompass wider meaning and implications”. The compassion that he extended to the poor or the disenfranchised of his earlier work now appears to become an evocation of the kernel of divinity in the quotidian.
Ramesh’s first visit to the Ramana Maharishi ashram in 1998 led to a gradual change in his naturalistic painting. He constructed a series of paintings on acts of self realization, and the nature of dispassionate detachment drawn from the old texts available at the ashram. These works, collectively framed as the exhibition A Thousand and One Desire (New Delhi, 2004) draw on myths that articulate desire and quest, the tapasya of a spiritual enquiry as exemplified by the Ashtavakra, emblematic of atonement for the self and the larger world. A Thousand and One Desires is an important exhibition. Here Ramesh sets himself up as a pictorial narrator, re - envisioning an old story of a Guru/preceptor and his disciple. This is a story that Ramesh had read at Ramana ashram, but which makes numerous artistic references to the Tuti Nama, South Indian sculpture and Buddhist lore.
In the present exhibition Ramesh moves away from the comfort and seduction of myths, its rich painterly and narrative possibilities. To pare down his subject to the saint of Arunachala, Ramesh then goes through the processes of simplifying his language even as he works his painterly style. The saint appears with lines and fissures on his body, that identify him with the cracks, crevices, fissures on the rock surface of Arunachala.
But it also marks the return of draughtsmanship, the replacing of the solid colour masses of his earlier paintings with the line, the essence of Indian art. At the level of metaphor, there is also the puranic precedent, in which the rivers of the holy land of India, its trees and rocks, are identified with the veins and hair of the body of the divinity (see Srimad Devi Bhagavatam). In this way the land becomes sanctified with the presence of the sacral body, and both man and mountain attain a dimension of nonmaterial evanescence.
The landscape as kshetra has numerous states in traditional thought, most particularly in the identifying of sites as the pure and the impure. In the corpus of traditional thought the concept of holy rivers, peethas, mountains and forest groves cohered with the belief in holy kshetra. In his work on Ramana, Ramesh successfully conflates the idea of kshetra with body and body with kshetra. As sites of pleasure, of the self or the other, these become both objective and subjective states. In principle then these become abstract states, of nodualism, of the principle of advaita as expounded by a line of saints from Shankara to Ramana. Apocryphal stories from the life of Shankaracharya for instance reveal that it is Kashi or Srinagar in the foothills of the Himalaya as holy kshetra that his realization of advaita between social hierarchies, or between prakriti and purusha dawns. Shankara’s realization is the well known efflorescence in his text Saundarya - lahiri. The teaching of Ramana Maharishi goes further in identifying all knowledge as a quest on the path of Nan - Yar, or self realization.
By following the body of Raman to cohere with the body of Arunachala Ramesh posits a set of values. The emotive state of our times, of uncertainty and flux is met with the certain stability of the mountain. As a manifestation of challenge Arunachala manifests principle.
Arunachala blocks the view of what lies beyond; its dominant presence completely fills the frame, rising to fill the horizon, gaining in the process an absolute presence.
New Delhi January 2007
The writer is an independent art critic and curator, based in New Delhi.