Skip to content



Monsoon Magic by Shaleena Koruth for The Hindu

Monsoon Magic / Rain Painter



Sensory and tactile: “Kerala Altered Reflections”

KERALA’S oldest memory — the monsoon — is also George Oommen’s. In his landscapes, the rain falls in all colours. The insane wetness, glistening mornings, and rivers, now stunned, now set in motion, but always receiving Kerala’s quintessential light — this is the stuff of Oommen’s art. As unprecedented prices and ongoing media attention award Indian contemporary art a place to reckon with in the international scene, Oommen is a visual ambassador for Kerala, with his “extravagantly charged vitality reminiscent of the sensual worlds of Henri Matisse”, according to Dominique Nahas, critic for “Art in America”. His most recent exhibitions, held in September and October 2005 were in Boston, Massachusetts.

Sensory awakening

Looking at one of Oommen’s pieces, one is aware of a sensory awakening. In “Kerala Altered Reflections” (2002, acrylic on canvas) hoary thickets of rain-deluged palms intensify at the canvas’s centre; the monsoon weaves both sky and land into a luminous wash that drizzles tropical yellows, blues and greens into murky, many-layered water. The suggestion of torrential rain places you feet first in the squelching palm grove. This tactile dimension of Oommen’s landscapes is most striking. Most of the inspiration for Oommen’s landscapes comes from Mankotta, a secluded resort in Haripad that he visits regularly in the winters. Not given to much emotional display, Oommen lit up as he discussed his plans for the future: a visit in summer to pursue the harvest’s radiant yellows. “Kerala”, a painting by British artist Sir Howard Hodgkin, has haunted and challenged Oommen since he first saw it in New York in the early 1990s. It uses a shade of yellow that Oommen calls `spectacular’. Oommen refuses to identify with an artistic movement or even define his style, which is largely abstract. His works are expressionistic in their nostalgia for Kerala and a heightened spiritual awareness; they are impressionistic in their fidelity to colour and light as it might appear on a rippling sari or river. The difference does not matter, because he paints to reawaken the feeling the image brought when he first saw it. Once the feeling returns, the painting, or series, is over. At Mankotta, Oommen immerses himself in the visual and physical details of Kerala. Often waking as early as 4.00 a.m., Oommen records the unfolding of a typical day with photographs, sketches and his mind’s eye. The backwaters are quietest and most still at dawn; these are the moments Oommen draws upon. He paints though only in Boston, painting only if his remembrance justifies creation. “If it (the feeling) is lost, it’s not worth painting”, he says. As if the lush nostalgia on his canvases is not testament enough to his affection for Kerala, Oommen’s recollections — even his earliest — are. With unmistakable fondness, he recounts learning to draw Malayalam letters in the sand at the village school in Mepral, his hometown. A favorite of Oommen’s pieces is a three-paneled landscape “Mankotta Reflections” (2000, 12 ft x 6 ft, acrylic on canvas). Unlike most of his work, which uses bright, vibrant hues, this is a muted construction of whites, creams, blacks and browns with smatterings of gold. Oommen’s intention here was to capture a moment in the water when its reflections were flowing away with it. It started out as an experiment in detail, but was executed on a large scale.

Oommen’s “Kanjeevaram” series, he says, are more universal in appeal, especially in the West. When asked where he finds saris to inspire him, he smiled and showed a scrapbook of sari advertisements he has collected! Here, Oommen is experimenting in colour, texture and technique. “I’m letting it go… I’m learning what colours on top of what colours produce what kind of effect… I’m learning, but there’s a very definitive framework. It’s a border, it’s a sari, it’s got to be silk-like.”


Formative years

Oommen’s years at the Delhi School of Architecture were artistically formative. His aunt, a painter, introduced Oommen to the works of Jamini Roy and Nandalal Bose from Shanti Niketan. Elizabeth Gauba, teacher and founder of Shiv Niketan, a well-known school in Delhi, introduced him to contemporary Western art. Satish Gujral’s yellows, inspired by the colours of Mexico, caught Oommen’s eye and was instrumental in his choice of San Miguel Allende, his future art school. Oommen’s studio in Arlington, a Boston suburb, is a converted garage that opens out into a wild overgrown yard. A wooden stand doubles as an easel and can be adjusted to hold different sized canvases. A narrow gutter runs through the floor of the studio on one side to catch the drips that Oommen’s sprays create. He uses a variety of spray guns with different nozzles to spray colour, turpentine or water on his paintings, depending on whether the medium is oil or water-based. The result is Oommen’s signature drip effect. Paintings hang on all walls, and among them was “Sacred Places 1” (1997, Oil on canvas), a composition in green and yellow with an absorbing, meditative quality.


Sacred Places 1.

In the early 1970s, Oommen saw a series of films by Louise Malle titled “Phantom India”. One featured a young girl in a Hindu temple, performing with an intensity that deeply impressed Oommen. Later visiting a temple, he was struck by the architecture of its inner sanctum. Oommen, who was raised a Christian, found that unlike the floodlit altars in churches, the temple is entered from a larger, well-lit space to a much smaller, dark space where the only source of light is the gleaming idol. “You’re in a space where you completely lose your peripheral vision and you can hear your heartbeat.” This inspired Oommen to create “Sacred Places Within You”, paintings where he literally excavates a bright, saturated spot of colour from a surrounding darkness. A “Sacred Places” painting collapses the viewer’s sense of space, chipping away at it till there is nothing but canvas and the discussion of colour and light within. It demands quiet contemplation before granting an understated grace. After creating more than 60 pieces, Oommen now owns only four or five that he will not part with. It is among his most successful and resonant series. According to Dr. John Bowles, a contemporary art historian from UCLA, “Oommen is creating something that’s a precious, devotional object. There is a lushness … the brushstrokes are active, but not hectic.” As he showed me around, I asked Oommen if he intends to stay with his favourite theme, Mankotta. No, he replied. Always restless, he wants to grow and keep learning. But surely, the Kerala of Oommen’s memory can earn no rebuff in his plans for paintings to come, for the past must certainly be the hinge the future swings upon.

Article Courtesy: The Hindu