Different strokes

22nd April 2017, 03:40 PM IST

The sheer variety of V Dhananjayan’s art testifies to his mastery over form

Art seems to blossom from the nooks and corners of V Dhananjayan’s studio as the air-conditioner does its best to banish the heat from his home in Allithurai, in the suburbs of Tiruchi. Portraits, landscapes, geometric patterns, wildlife and futuristic scenes of space travel are lying around. “These are just a few samples,” says Dhananjayan. “Most of them are locked up in my loft cupboards. The others can be found in big bundles with the printers.”

The sheer volume and variety of the septuagenarian’s work (at least 30,000 paintings by his count) is testimony to his long-standing career as a commercial artist for leading printing houses in Sivakasi. It has seen his illustrations pop up in the most unexpected places: on Hindi text-books in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, for instance. Or on many notebook and science text-book covers and calendars.

“Change of work is rest for me,” says Dhananjayan. He does carpentry and electrical work in his free time, anything to keep his hands busy.

Early years

Born in 1940 as the last of three sons in a family of weavers based in Jayamkondam, Dhananjayan showed an early flair for art. “My father passed away when I was in Class 10, and my mother wanted me to become a weaver. But when she saw that I was serious about becoming an artist, my brothers helped to sponsor my studies. I also used to earn a little through signboard painting,” he says.

Graduating from the famed Government College of Fine Arts in Kumbakonam in 1960, Dhananjayan’s first job, was, as luck would have it, in the weaving industry. “I worked as a textile designer in a mill in Ramanagara, Karnataka for two years. Though it was interesting, and we were among the first companies adapting to powerloom weaving, I had to leave after the design department was shut down,” he says.

His next assignment was as an art teacher in Kallathur–Thandalai Government Higher Secondary School, a post that he held from 1964-99. “I had originally planned to become a full-time artist after training under some of the masters of the day, but life had other plans for me,” says Dhananjayan as he recounts his story. “I didn’t expect to become so attached to my new calling as an art teacher.”

Teaching and learning

Most of his students were first-time learners from rural areas. “I wanted to teach these children all that I knew. I’d also try to interact with them on different subjects if they asked for help,” he says.

Simultaneously, he started accepting art commissions from a leading commercial printer in Sivakasi. “I would do the artwork after my teaching duties were over for the day and over the holidays. Most of it had to be left unsigned, because I was still a government school teacher. But I found it to be a very stimulating and creative experience,” says Dhananjayan.

As the printers slowly started switching over to computer-aided design from hand-drawn art, Dhananjayan realised that he would have to change too. So, in 1990, he invested his savings in an Apple Macintosh computer and trained himself in technical drawing. He also learned to type.

“I justified spending ₹3.5 lakhs on the desktop because my drawings were being marketed widely through the Sivakasi printers. But the artist still needs to move his or her hand to generate art on a computer. Fundamental knowledge of art is essential to make the software work for you,” he says.

Cover design used to be a lengthy process in the pre-computer era. “Now you can get your order completed in half a day,” he says. “The printing equipment too, has become smaller and operational anywhere.”

Commercial printers work to an annual deadline, he says. “So this year’s releases would have already been decided by the early part of 2016. The challenge for the printers is to be able to forecast market trends. Artists are crucial to deciding the final look of a cover.”

Master of technique

Whether it is in the intricately detailed paintings of deities or Indian miniatures, portraits of children and nature scenes, Dhananjayan’s mastery over the form is perfect.

He shows a ‘pearlised’ painting which seems to have pearls studded all over a pot-bearing village belle. “These are just minuscule dots of paint that you have to place next to each other to get that effect,” he says, adding that it took him two days to complete the painting.

Watercolour paints are his preferred medium, but he is equally comfortable in bringing a photographic quality to pencil colour portraits.

As to how he managed to update his knowledge of art from a remote place like Jayamkondam, Dhananjayan says that he was a member of the British Council Library in Chennai (then Madras). “The library used to post me books on art, that I used to read avidly. Since there were no photocopiers in my village in those days, I used to trace out the pictures that I liked for my reference.”

Dhananjayan pulls out a yellowing file of botanical paintings that he made from the British Council books, in full colour. “I thought it would be useful for our students, but mostly I was just amazed by the beauty of the pictures,” he says.

Currently illustrating a book on the life of Sundarar, the notable 8th-century poet of Tamil Nadu, Dhananjayan has already written a manual on the history of art. “I wrote it in Tamil, but mainstream publishers want the book in English. I hope it will be published soon,” he says.

He points out with delight, the little ‘Ds’ that he has begun signing his work with, after retirement. Dhananjayan says that artists should be more willing to share. “Some people make a big fuss about their talent — they forbid others from seeing them at work or refuse to meet other artists. But unless the artist moves with the times, technology could just leave him and his talent behind,” says Dhananjayan.

More than his own prolific artistic output, Dhananjayan is proud of the thousands of children whom he has taught. “I have seen many of my students do well in life. They come and seek my blessings wherever they see me, even though I don’t recognise all of them. As a teacher, this is my service to society,” he signs off.


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