- Vaishnavi Ramanathan

     In Indian art, certain mediums have always been associated with certain places and people. Falling in line with this tradition, N.Srinivasan and digital art have become synonymous with each other. He uses the digital medium to create another strong association – that with his native region, Thanjavur.


     Writings on N.Srinivasan almost always bring into focus three aspects- the medium that he uses, his love for Tanjavur and his leanings towards Saiva Siddhanta. Words and interpretations of his works circulate between these three points which are interrelated to the one another. If one were to visualise this relationship, it would probably be in the form of a triangle, probably like the Tamil alphabet ஃ which consists of three dots arranged like a triangle. This alphabet known as the ‘ayutha ezhuthu’ is an essential part of the alphabet series, yet is not commonly used in spelling. So in N.Srinivasan’s case, while the focus of his art are on the three above mentioned areas, they sum up to refer to another interest that he has- writing and reading. Apart from writing articles and essays himself, he has even been instrumental in publishing the Tamil little magazine, ‘Mei Porul’ which focuses on art and aesthetics related issues.

     Perhaps this kind of organisational ability comes naturally to him as he comes from a family that has played a significant role in contributing to the growth of Sirkazhi region. His grandfather founded the municipality while his other forefathers brought electricity and other facilities to Sirkazhi town in Tanjavur district. This background plays an important role in the way his art has evolved. One can find a parallel between the way he uses an ‘urban’ medium like digital designing to represent rural subjects, while apparently not feeling any tension, with the way the town of Sirkazhi, which saw development way ahead of other places yet still retained its rural flavour, evolved. Similarly the passionate involvement that the artist has for the region is almost reminiscent of the attitude of the heads of villages whose involvement with the land also springs from their being personally responsible for the well being of the land and its inhabitants.

     In the Indian art scenario, this kind of fascination for a place also recalls the Badami series paintings of J.M.S.Mani, like whom N.Srinivasan is also a teacher. Although he is closely associated with academic and institutional spaces, N.Srinivasan’s own artistic training is slightly distanced from these spaces. While he studied at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, an institution with which he still associates, he learnt the medium that he has become coupled with, outside the institutional fabric. However one can trace his association with the digital medium to his college days when computer designing was just being introduced. Inspired by this medium, he began to experiment to understand the potential of the medium. Now he has not only mastered different kinds of software tools but also uses the boundaries imposed by a highly technical medium like digital designing to explore other areas of expertise, namely writing computer programmes to produce the effects that he has in mind.

     N.Srinivasan prefers not to dwell too much over the technicalities of the digital medium, since he feels that a medium is just a method to convey an idea. Yet his aesthetic sensibilities are ‘circumscribed’ within the ‘limitless possibilities’ of the medium as the psychedelic colours and varying textures that he loves to play with in his work, reveal that the medium itself also serves as an inspiration for him. Just as one can generate a certain selective combination in the computer, N.Srinivasan while referring to his usage of the medium chooses to focus primarily on its ability to capture the attention of people and thereby convey his ideas more effectively. Speaking about the richness of cultural life of the Thanjavur region, he says that not only did this region play an important role in the Bhakti movement but also between the asceticism of Saivism and the opulence of Vaishnavism, both of which co-existed there, the spiritual life of the people lacked nothing. Almost as if using this as an example, he makes a conscious choice to use the digital design medium and ideas derived from Saivite philosophy so that his art can be both technically innovative and as well as have a conceptual basis.

     N.Srinivasan’s studied Saiva Siddhanta for three years at the Thiruvaduthurai Mutt. This training not only made him see life and art differently but also led him to emphasise in his art, the simple joy and happiness that he saw reflected in people of his native region. Furthermore, this also brought him in touch with Tamil devotional poetry, especially the Thevaram which contains numerous references to people, the places they inhabited and their attitudes. This ‘reading’ of the impressions of other people about the Tanjavur region compared with his own impressions made him realise that the ‘lack of change was the thing that had not changed’ in the region. Therefore, on one hand while one could view his works as belonging to a cultural tradition that documents life around, implying a certain freezing of a moment before it changes, on the other hand, paradoxically, what he documents is an unchanging way of life and attitude of people.

     With digital designing being a time consuming medium, each work takes several months to produce. So the challenge, one would think, would be in holding on to the same idea for this long a period of time. However N.Srinivasan’s own temperament is conducive to this method of working as he not only dwells constantly on his native Tanjavur in most of his works but he also conceives of the particular way in which this theme has to captured in a work, and executes it without modifying it in anyway. As he works to capture unchanging places and ideas using a medium which is defined by its ever changing nature, to a contemporary audience the art that emerges is nearly as striking Ravi Varma’s paintings and oleographs would have been to people of his days. If Ravi Varma through his oil painted, humanised figures brought about a change in the way gods were depicted and divinity was circulated, N.Srinivasan, also through his prints, has introduced a similar change by depicting gods using a digital vocabulary.

     N.Srinivasan has worked on different series of works, all of which are in someway related to the land and its beauty. This loyalty to land in his art is perhaps a result of the years of perceiving the earth and art as one. Writing about this, Anjali Sircar says “He grew up with an immense feeling for art. In every family in the village, there was a painter who painted the wall in beautiful vegetable colours. Others produced pottery or sculpture. To the young boy, the entire village appeared like an art form.”1 From the village, emerged his Farmer series, where the protagonist is the farmer from his village through whom N.Srinivasan records the gestures and body language of a race of people. He attributes the serenity and majesty present in these people to the type of land, namely marutham that they inhabit2. This archetypal farmer of N.Srinivasan’s work is however not specific to the region. “Like the common man an ever present amused and amusing witness to the goings on in R.K.Laxman’s cartoons, an equally cartoon like figure appears in all Srinivasan’s works. Srinivasan says he is the farmer from his native Rajamannarkudi. What the folds and twisted rolls of his headdress and the protruding spear like moustache suggest, he would be more a fitting chap from the villages of Rajasthan, not a famished one from Thanjavur.”

     Therefore, N.Srinivasan treats his village as a familiar signpost from which he can perceive at the world. Even when he makes an obvious reference to a particular region, such as in his Traces of Existence series which consists of iconic sculptures superimposed over maps, he is actually referring to a terrain that transcends any particular place. Personal identity that evolves through time and space is also explored by N.Srinivasan such as in his ‘Nostalgia series’ where he uses studio photographs of his family members. The black and white photographs overlaid with bright colours engage with the idea of memory at different levels. On one hand, the colours remind us of old black and white photographs are ‘resurrected’ from the past by scanning and adding colours over them at digital studios. On the other hand, by looking at these studio photographs one is reminded of one’s own collection of black and white family photographs, most often of a generation of people who no longer live, and gradually one begins to superimpose over the faces of the people in N.Srinivasan’s work, faces and features of one’s relatives.

1. Sircar, Anjali, The New Indian Express, February 1st, 2004
2. It is thought that The Tamil person shares a special bond with the soil of his/her ‘native place’ since it is the soil most compatible with a person’s bodily substance. Soils can come in various tastes- sweet, sour, bitter, astringent, pungent or salty. These soil types/tastes occur in certain geographical locations such as sweet soil in hilly areas and so on. Daniel, Valentine.E Fluid Signs:Being a person the Tamil way, University of California Press, 1987
3. Swaminathan, Venkat, Into the Digital World of Art,15.4.2004

     N.Srinivasan’s involvement with one region and its beauty also translates itself into a broader concern for the world such as in his ‘Demand for Fluid’, he satirically refers to the day when vehicles that run on fossil fuels will themselves become like inanimate fossils as they will have to be dragged around by animals. However most interesting among N.Srinivasan’s works are his black and white line drawings of Tanjavur and its inhabitants. The ease and spontaneity with which they seem to have been made belies questions of how these drawings were made. Were they drawn from memory or are they digital translations based on hand drawn sketches?
     Looking at the thin yet strong form of the farmer standing against a typical rural background with scarecrows, mandapas, animals and birds but coloured in bright shades and treated with multiple textures we wonder at the presence of a rustic form in such a visual space4. One would think that representing rural folk and a tradition seeped place like Tanjavur using the digital medium, which is actually capable of changing this tradition and face of rural life, would create a tension in the work. However, for N.Srinivasan this ‘danger’ is not real because of the faith that that he has in his land; of its ability to retain its character in the face of change. Saiva Siddhanta speaks about the removal of the ego to come to about the infinite nature of the individual soul. Similarly, if one were to look beyond the medium and surface of his works, one realises that N.Srinivasan is ultimately speaking about the heroism contained not only in divine beings but also in the ‘ordinary’ man who is capable of holding on to his ideals.
- Vaishnavi Ramanathan
Vaishnavi ramanathan is a freelance writer and researcher. 
She has a masters in art history from chitrakala parishat,Bangalore.

4. In the Indian art context depictions of rural themes by artists have tended to be idealized like N.Srinivasan’s works yet the difference is that the colours that they use (earthy tones painted at times using natural pigments) have tended to reflect the artist’s observations of village life rather than the taste of the village inhabitants themselves who generally prefer bright and flourescent colours.