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Veteran artist Badri Narayan’s creative quest
Badri Narayan is a thoughtful and reticent artist, who has excelled in the various roles like the perennial storyteller, the creator of auspicious symbols, and the loving teacher, sans any pretentions. Like his persona, his paintings probe and bear testimony to the peculiar human predicament. During his illustrious career filled with many milestones, he has always deeply introspected about his art and life. A streak of self-reflection coupled with an honest autobiographical perspective is the driving force behind his wonderful body of work over all these years.

Narration comes to him with a natural ease and proficiency. As he narrates, the artist has been fond of telling tales since his childhood. Symbolism is a prominent feature of his oeuvre, though at times, he inserts popular icons of rich Indian culture and tradition. Elaborating on his process of picking up the imagery and influences, he has stated it’s all that surrounds and immerses him, since his early years, becoming an integral part of his creative journey, overcoming many obstacles in the course of a long career following his own instinct, and experimenting with diverse media, forms and platforms.

Born in Andhra Pradesh, in 1929, the self-taught artist has been passionately painting his pet themes for close to five decades now. Since his debut show at the Hyderabad Art Society in 1954, he has held more than fifty solos in India and internationally. Among his selected group exhibitions are 'Black is Beautiful', India Fine Art, Mumbai (2010); 'Sacred and Secular', India Fine Art (2009); 'The Root of Everything', Gallery Mementos, Bangalore (2009); ‘Different Strokes’ courtesy Tulika Arts, Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai (2007-08); ’50 Years of Art in Mumbai’, NGMA, Mumbai (1998); and Jehangir Nicholsan Collection, NGMA, Mumbai & New Delhi (1998), apart from participation in 'Moderns', Royal Cultural Centre, Amman, Jordan courtesy Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi (2008). His artistic achievements have been appreciated in form of several honors and awards, such as Padma Shri (1987); Senior Fellowship for Outstanding Artists from the Government of India (1984-86); National Award, LKA, Delhi (1965); gold medals from Hyderabad Art Society (1949,54,60,62); and awards from AIFACS, Delhi (1962,63,66) as well as Bombay Art Society (1957,58,59,70).

Badri Narayan’s paintings are narrative in nature. Curious titles like ‘Meeting at Midstream’ and ‘Queen Khemsa's Dream of Hamsa’ are often the starting points from where one can launch the quest to unravel the complexities and mysteries contained in the paintings. The artist leaves it to the viewer to interpret and understand the subject matter. The artist tends to draw his inspiration from Indian mythology and metaphors - Hindu gods and goddesses as well as still life watercolors. He also acknowledges the role of the Indian miniature tradition in his development as an artist. A believer in the two-dimensionality, his paintings are mostly done in a smaller format, which he finds well suited for the watercolor works. Though he works largely in ink or pastel and watercolor, the prolific artist has also dabbled with etchings, woodcuts and ceramics. Apart from teaching art teacher, he has also written fiction and illustrated children’s books.

Playful in nature, the paintings reflect his very personal sense of beauty and aesthetics. Profoundly sober and soothing, the central figure in these compositions is often rendered in what seems to be a dream state. A quietude and stillness prevails in these works, enhanced by a subdued palette. Contemplative in tone, they suggest a calm moment of reflection. The figures bound to each other are simultaneously engrossed in their own thoughts. Outwardly, the paintings, simple in subject matter, reveal their intricacies to the viewer. Intimate and appealing, they are often infused with an element of fantasy, brought to the fore by simple outlines represented in two-dimensional stylized representations.

Defining the distinguishing aspects of his persona and paintings, renowned art critic Ranjit Hoskote elaborates in an essay: “He has re-interpreted the wisdom traditions of the ancient and mediaeval world; an autodidact, he shares his discoveries with others, rather than dictating his teachings. Accordingly, for him, painting is neither a didactic medium for the propagation of a gospel; nor yet is it an expressionist project marked by emotive exaggeration. Rather, he treats the painted surface as a visionary space where insight can be gained, and perhaps even revelation.”

Badri Narayan has for long been preoccupied by two distinct allegories: one of the different stages of life, which tend to mark the seamless transition of the self from one theatre of action & subsequent reflection to another; and second, that of the self apparently ambushed by revelation, the self-portrait attained in various guises. In the recent paintings, he has rendered the first of these two allegories through such scenarios as that of the elephant that enters a curious cave-door opening in the flank of a hill, while an abandoned boat is floating on the riverbed, with a cast-off garment as its only anchor, or the royal ascetic hearing the celestial musician’s annunciation.

The artist is figured as pilgrim, monk or jongleur; as a wizening questor who is meditating on his paint-brush, or as a scholar professing on the various enigmas of reality, in the second allegory. An aura of freedom and lightness illuminates his recent works even where the artist strikes an introspective undertone. It seems, he reminds himself and the viewer, of the fact that the hard-drawn insight is not reachable merely by the path of suffering alone; there’s also that path of joy to be discovered.