Longing, Belonging: The cultural landscape of Elayaraja’s paintings

I had interviewed the artist S Elayaraja for a Diwali Special in The Times of India in 2015. Covid claimed yet another genius as he passed away today at the age of 42. The artist is no more. The art lives on….

You can see the image of an adolescent girl in a pattu pavadai lighting up a sparkler for Diwali. She has adorned her plaits with garlands of jasmine and crossandra (kanakambaram) as she sits in the verandah of her home, beautifully lit with earthen lamps. Yet another image shows an girl in a half-saree offering flowers before a beautifully carved idol of Ganesha in what looks like a snapshot of a Dravidian temple structure. Such is the imagery evoked in the works of artist S Elayaraja, who has gained fame over the years for his realistic paintings.

His works have been shared several times in the last one decade on social media. Coming from the temple town Kumbakonam, Elayaraja draws inspiration from the people and things he grew up with. After completing his master’s in 2003, Elayaraja began his work on Dravida Pengal (Dravidian women), a project that shot him to prominence. “I was the youngest in my family, with five brothers and five sisters. The women in the family played a major role in bringing me up and I closely observed all their daily activities with a lot of interest. When I began painting ,I began drawing elements from the cultural milieu I grew up in. l began work with portraits and after my first show, I began focusing a lot more on the background as well,” he says.

Drawing inspiration from Dutch artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt, Elayaraja started working to find the right composition, depth of field and the details of lighting in his paintings. “I tried following an approach that was a mix of both these artists and had women as the main subject of my works.”

A striking facet of his art that comes to the fore is the celebration of Tamil culture, replete with its festivals, fine silks, flowers and temples. “The clothes worn by the women in my paintings were once a part of their daily wear but today, they have become festive wear. But tradition is not static. A few generations before us, women did not wear a blouse while draping the saree and men only wore an angavastram with their veshti. But those things change with time.”

Look at any of his works and you cannot miss a hint of melancholy or a sense of solitude in many of them. There are no men in the picture. The women are left to themselves indulging in everyday activities of rural Tamil Nadu.

“If you look at rural Tamil Nadu, the men travel to the cities or to foreign countries and visit home once in a while. The women are alone at home, lost in their own imaginations. A single phone call in a week from the husband lights up their face. When the men visit for a month or two in an year, they live life to the fullest. The time in between these visits is spent in waiting. It is this life of a small town woman that I brought to life in my works.”

Over the last few years, Elayaraja has exhibited his works in several countries like Singapore, Malaysia, the USA, UK. Australia and UAE. “I think people loved the nostalgic elements in my paintings. Working professionals in urban India don’t celebrate Diwali or Pongal they way they did in their childhood anymore. Also, in a market flooded with abstract art and installations, the works I brought out looked different. In 2003, I sold one of my paintings for Rs 5000 but the same painting recently sold for Rs 1 lakh. I want to take art to the masses and not make them esoteric and restrict them to the classes alone.”

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