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My Journey from Kerala to Russia

Shinod Akaraparambil published by  The New Indian Express

Red is the colour of freedom…” there was an inner call as I started working on my canvas with a brush dipped in red. “The colour of love, unity and uprising...” The revelation was stark because we live in a complex world. People don’t give importance to relationships. They tend to forget their loved ones. Yes, this is the age where one even

forgets the path one treaded once. The moment my canvas completely turned red, I could sense the reflection of my bare body on it — a revelation that I was free.

I switched on my laptop and checked my mails. There was a surprise invite from a Scottish friend with a title, ‘The Breath of Epos.’ I was thrilled to see that it came from Russia. The Breath of Epos! Wasn’t this the

one that I was looking for all these while? A couple of hours passed in reminiscence.

I would call it the ‘red days’ of my life when Russia crammed my thoughts. As a child I used to stand, looking at the photographs of Lenin and Karl Marx that adorned the walls of the houses in Kerala. Later, I drew the portraits of those leaders on the outside walls, but that was for the Marxist party as part of its election campaign. The feeling for Russia was something beyond those photographs and portraits. So I made it clear that I would never miss this opportunity to visit the country I had always admired.

As a preparatory step I enquired more about The Breath of Epos. Some quick

research revealed that Theyyam, a popular Hindu ritual form of worship from North Malabar where I belong, would be a perfect match to fit in that category. This ancient ritual has great significance for my life. In Kerala, Theyyam revived the oppressed. It was a symbol of uprising — for those who were refused food, shelter and clothing by the rich and greedy landlords. Those who opposed them were labelled Naxalites and Maoists. What worried me was that the

hierarchy that existed once still persisted, and that too in many disastrous ways. So I decided to use my favourite red to deconstruct Theyyam.

Thus I started the journey to Russia. My destination was the Republic of Tatarstan (Yelabuga). A small village surrounded by the holy river Kama, Yelabuga has a lot of historical and artistic significance. This is the place where the artist Ivan Shishkin is said to have found so much natural beauty that all his paintings became a manifestation of this serene village.

It was midnight when I landed at Tatarstan. Alex and (translator) Anna were waiting for me. They received me with a warm, brotherly hug. We took a car to Yelabuga. The gleaming yellow lights strengthened the waves of the Red inside me. I couldn’t sleep that night. I opened the windows and looked at the sky. The stars looked yellow, and there were patches of red clouds here and there. The dancing Hawk trees brought the image of Theyyam in my mind.

Why did I come to this historical place? Yes, I was confident of my purpose. I knew I would never find a better platform than this International Art Symposium to showcase the traditional values of my country. So I was happy. The symposium had painters from around 30 countries, including two art historians.

The morning wind was chilly. After breakfast and two shots of vodka, we moved to the studio, where a number of canvases were kept. A pretty young Russian lady passed on to me the two canvases I had already ordered. I carefully removed the plastic cover of the canvas and placed one on the stand to sketch the image of Theyyam. I tossed the red colour all over the canvas. Soon a couple of Russian beauties surrounded me. They were not talking in English. In fact they didn’t have to. For them, their language was important. No hierarchy could exist here. Tatarstan (Yelabuga) is the land of love and brotherhood. Christians and Muslims are the only two communities here. Their unity is so complete that both parties together conduct marriages.

By the third day my canvas brimmed with Red. It seemed the Russians took to their heart the image of Theyyam that popped up from my canvas. Some of them took photographs standing by my side. I moved to the next room to see the paintings of the others. They were all busy with their own works. With the help of a translator I talked to these artists who had produced beautiful images of their own countries. On the fourth day, I started painting Red on my second canvas. My intention was to sketch a different image of the Theyyam.

At the same time there was a round table conference of painters and historians. It was a good platform for everyone to talk about their country and its tradition. I spoke about the current degradation of Indian values. No one but these artists preserve the tradition. Here I talked about Ajantha, Ellora and Edakkal caves.

On the eighth day, my second canvas was ready with another Theyyam image. I was painting to the tune of Kerala music. Seeing my gestures Olga suggested I should dance at the inaugural day of the exhibition. I happily agreed. The next day, I danced for the first time in my life, before the vice-prime minister of the Republic of Tatarstan, minister of culture Zilia Valeeva and mayor Valery Yelabuga Chershintsev.

There was a huge crowd of pretty Russian ladies before my work. It was a great moment in my life. On the ninth day, when I went to see my Theyyams, the gallery was still crowded with art enthusiasts. Finally, it was time to leave. When I said bye to my Theyyams, I could see the sun setting in the Kama River — like a red dot.

Posted by Shinod Akkaraparambil on 2/27/13

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