Feathers in his many hats

Artist V.V. Ramani is a man of many moods. Quiet, observant, discerning. His is a multi-dimensional talent. From one angle,he can be seen as an artist in a purist sense, working with every possible medium (collage being the current research),and from another, a specialist in theatre props and sets, wedding decor, events, costume design for dance, films, and theatre.

The passion for dance was probably inherent, and his training in music,formal and rigorous. Watching cousin K.R. Geetha(senior disciple of Pandanallur Subbaraya Pillai) from his student days laid the foundation to bond with the art and to connect to an intrinsic part of it, ‘the arangam’.

His career in stage decor beganwith a festival in Chennai organised by the Kala Mandir Trust. Instantly,the seed was sown in the artist’s imagination to bring about a confluence of arts. His work blends and merges mood, music, dance and art. This focused fusion of specialities underlines the simpletruth that all art is but one and that its comprehension needs no man-made barriers. It was again the Kala Mandir Trust that enabled his eager wings to take flight on stage. Adorning the space each time with a novel vision, Ramani says, “I always believe that the main space belongs to the dancer. The performer is centre-stage. Stagecraft is purely to enhance and embellish the dance and form as a technique. To me predictability bears symmetry of line which is not in keeping with my perceptions and creative urges. There is so much joy, depth and symbolism in asymmetry.” Thus was born many an aesthetic depiction using variations in backdrop, diagonals and unaligned areas for props and sets.

Devata Vandanam, the first thematic presentation by the Trust featured Ramani’s artwork of the nandi and trisula which were outstanding references. What is art if not the colours and textures of one’s imagination? That which arrests motion and emotion of life? It is art that restores life to them both. The use of jute made its debut as a backdrop arresting the viewer , raising eyebrows in adbhuta rasa. Changes in material, colour, form and content to suit the mood and modality of the performance were premiered through ingenious ideas. Ramani made a novel ‘theme board’ in cork for the Sruti Foundation’s seminar on Bharatanatyam traditions organised in 1989. He soon marked his presence in the Natya Kala Conferences of the Krishna Gana Sabha. He expresses his gratitude to V.P. Dhananjayan for beinginstrumental in his introduction to the sabha. Ramani also recalls, “As convener of the Natya Kala Conference it was Chitra Visweswaran who projected my work through a presentation and whose appreciation of my art is invaluable.”

The new look given for the tombai (long colourful cylindrical hangings made in cloth, popular in Tamil Nadu), in texture, form, colour, shape and size gave it an unusual status. It also became a multifunctional prop for a senior artist in a Sufi dance as it even donned the role of a pillar to depict the Narasimha avatara.

Ramani’s experiments with raw material are the result of thinking out of the box. At both the Narada Gana Sabha and the Music Academy, the stage decor highlighted and accentuated the festivals while wings and backdrop wore a matted ornament. Ramani says, “T.T. Vasu gave me full freedom to experiment with space. It reflected his trust in and respect for both the art and the artist. I was touched by his faith in me and the prompt payment.”

Ramani’s experiments with black, beige, earth and terracotta tones that attired the stage met with success, winning the favour of a rtists and rasika-s alike. He designedportable, travel-friendly sets for use in overseas productions. In the case of a thematic mega production on the gurukulam tradition entitled Abhyasa for the Cleveland Cultural Alliance, Ramani came up with a re-creation of the traditional agraharam. The Natyanjali festival in Chidambaram was yet another major breakthrough for Ramani. Given a raw makeshift stage with a thatched roof, he opened up the stage with eight pillars, with the sky for a roof, a virtual challenge from above. His creation of terracotta painted Nandi regained a new iconic status. In Ramani’s own words, “Appreciation for my ‘rangapravesam’in Chidambaram came from Padma Subrahmanyam who paid a tribute to the arangam with her characteristic nadai and anjalihasta.” This set is still in vogue at the festival.

His lotuses on the stage for Mrs. Y.G. Parthasarathy’s 80th birthday celebrations won him all round praise.

Ramani’s stage creations also work when budget constraints and cost effectiveness are important. His use of a variety of leaves and flowers creates an eco–friendly, natural environment.

In K.S.R Aniruddha’s Mammudha, the sets were intentionally minimalist, but some failed to comprehend the idea that every single frame used on stage is part of design and purpose. Ramani has pleasant memories of the value-based experience he shared with Sudharani Raghupathy on this production. “Sudharani recognised my part in the production in designing the costumes and the stage décor as a vital limb to tell Manmatha’s story. Associating with her production was an unfolding of myself. Her implicit faith in me gave me limitless liberty to explore my ideas. Sudharani graciously acknowledged my role for each curtain call in the season and I am grateful for that.”

V.V. Ramani the artist has left an indelible mark in the form of his murals on the state-of-the-art Sir Mutha Venkata Subba Rao concert hall that is soon to become a national landmark.

The stage today has gained the and ‘change’ the law of nature. aesthetic importance that dance has Ramani’s art has helped recreate within the precincts of a temple. the stage into a temple for dancers.