KR Santhana Krishnan has spent the last 18 years making more than 800 paintings with one theme: doors. Doors closed, half-shut, partly open. Doors painted a luminous bright blue or a glowing yellow. Doors next to a wall featuring the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan.
Why just doors? It could be said that when it comes to matters of the art, it is the depth and not the range of your subject matter that counts. “I am yet to tire of the bindu,” the great Indian artist SH Raza once dryly replied, when asked why virtually every painting of his 40-year-old career featured dots and triangles.
Sometimes all you need is a dot, or a door.
“My fascination for doors goes back to my childhood in Kumbakonam,” says the boyish-looking 35 year-old Santhana. “I used to cycle around town, looking at half-open doors and the way they were framed by light from backyards. To me they looked so poetic.”
Santhana grew up in the quaint, little Southern town of Kumbakonam, replete with palm trees, water tanks and temple architecture. His paintings offer passage into the distinctive landscape of his childhood milieu. Anyone who has spent an afternoon navigating Chennai’s Mylapore will feel a jump of familiarity when she chances upon a Santhana painting. There are the wooden carvings over the mantles, there the quiet curvy grace of pillars holding up the lintel, there the fashioning of the threshold. Yet, it is crucial to remember these paintings are gateways to more than the past.
For instance, look at this canvas featuring a half open door next to a wall painted with a coca cola logo. The nature of spaces is to evolve, the painting reminds us. Like we hold several selves in one, these spaces hold different times, both the dawn time of kolam drawings and the evening’s coca cola rush.
Santhan’s paintings also evoke that bittersweet feeling we experience when returning to a remodelled childhood room or a home or a city. We are forced to ask: Is it only the landscape that has changed, or have we as well?
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” William Blake’s famous lines inspired the name of the great Jim-Morrison led band. Clearly, doors make great metaphors. Indian literature too is replete with tales featuring the door’s “threshold” – the in-between place, neither here nor there, the hour of twilight made physical.
Doors are otherworldly in a way. They capture spaces and selves where we decide – do we linger, do we go in, or do we close the door firmly shut? “Doors are very important,” says Santhana. “They hold secrets, no?”
Santhana cleverly captures this mysterios, transformative aspect in his paintings. His doors are almost always open, opening a chute into lives.
“I paint old-world doors,” says Santhana. “The kind of doors which are vanishing, which were always held open. Nowadays people use doors to seal themselves in, but my doors offer a passage.” He points out to how the doors lead right into the interiors of home, looking into the kollai or backyard. Some are meta-commentaries on the endlessness of perceptive – like in this painting where a doorway frames another like a Martryoshka doll cradling its baby, inviting the viewer into the infinity of looking.
Images of change
Metaphysical quests aside, Santhana’s paintings also explore what xx in the Hindu calls a “visual record of the changes wrought by globalisation on local industry, aesthetics and lifestyles.”
Santhana, rooted in his landscape, is a keen observer of the way time shapes all glass. “In Kumbakonam, houses in the agraharams used to have ornate wooden doors with coloured glass on top. As time went by the glass was replaced by heavily worked grills that were common in the Sixties and Seventies. Now the designs are more geometrical,” he says.
Time has also “modernised” doors into a depressing uniformity. “Heavy wooden doors, blackened with lamp soot and bearing the imprints of vermillion smeared fingers were modernised with new-age single-panel doors in plywood; glass came to be used extensively…On, the other hand if the owner of the hand fell on bad days, then some of the walls and doors were painted over with advertisements.”
These observations are translated in his works, both on canvas and on wooden models of doors. Peeling walls, advertisements of popular eats and soft drinks, STD booths and so on evoke a sense of déjÀ vu in spectators. Painted in great detail, the doors open to show detritus of everyday life – milk-cans, tulsi tharas, wooden boxes; some doors are faintly punctuated with numbers and letters.
“These are corporation numbers, ward numbers, electricity board connection numbers… For instance, P 26 indicates that polio drops were given to a child in the house under the immunisation programme of the government,” says Santhana.
The images are hyper-realistic, holding crucial clues about the people living behind those doors. They have to, because the people are entirely absent from Santhana’s frames.
“I don’t like painting people,” Santhana says. “People make things artificial, their presence fixes the painting. I prefer to put in birds instead, mostly crows.” Crows used to frequent the old houses, where offerings would always be waiting for the winged messengers. If you’re looking, the birds offer a great clue about those who used to inhabit such houses.
Perhaps Santhanakrishnan doesn’t paint people because likes to tell it slant, referencing through the oblique – a life told via door art, a threshold or by a bird.
Light, colour, memory
Some of Santhana’s paintings are simply delirious with colour. The colours invite something very basic, a long, bold stare. “I use awful colours,” Santhana says ruefully, and with considerable self-deprecation, one must add, because the colours in his paintings are gorgeous, no other word for it. There are light-soaked oranges, cobalt blues, lucent yellows.
“What is painting without colour,” says the artist. “I dislike peeling paint, discoloured muddy hues on walls. I want to change all that through my paintings.”
Santhana is currently working on developing a homestay in Kumbakonam, a place where spaces “mean something.” Where art is not an artificial tack or a westernised piece of décor, but part of everyday life. “Look at Khurja pottery and old brass utensils,” he says. “They were items of use but so beautiful. Some homes would have utensils that were 40, even 50 years old. Some familiar vessels would even be named, like characters.” It is this aesthetic he wants to convey through his paintings, an aesthetic tied up with childhood memories and impossible longing. Santhana returns to one of his favourite images to describe why doors hold him in such sway. His grandmother in Kumbakonam, preparing the threshold in the early morning hours and then sitting on the stoop to welcome the day, and visitors. Those were doors that invited you in. Just like Santhana’s paintings do now.