Cloudburst of colours

Sudha G Tilak | Updated on January 20, 2018

Rare muse:The kurunji was among the many botanical wonders that bloomed on paper under the Chennai-based artist’s deft brushstrokes   -  KK Mustafah

His drawings of orchids made it to postal stamps Courtesy:

His drawings of orchids made it to postal stamps Courtesy:

His drawings of orchids made it to postal stamps Courtesy:

His drawings of orchids made it to postal stamps Courtesy:

OT Ravindran left behind a legacy of repurposing rainwater as an art supply for his paintings

Nandanam is a busy area, north of the Adyar river, in Chennai. Tucked inside is a quiet neighbourhood lined by ubiquitous powder puff trees, shedding their pink pollen to carpet the lanes. Tropical trees like neem, mango, coconut palms; flowering plants like hibiscus, coral jasmine; and creepers like blue pea, rose and jasmine and mandatory tulsi shrubs grew in the tiny gardens of modest homes and in pots in the government flats around the place, scenting the rain-washed air. A large outdoor plant nursery was located in the area, adding verdure to the place.

In the 19th century though, Nandanam was called Gambier’s Garden after a British empire’s resident of the area. And in a nod to that former resident stood OT Ravindran’s home, on the first floor of an old Madras garden house that had seen better days, which he shared with his beloved plants and paintings.

Ravindran was an artist, horticulturist, nurseryman, landscape designer, ecologist, columnist and more. However, friends remember him as the passionate plant artist. The prodigious works of his morphologically accurate watercolour paintings of plants and orchids have travelled across the world. His collections have been mentioned and feted in places as far as the Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon, and Arts Centre Washington. Nancy Reagan bought his works, and Kew Gardens in London has them in its holdings.

Much more than his interest in football, his fascination for plants and flowers grew into a lifelong passion. A love that was evident since his childhood in leafy Kannur, in Kerala, spurring him to draw plants as a schoolboy and later graduate in botany in Madras. He however was a self-taught painter with an amazing artistry that rivalled any art school graduate.

“OT was an independent soul …who worried little for money or fame but cared passionately about his plants, a green environment and the rains,” recalls long-time friend and filmmaker Theodore Bhaskaran.

Ravindran had worked on a watercolour series of orchids and four of these had been picked by the philately department to be released as stamps. I’d landed up at his place to report on his unusual plant artwork.

It had rained that week, a boon in parched Madras then, much before tsunami waves or floods of the Genesis kind had struck the city renamed Chennai. The recent cloudburst had me hopping across puddles along the narrow roads before climbing onto Ravindran’s pad. Dropping an umbrella on the floor, I stepped in and grumbled, only to have OT (“O for orchid, T for trees, wokay?” not Oyitty Thavorath Ravindran) scold me: “Rains are nature’s bounty; don’t disrespect it.”

It was a den in bachelor shambles style. A large work desk was covered with piles of paper, books and art material. Paint palettes that had held colours across the years, glass jars, plastic mugs holding up fistfuls of paintbrushes, and tubes and slabs of pigments lay in a heap on the table. OT stood, prickly as a cactus, among a profusion of mottled greenery of delicate plants, creepers and saplings dotted all over the place.

“He was a creative fellow; his righteous indignation towards ecology and community sense, his brusque manner made him seem like a bur but he bore no ill-will towards anyone and adored his plants and flowers,” says Bhaskaran.

Beyond his art work and furniture, all along the window sills and balcony stood tiny bottles and recycled jars, and plastic mugs collecting silver droplets from the cloudburst. I asked him what they were for.

“I’ve been called a nutcase,” he said, his shining eyes and moustache giving him a Hercule Poirot appearance.

“He would visit a place and peer over a plant or flower over different times of the day or seasons to mirror their texture and colour and look accurately,” says Bhaskaran.

OT preferred rainwater to store-bought distilled water for producing the best effect with watercolours. He preferred to turn a natural material like rainwater into a fabulous art supply. Rain would be the important ingredient for his botanical paintings, especially his famous orchid and the rare Nilgiri kurunji flower. It seemed almost organic that rainwater led the pods and flowers to bloom on paper that he painted with his deft hands.

OT also had a rudimentary rainwater harvesting apparatus around his place. He wrote in detail of his procedure in Madras Musings, a Chennai tabloid. Pipes would run around the terrace and siphon the water into tanks and large tubs. Excess water from the tubs would drain into a well in the compound through an inlet. The well held another six months’ supply of water for use in the house, for growing delicate plants and for a year's supply for watercolour painting.

It’s been a decade since OT passed. But if he had been around during the recent Chennai floods he’d sure have joined the community while plotting means and methods to put the rain to good use for his paintings.

Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist

Published on June 03, 2016

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