The artist on the move

Divine designs


Article appeared on The Week

Date : 26 January 1992 / Column : Spectrum / Slug : Art / Page: 56

Divine designs


FOR someone born a Hindu, it is unusual to have taken up Christian theology as a theme. But then V. Balan is one of a kind. Dextrous in painting, designing, sculpting and metal casting, he reaches out for subjects and works which are often shunned by contemporary artists. “It is not that I have been converted to Christianity. I found Christian theology a suitable theme after searching for a long time. Actually, I find divinity in my work,” says the 50-year-old Balan who resides in Bangalore.

Perhaps the only artist in India who has dared to infuse lndianness into Christian art and architecture, Balan has been silently transforming the facades and interiors of churches and seminaries. For more than eight years now he has been splashing a native colour on these structures which had been predominantly Roman and Gothic.

Says Father William Nellikal, the vicar of Infant Jesus Church, Verapoly, and an associate: “The change is visible from Varanasi to Port Blair. For long we have depended on Roman culture, but Balan has proved that the church can be adapted to local cultures. He has moulded Christian theology into Indian culture, which has never been attempted before.”

Balan’s forte is mosaic art, which embellishes surfaces with colourful stones and metal pieces, and stained-glass painting, an ancient art which had figured prominently in Christian architecture of yore. He has now used these styles to brilliant effect. illuminating old cathedrals which had been neglected for long. “It has been my interest in the works of Michelangelo, Van Gogh and other maestros that helped me evolve a style. I was touched by the hardships they endured to complete their works. The agony and ecstasy they experienced is reflected in my own life,” says Balan.

The classic example of his self-evolved style is the St. Joseph’s Seminary that he built in Varanasi. True to the place it belongs to, the structure has a predominantly Hindu essence. “The building is unique in itself in that it has been built with Chunar stones, which were used to build the Asoka pillar. Moreover, I designed Christ as a guru, imparting his message under the tree of knowledge. The whole effort is symbolic of Benarasi culture,” says Balan.

His other important works include the St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Pune which he designed along with the famous architect Charles Correa and the Stella Maris Cathedral in Port Blair, Andaman Islands, which is designed on the star and sea theme. “The greatness of Balan’s work is that he is able to get into the subiect and give the overall picture,” says Father William Nellikal. “He is able to see the originality and without spoiling it is able to put something new, something meaningful. He can also create a mood with his art. He controls light, colour, sound and texture, which shows a sublime approach to art and acoustics.” Though a contemporary of noted Kerala artists, Dattan and Devan, Balan never stuck to the mainstream for long. For a while he dabbled in commercial art – his noted mosaic art works include the large panels outside the Jyothi theatre in Madras, the Menaka theatre in Cochin and the Padmanabha in Trivandrum. But he gradually found a niche for himself in the uncharted territory of Christian art and architecture.

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