Curious Mind

Baiju Parthan speaks to Vrushali Dhage about how books have been his companions as he explored the world.

One can term Baiju Parthan as a quintessential explorer, as he constantly draws fresh nodes of understanding from whatever resources he sees around his daily life. His restlessness to discover fresh twists or different/ newer ways of seeing, understanding and translating has always shielded him from stagnancy. His works reflect this character of his and efficaciously highlight various impulses which feed it; all the cross (diverse) references of the dissimilar worlds he belongs to -  a culture spawned by emerging technology to that rooted in profound philosophy. In both the cases Parthan seems to be a part of these individual worlds and yet at times plays a role of a mere spectator. Constantly preoccupied with existential questions, he desires to find coherent explanations of the worldly matters, and the beyond.

To Parthan it is not the obvious but the arcane which draws a new pathway to think on. According to him Science (as a subject) does provide empirical evidence for the concerned problems, which get accepted as facts; but what about the abstruse, the indefinable! It always remains a matter of subjectivity. These questions have accompanied Parthan ever since his childhood in varying, rather mounting intensity. Belonging to a first generation nuclear family, and with both the parents working, he had a lot of (unsupervised) time for himself; and was invariably left to discover and understand the worldly matters on his own. ‘I was left to explore the world and to find answers to my questions on my own.’ says Parthan.

Growing up in seclusion Parthan set up a private world in which books to an extent acted as a medium to resolve all the questions which cropped up in his mind. Following which he frequented the Public Library at Kottayam and eventually it became a cozy second home for him. Exposed to a wide spectrum of subjects, it was the methodology of science that fascinated him a lot. ‘Since I had innate analytical tendencies and was logically sound, as a youngster I strongly wanted to be an inventor.’ recalls Parthan. The way in which different hypothesis, concepts were postulated and elucidated, the architects of different theories and their imagination and investigational methods, and the methods to accurately infer all seemed parallel to the working of his own curious mind.

For a person with Caucasian origin there was stress on social contribution by individuals, whereas ‘Art’ fell under the category of leisure pursuit. As Parthan enjoyed science he took up studies in botany and later in civil engineering. Till then apart from practicing art at a functional level Parthan had not read much on it. It was The Anxious Object’ by Harold Rosenberg which totally transformed his views on art. For the first time he found that art could be placed in the category of intellectual disciplines. ‘The book spoke about how art has its own histories and embedded philosophies. This opened the entirely new world of art history and aesthetics to me.’ says Parthan, and this proved to be a turning point for him. Abandoning his study in engineering Parthan decided to study at the Goa College of Art. Something that started as a simple, light hearted dabbling in a different field, landed to be a serious and deep engagement for the rest of his life. His mind was caught up by this newly discovered field, as a result he plunged into art historical reading. As words poured their voice, they uncovered different perspectives prevailing in different cultures to Parthan; for instance he became aware of their histories, mythologies, their notions of bravery, fear, etc. Different world views helped him to see, understand and rationalize the role played by artists and their works within a social milieu; that of acting as medium to make visible the undercurrents which define a particular culture.

In this process what Parthan was becoming increasingly aware of was his own rootlessness. He recalls, ‘American pulp fiction, by Mickey Spillane was a part of my earliest reading, later came the Victorian books. These books along with those on science had a setting free from the local flavour (of Kerala) as a result I was unable to experience and engrain the true Kerala culture, and consequentially a feeling of rootlessness crept in.’ Knowing that though he was physically present, he was yet distant from absorbing the ethos of his own land. This made Parthan think about the notions of origin, evolution, commingling of different cultures, etc, and since then he has been religiously studying anthropology and different cultures. Not limiting to a factual analysis of cultures Parthan chose to understand/ study the nerve of individual cultures. To him philosophy has been his lifeline, and logic a channel to understand it.

Moving to a more tangible world, Parthan recollects that David Hockney’s work on optics, camera obscura, and his research had always fascinated him. Parthan was impressed by the manner in which Hockney explained how art and science were interwoven; the purview of both the faculties could be merged to produce a language which had an identity of its own which did not tilt toward either. While maintaining an aesthetic, technical and philosophical balance in his works titled ‘Source Code’, he blends the ‘technical aesthetic code’ with his paintings, proving that one cannot divorce these two diverse disciplines.

‘As I always say it is the ‘mysterious’ aspect that draws me to different subjects, once that mystery is unraveled I always look for another options.’ quips Parthan. He reads with radical omnivoracity, and employs a course of inclusion and exclusion with an open mind, to decipher his newly found options. Parthan can be called a man of many worlds: an individual exposed to contrasts - of a partially conservative culture in Kerala, to a radically opposite gypsy one in Goa; from being a highly techno savvy individual to one deeply immersed in philosophical reading. He constantly undergoes a process of transformation; he blends and reforms his identity thereby dissolving all boundaries.

Picture courtesy : Baiju Parthan







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