A CNK retrospective in Kochi pays tribute to genius of late artist


C.N. Karunakaran’s painting style was a blend of Kerala mural art, Indian mythology, fantasy, and folk

C.N. Karunakaran’s painting style was a blend of Kerala mural art, Indian mythology, fantasy, and folk

In 1992, Palette People, one of the earliest art promoter groups in Kerala, hosted C.N. Karunakaran’s first solo show. Thirty years later, it is hosting a retrospective, ‘CN 30’, of the late artist’s work as a tribute to his genius.

CNK, as he was known, was a prolific artist with a huge body of work, “more than 1,000 paintings all over the world,” says Cyril Jacob, founder of Palette People. His style was a blend of various influences — Kerala mural art, Indian mythology, fantasy, and folk — and the fluidity of forms and figures, luminosity of colours, and mysterious narratives gave his works a specific identity. The female form was central to his canvas, and his animal figures flew on the wings of fantasy.

Jacob recalls pitching the idea of the solo show to CNK 30 years ago. He wanted 30 works in six months. “He was very busy then, but agreed to the idea. It surprised me. CNK painted fast and furious. He worked like an office-goer: begin at 8.30 a.m., take a break for lunch, return to the easel, and stop at 5 p.m. Art flowed from his brush.” The paintings were exhibited at the new Woodlands Jewellery building on M.G. Road.

Veteran politician E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who inaugurated the event, famously said, “I know nothing about art.” Jacob adds that it was a turning point in CNK’s career. Of the 37 works shown, 25 were sold, and CNK got offers to work on murals from a Chennai-based gallerist and a big corporate house. From here, the artist grew in stature and exhibited his works across India and foreign countries.

All the works in the current show are in acrylic and oil on canvas and come in different sizes. “The colours are more subdued than in his early works as they belong to the latter period of the artist’s painting timeline,” says Jacob, who has been following the artist’s work from the mid-1970s.

CN 30 is on show at David Hall, Fort Kochi, till November 6.

CNK (1940-2013) received his formal training in art at the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai. He also made ad films and worked as an art director for a few Malayalam films.

In 1970, he returned to Kochi where he became involved with Kerala Kalapeedom (Kerala Institute of Arts) and formed a close-knit group of people from art and cinema. In 1973, he founded Chitrakoodam, Kerala’s first privately owned art gallery, but soon shut it down to focus on his career.

Among his various honours is the Kerala Lalithkala Akademi Award, which he won three times. He was also chairman of the Akademi in 2006.

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