Apart from the interest with portraits, Surendran gathered his inspiration from the works of writers, like
Dostoevsky, and artists like, Pablo Picasso and Toulouse Lautrec. The Expressionist visual language
through work of artists like, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, also facilitated some stylistic assimilations.
Political pieces as social commentaries like the drawings and prints of George Grosz were also source of
Nair composes his paintings around protagonist and predicaments recruited from diverse image-archives:
from Greek myth and Indic iconography; from heraldry and the idioms of pamphleteers and poster-makers;
from the memory of his student days in Trivandrum and Baroda; and from the turbulent political history of
postcolonial India. Although the initial exposure he chose was more towards Western art, the local cultural
sensibilities of Kerala, such as the theatre and dance forms of Kathakali and Theyyam, or the murals of
Mattancherry, also cast their influences. The rituals of religious practice and festivals celebrated in the region
through connections with family were intertwined in his life. These witnessed practices, inherited from those
days of living in his family home, are renegotiated by Surendran in his work. However he examines them for
what they evoke in the present context of the appropriation of religion by political factions, rather than
identifying with the beliefs implicit in them.
The model of theatre is central to Nair’s art. His manifestation with the ceremonial of theatre is manifest: it is
in his evocation of the ritual of making up and presenting oneself in a persona, literally the mask of another
personality; in the gestures of self-transformation that his characters perform, allowing for
passage from one shape or identity to another; and in the ensemble action of animated visual
image and stimulating text that characterizes them. Nair’s paintings are either partly made
up of, or rely quite strongly on words(…)It manifest itself as the annotation to the image and
does not describe the image but amplifies it(…) Similarly, titles are important element in his
work. Sometimes it is quite elaborate and at other times he uses the visuals itself as titles,
instead of words. He uses the constant play between images and words to create surprising
association and meanings.
The last few years of Surendran Nair’s work can be conceptualize through the Corollary
Mythologies series. To describe his body of work he said, “Corollary Mythologies are, in a
way, about belonging and dissent. In that sense, I imagine my works to have political
undertones - however subtle that it may be - which are informed by history mythology, real
and imaginary events, art history, notions of identity and its relationship with tradition and
modernity, language and sexuality, religious and other faiths, etc. Without emphasizing any
one of these in particular, I tend to address these issues simultaneously. Sometimes
rendered sentimentally, literally, cryptically or otherwise, metaphorically oblique, they are
both detached and reflective; at times with a mischievous gaze, sometimes making innocent
jokes, and at other times being ironical and quizzical as well.
In 2000, his painting titled 'An actor rehearsing the interior monologue of Icarus' at a group
show to be held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi attracted controversy. Nair's
work depicting a naked Icarus, the Greek mythological figure, on top of the Ashoka Pillar,
was rejected after it was deemed irreverent to a national symbol. Nair then withdrew from
the show as a mark of protest.
Since 1986, Nair has exhibited his work solo and as part of prominent group exhibitions.
Among his sselect shows are Graphic Prints, Kerala, Ernakulam, 1986; Landscapes &
Other Drawings, Vithi, Baroda, 1989; Drawings, Graphics & Paintings, New Delhi, 1989;
Paintings & Drawings, Mumbai, 1990; Paintings & Drawings,Mumbai, 1995; The
Labyrinth of Eternal Delight, Sydney, 1996; The Labyrinth of Eternal Delight, Baroda,
1997; Corollary Mythologies, Mumbai, 1998; Bad Behaviour of Singularities, Mumbai,
2005; Bad Behaviour of Singularities, Delhi, 2006; Pernoctation & Early Drawings,
Mumbai, 2008; Pernoctation & Early Drawings, Cochin, 2009.
An internationally acclaimed artist, Surendaran Nair’s works are in several public and
private collections in India and abroad. He lives and works in Baroda.
Excerpts from the book Itinerant Mythologies: Surendran Nair published by Sakshi
Gallery & Synergy Art Foundation Ltd., Colaba, Mumbai 2009