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The rise of live painting as a performance genre in Chennai

Emotions, frozen in time, dominate any sketch made by Chennai-based cartoonist Kapil Shankar. Among two friends getting tipsy at a bar, there is uproarious laughter; with a mother hugging her toddler, there is a barely stifled one. With a boy and girl walking side by side with him glancing down at her hand, as if hoping to hold it, there is a sweet, delicate tension.

When the city’s independent musicians and comedians belt out their creative content in front of his eyes, there is only what Kapil (@artsy.kp) calls “the vibe”. It differs from performance to performance, he says. But no matter what it is, he usually has three minutes or less to capture it on paper. “When I make a comic strip, it usually takes me an hour. Here, though the vibe is very real, I have very little time to depict it,” he says. And therein lies the challenge of live art.

Drawing up a performance as and when it happens — complete with moods, stances and its idiosyncrasies — is a practice that artists in Chennai are slowly warming up to. Kapil, 20, has been doing it since September last year, ever since he accompanied a friend to a gig at Zostel and saw scope for art in that situation. “I had nothing else to do,” he shrugs and adds, “…but I did have some paper and my mechanical pencil and eraser.”

The rise of live painting as a performance genre in Chennai

Since then, Kapil has committed to paper everything from the hilarious spontaneity and awkward exchanges of a roast to the dimly-lit soulfulness of acoustic duets. “The first thing I capture is body language. Everyone has a defining stance or gesture. Once I capture that, I can fill in the rest at leisure,” he says. Having done that, the sketch need not necessarily make it to the next step. Only the ones he is satisfied with are inked out, and even fewer see the light of the day on his Instagram.

The rise of live painting as a performance genre in Chennai

Adapting to mood

Unlike Kapil, however, other live artists in the city enjoy an audience. Lotuzhead, a street artist and muralist based in Chennai, has been painting on walls since 2016. This, according to them, is also a form of live painting, where the artist has an audience who stray onto the scene out of curiosity. Today, the artist can be spotted in front of an empty canvas (mostly in The Leather Bar, The Park) donning a mask, his brushstrokes colliding with the “vibe” of the music doled out by the city’s indie talent.

“Professionally, I came into live painting in 2017, with a collective called the Urban Artist Network. Initially, the idea was suggested by musician Bjorn Surrao, who had wanted a visual component to the performances,” says Lotuzhead (@lotuzhead.goes.outdoors), whose penchant for using art as performance has him regularly painting for an audience.

“I don’t really plan anything, I go with the music and the mood it emanates. All I have control over is the size of the canvas and the materials used.” What the song is trying to say takes a backseat, while its rhythm and tenor that contribute to the mood and ambience translate onto the canvas. “During one of the gigs, I wanted to go with something dark and mysterious with my colours, but the musicians were playing a love song that night. Then I had to change quickly into something more mellow and romantic,” says the artist. If the song is more upbeat, his strokes are likely to be more rapid and strong. On the other hand, when the song is ambient and mellow, a gradient of colours can be spotted on the canvas.

L Maduvanthi at a gig

Some graffiti artists try their hand at live painting but end up not sticking to it solely because of the presence of an audience. This is where Lotuzhead’s comfort lies. Theatrics, he believes, is a major component of his work. The fact that he is an anonymous artist and wears a mask adds to this aspect effortlessly. He also tries his hand at fire breathing (mostly onto the canvas) in between some performances. “I really enjoy the aspect that what I do fits in as a visual cue to the entire event. I am a very flamboyant person myself, so I like being that way,” says Lotuzhead, who also interacts with the audience at times, asking for a quote or an element that he can throw on to his canvas, to engage them. He also entertains viewers by making on-the-spot portraits of those who are interested.

Accessible performance

Engaging with the audience is not the only appeal of live art; the genre also lends itself to greater accessibility. LR Maduvanthi, a 24-year-old graphic designer, who does live sketches for SOFAR gigs, believes that live painting makes art accessible, especially for the viewers. She recalls how her family used to be the audience in her “live painting sessions” as a child. “The crowd and the vibe they give matters a lot, since art is essentially a tool for expression,” says Maduvanthi (@___sp_ace___).

As for the audience, watching a painting unfurl would help in visually interacting with the process, thereby stimulating their thoughts, according to the artist. This would also lead them to interpret the work together as a community.

“There is a sense of awe that they feel when they see someone paint, but the more you start interacting with them, the more you realise that they deem it accessible,” says Maduvanthi. How often do you get to interact with an artist who is knee-deep in his/her process? Live painting for Maduvanthi is a reaction to her observations, mostly. And because it is so, she also feels that the performance that happens alongside, plays a huge role in the work. Lately, she has been working on kinetic typography, which is, technically, lettering done to the backdrop of music. “Everything from the pace, style, to the volume of music affects the kinds of strokes used, the fonts and the entire transition of music you are listening to,” explains the artist.

Kapil, in contrast, focusses more on the creators than on their creations. But even as these artists differ in their approach and their intent, they leave behind the same result, the very moment when creative performers meet their audience: frozen to memory by strokes of the hand.

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