Melbourne based artist Sedunath Prabhakar is a man of few words. What speaks loud are his works translated on canvasses.
Like all artists Sedunath Prabhakar’s dreams were to live in Paris. He wanted to paint under the European skies where freedom and the limitless boundaries of art draw artists from all over the world. “But language was my biggest problem,” smiles Prabhakar.
Born and brought up in Cochin, Kerala, coming to Australia gave him ample opportunities and the freedom to pursue his passion as the world opened up in front of him.
In 2015, using acrylic medium, Prabhakar painted 50 portraits of people who shaped the future of Australia. Titled Pride of Australia, he says this work is an expression of gratitude to a country that has given him and his family (wife and two children) a sense of belonging. “This is such a welcoming and multicultural country,” he says.
Selecting the historical figures was no easy task. But through researches, and interviews and reading the referred books, he chose 50 personalities who form an integral part of the history of Australia. “It took 1.5 years to complete the 50 meter canvas which carry all the 50 paintings,” says the 43-year old artist, who has now become quite known for this project.
Among the greats depicted are cricketer Donald Bradman; Julia Gillard, the country’s first woman prime minister; explorer Captain James Cook; General John Monash, who saw action in World War I; literature Nobel winner Patrick White; aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye; swimmer Ian Thorpe and footballer Tim Cahill, to name a few. His personal favourites are Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest serving prime minister and Kame Kngwarreye, one of the most prominent and successful artists in the history of contemporary Indigenous Australian art. “I felt there was a certain speciality in their faces but that having said each painting was a labour of love,” says Prabhakar.
These portraits were first exhibited at Glen Iris Townhall in 2015. But this year for the first time the works of an Indian artist was honoured in the Parliament of Victoria as Prabhakar showcased the 50 portraits to distinguished guests at the invitation of Speaker Collin Brooks.
Of his works Brooks said, “Prabhakar has done a lot of research to select the 50 as he has included Australia’s first Prime Minister Sir Edmund Barton and it was in this hall that Australia’s first parliament had its sitting. By holding Prabhakar’s exhibition, this clearly shows how this country promotes the talents of those who have come from other countries and this will certainly be a morale booster for all talented people.”
Prabhakar took to the brushes from the young age of four. Growing up in his native village in Kerala, the abundant natural beauty with its rich and varied culture of visual tradition influenced his work. “Kathakali, the extremely sophisticated visual art form and other traditional art forms were performed regularly in my village and this enhanced my artistic sensibilities.”
So he has been painting since the time he could distinguish different colours. “As a river finds its flow, the visual feast that unfolded in front of me drew me to the world of colours very early on in my childhood,” reflects Prabhakar.
Professionally, Prabhakar began his craft about 17 years ago. A self-taught artist, he started painting landscapes mainly using the medium of water colour initially. Later he turned to the medium of oil colour. But it was after he completed a diploma from the prestigious School of Fine Arts, Baroda University, that he evolved as an artist. The education and training in the School of Fine Arts broadened his vision and horizon into more complex aspects of human life and society.
An important and recurring theme in his works is the relationship between nature and human beings. “Through my paintings I also attempt to explore the nuances involving religion and its interplay with society. Like all true artists I draw inspiration from tradition especially its parallel streams.”
In India he held many exhibitions of his works in Gujarat and his home state of Kerala. His first solo exhibition was in Kerala in 2001. It was a series titled ‘God of Religion’ and an attempt to unravel the unholy nature of religion’s interplay in society. Done in the medium of oil, the exhibition got wide acclaim from critics as well as the public. The exhibition was inaugurated by well-known writer Kamala Surayya in Chithram Art Gallery of Kochi, he informs.
He has also conducted two more solo exhibitions in Kerala. The second exhibition was in Trivandrum Museum art gallery which was inaugurated by actor Bharat Murali. “I also got an opportunity to exhibit some of my paintings in a group exhibition held in Delhi in 2004. From 1998 to 2003, I regularly displayed my paintings in famous Jain temples in various places in Gujarat. Those paintings relate to the history of Jain religion.”
When he came to Australia in 2008, Prabhakar initially took part in small group exhibitions to showcase his work. “I got good response from people who were not familiar with the Indian style such as the tone and use of colours.”
Today, he has invitations from all major art groups such as the Campberwell Art Group and Melbourne Arts Society. He has also been working closely with Cherry Hood, winner of the 2002 Archibald Prize, who is based in Sydney. “She invites me for workshop and exhibitions all the time. So far, I have travelled to Sydney a few times to participate in her workshops.”
Prabhakar has also been awarded by the Dandenong Art Community for contemporary style of painting. He won the ‘Standing at the Crossroad’ award from among the 200 artists from Australia who participated. His painting ‘The Temptation’, a theme he picked from a Testament of the Bible bagged him the first prize.
Prabhakar admits he is more inclined towards contemporary art and themes that are realistic and abstract as it gives him the freedom to explore and paint his thoughts. “In India I did agnostic-based themes, I am not a religious person. I want to do more on the realm of agnostics but it takes time. I need to prove artists that I can do realistic as well. That’s why I am doing portraits but I want to be well known as a contemporary artist.”
Asked if there is any influence on his works, he says he is drawn towards European art for their sheer superior quality. “I do Indian art on murals, the south Indian Kerala style with different colours and theme. The only disadvantage is that the mural comes from the Puranic tradition, so there is not too much freedom and you have to stick to the tradition. In India most artists stick to the traditional style but in Europe it is as limitless as the sky.”
In 2015, Prabhakar opened his own arts school Kalakshetra in six different suburbs of Melbourne. Today more than 100 students are enrolled for lessons in painting and Carnatic music. The other side to Prabhakar that makes him truly a man of the arts is the fact that he is also an accomplished singer and performs in community events. He started learning Carnatic music as a child. “I don’t have any academic qualification in music. I started to learn under Guru Pandmanabhan Bhagavatar. Then I continued my studies with Guru Venmani Sivram.”
He also modestly admits to having written a book in Malayali, his mother tongue. In 2001, Pen Books published his first book named “Bhroonam”. It was a compilation of two novelettes regarding a religious disaster that happened in India. The book was released at the Press Club in Cochin, Kerala by justice Krishna Iyyer. Currently he has finished another one which will be translated in English too.
Prabhakar’s next major work is getting ready with 60 paintings that tell the tradition of Oman and the cultural developments of people and the nation under the rule of Sultan Qaboos. On invitation from the government of Oman he will travel to Muscat in November to take part in it the arts festival there.
“I feel excited and deeply satisfied,” he says, adding, “My profession and passion is being an artist. I don’t feel it is a challenge. It’s a flow coming from the mind that I translate on the canvas.”