“Where is the life we have lost in living?” Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Professor J. Vasanthan took these lines of T.S Eliot serious and experimented with his life. Today, the legacy he has left behind as a Dramatist, Writer, Artist and Teacher profoundly articulates the message of Eliot. For J. V, as he was and is affectionately called, art was his life and life, an art.
A robust plant can be seen as it sprouts. Even as a young boy of V.O.C Board High School, Kovilpatti, the unpretentious j.V was a storyteller and director of plays. He joined American College to do his intermediate (1951-1953). Then he went to hyderabad to be employed by a flourishing advertising agency Saba & Co as a visualiser. He also experimented with journalism during a short stint with the Indian Express. He then returned to American College for his undergraduate studies in English language and literature (1957-1959). Subsequently, he joined Madras Christian College for his Master’s Degree (1959-1961). MCC was only too willing to invite him to join the faculty. He served as a lecturer in English there for seven years (1961-1968). When Dr. M.A. Thangaraj invited J.V to come and serve in the English Department, he returned to American College once more and served for 26 years before he eventually retired (1968-1994).
J.V’s failed attempts to enter Tamil Cinema needs to be narrated here. Immediately after B.A, a friend of his took J.V to the legendary movie director Beemsingh. Halfway through the conversation, Beemsingh hearing that J.V was the only first class student in English Literature of the then Madras University that year and a gold medalist, immediately stood up and offered him his chair as J.V was still standing and talking to him. The irony is that Beemsingh was very emphatic that J.V’s talents should not be lost to the academic world and be “wasted on cinema”.
While teaching English Literature, J.V relentlessly pursued his endeavours of staging plays. Among his earlier successes was ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ in the mid 1960’s in Madras. He continued that tradition in Madurai under the banner of ‘Curtain Club’ which he started at American College.
His knowledge of Shakespeare was immense. A close friend and colleague of his quipped, “When it came to Shakespeare, even angels fear to tread his path”. He patiently and joyfully trained several artists for the classical stage from the ranks of his own students, colleagues and friends. As a Shakespearean, his pedagogy was the practice of drama. If his profound understanding of Shakespeare gave sophistication to his plays, his drawings were his strengthen for art direction in classical theatre, elaborately visualising sets and costumes.
Theatre did not stop him from writing. He became a nationally recognized writer as early as 1970. Shankar’s weekly contracted him as a cartoonist and writer in 1973 and he continued to contribute till it closed. He was one of the pioneers of Film Studies from this part of the world. During 1970’s and 1980’s, he contributed several articles in the form of film criticism to leading publications like ‘Film Fare’ and ‘Star & Style’. He wrote a series of detective stories for ‘Caravan’. He contributed extensively to ‘Indian Express’. He wrote a fortnightly column for ‘The Hindu’ called ‘Down Memory Lane’ for many years.
He did not leave out writing for children either. He wrote a series of illustrated stories for children in ‘Gokulam’ featuring his created character King Jeyabalan. On the whole, there are more than 200 articles written by J.V worth researching into.
J.V caricaturing while he attended the Pune Film Institute drew him to make a connection with Kirish Karnad and Satyajit Ray. Of the three documentary movies he directed, one won an international award.
The most pervasive and prolific of all these artistic endeavours are his drawings. More than 2,500 drawings brought to light after his death, recovered mostly from shelves and boxes tucked away by J.V, having surprised art critics. (According to family members, many pieces have been lost or gifted away by J.V himself). “I am stunned’, is the reaction of a leading art critic from Chennai who visited his home after his death. “It is amazing how much he has traveled with the new techniques, never stopping his exploration in art”, said another art critic.
First it is the sheer prolificacy, second it is the uncharted journey, third it is the celebrating of individual privacy through art. J.V perceived himself as a ‘Line and Wash’ artist, but constantly broke boundaries. His drawings are composed of categories such as portraits, group compositions, still life, abstracts, nudes and several other that evade easy categorization. One artist said that he saw at least sixteen categories of drawings. Amazing!
Beyond all these, stood the overarching self of J.V as a teacher, into which collapsed everything else, the storytelling, the dramatist, writer, artist as well as his humanity.
Nothing enamoured him as much as station as a teacher. Very often he would say “A teacher of literature or art should be an entertainer. Only then can he or she pass the joy for learning onto the student.” His classroom, the campus, and his home had blurred borders. Anyone could sit by his side, anywhere, and be enthralled and learn joyfully. He was a bohemian. He heartily entertained everyone who came home. He gifted away anything to anyone including his precious time and artworks. Some acknowledged his generousity and some did not. That did not worry him. He bought no property and did not save for the morrow. But he enjoyed a satisfied and content life.
J.V has bequeathed a great legacy to all of us and a memory of a life lived well and worth remembering.