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S Elayaraja, Tamil Artist Known for His Realistic Paintings, Dies at 43

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Credit: S Elayaraja's website

S Elayaraja, a prominent Tamil painter known for his realistic oil paintings of rural women, died due to Covid-19 complications at a private hospital in Egmore, Chennai during the early hours of Monday. He was 43.

Swaminathan Elayaraja, who hailed from Sembiyavarambal village near Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, had tested positive for the novel coronavirus about a week earlier and was undergoing treatment at the hospital. However, he succumbed to the virus.

Born on April 19, 1979, Elayaraja studied at the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Kumbakonam from 1996-2001 and received his Bachelor of Fine Arts (Painting) degree. Later, he completed his Master of Fine Arts (Painting) at the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai in 2003. The late artist worked in various mediums, including oil, acrylic, and watercolours. He also practised techniques such as knife painting, printmaking, and photography. However, Elayaraja was primarily known for his realistic oil paintings of rural women in natural surroundings, which were notable for the use of chiaroscuro technique (play of light and shade in painting) and the attention he paid to even minute details such as the zari on the saris worn by his subjects.

Speaking to Silverscreen India about the late artist, digital painter Ravi Palatti, says, “In times when there was a move towards modern art, Elayaraja has to be applauded for choosing to create realistic paintings. At one point, even galleries stopped showcasing realistic paintings and audiences were moving towards abstract art. Elayaraja’s work was instrumental in bringing the focus back to realism.”

Palatti notes that Elayaraja broke the stereotypical idea of fair skin as the standard of beauty and portrayed women with “Tamil faces”. He particularly appreciates Elayaraja’s use of yellow hues in his paintings. “All his artworks had yellow. It is the hardest colour to handle,” he says.

Artist Thirunavarakarasu, who was Elayaraja’s senior at the Kumbakonam college, once hailed the late artist as the “next Ravi Varma”. He recalls, “Despite his success, he remained the same simple person since our college days. Elayaraja was very enthusiastic about reviving art styles such as realism. In 2018, I had invited him to Madurai to do a demonstration on realistic paintings for students. He completed a painting within 30 minutes at that time.”

Elayaraja briefly ventured into acting when he portrayed the younger version of R Parthiban’s character in the latter’s 2002 directorial Ivan. Art director Tha Ramalingam, who last worked on Karnan, and is part of the upcoming film Sarpatta Parambarai, tells us how this came about. Ramalingam, who studied at the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai, says, “Parthiban visited our college to sit as a model for an art class. Elayaraja, who was doing his Masters at the time, joined our undergraduate class to draw him. He drew him (Parthiban) so well that the latter made him act in his film.”

Calling Elayaraja his own “inspiration” in the art field, Ramalingam says that the late painter freely appreciated the work of his juniors. “I have shown him many of my paintings and received his feedback.” He adds that Elayaraja sincerely stuck to his painting work and stayed clear of politics in college.

Filmmaker Chimbu Deven calls Elayaraja’s journey an “important one” for the art industry. “I came to know of Elayaraja through artist Manohar,” he says. “He (Manohar) was a professor at Government College of Fine Arts and Elayaraja was his student. At that time, I was working at Vikatan as a cartoonist. Elayaraja was a very soft-spoken person and was among the few artists who took up realistic art when modern art was appreciated more. A lot of realistic artists are often mocked as calendar artists, so fewer people take up the style. But Elayaraja broke this trend and received national and international recognition. He documented his people’s culture and colour. His journey was an important one and his death is a great loss to us.”

Several members of the film fraternity mourned the death of the artist on social media.

Elayaraja’s last rites were conducted at his hometown on Monday. He is survived by his wife, who is currently undergoing treatment for Covid-19 in Chennai, a daughter, and a son.

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