Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “Art is not the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.”

For K R Santhana Krishnan, art has been the way of life, of connecting and conveying his feelings to the common man who passes by a house everyday. The 43-year-old artist from a temple town, Kumbakonam, has devoted over 20 years of his life to an unusual muse and, in the process, has created something rather terrific, The Doors. He has exhibited his collection of doors in more than 42 countries. In a conversation with Suhani Lakhotia, Krishnan talks about his life-long relationship with doors, his childhood and how art has pulled him away from the darkest of times.

‘The Doors’ is a very novel concept. What is the story behind it?
The DoorsKumbakonam, a small temple town in Tamil Nadu, is a very cultured place. Out of the two colleges available for fine art study, I opted for Kumbakonam as it was my mother’s native place and the streets were familiar to me. When I was in college, in 1994, I would ride my cycle through a big street which was filled with old doors that were left unattended and uncared for. These doors were big and authentic. Each day I would glance at the doors twice – once in the morning and once during the sunset light. Both times, I would get a different perspective. My fascination with the doors grew by the day. Finally, in 1996, I started painting doors. Every artist needs an identity of their own and I decided that I wanted doors to be mine.

Can you elaborate on your artistic upbringing and how you decided on a career in the art world?
During my schooling years, when my peers were busy pursuing careers in engineering and medicine, I was enrolling myself in art clubs. Art was everywhere. I practised art in chemistry and biology practical record books while drawing diagrams of cockroaches, fishes, and other academic figures.

One more thing that largely pulled my focus towards art and artists were the interviews of painters in the Sunday edition of The Hindu. That’s how I learnt about the masters and the history of art. The interviews included famous Indians like MF Hussain, SH Raza, and western artists like Rembrandt, Vincent Van Gogh, Picasso, and more. In those days, following an unconventional career route was an anomaly but with my father’s support, I began my undergrad study at a fine arts college in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. In the third year of the five year course, I chose painting as my specialisation.

Tell me a little about the inspiration behind your paintings.
Accessibility has been key while deciding what to paint. My paintings are very easy to understand. Everyone from an art professional to my driver can comprehend what I want to convey. Another aspect I keep in mind while painting is the younger generation. They don’t know the depth of Indian culture. A lot is getting lost between the hustle-bustle of their daily lives. But, what about our roots? It is important to acknowledge them too.

Doors are my legacy in the future to the past. The olden doors are nowhere to be found today. I often refer to them as vanishing doors. It is also one of the reasons why I do so many shows abroad. I have done shows in Melbourne, Switzerland, Germany, France and more. People love seeing my painting because it shows the Indian colours and our culture of togetherness.

Colours and medium matter as much as the art itself. How do you choose the medium and the colours? Tell me some instances that help you opt for the colours in your paintings.
The DoorsThroughout the initial phase, I painted the doors with watercolours but soon shifted to oil paints and acrylic paints to create life-sized versions of my paintings. Currently, I am experimenting with a relatively new technique, 3D paintings. With 3D art, I am able to preserve these woodworks as they don’t fade away into oblivion. I have also incorporated a glass covering to preserve them. This in turn, makes my work stand out from the crowd. Testing and carving wood was my next step. Wood allows you more freedom to use different materials and I can also carve the wood to my requirement.

I also travel profusely and during each of my trips, I make a point to remember the colour trend of the city. Later on, while painting, I include the colour scheme in my doors. I look at saris and pick up contrasting colours. Movies have taught me which colours work best in background and foreground. I photograph murals and ceilings and get inspired by the palette. It’s about observing the meticulous details and thinking about them in-depth.

Each artist has a certain message embedded in their paintings. Is there something that you would like to convey to your audience through your art?
Painting doors is my way of telling people to slow down from their busy lives; to think about a time where talking and mingling with each other was a way of creating memories. They should take a deep breath and do it more often. I want to tell them to think about their childhood, of the golden days where there were insignificant worries. I want to transport them to a carefree, happier world through my paintings.

I have incorporated several elements of the olden days. For instance, copper vessels, often found in my paintings, were used to boil water. Now, people use copper bottles to drink water from. So, in a way, my paintings are also a commentary on the changing times. 21st century is the era of plastic and engines. There was a culture of sharing as well, be it sharing with humans and leaving some behind for the animals. Where is all of that today? Doors are also pathways to a simpler life where we were not surrounded by a concrete jungle.

Painting is not decorative art like people perceive. Painting means that you want to connect with people, with their emotions and evoke memories that, otherwise, would have been lost. All my paintings have a story embedded within.

Art evokes emotions. Your paintings have a central sense of childhood nostalgia. Can you share some of the compelling comments you have received from your viewers that have stayed with you?
The DoorsArtists shine from criticism. There are stories that have allowed me to delve deeper into my art. A specific one from my early days as an artist was when I did my first show in Bengaluru. The general manager of the gallery asked me to come to the venue. Upon entering the gallery, I saw a family along with their children. The man introduced himself as Srinivas and hugged me. I was very confused with everything going on. Srinivas asked me if I had painted the door from my imagination. Subsequently, I narrated the story of how I saw the door in front of a house in Kumbakonam. The husband and wife duo revealed that this had been the door of their demolished house. Srinivas had flown down to India with his kids to attend a function. Due to its delayed start, they had chanced on the gallery and hence, the painting.

This was also the first time that they had gotten their children to India and during the flight, he was devastated as he had nothing to show to his kids. “All the luxuries take a back seat when you are not able to relive the moments from your childhood.” At that moment, I realised that my paintings are stories, they provide the emotional connect of nostalgia. I finally understood the meaning behind my own paintings.

Every artist looks over at other artists for inspiration. Who are some of the painters and artists that have motivated you, over the years? What have you implemented from their style of work? What are some of the most memorable words that you have received from artists alike?
Big names of the industry like MF Hussain, SH Raza, Thota Vaikuntham have always been on my mind. I always refer to Raza and Vaikuntham’s paintings while choosing colours for my own creations. They are the masters of painting in India. Each of the three artists have a distinctive identity of their own; Raza has his abstract format, Hussain has horses. Just like them, doors have become my identity. In India, and across the globe, artists become famous for choosing the same subject across their paintings. It’s their style that makes them popular, and of course, the talent that gets them noticed.

Which is your favourite piece of art from your collection? What is the story behind it?
Unlike artists who preserve their most treasured paintings, I don’t have a single one in my possession. All of them have been sold out. But, I do have the first door I ever painted. It was created during my college days in watercolour over two decades back, in 1996. The most memorable one, though, has to be the three-door collection that I painted for the Bengaluru International Airport. They are life-sized re-creations that are hanging in the VIP Lounge of the airport. I feel honour and pride when I say that my paintings are installed in a heritage-themed airport for every passerby to see and get to know the culture of India.

Artists often face a creative block. How do you cross the bridge to let the creativity flow? What are some of the other challenges you have faced in this industry?
The DoorsWorking as an independent body, I have never been under any rules or restrictions. When I do find myself stuck on a particular painting, I change the medium of my work. For instance, if I am working with watercolours, I switch to acrylic paints. One challenge I do face quite often is explaining the concept of doors to others, verbally. Most of them have the same astonished reaction that prompts invisible thoughts like, “Doors? Who paints doors?” It is only when I show them that they fully comprehend it.

Another issue I faced was during my initial days as an artist. I was not able to fully conceptualise and deliver to my expectations. It was only with trial and error and a mix of mediums that I achieved what I wanted to. As for the creative part, I have always tried to expand my horizons. Staying stuck in a box of limited ideas always hinders progress. So I try to look outside the box and get different perspectives.

How have the paintings impacted you in your personal life?
Three years ago, all of a sudden, I lost my wife. We had been together since school. Twenty days later, I was back in my studio, creating again. Painting is my passion. Art pulled me away from this situation and helped me come back to normalcy. That is the power that this art… this passion… has over me. I started travelling and put up shows all over the world. Art is everything to me.

Art has also made me an optimist. I talk only about positive things. There is a myth that says only a broken heart can create art. That has always sounded absurd to me. I have always painted with a happy and a clear head so that my art imparts the same joy to its viewers. I am very happy with the life that I lead and extremely grateful too. It’s been a very thankful and appreciative journey.

What’s next?
Kumbakonam is a very beautiful place with art all over. I want more and more people to explore this unheard retreat. I have built a studio space and started an artist’s retreat by the name of Kathavu where I offer homestays. I am also building and starting the rental space so that various artists from everywhere have the chance to meet and network with other artists. It is only through talking and looking at others’ work that one gets inspired. My aim is to inspire and to get inspired through their work.

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Do you want to see more of KR Santhana Krishnan’s door magic? Follow him on Instagram @doorsanthanam or pay him a visit on www.doorpaintings.com