K.R. Santhana Krishnan's Door Paintings: Evoking Memories of Simpler Times

Creators And Collectors

Doors. Of every colour and size. Carrying many stories within themselves, and offering a peek inside the lives of those living behind them. Internationally acclaimed artist K.R. Santhana Krishnan has created over 900 door paintings in a career spanning more than 20 years, and he has never tired of the subject. “Raza painted the Bindu for so many years, the same is with Husain and his horses and Vaikuntam with his rural men and women,” says Santhana, explaining why the seemingly humble door is his muse for life.

Drawing the viewer in with the use of wooden frames, vibrant colours, rich textures and intriguing elements such as an old lock, coloured glass embellishments, brocade fabrics and different numbers written on the door – Santhana Krishnan has created a fanbase for himself the world over. He has exhibited his art not just in India, but also in USA, Singapore, Germany, China, Australia, Paris, Hong Kong, UAE, Mauritius, Taiwan and Vietnam. His artworks belong in the private collections of many esteemed personalities including Sachin Tendulkar, Shashi Tharoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Mani Ratnam, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Karan Johar, and Kamal Hassan. Through his art, Santhana beautifully narrates myriad stories of rural life, evoking memories of simpler times in India.

An Early Love for Art

Born in 1977, K.R. Santhana Krishnan grew up in Edappadi, in Salem district of Tamil Nadu. With an early flair and passion for art, a young Santhana didn’t enjoy academics, but was always acing art competitions at the inter-school level and enjoying the popularity that came along with his inherent, prodigious talent.

As a teenager, Santhana realised that art was where his passion and true calling lay. Doodling and sketching were a constant source of enjoyment and he drew portraits of his teachers, and biology diagrams for all his classmates. When the time came to make a choice about further studies, his supportive father encouraged him to follow his passion, and Santhana enrolled at the Government College of Fine Arts in Kumbakonam, his mother’s hometown. He completed his Bachelor’s in Fine Arts in 1998, and then went on to complete his Master’s in Fine Art from the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai in 2000. During his Master’s, Santhana exhibited his early door paintings in Bangalore, and one of the first people to purchase his art was Kiran Mazumdar Shaw!

An artwork by Santhana Krishnan; click to purchase on Artisera

Growing up, Santhana maintained a scrap book in which he stored cut-outs of different artist interviews from newspapers. With no galleries to visit in a small town, this was his way of educating and exposing himself to art. Life came full circle, when Santhana began participating in shows with many of the artists he used to read about.

The Connection with Doors

Santhana Krishnan was always fascinated by the everyday life that unfolded around him in the village. He grew up in a 140-year-old ancestral home in Edappadi, which boasted of 82 beautiful doors. Vacations were spent at his maternal grandparents’ home in Kumbakonam, a heritage town where the homes were large, and steeped in history.

During his five-year undergraduate course in Kumbakonam, he used to cycle to college every day and pass through old, ancestral houses lining all the streets. He observed the verandas buzzing with people, tranquil tulsi tharas and backyards, the kerosene lamps illuminating different parts of the houses and rusty hand pumps to draw water - all these visuals left a lasting impression on the young artist. “The Agraharam stretched across many kilometres, and the doors of every single house in the streets would always be left open. In those days, even crows were welcome inside the house. And today, most people in big cities don’t even know their neighbours, because we all live behind closed doors,” he reminisces.

An artwork by Santhana Krishnan; click to purchase on Artisera

To Santhana, doors are not just an entrance into homes; they are symbolic of so much more. To see the outside world, we all need to open our own small doors – our eyelids. And the doors of homes, allow us to see the lives of those inside.

Stories, Memories, and Emotions

Santhana Krishnan’s door paintings draw you in with their teasing glimpses of intimate spaces. The peeling side walls, pasted advertisements, rusting locks and smeared saffron marks add to their quaint allure. The artworks often feature the trappings of another time - the stamps of our tradition, of a life lived by our forefathers - vessels made of brass and copper, aluminium milk cans, bicycles resting against the wall and crows gathered in the courtyard. Santhana says that the life he portrays in his paintings is fast disappearing, surviving only in memory as urbanisation takes over our towns and villages, and globalization impact local industry, aesthetics, and lifestyle.

“My paintings are full of stories and emotions. They allow you to take a trip down memory lane,” says Santhana, with anecdotes to back his statement. In 2001, the artist sold one of his paintings of a door, which was inspired by a house in Kumbakonam. Upon having a conversation with the very emotional buyer, who was visiting India from Texas with his young children, Santhana learnt that his painting depicted the man’s ancestral home in Kumbakonam, which had since been demolished. The painting became a delightful memory the buyer could hold on to; a way to keep his childhood alive. In another incident, a German buyer saw one of Santhana’s paintings that depicted a fading poster of the legendary actor and politician, MGR, and immediately recalled his trip to India in the 1970s, when it was common for film posters to adorn the exterior walls of homes.

“All our roots go back to villages,” quips Santhana. And his art is an attempt to freeze the simple beauty of village life in time, keeping us connected to our memories, and re-establishing a link to our roots amidst the fast-paced and forgetful chaos of city life.

A Santhana Krishnan artwork; click to purchase on Artisera

Santhana Krishnan’s doors open into myriad worlds, with each of his paintings narrating different stories. He paints simple details like old door number and new door number, vaccination marking number, and electricity bill registration numbers, evoking memories of another era. The brilliance of Santhana’s art lies in the fact that he manages to infuse so much life in his paintings, without using any human figures at all.

Technique and Medium

Santhana’s artworks are mostly three dimensional. He does make ‘regular’ paintings on canvas, but his most striking and iconic works are on wooden blocks carved to look like real doors. While a team of carpenters help him with the woodwork, Santhana is never completely satisfied till he scrapes the wooden surfaces himself, to give them a finishing touch. Canvas is stretched on a frame and attached to the wooden block from behind, and this is where he depicts the ‘inside’ of the house, visible from outside the door. Finer details like actual locks and knockers, that he collects on his travels, are also added to make the artworks more authentic and interesting. Carved murals, embroidered cloth, and art prints are used to create panels on the doors, symbolic of the times such doors were built in.

A Santhana artwork on wood; click to purchase on Artisera

Of Vibrancy and Joy

While the doors that Santhana creates are quintessentially South Indian, the vibrant colours that he uses to paint them take inspiration from all over India, especially Rajasthan - a state that Santhana has a special fondness for. An avid traveller, Santhana has travelled far and wide within India, and also internationally, for his art exhibitions. He loves soaking in the cultural history and diversity of different places, and finds artistic inspiration in the observations he makes on his journeys.

In love with bright shades, Santhana stays away from ‘realistic portrayals’ of old, rustic doors and instead, uses fresh, vibrant colours, as he believes they spark joy in people. The artist, who lost his wife after 15 years of marriage, admits that his love for art has helped him overcome the huge personal loss. Always optimistic and positive, Santhana’s honesty and enthusiasm while speaking about art is contagious. Much like his artworks, which are intimate snapshots of myriad stories, Santhana’s journey in art and life flow like a narrative – held together by fond memories of cycle rides in an idyllic village of Tamil Nadu.

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