Untitled painting by Edwin Joseph
Untitled painting by Edwin Joseph

For Love and Monet

How does one find Eddy the artist? ‘Go up to Vattakanal and ask for him,’ came the response every time. ‘Anybody there will know.’ This was how we arrived at the narrow, winding path that led us to the utterly picturesque cottage that Edwin Joseph or Eddy, one of Kodaikanal’s most prominent painters, calls home. His popularity in Kodai notwithstanding, Eddy is not expecting company, scrutinising us with a steady gaze. 

The artist has lived in the same spot in Vattakanal since 1981, where only a shack stood at the time. ‘Every time I sold paintings, I would expand this space, one room at a time,’ he tells us. 

Today, it is a house right out of a storybook, with an indoor garden and paintings all over the walls and in large piles in every room. Pieces of polished driftwood, gathered many years ago from nearby streams, occupy pride of place. Spring water gushes into a well in the large garden, his primary source. ‘I have built everything here myself, stone by stone,’ he remarks, as he shows us around.

Edwin’s house in Kodaikanal (Photo: Snehaa Ramesh)

Eddy’s tryst with this town began 40 years ago, on the advice of a friend, and never ended after that. ‘I came here to paint, and Kodai has more than given me my due,’ he says. ‘My works are in nearly every house in town – TVS, Lakshmi Mills, MRF… it’s been a wonderful journey.’ 

Gallerist Sarala Bannerjee displayed Eddy’s work early on, at one of the oldest art galleries in South India, Sarala’s Art Centre, established in 1965 in Chennai. ‘His work is an important artistic representation of Kodaikanal and its natural beauty,’ she told The Kodai Chronicle.

The world we have just entered is a wonderful mix of Enid Blyton, Henry David Thoreau and Claude Monet. Eddy is preparing to sit down and paint, as he has done every day of his life for many decades. Hundreds of paintings around the house bear witness to this: a microcosm of four decades of work. A stack of acrylics, a pile of horse paintings at the very top, is placed on the table beside him. ‘This is what I have been working on recently,’ he says.

Eddy’s house in Kodaikanal (Photos: Darshana Ramdev)

He walks us through his home, arguably one of his most important pieces of art. ‘I started building it in 1981. The most recent section’—he gestures to the front of the house—‘was built in 2005.’

At one point, he stops to pick up something from the ground and hands me a porcupine quill, telling stories of bison, wild boar and the occasional leopard. A framed picture of Eddy, grinning beside a large bison, sits on a shelf inside the house. ‘I once saw two leopards attack a wild boar, here in the garden,’ he tells us.

Edwin’s house in Kodaikanal (Photo: Snehaa Ramesh)

‘You want to do an interview?’ he asks, looking shocked when he discovers why we are here. He has, however, warmed up considerably upon learning I am the daughter of an old friend. ‘You want the interview today?’ Eddy has never quite fancied the limelight. ‘That’s never worked for me,’ he says. ‘Now, if people want a painting, they come home. But I suppose you can interview me, yes.’  

He rushes off to the kitchen to process this, returning with cups of black tea, aromatic with ginger. He tells us about the food he cooks, later, and gets us to sample lemon and bitter gourd pickles from large jars.

Edwin Joseph (Photo by arrangement with the artist)

After having spent a year in Bangalore working for an advertising firm, Eddy, with Rs 20 in his pocket, arrived, with a friend, at a remarkably beautiful, quiet little town tucked away in the Western Ghats.. It was 1973. ‘There was a place for foreign tourists, and I was able to spend a night there. The next day, I met Mani, who had started the cheese factory by the time I came here. He asked me where I was staying and told me I could stay with him.’ Eddy moved into the little room at the top, which he shared with another Kodai old-timer, Timothy Ward, who was working at Mani’s factory when he arrived. He would remain here for the next five years. ‘All my paintings happened there, during that time,’ he recalls.

Early days in Kodaikanal (Photo by arrangement with the artist)

Dr Arun Kolhatkar and his wife, Beulah, who have several paintings by Eddy, recall how they acquired these works. ‘We met Eddy through mutual friends,’ says Dr Kolhatkar. ‘I used to treat his pet monkey, which he had found wounded in the forest. I was working at Van Allen Hospital at the time. I dressed the wound and put on a plaster, then gave her antibiotics too. She became his pet for a while, I remember she was allowed to go out but was on a leash made from a washing line. Eddy would give us paintings in exchange for my treatment of his animals.’

At this time, Eddy also held his first solo exhibition in Bangalore in 1968.

‘His landscapes are beautiful. Time will show us Eddy’s place in the Indian art scene.’

Adam Khan, local artist

The show garnered him some attention, and admirers. Adam Khan, fellow artist and long-time resident of Kodaikanal, is among them. ‘A lot of artists live here but we rarely see each other,’ he says. ‘Eddy is a very private person. He doesn’t look for exposure or even involve himself in the local art scene. He is a very good artist, though, and very professional. His landscapes are beautiful. Time will show us Eddy’s place in the Indian art scene.’ 

First and foremost an impressionist, Eddy  is deeply in love with his landscapes. ‘I wanted to paint here. I would walk around, through the Shola forests and everywhere else, looking at the scenes around me.’ That’s where the process begins, with his photographic memory. Then, he sits down to paint, recalling what he has seen. ‘It’s always different from the original—an impression. I may repaint the same scene but in a sunset. It’s the play of light and shadow that catches my eye.’ 

Unlike the majority of artists, who prefer consistency in terms of style, technique and even subject matter, Eddy doesn’t shy away from experimentation. On the contrary, he seeks it out, discovering something new and staying with it for many years before he moves on. ‘It’s nice to experiment. The same thing over and over can get a little boring, yes?’ 

‘There was also a lot of surrealist work back in the ’70s and ’80s—those went hand in hand,’ he says. ‘After that there was a period when I did abstracts. All of those have been sold.’ When friends left a paint scraper and some enamel paints behind at his house, he thought, ‘Why waste this?’ He put aside his brushes, and for the next ten years used only enamels and his scraper.

(Photo by arrangement with the artist)

That ended in 2008, and Eddy took a break for three years. Why? He laughs uproariously. ‘There was this group of Naga Babas,’ he says. This is an unexpected turn of events and takes a minute to sink in, only adding to his amusement. ‘They wouldn’t leave me alone. They spent three years here and told me to stop painting, wear saffron, light a dhuni outside my house and bless passers-by in exchange for food!” He recalls this with levity, saying, ‘Life is an adventure, is it not? Even sitting inside your house can be an adventure. It depends on what you want to make of things!’ 

The sentiment extends to other aspects of the Kodai life, which can offer a peace that draws other artists and recluses. ‘Society knows me as Edwin Joseph, but left to myself, I don’t want identities or to be part of circles. The locals, they’re friends and family to me. I take care of my house. And I paint. I have always been this way. That’s what brought me here… to Kodaikanal.’

Darshana Ramdev

Darshana Ramdev has over a decade of experience in journalism, working for major Indian newspapers, and has written about science and technology, urban policy, theatre, music and art. She lives between Bengaluru and Chinnappalam.

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