The man who paints doors that take you back in time10 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
KR Santhanakrishnan or Door Santhanam is a renowned artist who has made his career painting doors. Santhanakrishnan is undoubtedly a skilled painter. But, to him, the most important aspect of his work is its ability to emotionally connect with people. He believes his doors are the key to creating the nostalgia that brings his paintings alive.
Owliver spoke to this enigmatic artist about his 25-year relationship with doors and how he uses them to help people travel through time.
Santhanam loves doors. Wherever he sees a door, he has to stand next to it and take a picture. He has a whopping 82 doors in his childhood home!
What drove him towards doors?
I studied painting at a fine arts college in Kumbakonam, a heritage town in Tamil Nadu. Every artist has their own style as well as subject that they focus on. In my third year of college, I too was given the chance to pick a style that I wanted to follow in my painting career. And I instantly knew that I wanted to create my own style.
Every morning, I would cycle for a kilometre to reach college, and in the evening, I would cycle back on the same route. And every day, I would notice all the beautiful doors to all the houses I passed on my journey. They would always lie half-open, in a welcoming sort of way. I was fascinated by the different ways in which the light struck these doors in the morning and the evening. So, I began painting them and depicting their interaction with different types and levels of sunlight.
But it was in my final year of college that my relationship with doors got cemented. When I had my first show, I realised that my doors told a story. My paintings were and are not decorative. Instead, they are a tool for emotional connection. People would come and look at my artwork and start regaling stories of their childhood and grandparents. My art brought to them about a sense of nostalgia. Soon enough, nostalgia became the primary concept behind my art.
The part of India with the most interesting doors.
I would say that my favourite doors are those from the Chettinad region in Tamil Nadu. The area has many huge mansions with beautifully carved wooden doors. Other than that, I also admire Rajasthani doors a lot. Rajasthan is a colourful land, and so are their doors. I absolutely love the Shekhawati carvings and murals on their doors.
A detail in a door that’s shocked him or made him laugh.
The numerous numbers on the doors tell a strange story that you can only find in India. Most doors have two addresses on them. About 50 years ago, the government gave people new house numbers. But people painted both their old and new numbers on their doors. So when you ask someone for their address, they give you two house numbers. This can only happen in India. There is no logic behind it!
I have set up a home in my mother’s town of Kumbakonam. Kumbakonam is a beautiful heritage town with architecture from the Chola Dynasty. It is surrounded by temples and thousands of artists and sculptors.
The Swami Malai temple has about five or six hundred bronze sculptors studios around it. Every single bronze deity or sculpture in the country comes from there.
So, I made my traditional yet modern home into a sort of homestay. I have called it Kathavu homestay (Kathavu is Tamil for Door), and it is essentially a place for artists to come and be creative. They can stay in the town and get an authentic experience of what the culture of the place feels like and how the locals really live. I enjoy interacting with people. My guests and I have so much to learn from each other.
Why one door is always open in his paintings.
I want to show the magic of what’s inside. I like to show the beauty of the courtyards and the little props that people have in their homes. It showcases the rich heritage of the villages and towns. Houses in Kumbakonam generally have cycles tucked away in the corner, and I could get a peek of brass pots and copper boilers lying inside. It was the kind of rich, healthy lifestyle that you see people flout on Instagram these days.
The paintings beside his doors.
I like to put old movie posters and film imagery on the wall adjoining my doors to invoke nostalgia. These painted movie posters were a huge part of Indian culture. When people see the imagery, they get transported back in time. I also put other old imagery from my youth, like phone booth signs and some of the first Cadbury ads.
The pandemic and the door-art business
I’ve been very busy through this Covid period. I used to travel all over the world for shows, but now I do them online. I’ve had five shows online, and they’ve all sold out!
Santhanam has sold out his shows for years. He hasn’t had an unsold painting in his studio for six or seven years now!
One thing I can tell people is about the importance of doors. You can’t do anything without doors. Even your eyelids and the cap of your pen is like a door. Whatever you do, you need doors. In love and in life, you need doors.
Everywhere, you need doors.
Story-time with Santhanam:
My doors tell stories, and that’s why I must paint them. Over the years, I have gathered so many stories just from my shows in galleries. Once, an old man just came and blessed me and told me I would go very far in life. He did this for no reason at all. He wasn’t even a buyer. I was so shocked.
Another time an old lady who had been bed-ridden saw an ad about my show in the papers. For the first time in ages, she got up and made her husband and son bring her to see my doors. She spent ages staring at each and every work of mine. Then, she came up to me, blessed me, and emotionally told me that I transported her back to her youth in her hometown. For me, these are the most rewarding experiences.
About fifteen years ago, a man named Sreenivas visited Chennai from the US. He had brought his children to India for the first time and wanted to give them a taste of his youth. One day, Sreenivas happened to see my paintings and instantly decided to buy one of them. When he bought the painting, I wasn’t there, but he insisted that he wanted to meet me.
Confounded, I came to meet him the next day, and he immediately hugged me. He asked me if the painting was depicting Kumbhakonam. I told him all about the house and how it was on my bicycle route to my college. I shared with him all the details of the door, including the house numbers and the little items I could see through the door.
Listening intently, he suddenly stopped me and told me, “Santhanam, that is my home.”
It was a surreal moment. It turned out that Sreenivasan’s house had been demolished by the time he came to visit. So when he took his kids to show them his hometown, there was nothing there. But now, he had a piece of his childhood that he could take back with him.
At that moment, I knew that my art is a form of storytelling. I told myself, “Santhanam, Your paintings are all stories. Don’t ever stop.”
(Trailblazers 2.0 is a bi-monthly column where we feature inspiring adults who are doing great things, in their own way)
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