Initially, Baiju Parthan resisted a career as an artist. "In Kerala," he explains, "you are what your work is. And in Kerala's Communist schema, the artist is at the lowest rung of society." Parthan began as an engineer but was drawn into the world of art in 1974, when he stumbled onto a book detailing the history of Western art. "With that book," he says, "the chronology and the institution of art became known to me." He became familiar with the movements of Impressionism, Expressionism, and so forth, and this new knowledge nourished his interest in painting.
"Painting gave me self worth," says Parthan. "In that pictorial space, I was king. I began to define myself through this act of painting: It was the only place where I could 'be'." Excited by the prospect of studying art, Parthan went to Goa and enrolled in a five-year course in fine arts. Parthan's course, running from 1978-1983, overlapped with the final influx of Westerners coming to Goa in search of enlightenment.
"There were Germans, Brits, Italians - all sorts of people, mostly from Europe. I came across these hippies, and became exposed to a whole range of alternate world views," says Parthan, adding "I had always thought that reality is one unified thing."
Through one of his Western acquaintances, Parthan came across Sartre's "Age of Reason," a book that he describes as a major influence. Also affecting his work at the time was Goa's "soft drug culture". This, too, helped Parthan explore new ways of experiencing the world.
Parthan began to study the Indian mystical arts, exploring tantra, ritual arts, and Indian mythology. Simultaneously, Western art continued to exert an influence. Parthan names Larry Rivers, Miro, and the Cubist painters as important models.
In the early 1980s, Parthan decided to quit painting. "I felt like a missionary for Western art," he explains. Instead, he enrolled in a course on comparative mythology at Bombay University and began working as a writer and illustrator. He returned to painting in the early 1990s, when he began to explore the imagery of mandalas and Tibetan tangas. These traditional subjects were balanced by his reading in post-modern theorists. The latter enabled him to "recontextualize things from my immediate environment. The post-modern theorists have accepted the localization of reality. We're now reconciled to the idea of an individual reality. Art is about local realities. Personally, I live in a post-colonial concept of space. The world exists as a flux."