I met S Elayaraja at Fine Arts College in Kumbakonam. We did an integrated five years art course. We made many friends and memories from that college. Most of the students were from lower middle-class backgrounds. So, we did part-time jobs to earn some pocket money. Elayaraja was studious and he never missed any classes. At that time, his paintings focussed mainly on landscapes. His paintings were so realistic — each frame narrated beautiful stories.
I remember an incident during our final year (1999) in college. Every year, the state government takes art students for an all-India tour. During the train journey, he sat in a corner and started painting. Observing him painting, one passenger approached Elayaraja and asked if he could draw a portrait of the passenger. Elayaraja quickly agreed, but he charged Rs 50 for each portrait. During the entire train journey, many approached him for their portraits. In 2000, he shifted to Chennai to do his Masters in Fine Arts.
Elayaraja was a person with many dreams and ambitions. A small-town boy, he has struggled a lot to reach his position in the art circle. He started doing realistic paintings of Dravidian women after he completed his Masters. He grew up in a joint family and the family bonding helped him paint realistic portraits. In the third year (1998) of college, I had asked him to paint my portrait and he did an oil colour portrait. I still cherish that gift from him.
Four years ago, a few of our friends met in Thanjavur. We spoke about art, life, dreams, college days…We visited Thanjavur Big Temple and Elayaraja asked me to take a picture of him with the temple as the background. I took a few shots of him in his yellow kurta. He loved the photo in which he was standing against the beautiful temple architecture. He used the same picture for all his work-related events.
Elayaraja had many friends but he was very close to only a few people. Artist Manoharan sir is our guru — he encouraged us to follow our passion. Another person whom Elayaraja was close to was Sivabalan, a senior in college. Elayaraja considered Sivabalan has his guru and brother. They used to chat almost daily. His other close friends are Sugumar, Satheesh, Senthil, Karunakaran and Balamurugan.
I am so proud of my nanban and his work and I wanted the world to see and enjoy his paintings.”
—As told to Merin James