A sense of strange familiarity haunts artist Nityan Unnikrishnan’s portraits. The faces are almost recognisable, but you can never recall their names. Did you see them in a newspaper? At a party somewhere? A dream?

“Ah, good.” he said, as someone squinted at the frame, trying to place the woman applying her kajal. “It looks like they are working, then!”

'The Blue Stones' (by Nityan Unnikrishnan, courtesy Chatterjee & Lal)

The images are often crammed with faces and montages reminiscent of Indian lives: a huge family around a dinner table titled The War Room, an idyllic day at the beach surrounded by fisherfolk, or an old man with a flowing beard who reads the newspaper with scissors in his hand, ready to cut articles out and dash off letters to the editor, titled The Skeptic. Unnikrishnan’s works are organised chaos and focussing on a single aspect can be difficult. The eye wanders across the canvas, absorbing elements, struggling to place them.

In its deft invocations each canvas in the collection Wood from Ships resembles a collection of short stories stringed together, to form one cohesive story about a person or place that has been a part of the artists’ life. This is Unnikrishnan’s fourth solo exhibition, on display at Mumbai’s Chatterjee and Lal gallery and it alludes to the paradox of the Ship of Theseus: do things remain the same, even when each original component is replaced?

“The title refers to the idea of building little worlds with parts from other, bigger worlds,” said Unnikrishnan, 39. “The ‘imaginary’ portraits in the show are made of a number of references to people and places.”

'How are Deserts Formed?' (by Nityan Unnikrishnan, courtesy Chatterjee & Lal)

In Ex Nihilo, the subject is finally easy to recognise – this is a portrait of film-maker Satyajit Ray, as he sits smoking, arm casually draped against the back of a chair. Unnikrishnan did not intend for this to happen, and begrudges the viewer this aha moment. In an essay about this particular portrait, journalist and writer Kai Friese wrote:

“He quails when I gesture in recognition at the very recognisable figure foregrounding Ex Nihilo. ‘I wish it didn’t look so much like him,’ he says, almost berating himself. Which is charming, given the careful technique that renders not only a famous dead man but also a famous photograph of him, in a stylised chiaroscuro.”

'Ex Nihilo' (by Nityan Unnikrishnan, courtesy Chatterjee & Lal)

“I have not watched Ray with the kind of dedication that he deserves,” explained Unnikrishnan. “There are three works, that were done one after another, and whose imagery goes from one to the other. The only ‘real portrait’ is The Indian Sceptic – A Brief History.

'The Indian Sceptic – A Brief History' (by Nityan Unnikrishnan, courtesy Chatterjee & Lal)

The Indian Sceptic, Unnikrishnan said, took him the longest to finish.

“I am not sure why... but it must be because it is based on someone close to the family. I had a drawing of him in my sketchbook, which turned up again one day and it felt like the right time to make a work based on him.”

Like several artists, Unnikrishnan always has his sketchbook on him, and draws almost constantly. The National Institute of Design alumnus is also known for his work with ceramics. In his previous body of work, Transparent Things, he attempted to give everyday, sundry activities a new life.

Unnikrishnan grew up in Kerala, and his years spent in the state are reflected in his works. The paintings included in Transparent Things were inspired by a visit to a furniture factory in Palakkad. Wood From Ships too was born of a childhood memory.

“I grew up in a tiny ex-port town which was also a wooden ship-building centre, and that seems to have added a layer.” said the 39-year-old artist.

“As far as classifications go, I’m just the guy who gets up in the morning and goes to work.” he added.

'Objects of Value' (by Nityan Unnikrishnan, courtesy Chatterjee & Lal)

Wood From Ships includes works on paper and stretched khadi. Initially, the artist only wanted to draw on calico, a linen-like fabric that was made in his hometown Calicut (hence the name), and sent to England by sea.

However, calico is no longer produced in Calicut, and so Unnikrishnan began to try drawing on hand-spun, hand-woven fabric from elsewhere, finally arriving at khadi.

'Monoliths' (by Nityan Unnikrishnan, courtesy Chatterjee & Lal)

The works in Wood from Ships are almost dreamscapes, where worlds and images fuse together to invoke feelings of nostalgia, loss, memory and recollection, but the artist’s own dreams only play a very small role in his creations.

“Sadly I am one of those people who does not remember dreams, unless they are especially bad” he said. (In his last dream, a mother snake and her baby were raiding his home).

“I do not try to understand my dreams, and I think it would be a very bad idea for me to try.”

'The Sudden Beauty of Extraordinary Things' (by Nityan Unnikrishnan, courtesy Chatterjee & Lal)

Memory, however, is his paint of choice – the subconscious provides enough material for an artist to dip into.

“It is more like a pale glow or a flicker somewhere in my head that I choose to acknowledge, and then I just follow my nose and see where it takes me.” he said.

Wood From Ships
is on display at Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai, till January 7.