The Madras Art Movement is back in focus with a much-needed retrospective; but why was it sidelined for so long?

  • The Madras Art Movement heralded the emergence of a new vanguard of modern art in south India

  • The artists of the Madras Art Movement considered regional art forms a deathless store of energy which set them apart from the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group

  • Even though the Madras Art Movement had artists who reformed aesthetic vision in the south at the helm, the absence of an art history department at the Chennai institution also impeded its momentum

London, 1954.

The setting: an art exhibition featuring the work of the celebrated abstract painter KCS Paniker.

“Your art doesn’t seem Indian enough,” a critic told Paniker, then administrative head of the Government College of Arts and Craft.

It was a turning point for Coimbatore-born Paniker, leading him to an insight: having been a British colony for 200 years, India had not yet rid herself of the influence of European modernists.

 The Madras Art Movement is back in focus with a much-needed retrospective; but why was it sidelined for so long?

Lines are integral to RM Palaniappan's work.

After a series of discussions with his students and colleagues at the college, Paniker concluded that a new collective artistic identity had to be formed in (then) Madras — one that did not hinge on national and international art movements, but was deeply rooted in regional craft and tradition. And thus, a unique modernity came to the south with the Madras Art Movement.

The artists of the Madras Art Movement considered regional art forms a “deathless store of energy”, which set them apart from the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (formed shortly after India became an independent nation in 1947).

Dr Ashrafi S Bhagat, art historian, critic and curator, explains that the search for a language of modernity derived from folk art and culture gave the modern artists of Madras an identifiable character. “It set them apart from the Bombay Progressives, who had resisted a return to tradition or indigenism of any kind and wanted the tables clear to start afresh. They hence looked towards the European modernists as the cubists, expressionists and the abstract artists to establish their brand of modernism,” Dr Bhagat explains.

Although Dr Alexander Hunter founded the Madras School of Arts (now known as Government College of Fine Arts) in 1850, it was only in 1930, after DP Roy Chowdhury’s appointment as principal, that the institution got its first Fine Arts curriculum. It is important to note that artists were already being groomed in the 1920s in the Bombay and Calcutta Presidencies, while the first batch of artists graduated from Madras School Arts in 1934. This, Bhagat adds, is one of the reasons why the Madras Art Movement — despite its massive cultural weight — remained alienated from the mainstream art history of India.

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As Chowdhury’s tenure at the college came to end, Paniker took over and so did a wave of self-determination — one of the core principles of the Madras Art Movement.

While a departure from western art was certainly nationalistic given that most artists in the 1940s and ‘50s were highly influenced by western thinkers, it also meant that artists in Chennai had to unlearn what had so far been integral to the pedagogical approach. It was an interesting time to be an artist, albeit not easy.

“It was challenging to find a different path in art from what the West had offered till then. I intentionally kept out books on Picasso, Braque, and other western masters. Instead, I hung traditional Tamil Nadu art and Mysore School paintings besides the sculptures made by artists/craftsmen of Bastar. Something new would emerge from these experiments, which was important at that time,” says art veteran SG Vasudev, who studied at the Government College of Arts and Crafts in 1960.

At the Madras School of Arts, a considerable number of women students also exercised their autonomy to become professional artists. According to Bhagat, under Paniker and the Sculpture Department head S Dhanapal, women were encouraged to be part of the mainstream. “When Anila (Jacob) got married, Paniker spoke to her husband so she could continue her practice as a sculptor — the only woman sculptor within the Madras Art Movement. Today she is a name to reckon with among the women modernists in Indian modern art history,” Bhagat says. Women therefore came to play an important role in the modernist art movement of Madras.

Sculpture by S Dhanapal

Sculpture by S Dhanapal

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While modernism had now reached south India with artists from states such as Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh enrolling in the Madras School of Arts, a bigger challenge lay ahead. Artists now had a new purpose, but making a living with their art alone was still not possible.

Paniker and Dhanapal took note of the situation and in 1966, established the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, an institute that enabled members to continue their artistic pursuits. About 25 artists contributed to one of the craft forms and sold the resulting products, bringing about a micro-economic growth which was just what was needed at the time.

“We did batik work for 2-3 hours a day and had a show. Our products were almost sold out. That motivated us to form an artists’ collective. We bought 10 acres of land in different stages, on the way to Mahabalipuram, on the outskirts of Chennai, and called it Cholamandal Artists’ Village,” recounts Vasudev, a pioneer of the self-sustaining commune.

With Cholamandal ensuring a growing network of financially sound artists, the Madras Art Movement set a new philosophical and visual path for budding modern painters. Therefore, the academic period of the 1970s witnessed longtime associates of the movement exhibiting their works in different regions; this in turn inspired a new crop of artists such as RM Palaniappan, K Muralidharan and C Douglas, who blurred the lines between the figurative and abstract.

By K Ramanujan.

By K Ramanujan.

By 1980, the focus of the movement had shifted from vernacular craft and art forms. “We were in a transition period and found international expression as important as regional identity. That makes our work more unique,” says RM Palaniappan.

Even though the Madras Art Movement had artists who reformed the aesthetic vision in the south at the helm, the absence of an art history department at the Chennai institution also impeded its momentum — even as the Baroda Art Movement and Bengal School flourished.

However, DAG attempts to fill the gap between what we know of the Madras Art Movement and its pivotal contributions to India’s art history with Madras Modern: Regionalism and Identity, a retrospective curated by Dr Ashrafi S Bhagat. The exhibition is underway at DAG, Kala Ghoda.

— All images courtesy DAG

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Updated Date: Aug 02, 2019 09:36:17 IST