The contributions of K. C. S. Paniker, founder of Cholamandal Artists’ Village in Chennai who pioneered Madras Modern art movement, deserve far greater accolades and market value

For the residents of Chennai, the idyllic, artistic haven of Cholamandal Artists’ Village in Injambakkam, just minutes away from the VGP Golden Beach resort, is a familiar address, which they have visited at some point in their lives, irrespective of their love for art. It’s an important stop for tourists from outside Chennai as well. But even those familiar with the village would be hard-pressed to put their finger on the genius of its founder. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise if quite a few of them even drew a blank on his name.

K. C. S. Paniker (1911-1977), who founded the Cholamandal Artists’ Village and pioneered what is academically known as the Madras Modern art movement, is a rather unfamiliar name beyond the art circles. That’s a colossal pity considering his contribution in putting the South Indian strand of art on India's modernism map. This season seems a great opportunity to throw some long overdue and well-deserving spotlight on his oeuvre and his times as May 31 is his birth anniversary; Paniker was born in 1911 in Coimbatore.

The Madras Modern movement

Paniker’s most enduring contribution to Indian modern art, among many other gifts, will remain his leadership to an indigenized modernity in Indian art that was specifically rooted in South Indian cultural ethos, even though the term ‘South India’ is expansive and comprises distinct cultural identities. This indigenized modernity came to be known as Madras Modern.

As the name suggests, Madras Modern art movement was born in Madras (now Chennai) and was a modernist movement within the broader gamut of Indian modern art. It meant interpretation of traditional cultural practices of South India with techniques and tools of western modernism. Though Madras Modern remained distinct from other modern art movements of 20th century India, such as those pioneered by the Calcutta Group (born in 1943), the Progressive Artists’ Group (1947), the Baroda Group (1957), and Group 1890 (1963), on account of its focus on cultural traditions of South India, in essence, all these movements were trying to achieve a common objective — to create a modernist vocabulary that was modern yet Indian at the same time, for a country that had only recently become independent.

Seventy-six years after Independence, it is difficult to imagine the euphoria that Indians must have felt in the early years of political freedom, to be fired with a zeal to forge a new identity for a new nation in all spheres of life, including the arts. While the feeling must have been ecstatic in the 1940s and early 1950s, it couldn’t have been mitigated to a great degree by the 1960s despite cynicism that must have set in with the myriad challenges that the new country faced increasingly. In this context, the spirit behind the birth of Madras Modern can be likened to what young Indian artists since the 1940s were trying to achieve — to mentally unshackle the arts of the country from western domination whose aesthetics, ethics, techniques and tools they had been taught in colonial art schools of the country, and to create a vocabulary that was Indian and modern at the same time.

Art historian, curator and critic, Dr. Ashrafi S. Bhagat, who curated the seminal exhibition, ‘Regional Modernity: Madras Art Movement, 1960s to 1990s,’ at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bengaluru, in March 2017, shares in her 2019 book, Madras Modern: Regionalism and Identity: “An important factor that pushed the development of the regional modern in the south was a critical remark made by art critic Ludwig Goldscheider in London in 1954. Looking at Paniker’s work, Goldscheider remarked on its lack of Indianness. This pushed Paniker towards a regional source of art forms and initiated the move towards his nativist agenda, setting in motion the process of visual arts acquiring a cultural identity as an act of political will. Paniker testified to the subsumed tradition when he said: ‘All great traditions in art are storehouses of deathless creative energy which under contingencies can kindle itself anew, vibrate with life and inspire to reach greater heights’.” This echoes with the experience of S. H. Raza, whose highly celebrated works of modern abstract art took a turn towards Indian abstraction after a prickly remark by a critic in the U.S. on its lack of Indianness in his art.

K. C. S. Paniker, Thiruparan Kundram Bathing Ghat, 1937, Watercolor and pencil on paper. Image courtesy: Sotheby's

While Goldscheider’s remark may have had an immediate effect on Paniker, his progress towards indigenization of modernity can be traced to much earlier when he was transitioning from a student to a painting instructor at his alma mater, Madras School of Art, the oldest art institution in India founded in 1850, and now known as the Government College of Fine Arts. (After studying for a while at the Madras Christian College, Paniker joined the Post and Telegraph Department where he worked for five years. He next worked at the Life Insurance Corporation of India as well. But interested in painting since childhood, he gave up his job to join the art school at the age of 25, where he was mentored by its principal, D. P. Roy Chowdhury. Soon upon his graduation, Paniker was appointed as painting instructor in his college in 1941.) He utilised his position as a teacher to inspire students to incorporate a modernist approach in his art.

Paniker would go on to become the principal of the college in 1957, when he could make more substantial changes in the institution’s curriculum to bring focus on traditional arts and crafts. But even earlier, in 1944, he had formed the Progressive Painters’ Association in Madras that reflected his ongoing quest to arrive at a distinct modernist vocabulary that was inspired by the centuries’ old traditions of the land.

Unlike the Progressive Artists’ Group and Group 1890, to quote a few examples, the Madras Modern art movement was not a formal association but was truly a movement that built up on Paniker’s pioneering energy. Dr. Bhagat writes in her book: “The beginning of 1960s brought with it an urgency in terms of self-discovery. In Madras, artists like Paniker, Reddeppa Naidu, K. V. Haridasan and others had become self-conscious about evolving an artistic expression. Paniker verbalized this in an editorial of Art Trend magazine: ‘It is depressing to note the general trend of Indian painting and sculpture today. The fact that contemporary art is mainly book-inspired and based superficially on European and American art reproductions… It is a fact that we have in this country no informed art criticism, which can serve as a corrective during these difficult times. In such circumstances, the progressive-minded among our artists should essay vital expressions of life and nature, with their full experience of contemporary world art’.”

Therefore, with a conscious attempt to incorporate regional vocabulary of folk arts and crafts such as kolam (geometric line drawings and figures made on floor with rice powder or paste, known as rangoli in North India), costumes and accessories of performing arts such as Kathakali and Theyyam, ritual objects and symbols, Paniker constantly prodded his students to critically evaluate the boundaries set by western modernism, and was thus able to set in motion a change that would reflect, first in his immediate vicinity and later, all over the cultural landscape of South India. The Madras Modern art movement has been immortalized in the works of Paniker, L. Munuswamy, A. P. Santhanaraj, Alphonso Arul Doss, R. B. Bhaskaran, K. M. Adimoolam, Achuthan Kudallur, P. Gopinath, R. M. Palaniappan, S. G. Vasudev, C. Douglas, V. Viswanadhan, and K. Ramanujam, among several others.

It’s interesting to note that around the same time as the birth of the Madras Modern art movement, another important art movement appeared on the horizon, known as the neo-Tantra art movement. Set in motion by Gulam Rasool Santosh, an artist whose oeuvre post-mid-1960s is synonymous with Tantra art, it was a visual expression of the tenets of the esoteric philosophy of Tantrism, and it engulfed the Indian art scene for a while. Artists such as Paniker and quite a few of his students too didn’t remain untouched by its influence, who incorporated tantric elements in their visual vocabulary. Rooted as it was in Indian cultural ethos, neo-Tantra art expression blended well with the language that the Madras Modern art movement was trying to create.

K. C. S. Paniker, Untitled, 1968, Oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Paniker The Painter

What Paniker advocated to his students, found expression in his own personal work as an artist. His early career works were experiments with post-Impressionism and featured, among other works, realist landscapes. Yet, his extensive travels in the West increasingly made him aware of the ideological strength of Indian traditions. He started moving towards metaphysical and spiritual interpretations in his own work even while absorbing western modernist influences. From the mid-1950s, indigenous stylization appeared in his figures, such as large eyes and more curvaceous figures, inspired by the traditional art of the land, quite like what Jamini Roy had experienced slightly earlier. A well-known example of this style is his Untitled (Mother and Child), an oil on paper work from 1955, which is to South India what Jamini Roy’s mother and child works are to Bengal.

In his vast repertoire, his Words and Symbols series, that he began in 1963, remains an important landmark of the Madras Modern art movement as it brought together indigenous diagrammatic representations of kolam and yantra (diagrammatic representations of tantric tenets) along with indigenous scripts — a perfect representation of the aesthetic concepts of Madras Modern.

Cholamandal Artists’ Village

Paniker was not just an ideologue but a father figure as well. The constellation of students that gathered around him benefited from his empathy on the question of survival in a world where creativity is not easily monetized. Looking for a solution to provide a means of livelihood to artists without having to compromise their creativity, in a setting most conducive to the flow of their natural talent, Paniker founded the Cholamandal Artists’ Village in 1966, then on the outskirts of Madras. It soon became the focal point for all artists seeking artistic freedom and an untrammeled atmosphere to practice the arts in a naturally conducive physical environment. It brought together arts and crafts, not just to inspire the practice of resident artists but also to create an economically self-dependent community that could carry out its practice independent of commercial pressures.

Named after the glorious Chola empire of the 9th-13th centuries CE, the collective was born when land near the coast was bought at Injambakkam village from the proceeds of the sales of Artists’ Handicrafts Association that Paniker had been instrumental in setting up in 1963. The cooperative began with thirty painters and sculptors, who built their own houses, kitchens, studios, gallery, theatre, workshop, and other structures in the village. The village website declares with pride that it was born and continues to thrive without any patronage or charity. That makes it a unique art collective in the country that has also survived the death of its protagonist, KCS Paniker, who passed away in Madras on January 16, 1977.

In 2009, the Cholamandal Centre for Contemporary Art established the Museum of Madras Movement to display the works of its pioneers. Most of the original residents of the village have passed away, but the village continues to engage with the contemporary art world, despite criticism, and attract tourists in a big way.

It is unfortunate that despite such seminal and unparalleled contributions to the development of modern Indian art, Paniker remains a haloed figure only within the artistic and intellectual circles. His indelible contributions to the language of modernism in this country deserve far greater accolades and market value than what they get now, and the same recall value that the top modern masters of this country get with the collectors, connoisseurs, and lay followers of art.

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