CHENNAI: I am an artist by profession — if one is able to say these words confidently today, it is probably because of a movement that started seven decades ago in the city. The Madras Art Movement, pioneered by artist, teacher and philosopher, KCS Paniker, began in a period when gallery was still a fictional concept, and buying art, a non-practised trade.
“The word art, back then, meant just cinema. All those young artists who completed six years of course from the Government College of Fine Arts did not find any opportunity when they passed out, and turned to other professions like medical service, cine field, etc. There was no awareness among people about the concept of buying or appreciating art,” says Senathipathi, a senior artist, who has been in the field since the 50s.
So how did Paniker bring in a revolution? “He gathered talented artists, both senior and the ones who had just graduated and formed an organisation called Progressive Painters Association, which is in its 71st year now. He brought the concept of modern art to the city, and whipped up interest among the young generation,” says Senathipathi, who is also the oldest living member (associated with PPA since 1958) of the oldest art association in the country.
With this initiative, budding artists were allowed to work and share ideas with senior artists. Soon, with a strong network of fellow artists to support, those who would have otherwise dropped art and sought other means of income, stuck to it, and practised art. The group of 30-plus artists bought a 10-acre land (one ground that was just Rs 450 back then, is Rs 1 crore now), and built the Cholamandal Artists’ Village. Besides residences for the artists, the village also housed one of the first galleries in the city. “It was just a group of huts back in 1966, the year it was set up,” recalls Senathipathi with a laugh. “And now I have a house and a studio designed by me. This is besides the museum and guest house,” he says with pride.
However, setting up the village was just the beginning. Paniker knew that a lot had to be done — from spreading awareness of art, making it accessible to people and turning it into a sustainable option. Thus was born the concept of miniature art. “The association is a pioneer of small format art. The first miniature format show was organised by the association in Pune in 1971, followed by similar shows in Mumbai and Chennai in 1972. Paniker believed that small-sized pictures and sculptures, if priced low, can reach a larger art loving public and eventually help create a genuine boom for art. He had stressed that art was not for the rich alone, but a dire necessity for a large number of people,” says artist Saravanan, president of the association. Back then, such paintings were priced between `25 and `100, and today, between `5,000 and `1 lakh, he adds.
The association was also the first in the country to bring out an art journal, says senior artist Gopinath, former president of the association. “Art Trends, which was started in 1961, captured the art scene from across the country — covering both young and senior artists,” he says. The association boasts of big names such as Nandagopal, Venkatapathi, Viswanathan, Vasudev and Douglas among others.
The ongoing Miniature Art exhibition at Cholamandal Artists’ Village is on till May 31.
‘Paniker, a Father Figure’
According to artist Gopinath who has been associated with PPA since 1966, KCS Paniker was like a father figure to all artists. “We had the freedom to walk into his studio any time we wanted. We couldn’t expect that from any other senior artist then. He was always open to suggestions and gave ideas to youngsters,” he says. “He always stood for vibrant contemporary art, and sponsored talented young artists, he adds. For Senthipathi, Paniker was the sole reason he became an artist. “I was in my final year of college, and had no clue what I was going to do next. I remember going to him with my marriage invitation card. That’s when he told me about the idea of starting Cholamandal Artist’s Village, and asked me to be part of it. I immediately accepted without a second thought!” he says. Paniker, he says, was not just an artist, he knew how to recognise talent and give them a platform. Paniker passed away in 1977.