Milestones and masterpieces that maketh a state

Milestones and masterpieces that maketh a state

Highlighting the contribution of the Govt College of Fine Arts, artist Jitha Karthikeyan traces the rise of artists who added to the landscape of TN since pre-Independence

CHENNAI: "Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge…" Spoken by Jawaharlal Nehru, at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, these words embodied the first declaration that we were indeed a free country, left to rebuild so much that had been lost in almost 200 years of colonial rule.

A nation bleeding from the horrors of the Bengal Famine of 1943, the Second World War and a painful partition, must have perhaps celebrated her liberation with a heavy heart amid all the grief and chaos around. Today, on the 75th year of this Independence, we still stand teary-eyed with pride at India’s meteoric rise from the turmoil.

Most often, it is the visible and the loudest that gets acknowledged while the silent toil often goes unnoticed. India’s freedom struggle was not just about the fearless souls who loudly proclaimed their patriotism while braving arrests, it was also about all the quieter artists and writers who influenced the public psyche through their powerful works that highlighted colonial atrocities. Artists like Zainul Abedin and Chittaprosad Bhattacharya brought people together in collective outrage with their art that exposed human suffering during the Great Famine of Bengal in 1943.

A hub for artists
After Independence, just as how the nation had to grapple with the transition to a free country from the shackles of an oppressive colonial rule, artists too had to make this transformation and establish their individuality in the light of this hard-earned freedom. Down south, the state of Tamil Nadu came into being, resting on boundaries that followed linguistic lines, as with all the other newly formed States, after Independence. While under British rule, Madras (as it was then called), was thriving with artists.

KCS Paniker
KCS Paniker

Realising their potential in making furniture and artefacts, the British established an art institute in Chennai in 1850 ( which today has the pride of being the oldest art school in India ), with the primary objective of catering to the needs of the royals in London, the British officers and also for purposes of commerce. It was only in 1929 that an Indian was finally chosen to head it. It is this iconic institution and the artists associated with it that has shaped the course of the history of art, in Tamil Nadu especially, to this very day.

Debi Prasad Roy Choudhury, the first Indian Principal of the Government College of Fine Arts, earlier called the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai, joined the institute as a student in 1928 and retired as the principal in 1958. During his tenure, he mentored many of the most illustrious artists that followed in the years to come. One of them was R Krishna Rao. When the newly created state of Tamil Nadu sought to create an emblem that symbolised the land, it was to Rao that they turned to, with the request to design it.

Rao, who hailed from Madurai, had joined the Government College of Fine Arts as a student in 1942. Growing up in the vicinity of the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, it was only natural that its majestic gopuram influenced his design. He went on to take over as principal of the college in 1968. Today, his art has become an intrinsic part of our everyday existence, staring at us from our ration cards, our documents, our identity proofs etc.

Stories in sculptures
DP Roy Choudhury, is remembered most in Tamil Nadu, for his art that has been our companion on many cool evenings at the Marina beach. His Triumph of Labour sculpture, which was created to commemorate the first-ever May Day rally in the country which took place in Chennai in 1923, was installed close to this very site on the Marina, on January 25, 1959. The sculpture, showing four labourers toiling, has till today been the preferred venue for May Day celebrations. His sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi on the same beach, symbolises a struggle too, but far removed from that of physical labour. Gandhi’s robes are shown as caught in the cactus, a metaphor for all the travails that he and the nation underwent in its march towards freedom.

KM Adimoolam’s work
KM Adimoolam’s work

These sculptures continue to tell the stories it was meant to tell, long after the air of liberation has settled on our land. He was succeeded by KCS Paniker in 1957, as the Principal of the Government College of Fine Arts, and the latter changed the cultural landscape of Tamilnadu, leaving behind a rich legacy that crossed all regional borders. As the head of this celebrated institution, he understood the need to allow students to evolve on their own. As an artist, he too evolved a unique visual language and established an idiom of his own, using scripts that resembled an ancient manuscript, symbols, bare outlines of shapes and figures that seem to have bounced off horoscope charts. However, his greatest contribution for which he will be eternally remembered and revered is the founding of the Cholamandal Artists Village, India’s first artists’ commune.

Under one roof
Located on the outskirts of Chennai, Paniker envisioned a space where artists could live, work and support each other. The village consisted of studio spaces, a gallery and housing, built by the artists themselves. The early inhabitants were all artists seeking a new path, united in their quest to do so. Paniker’s son, S Nandagopal, a sculptor himself, tried to take his father’s vision forward by ensuring more visibility for the artists by way of sponsorships to invest in the gallery and to document their works. Cholamandal still stands strong today, as a testimony to a revolution. In 1972, S Dhanapal, who also trained under DP Roy Choudhury and KCS Paniker, took over as the College principal. His versatility was astounding he was a performing Bharatanatyam dancer, besides being a painter and a sculptor. His interest in the performing arts, however, soon gave way to a deep dedication to painting and sculpting. His passion for making statues of important personalities led him to embark on a plan, in the mid-1950s, to sculpt a statue of Periyar, the social reformist.

The execution of this plan, though initially smooth, with Periyar being a patient model, ran into trouble towards the end, with activists mistaking it and almost destroying the sculpture. To his good fortune, Dhanapal managed to save it and it has been acknowledged since, to be the best portrayal of the leader ever. Unfortunately, this Periyar bust remains merely a memory now and has simply vanished without a trace. KM Adimoolam, another famous alumnus, of the college, enrolled as a student, under the influence of Dhanapal. On completing his education in 1966, he made a series of 100 drawings of Gandhi, covering 60 years of the Mahatma’s life.

This was his tribute to mark Gandhi’s centenary in 1969. Well after India won her freedom, Gandhi not only remained a central figure in the life of every Indian citizen but also inspired many artists to portray different aspects of his personality, life and beliefs. The art academy produced another brilliant artist, Velu Vishwanadhan, who was also active in the movement to establish the Cholamandal Artists Village, hugely influenced by Paniker again.

And thus, the hallowed halls of this renowned institution have borne the footprints of many celebrated artists for decades. AP Santhanaraj, Alphonso A Doss, Kanayi Kunhiraman, Namboothiri, Akkitham Narayanan, TK Padmini, SG Vasudev, P Gopinath, Valsan Koorma Kolleri, P Perumal, MV Devan, RB Bhaskaran, M Senathipathi, L Munuswamy, S Kanniappan, C Douglas, K Ramanujam, Rm Palaniappan and many more eminent artists, to contemporaries like Benitha Perciyal and V Anamika have all stamped their mark on the history of art, after having spent years breathing the wisdom of their predecessors that surely must keep whispering from every brick of this famed institution, to each passing generation.

This 75th year of our Independence, let us celebrate the brilliance of these minds that shook off the last remnants of colonialism to start a new artistic journey in south India. Let us salute the institution that created the ground for a multitude of such journeys.

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