Canvassing for Madras Modern

DAG flies the Madras flag in Delhi with its spotlight on an art school that transformed itself into an art hub with regionally rooted Modernism
KCS Paniker (centre) with his students in Madras Art School in 1952.
KCS Paniker (centre) with his students in Madras Art School in 1952.

Founded by Colonel Alexander Hunter, a surgeon with the British East India Company’s Madras Army, The Madras Art School—what is now known as the Government College of Fine Arts—India’s oldest art institution, began its life as a private school. It initially trained artists to create artwork for the Western market.

It was not until 1929, when sculptor Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury became its principal, that the school saw a significant shift. Chowdhury, one of the first Indians to head a government-run education institution—The Madras Art School became government-run in 1852—introduced a new visual curriculum, drawing from his training as a Modernist artist from Bengal.

In 1957, KCS Paniker, a painter, became the principal, and cemented the foundations of modern art in Madras (now Chennai) and pioneered what is known as the Madras Art Movement, signalling a shift towards a regionally rooted Modernism and aesthetics.

Curated by Kishore Singh, the ‘Madras Modern: Regionalism and Identity’ exhibition at DAG, Delhi, celebrates the unique artistic vocabularies of this art movement and attempts to familiarise the “north Indian art world with the artists from the south”.

K Ramanujan’s ‘Dream’.
K Ramanujan’s ‘Dream’.

The beginnings

In a 1964 London exhibition, Paniker’s art, characterised by Impressionist influences and a strong suggestion of light, was well-received. “However, it made Paniker question whether his art had any soul,” says Singh. His doubts led him to explore Indian mythology, scriptures, almanacs, and horoscopes, leading to his iconic Words and Symbols series of 1968. “This shift from his earlier works laid the foundation for modern art in Madras,” Singh says.

Paniker also established the still enduring Cholamandal Artists’ Village, providing artists with studios, training, and the means to create art for a living. Singh emphasises the distinctiveness of their works. Unlike Impressionist artists, these artists avoided using volume in their sculptures. “Influenced by regional and local elements, their sculptures resembled temple doors and were created on a flat base featuring metal and wire work,” Singh notes. An example is S Dhanpal’s ‘Village Deity’, a bronze sculpture made in 1987.

J Sultan Ali’s ‘Muria Maiden’
J Sultan Ali’s ‘Muria Maiden’

Language of symbols

The exhibition showcases various works by different artists, unified by their use of symbols, language, and thematic elements. For instance, RB Bhaskaran’s ‘Planets’ (1972) features Tantric symbols, a birth symbol in the form of a sapling, and intricate linework. “Some of Bhaskaran’s famous works include figures of owls and cats, which also incorporate line work and birth symbols,” notes the curator.

KV Haridasan’s ‘Brahma Sutra’ (1990) uses symbols from almanacs, tantras and dance mudras, but with pop colours. Borrowing symbols and texts seems to have been a common practice among the artists. J Sultan Ali, for example, draws heavily from the Indus Valley Civilisation, incorporating their signages and seals into his works. Discussing ‘Muria Maiden’ (1967), an oil on canvas by Ali, Singh explains: “You can see a heavily ornamented woman figure, reflecting tribal culture.

This painting, like many of his others, features the bull and impressions of Indus Valley seals, symbolising the continuity and evolution of various civilisations.” An intriguing work in the exhibition is by K Ramanujan, who, according to Singh, had a “learning challenge. Paniker brought him on board, and due to his challenge was able to create a world of fantasy and fables”.

KV Haridasan’s ‘Brahma Sutra’
KV Haridasan’s ‘Brahma Sutra’

Contemporary art

As we move towards the end of the gallery, the exhibition reveals a shift towards more contemporary elements in the works on display. One striking example is ‘Land Architecture’ by RM Palaniappan, a conté crayon on paper created in 1994. “He went to Oxford University in 1996, where he navigated the landscape using maps, which became a reference for his paintings. He was fascinated by maps and grids, which can be seen in his work too,” says Singh. Despite incorporating contemporary elements, Palaniappan’s works also draw from texts and symbols.

“Towards the 20th century, newer artists began borrowing Western elements and delving into contemporary art. While their artwork contained contemporary elements, they maintained a strong representation of their cultural heritage. While visitors are free to interpret the art as they wish, understanding the artists’ backgrounds can provide deeper insights into the works,” Singh notes.

‘Madras Modern: Regionalism and Identity’ is on at DAG, Janpath Road, Windsor Palace, till July 6, 10.30am to 7pm

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The New Indian Express