Artist Mannikam Senathipathi is the blender of folk and modern. He has played a seminal role in engaging with Tamil Nadu’s regional folk art forms to develop a new visual language. He has done that within the context of the Madras art Movement. A brilliant colourist, Senathipathi comes from the Cholamadal Artists Village, Chennai. A solo show of his works is on at Forum Art Gallery, Chennai. At 75, Senathipathi has not lost his enthusiasm. He produces detailed compositions of his mythic imagination and makes the walls of the gallery pulsate with palpable power. The exhibited canvases and ink and wash drawings are large in size ranging from 60” to 30”.
Senathipathi’s art has been a reflection of his traditional rural upbringing. His close association with the rites and rituals carried out at home and temple worship reflects in his work. He says, “At 8, I had admired the carefully- framed images of deities in the puja room of my home in Chenglepet, Tamil Nadu”. Also integral to his childhood recollections were epic stories and folk tales narrated by his mother and other family members. For Senathipathi, the living tradition of epics and folk art forms for Senathipathi became a point of reference and he heavily drew upon this vast vocabulary to populate his canvases. He adds, “Form achieved through the process of drawing is more important than the iconography itself”.
He takes the viewer on a synoptic journey, narrating interesting but relevant anecdotes that have been significantly contextualised within his social and cultural milieu. He projects human concerns and emotions like love, anxiety, tensions alienation. “Though it may be a little difficult to read, a few moments of reflections will help you to grasp the essence of the picture and learn the subject involved,” he adds, pointing to his work.
His themes revolve around epic narratives as Ramayana and Mahabharata, Radha and Krishna, or popular iconic forms as Kali, Hanuman, Ganesha, Karthikeya and Christ. He emphasises his conscious derivations from a treasure trove of epic literature saying. “The stories themselves are not significant. Ramayana and Mahabharata are interpreted as aspects of human behaviour. Hinduism is a collective consciousness, hence there is no need to see and visualize. It is my version of what I see and interpret,” he adds. Weaving his imagery symbolically, Senathipathi contextualises the modern society. Though his human forms have been minimized through linear interplay describing expressionist distortions and cubist fragmentation, they are portraits of anguish, tension, conflicts, insecurities or tenderness of love.
Precisely weaving his visual language through the weft and woof of line, colour and textures, he created a tapestry of magical reality. The line, evolved by Senathipathi is markedly individual. The ornate and decorative details have been an inherent aspect of his style sourced from kolams, yantric diagrams and folk art; creating a fine web of linearity almost akin to skeins of colour drips of Jackson Pollock.
Colour has remained the key-dominant element, manifested as primary and complementary colours. He is a versatile artist. Besides his indulgence in repousse metal works, there is a dramatic opposition in his ink wash drawings worked on handmade paper by immersing the sheet in water and drawing his linear compositions. The pressure applied by the nib or the brush determines the effects with the blots, smudges and soft sfumato, creating exciting titillating visual textures. The accidental effects enhance the character with added richness.
The artist has a diploma in painting, obtained in 1965 from the Government College of Arts and Crafts. He had mastered the skills in drawing human forms and nature. The two modernists he acknowledges are Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso; former for his enchanting, flexible and playful line, and the latter for its powerful distortion of the human form premised on primitive tribal masks.
The visual complexities in his works have been passionately, dedicatedly and insightfully worked, engaging the viewer, not only by its playful dancing line and evocative textures but by the form that has the intensity and potential to evoke a response that strikes an emotional chord. His works have the quality of timelessness with the artist having passed into history as one among the constellation of pioneers that configured the Madras Art Movement in the 1960s.