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Madras’ brand of regional modernism

  • A new exhibition shines the spotlight on the much neglected Madras Art Movement
  • It includes works by artists such as S.G. Vasudev, K.C.S. Paniker, K.V. Haridasan and V. Viswanadhan, who were part of the Madras Art Movement which emerged in the 1960s

‘Nagpanchami’ (1973) by J. Sultan Ali
‘Nagpanchami’ (1973) by J. Sultan Ali

These days, 60 paintings and prints and 15 sculptures are in the process of being installed at DAG’s modern art gallery in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai. These include works by artists such as S.G. Vasudev, K.C.S. Paniker, K.V. Haridasan and V. Viswanadhan, who were part of the Madras Art Movement which emerged in the 1960s.

With the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Chennai as its fulcrum, the movement created its own brand of regional modernism, one that was rooted in the art and craft ethos of the region, and held its own against the existing benchmarks of modernism prevalent in India and abroad. And yet, over the years, it seems that mainstream art discourse has bypassed this significant period in Indian art history. It is an attempt to rectify this lacuna and reintroduce the movement’s aesthetic vision that DAG will be presenting Madras Modern: Regionalism And Identity, (20 July to 12 October).

In a phone conversation with Lounge, art historian-critic Ashrafi Bhagat, who has curated the exhibition, talks about the factors that have inspired this first major retrospective of the movement. Edited excerpts:

Why did the Madras Art Movement slip from mainstream art history?

The recognition came quite late. First, because of the geographical location of the movement, away from the centres of art at the time, such as Kolkata and Mumbai. The second reason is the agenda that drove the curriculum at the Government College of Arts and Crafts. Instead of teaching fine arts, the centre pursued commercial crafts such as carpentry, masonry and metalware, which could be sold in the overseas market. This continued till D.P. Roy Chowdhury took over as principal and introduced fine arts in the curriculum. But even he had no interest in teaching the modernism of the European masters. It was introduced by his successor, K.C.S. Paniker.

Could you talk about the multiculturalism brought in by Paniker?

It was in 1954 that he held one of his first international exhibitions in London, where a critic told him that while his work was great, it lacked a certain Indianness. That was the time, in the post-colonial era, that multiculturalism was seeping into society and artists too were beginning to reflect on their roots. Paniker thought about what the critic said. He also began to be influenced by Jamini Roy and his interpretation of the Bengal folk traditions.

Paniker thought it apt to look at his region’s traditions and evolved the theory of nativism. He said tradition is a storehouse of restless energy and artists need to reinvent it with contemporary sensibilities.

S.G. Vasudev is one of the artists you will be showing. What makes him such a seminal figure of the movement?

At the time when K.C.S. Paniker was principal at the college, there was a core bunch of very talented artists who debated over this theory of regional modernism. Vasudev was one of them. While others were influenced by the region’s craft traditions, Vasudev drew inspiration from Kannada literature, and that makes him distinctive. He intertwined his work with the philosophy underlying the Vriksha, or the tree of life. He is also the only artist from the movement who pursued different craft forms. At one time, he did tapestries and also inlay in wooden tables. He played an integral role in bringing an interdisciplinary approach to art and craft, particularly when the Cholamandal Artists’ Village was formed.

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