The once-bohemian Cholamandal Artists’ Village is now a staid 50 years old
It was evening by the time the two artists reached Injambakkam, on the outskirts of Madras. Chennai was still Madras in 1966, and the Cholamandal Artists’ Village was little more than a gleam in the eye of its makers. Exhausted, Velu Viswanadhan and RB Bhaskaran slept under the open sky, guarding the thatch and bamboo they had brought with them to build the first cottage. When Viswanadhan woke the next morning he saw the sprout of a seed on one of the tiny palm trees planted to demarcate the boundary of the land which a group of over 30 artists had collectively purchased to build India’s first artists’ village.
A towering banyan tree now stands where the palm once did. The innocuous little sprout which had embraced and engulfed the palm tree kept growing like, well, Jack’s beanstalk: you can barely see the trunk of the dead palm tree. The Cholamandal Artists’ Village also grew exponentially. There’s barely any trace of quaint huts with thatched roofs or a makeshift museum. Bohemia has all but disappeared from the Village: bricks, mortar, cement and the influx of money from various corporations have transformed what may have been an imagined utopia for the group of former students of the Madras School of Arts. Spurred on by the late KCS Paniker, painter and principal of the college, who moved to Cholamandal after he retired, the artists created a community where they could live and work—on land they owned and in homes and studios they built themselves.
Cholamandal celebrated 50 years of its existence in February, with much fanfare and culminating with an inspired recital by TM Krishna. The release of a catalogue of Cholamandal’s art collection titled The Museum of the Madras Movement was followed by the inauguration of paintings and sculptures of 55 of its renowned artists, including those of Reddeppa Naidu, M Senathipathi, PS Nandhan, KM Adimoolam, C Dakshinamoorthy, Akkitham Narayanan, J Sultan Ali, V Viswanadhan and SG Vasudev.
The “Village”, in what is now considered a posh neighbourhood, is on the map for tourists on their way to Mahibalipuram, and beyond. You can see visitors wandering through the international sculpture garden, outdoor theatre and the various galleries. Artists can also rent the contemporary art gallery to exhibit their works. If you strain your ears, you can hear sculptors chiselling granite. Works of art spill on to verandas and gardens in many of the homes and studios.
On the surface the bustling artists’ commune is a happening place. However, the buzz is deceptive. It is no longer on the radar of the ruling clique of art theorists and critics in the rest of the country—and rarely part of the discourse on modern and contemporary art in India. Cholamandal artists dominated the Madras Movement which was started in the late 1950s by Paniker. Perhaps it is time to restore it to its rightful place. The educationist formed the Progressive Painters’ Association in 1944, three years before the much-touted but short-lived and inordinately influential Progressive Artists’ Group of Bombay which dispersed a few years after it was established in 1947.
The Movement lasted about 30 years, and brought Modernism to South India. However, this “ism” was no mere transplant; it acquired a regional vocabulary on southern soil. “Mr Paniker encouraged us to be open to Western art while drawing sustenance from tradition,” explains the founder-member painter Viswanadhan who divides his time between Paris and Cholamandal. “He told us to look around locally. Even an ordinary scarecrow in the field had an interesting form and could inspire us.”
Spearheaded by Paniker, the artists explored “new premises for contemporary Indian art” according to the late Josef James, art historian and chronicler of the Madras Movement and the Artists’ Village. Drawing gained importance, as did the line and the “expressivity of the line”. Paniker’s distinctive paintings include notations, jottings, writing, marks and lines. Inspired by him, many of his students began to incorporate lines and writing in their canvases.
Paniker’s most enduring legacy may have been the establishment of Cholamandal. Many of his students had been forced to abandon art and take up jobs. The Village allowed artists to continue being artists and earn a living—usually by marrying art and craft. They formed an Artists’ Handicrafts Association and bought paint and canvases with the money they earned by selling handicrafts. Viswanadhan says he made Rs 1,000 a month selling the batik saris he made. During the commemoration, Cholamandal artists M Senathipathi, S Nandagopal (Paniker’s son), P Gopinath and Viswanadhan expressed their gratitude for Paniker’s envisioning a cultural space without any funding from the government—a place where new ideas could come into play and the artists could be self-reliant.
Cholamandal Artists’ Village can no longer boast of being an artists-only village. Over 15 of the original artists who settled here have either died or moved out. Their houses are now occupied by entrepreneurs, journalists and other professionals. Perhaps it is time to encourage young artists to settle here again.
The recent cyclone brought down several thousand tons of trees: the debris is evident everywhere. But the banyan tree still stands sentinel.
This article was published in the April-June issue of The Indian Quarterly