Madras Art Movement
First emerging the 1960s in Madras (now Chennai), the Madras Art Movement sought to engage with local and traditional aesthetics to establish a regional form of Modernism in India, with a focus on the culturally and linguistically distinct heritage of South India. The movement developed against the backdrop of the post-Independence, nationalist sentiments of the time — with artists working to establish both an aesthetic and national identity independent of colonial influence. It strove to withdraw from Western pedagogical techniques and insisted on looking to local artistic and cultural practices.
The Madras School of Arts and Crafts (now known as the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai) was established in 1850 by Alexander Hunter and was the locus of this movement — first, under the influence of Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury, who served as principal from 1930, and subsequently under KCS Paniker, the principal from 1957–66. In the early sixties, Paniker led a group of student artists to critically evaluate the continuing reliance on the Western models of modernity in pursuit of alternatives within their more immediate and relevant context. The School of Arts therefore provided a crucial platform for students to contribute their own regional artistic sensibilities towards developing a new form of Indian Modernism in South India. Paniker’s expanded curriculum at the institution focused on revisiting traditional arts and crafts, while helping students explore and expound their creative potential. Aside from painting, the students were also schooled in the technical traditions of batik dyeing, engraving, jewellery-making, woodworking, pottery and terracotta sculpture and weaving, besides others.
Among the early students were N Viswanadhan, AP Santhanaraj, Redeppa Naidu and Ramanujam, who under the mentorship of Paniker and S Dhanapal (who was head of the sculpture department) were encouraged to explore native and local visual and historic traditions. Furthermore, the teachers R Krishna Rao and HV Ram Gopal played a significant role in shaping the institution’s ethos by helping cultivate, among the students and their art, an Indian identity that was rooted in their particular cultural experiences, encouraging them to look at regional visual motifs. These included domestic artforms such as kolam, indigenous and local deities, dance costumes and accessories, ritual objects, symbols and toys. As it consolidated its position as a centre for art (as distinct from craft or technical) education in South India and began to attract students from neighbouring states such as Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the Madras School turned into a crucible of postcolonial and nativist ideologies.
Unlike other Indian art movements at the time, such as the Bombay Progressive Artists Group, which drew inspiration from European Modernism and Expressionism, the Madras Art Movement was distinguished by its deliberate distancing from internationalist trends that came to replace colonial hegemony, instead drawing upon localised history, mythology and folklore, scriptures, literature, sacred iconography, architecture and murals. This return to the heritage of a culturally and linguistically distinct South India marked a decisive point of departure from other prevailing modern movements, being characterised instead by a nativist vocabulary in a Modernist language.
Two broad styles of practice developed in this movement: figurative and abstract, both of which drew inspiration from the region’s cultural, historical and religious practices. Artists such as L Munuswamy, KV Haridasan, V Viswanathan, K Adimoolam, P Gopinath, Achuthan Kudallur and RM Palaniappan developed a style based on abstraction, while others such as Redappa Naidu, Anthony Doss, Alphonso Arul Doss, K Ramanujam, SG Vasudev, RB Bhaskaran, Muralidharan, C Douglas, Arnawaz (Vasudev), Premalatha Seshadhri and TK Padmini developed a more figurative and linear style. Within both categories, artworks shared a similar emphasis on line, colour and texture. Aside from painting, the movement also produced significant contributions to local crafts — another distinction from other pan-Indian and internationalist art movements.
The early sixties, however, were a difficult time for the young graduates of the Madras School, as there were few patrons and fewer avenues for the monetisation of art. Some graduates took up academic positions in art schools, some joined commercial art establishments as finishing artists and a few joined the Weavers Service Centre, Chennai. In the face of this mounting challenge, Paniker advocated an expansion of the scope of the art being produced to include commercially viable forms. This also reinforced his belief that art and art production could only come into its own if the aesthetic sensibilities of its consumers were sensitised by exposure to its contemporary forms This eventually led to the formation of the Artists’ Handicrafts Association in 1963, which provided local artists and artisans with facilities to produce commercial art-based handicrafts such as batik textiles and leatherwork, while undertaking the marketing of these products to the local community through the Handicrafts Board and state art emporia.
The success of the Artists’ Handicrafts Association inspired Paniker to seek out opportunities to build a residential work centre for local artists that could run on a cooperative basis. In 1966, Paniker founded the Cholamandal Artists’ Village in the outskirts of Chennai, which soon became the new centre of the Madras Art Movement, guided by a focus on reviving local and indigenous artforms and a move away from a dependence on commercial art galleries. Gradually, with the changing cultural landscape, diverging views and the increasing tensions arising from regional and other differences among the artist members of the movement, the group splintered and gradually disintegrated. However, the Village continued to function, even if not in the envisaged manner, despite Paniker’s death in 1977.
The Cholamandal Artists’ Village was the last project and bastion of the once galvanising Madras Arts Movement. It has since continued to attract artists from all over India and beyond. At the time of writing, it remains an important site for artistic practice, production and discourse in South India.
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