Regional cosmopolitanism: Focus on the fading lights of the Madras movement

Regional cosmopolitanism: Focus on the fading lights of the Madras movement

By VINEET GILL | | 11 November, 2017
Malwa Nights, by K.G. Subramanyan.
Dhvani Se Shabd Aur Chinh, an ongoing exhibition at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, reintroduces us to forgotten painters, such as K.C.S. Paniker and R.B. Bhaskaran, who were central to the 1960s Madras Art Movement, writes Vineet Gill.
It takes all kinds of skills to survive as an artist, and talent alone won’t take you anywhere. To make good in the creative enterprise, you need PR smarts. You must be an expert schmoozer at art parties and a tireless self-publicist. You must routinely issue statements, manifestos, and intelligible catalogues: anything that helps move artworks out of the gallery. In this definition, a successful artist is someone who carefully reads, and understands, every clause of the sales contract before signing it. Come to think of it, most of the artists who are forgotten today—having once been celebrated for their exceptional gifts—are those who failed to market themselves effectively.  
The unwritten history of the Madras Art Movement is a saga of such figures. Not many remember the names of D.P. Roy Choudhury or K.C.S. Paniker today because these artists—among the best-known in their league—didn’t leave any marketable legacy behind. Their memory inspires no grand philosophical visions and no prophesies of universal man. Their paintings didn’t fetch millions. Where the Bombay Progressives were keen to espouse national political ideals and create an artistic canon that could measure up to the standards set by Europe, the Madras group seemed steadfastly self-sufficient and local. Far from addressing the big questions, such as nationhood, history or the human condition, these artists developed a taste for minor concerns and dallied with regional themes. Everyday rituals and ordinary landscape got pride of place on their canvases, with folk forms guiding their hand.  
The Owl & the Moon, by R.B. Bhaskaran.
But this served merely as the starting point for artists associated with the Madras Art Movement. Thereafter, each followed his own, wildly inventive, sui generis trajectory. Paniker, for instance, began with abstract landscapes and, advocating the use of native flavours in Indian paintings, ended up with his magnificent Words and Symbols series, for which he covered whole canvases in indecipherable signs and illegible scrawls of text.
These later paintings by Paniker look like massive pages torn out of some obscure holy manuscript. At Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), you can see a few of these manuscript-paintings, now on display as part of an ongoing exhibition, called Dhvani Se Shabd Aur Chinh. The title can be simply rendered into English as “From Sound, Letters and Symbols”; but dhvani has a more complex meaning in Sanskrit aesthetics; it refers to the poetic essence such is left unspoken by the poet, and is by nature ineffable. Paniker experimented with text and colour, with noise and silence. So he would have been well-placed to appreciate this ambiguity attached to the word dhvani.  
At its peak, the Madras group was hugely influential, and its reach wasn’t restricted to the city. Artists from across Tamil Nadu, and even Kerala, were shaped by its founding principles—a hybrid that made room for the canonical (of the European and Bengali stock) as well as the provincial (derived from local artisans). 
But the present show isn’t only about Paniker. Other masterpieces from Madras are also here. The artist R.B. Bhaskaran, another noted alumnus of the Madras School of Art—around which the movement had formed back in the 1960s— has sent his 1985 etching, The Owl & The Moon. It has a deceptively simple composition: against a beige backdrop, there are just two elements rendered in black, owl and moon. Look closer, and you’ll see the exaggerated attention given to details here: too many lines and swirls on the feathers of the owl, too many craters on the surface of the moon.  Both the elements come across as scientific reference images prepared by someone who has never really seen an owl, and, somehow, never looked up at the moon. It calls to mind Albrecht Dürer’s speculative woodcut of a rhinoceros, an animal he had never seen. And on so many levels, it undermines Paniker’s prescriptive programme for Indian artists.  
Bhaskaran was the wild child of the Madras group. He rebelled against what he saw as nativist ideas of Paniker and his followers. “Any work done by an Indian artist today becomes Indian,” he once told an interviewer. “You don’t need to pick symbols or images that portray Indianness.” The difference between Bhaskaran’s and Paniker’s respective approaches gives you a sense of the range that the Madras group had to offer. And these diverging agendas reach a kind of synthesis in P.V. Janakiram’s sculptures. 
On display at the Delhi show are Janakiram’s frontal sculptures of Ganesha and Christ, both made of copper and steel, and both dating back to the ’80s. These are portrayals of the sacred in the machine aesthetic: industrial-grade idols that seem always on the verge of meshing their gears and clicking into motion.  
Words and Symbol, by K.C.S. Paniker.
At its peak, the Madras group was hugely influential, and its reach wasn’t restricted to the city. Artists from across Tamil Nadu, and even Kerala, were shaped by its founding principles—a hybrid that made room for the canonical (of the European and Bengali stock) as well as the provincial (derived from local artisans). 
The NGMA exhibition includes paintings by the Kerala-born artist and critic K.G. Subramanyan, who passed away in June last year. His Malva Nights is among the highlights of the show. A tour-de-force of figurative and abstract elements jostling against each other, Subramanyan’s painting combines the modernist tropes of skewed perspectives and illusive depths with an old-fashioned narrative style where each corner of the frame tells a separate story, quite like Paniker’s painted manuscripts. 
Dhvani Se Shabd Aur Chinh has exhibits by some of India’s finest artists, who advanced a strange form of regionalism that wasn’t parochial, and who believed in the kind of cosmopolitanism that wasn’t, to use an irritating 21st-century buzzword, global. This was modern Indian art at its best. Appropriately, then, the dominant mood of the show is that of nostalgia. It reminds us of a past that allowed a collective such as the Madras group to emerge. A past where modernity didn’t simply mean a passage to Paris or New York, and where artistic success wasn’t determined by how many friends you had or how many paintings you sold.  
 

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