Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Art: The making of Cholamandal artists' village

View of the new Cholamandal gallery from the mezzanine floor

(Note: This piece was originally published in Namaste in 2009) 

THE first settlers at Cholamandal in Chennai tuned in to the universe. They took cues from the infinite music beyond the sea breeze through the swaying casuarinas groves, beyond the butterfly-winged seashells on the Injambakkam beach.

The 30-odd young artists who trudged down the mud track that led to the eight acres of land they acquired for Rs. 40,000 by slow degrees in 1966 were buoyed by a dream. A dream inspired by their guru at the Madras Government College of Arts and Crafts, K C S Paniker. Later, Panicker and the brilliant sculptor P V Janakiram added an acre each to the community. 

'Genesis' by Paniker

 As the college principal from 1957 to 1967, Paniker had watched his young students – including Viswanadhan V and S G Vasudev, P Gopinath and Anila Jacob, D Venkatapathy and Jayapal Panicker, Akittham Narayanan and K V Haridasan, Arnawaz and P S Nandhan – struggle to eke out a living as they sought their individual identities. At times, they had meals of peanuts and tea. At others, they huddled on the steps of the college or in the corridors of the Lalit Kala Akademi, seeking lifelines from dealers, patrons or the media.

How would they resolve these real life dilemmas? An exhibition of their batik work in the 1960s offered a cue when it was sold out. Perhaps a craft-based community that earned enough to support an artist’s life was the solution.

In 1963, 38 of them formed the Artists’ Handicrafts Association (AHA). The government offered them 10 acres of land at Sriperambadur. The artists mulled it over, then declined. They chose not to be saddled with the stipulations that often tied in with such concessions.

To them, originally from Kerala and Mysore, or from villages across the Tamil country, the essence of Chennai (then Madras) was the sea with its eternal tides. Within three years, they scrounged and saved enough to buy those precious eight acres at Injambakkam, along the tourist route to the ancient shore temples of Mahabalipuram. 

A cross-section of the gallery at the inauguration
They decided to call it the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, in honour of the arts-loving Chola dynasty of Tamil Nadu. When Paniker retired, he threw in his lot with this bunch of dreamers he had mentored.

Their struggles continued in the years that followed. On occasion, their rudimentary dwellings were blown down by cyclones. They often trudged six km on foot to buy rice, pulses or vegetables. On a lucky day, they hitched rides on a passing lorry.

But they collectively withstood such buffeting to stand strong and true. On February 1, 2009, the inauguration of the 10,500 sq. ft. Cholamandal Gallery of Contemporary Art, surrounded by a sculpture garden, testified to the power of the big dream. Even more, to the building of a community of dissimilar personalities, united by a larger-than-life goal.

The complex includes the 3,500 sq. ft. K C S Paniker Museum of the Madras Movement, which includes eminent artists who were not part of Cholamandal, such as Thota Tharani, Achuthan Kudallur, and R M Palaniappan. At its very heart is a rare 1957 oil on board ‘Genesis’ by Paniker. Like the banyan at the entrance to Cholamandal, he nurtured and sheltered his students, while allowing them to grow.
Metal sculpture by Nandagopal

Paniker’s son, the celebrated metal sculptor S Nandagopal recalls his father’s dream of a Madras metaphor in art that would be “Indian in spirit and worldwide contemporary.”

Today, Viswanadhan and Narayanan have a presence in Paris and beyond, while architect-artist M V Devan has set up Malayala Kalagramam at Kannur in Kerala. Vasudev’s canvases are celebrated across India, while Anila Jacob led the way for a generation of Indian women sculptors. Their visions and revisions live on in Cholamandal, a community “for the artists, by the artists, of the artists,’ as Devan couches it.

This synergy of individuals, never a school of art, undoubtedly stemmed from a unique equation. In a 1992 interview, Vasudev notes, “Paniker never made us feel he was a teacher. He was a friend, philosopher and guide to me. His studio was always open, and I could talk to him about anything. It was good to discuss our work every day with a teacher of his standing. He’d talk about his own painting and how the arrangement in my painting was helping him with his! It was as if both of us were learning at the same time.”

That guru-shishya bond equally impacted the late Arnawaz, known for her ink and wash ‘Lines from the Ramayana’ as for her incised, gouged, turned silver or copper crafts. “When Paniker picked out any of our work, it was because of something individual in it, because you had something of your own to say,” she observed in 1980. “Then you stop looking for anything else. You look for the one thing that is yours. That thing that says, ‘This is Arnawaz.’”

Today, well-built homes and artists’ studios, some in the shade of coconut palms or sprawling gulmohurs along the bustling East Coast Road prove that Cholamandal has come of age. Vasudev offers a perspective on its trajectory, “People used to frequently ask Paniker about the future of Cholamandal. He once said that if the village lasted one generation, it would be a great achievement! It has lasted more than that! He added that if six artists achieved something great for themselves, he would be satisfied. At least 15 artists from Cholamandal are considered important in India.”

Alongside them, a new generation seeks its place in the sun. Current Cholamandal president M Senathipathi’s children – M S Geeta, S Hemalatha and Saravanan – have their works in the gallery. So does Richard Jesudoss’s son Jacob Jebaraj.

The pioneering generation kept in focus “an art with which to kill the anxiety and to ‘sense the truly human, in a border sense.’ To them Cholamandal has been a moment of glory, real, impermanent, like a dream,” as Nandagopal recalls it.

Paniker’s vision has been validated today, as have the struggles of his students. Cholamandal, uniquely within the global art world, remains a self-sustaining community, unlike similar enterprises in Cuba and Israel, which are government-sponsored. 

Drawing by Ramanujam

To buttress its independence, the new art complex includes a 1,600 sq. ft. gallery of Cholamandal art, where work is on sale. So are ceramic mugs and plaques embellished with Vasudev’s drawings, and T-shirts that celebrate the community at its fledgling gallery shop. New vibrations flow into the village from two commercial galleries – Indigo and Laburnum – sponsored by art patrons H K Kejriwal and Sanjay Tulsyan. Buoyed by his perspective from Paris, Narayanan sees the complex as “a monument to the achievements of Cholamandal.”

Decades ago, when asked about the future of Cholamandal, Paniker said, “I have not thought about it and nothing moves me to think about it. This place is here because the artists who are here needed such a place. It may be that they will not need it anymore some day. If and when that happens it would be best for this place to die and be as if it had never been. It could be burdensome and pathetically so if this place is not permitted to be no more if and when it turns dead to those who are here.”

The pioneering artists and their village remain vitally alive today. Between the promise and the realization of Cholamandal fell a million shadows. And yet, the will of a generation of dreamers saw it through.

Its original settlers are today respected, admired and feted. That is how the universe responded to their incessant creative rhythms, their paean to life, in a village by the sea called Cholamandal.

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