A Master Stroke

He asked the question: what does it mean to be a modern artist in Independent India? He set up the only artist commune in the country. A new book looks at KCS Paniker’s profound influence.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Updated: March 20, 2017 8:57:49 pm
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In 1954, KCS Paniker had his first major chance at international exposure, opening one-man shows in London and Paris to wide acclaim. Among the many who came away impressed by Paniker’s undeniable talent was Ludwig Goldscheider, art historian and founder of the prestigious Phaidon Press. In a letter to the Madras-based artist, Goldscheider wrote: “You are one of the very few Indian painters who went through the ordeal of Western teaching and came out unbroken. Your paintings are not translations from the French, not based on models of which one does not quite know whether they still belong to modern French art or to French haute couture; neither are they enlarged Indian miniatures or reduced Indian rock-paintings. They are as competent as anything done by the younger European painters and at the same time, they are very Indian.”

Perhaps, this letter was one of the many sparks that turned into a burning flame as, down the years, Paniker went on to develop his unique artistic idiom. In March 1979, in an essay called ‘Chitram Ezhuthu’ (The Written Picture), published in the Kerala Lalithkala Akademy’s Journal on Art and Artists, Paniker quoted Goldscheider’s letter to question the roots of Indian modernism and to formulate a way forward. “These thoughts,” he wrote, “make one wonder if we in India can, with our present brand of Internationalism, ever hope to paint or sculpt with true significance so long as we deny our ancestors, so long as they do not assert their immortality through us.” For Paniker, this was not a rhetorical question; it was the spirit that animated his work, right until his death in 1977 at the age of 66. It remains a part of his legacy, and is as important as the vision of artistic integrity that led to him founding the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, which is celebrating its 50th year this year.

Goldscheider’s letter and Paniker’s essay appear in a recently-released volume called Paniker, conceived by the artist’s son, sculptor S Nandagopal, and published by Chennai-based gallery Artworld. The book traces the artistic journey of Paniker, a visionary, teacher and institution builder. The book brings back into the spotlight an artist who, having engaged with the question of what it meant to be modern in Independent India, developed an idiom to reconcile the country’s aesthetic traditions with its place in the modern world.

Work titled Dog from Paniker’s pathbreaking series, ‘Words and Symbols’.

Paniker’s struggle to find new modes of expression emerged against a background of a developing Indian modernism. From Raja Ravi Varma and Abanindranath Tagore in the 19th century to Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy and Amrita Sher-Gil in the early 20th century, Indian artists were looking for ways to square European ideas of modernism with Indian traditions. In 1947, the Progressive Artists’ Groups, formed in Bombay by FN Souza, MF Husain, SH Raza, KH Ara, SK Bakre and HA Gade, declared a complete break from the academic realism of art schools, as well as from the attempts of Indian forebears such as the Bengal School. But the quest to find the meaning of the “modern” in the Indian context continued into the ’50s and ’60s, and even as the Bombay Progressives disbanded, artists such as J Swaminathan, KG Subramanyan, Ganesh Pyne and Meera Mukherjee continued their quest for contemporary expression.

Paniker’s journey was, thus, a part of the larger narrative of post-Independence art in India. As he recorded in the essay, ‘Contemporary Painters and Metaphysical Elements in the Art of the Past’, published in Lalit Kala Contemporary in 1972, he had ceased to find inspiration in the modern art of the West as early as 1956. The artist, born in Coimbatore, was educated in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In his early days, he considered considered himself more of a storyteller than an artist. He started making art at the age of 11 when, inspired by a schoolmate, he began to draw pictures of the canals, paddy fields and coconut groves of his village, Ponnani, in Kerala. But as his command over his medium of expression grew, Paniker’s ambitions grew as well. “It dawned on me that I would be able to contribute something at sometime or other to the art of our country,” he wrote in a essay titled ‘Why do I paint’, published in 1972 in the Malayalam quaterly, Sameeksha.

Paniker finally made his breakthrough in 1963 when he chanced upon his son’s mathematics notebook, covered with Arabic numerals, geometrical formations and algebra symbols. This laid the foundation for his pathbreaking ‘Words and Symbols’ series. It marked a complete shift in Paniker’s visual landscape, which, at the time, was influenced partly by Vincent Van Gogh and partly by the cave paintings of Ajanta. Using oils, the artist covered the canvas with mathematical diagrams, scribbles that used illegible script derived from his native Malayalam, tabular columns reminiscent of Tantric charts, and totem-like sketches of humans and animals. According to art historian Rebecca M Brown, it was an experiment with different communication systems right on the canvas. “This enables his work to ask a much bigger question: how do we know what we know? Where does knowledge come from? This is a particularly important question in a recently colonised country, where a good deal of the official historical narrative has been produced in the service of the coloniser. But knowledge is always political, and this is why Paniker’s work still has resonance today,” she says.

The artist!

Paniker’s importance in the history of Indian art is cemented not just by his artistic experiments, but also by his role as a teacher, mentor and founder of India’s only artist commune. The artist, who had been teaching at his alma mater, the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Madras, since 1941, was the principal there in the 1960s and helped foster critical study of modernity. The Madras Art Movement, comprising artists such as C Dakshinamoorthy,
K Adimoolam, RB Bhaskaran and SG Vasudev, was formed at this time. Critical to this development was Paniker’s personal magnetism and unerring instinct for mentoring. “He encouraged students such as Perumal, Santanaraj, Shanmukha Sundaram and Ramanujam, and had the sensibility to recognise these young artists who came from different backgrounds with their own inhibitions,” recalls former student V Viswanadhan, “Some of his students used to hang around the art school at the end of the day. He would talk to us about art and art history, and once the conversation started, it wouldn’t end until midnight.”

The idea for setting up the artists’ commune, which would eventually become the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, was a result of several conversations with former students who were frustrated with having to make a living through commercial means. Viswanadhan recalls how Paniker himself rued having to teach in order to support his family. “After he came back from America one time, he said that he had found some artists there who were resorting to handicrafts to make a living. He said that this way, the artist could have the freedom to do whatever he really liked,” says Viswanadhan.

Shots of the beach near Cholamandal Artists’ Village about 40 years ago.

This was in 1962, at a meeting of the Young Painters’ Association, which then led to the foundation of Artists’ Handicraft Association. The artists started practising, as critic Josef James described it in a 1994 essay ‘Cholamandal Artists’ Village’, “congenial crafts of utilitarian nature”, such as batik. The products helped the young artists make money without having to compromise on their artistic objectives. In April 1966, the association bought 10 acres of land outside the city and, in May, a group of artists, including Viswanadhan, moved in to begin their life as a community.

That Cholamandal, the only artist commune in the country, thrives to this day is a credit to Paniker’s vision. It lives on as a centre of art, where practitioners work and learn in peace without worrying about their daily bread. Nandagopal says, “It was only in the initial years, when there was no art market, that we had to make money through handicrafts. We’re now at the stage where all the artists are earning enough through their art. And since the land is owned by the artists themselves, and not by the government, we don’t have to worry about losing this space.” Over the years, the village itself has evolved into a monument to the founders of Madras Art Movement, even housing a museum to commemorate them. Above all, though, Cholamandal remains not just a home to artists, but also a place of refuge. “My father would wonder what would happen to artists who had to make a living in the world outside, and those like Ramanujam, who suffered from schizophrenia and other illnesses, and who had been rejected by his family,” says Nandagopal. Viswanadhan says, “We did not ask ourselves where we are going, what we are going to become. We had great enthusiasm inspired by the sense of community Paniker gave us. It was this sense of community that held the integrity of Paniker’s vision.”

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