Culture & Society

Tracing The Journey Of Indian Art

Madras Modern—the recently concluded exhibition at the DAG in Delhi—chronicled the transition of the often-underrepresented schools of Indian art

Photo via Animikh Chakrabarty
Photo via Animikh Chakrabarty
info_icon

A crying baby with a humongous head and a dwarfed body—this human-size canvas painting by KCS Paniker(1911-1977), a towering personality in the world of Indian modern art, captivated the viewers as they entered the exhibition floor of the DAG in Delhi. There is a story behind the painting by Paniker, remembered for spearheading the Madras Art Movement and founding the Cholamandal Artists’ Village on the outskirts of Madras in 1966. In 1976, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the Village and was captivated by the same painting. She stood still in front of it. The time stood still, too. Even after so many years, the painting at the exhibition had the same haunting effect, leaving the viewers uncomfortable and, at the same time, mesmarised.

The twentieth century marked a perennial shift in power and identity in Indian history. The colonial stronghold on the cultural ethos of the country had been lifted with the advent of independence and a fervour for national identity had swept in.

Art, which has always mirrored social changes, embraced this phenomenon swiftly. The European conventions of naturalism taught in government art colleges were substituted with new ideas of modernism, blending in with traditional Indian art practices. Indian artists quickly understood the need to look back at our own heritage, iconography and mythical aspects for inspiration while blending in the ideals that the global art movements presented.

Several art schools contributed to the advent of modernist ideologues in Indian art. Artists and intellectuals began advocating for a cultural resurgence rooted in indigenous identity, prompting a renewed exploration of regional and national sources for creative inspiration. This era saw a profound reconsideration of vernacular art forms—from the Bengal school, the torchbearer of the phenomenon, emerged a call for change, one which was marked by a shift from the colonialist’s preferred curriculum of craft-based reproduction to an establishment of an “Indian” and “modern” artform to its youngest, the Madras school.

The Madras Art Movement—that emerged in the early 1960s—was a late phenomenon of modernity in South India within the national context. It developed as a regional phenomenon that began to take shape from the mid-1950s onwards as a search for authenticity in modernism derived largely from the region’s cultural heritage.

The Government School of Arts and Crafts (now Government College of Fine Arts), established in 1850, became the centre for the emergence of this movement in the 1960s. The configuration of the art movement had been initiated under the tenure of D P Roy Chowdhury, its first Indian artist principal (1930-57), who laid emphasis on the development of a fine arts curriculum, put forth an empirical and perceptual approach to art making, and axed the colonial pedantry of human form study based on classical statuary.

Madras Modern—the recently concluded (June 2-July 6) exhibition at the DAG chronicles this transition of the often-underrepresented schools of Indian art. Though ‘Madras’ refers specifically to Chennai, the city was a converging centre for aspiring artists from all four southern states—Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. From the pioneering concepts of DP Roy Chowdhury to the contemporary practitioners of the Cholamandal artist’s village established by Paniker—the exhibition builds a timeline for the art practices, experiments and themes coming out of the Madras School of Art.

The process leads the viewers to witness the shift in style and concept—the initial practices of impressionism, to the introduction of modernist concepts and then finally the shift onto the current contemporary styles.

The themes vary as the years pass by and the exhibition was a great study on this shift for any art practitioner or enthusiast of the current times. While Roy Chowdhury, inspired by the Bengal school, first restructured the curriculum of the Madras School of Art—from the craft- based form mapped by the colonial masters to a more fine art-based one—it was under his student, Paniker, the next superintendent, the school entered it’s modern phase.

Paniker’s knowledge of the international art scene brought fresh perspectives to the school. The framework found a way to weave the concepts of modernism as a conceptual category with the tradition or cultural art forms of the south, thus creating a form of “regional modern”.

The Madras Group consciously attempted a regional vocabulary in terms of folk arts and crafts, forms of accoutrements derived from performing arts like Kathakali and Theyyamas well as the high pictorial and plastic traditions of south India. Abstraction also became a favourite form of practice within a group, inspired by the artworks by the European masters. With years passing by, various other themes, such as neo tantrism, primitivism and abstraction in human forms and concepts of the eros and self-identity created their space in the “Madras Modern”.

The exhibition consciously constituted this history and trajectory in this brief yet vast exercise of the last bastion of modernism in India. The accounting thus makes it easier to trace the concepts of the contemporary from its origins.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement