Madras canvas

Inconceivable as it may seem for a city famous for frenzied celebrity worship, Chennai has now assumed a new avatar — a city in celebration of itself. From heritage walks around its ancient by-lanes that are often older than the city itself, fusion kutcheris where the typically Chennai ghatam and the nadhaswaram meet cymbals and the saxophone, street theatre and dances, food festivals, open air shows of nostalgic photographs of the city’s yesteryears, sea-shore games, school festivals, and what not… Chennai’s kaleidoscopic culture has become more colourful in the last few years, hopefully establishing a new identity for itself in the process. This city now devotes an entire week for its celebration of itself, feasting on such sensual-intellectual experiences, calling it ‘The Madras Week’. Madras week? Huh, Chennaiites don’t let go of their past that easily, apparently.

 As cities go, they have their own distinct charms. New York charges you up by its pulsating energy and the sense of absolute freedom that seems to throb in everything and everybody there. London still feels solid; Calcutta is deeply arty and spiritual… But Chennai? The Chennai charm is hard to define. It is a multi-layered thing, appealing at different levels. This is what prompts an eclectic group of people to settle down in cozy, crazy Chennai, disregarding the charms of their much more flashy, famous and fast hometowns.

Great. But then, how does one capture the spirit of a city? And, is there anything tangible about a city’s spirit? Well, 54 artists — young and old, the upcoming and the well-established ones — came together to show their impressions of the city (and of course, the city’s impressions on them). Voices Shalini Biswajit, who has curated this show and an artist in her own right, “This is representative of a collection that is local, yet global.”

As far as though processes are concerned, in a way, this massive collection puts Chennai on a global map as an entity to take notice of, more than a city’s reflection on itself. Because the paintings are not about the distinctive Madras style that is so deeply linear. “Cholamandal or no Cholamandal, the Madras movement is no longer restricted to the line,” puts in Shalini. In fact, the works in this collection are not all paintings. Cartoons strips with conversations, caricatures, abstracts and figurative, sculptures, cheeky photographs that show a slice of the Chennai life, and even art works which are more of arty looking puzzles than art, figure among the collection as much as the straight forward classical paintings. But then, installation art is conspicuously absent. Apparently, Chennai is still yet to accept installation art. Perhaps the transient quality of installation art doesn’t appeal all that much to Chennai artists.

“I have been living in the city since ’79, moving in and out, and believe me, there is no place like it on the world,” says AV Ilango, who had individually done a series on Chennai city in 2002. His paintings are a burst of energy delivered with exquisite simplicity — a violent dash of few colours and a few strokes that bring to life the madness and vitality of the ‘Jallikattu’ (bullfighting), or the fiery rage of goddess Mahishasuramardini.

Other cities grow, or stagnate cohesively. “But in Chennai, you would still find a BMW zipping past a bullock cart; and a soothsayer dragging his decorated bull in glitzy Mount Road,” Ilango smiles, and adds, “Here people seem to live in different zones of time, though they share the same city space.” In this city, you can turn out of a lane and find yourself in a totally different world.

Well, this is a thought that finds an echo in the mind of photographer Monika Ghurde, who has settled down in Chennai, passing up hometown Mumbai. “Why? Well, I just fell in love with this place — at different levels. Visually, it is spectacularly colourful, and this inspires me as an artist; but this is a city about which you can’t just say ‘I like Chennai because it is so beautiful’ and be done with it. It is a multi-layered city. And the best part is, here, you can pick your pace — sedate and peaceful, or actively social, and still feel one of the crowd.” 
 
Achuthan Kudallur, Thotta Tharani, RM Palaniappan, RB Bhaskaran, Dakshinamoorthy C, Senathipathy, Douglas C, KV Haridasan, Viswam, Paneerselvam — these senior artists do share their impressions on canvass, but alongside, you find a lot more that you never expected. There are the works of bright and promising young artists who are thinking so different — be it in terms of material or concept. Suresh Kumar’s geometric patterns are more of mathematics and perspective than art or spiritual stuff. They startle you by challenging the very conclusion you had drawn just then; you view his the same work through a different perspective and find a new pattern emerging — like a mobius strip.

Or take young Prabhakaran’s works in austere black and white — which is about acquisition of knowledge, as he says. His multimedia work that is often set off by a paper boat stuck on it, is an attempt to lure you out of planes of thought and patterns. “The beaches of Chennai have made an impression on me, I guess,” he says, explaining his paper boats.

Then there are caricatures that pick on different pieces of the Chennai story — Chennai’s fascination for kutcheris and collywood, for instance. Keshav’s cartoon shows the typical incongruous sight that the December kutcheri season throws up all over Chennai — very obviously ultra modern and very obviously NRI people snatching conversations with very typically traditional Chennai vidwans. Then, there are the cartoons of Biswajit that take a dig on the idiosyncracies of the Tamil film industry, and Monika Ghurde’s photographs that show the great divide between film celebrities and their real life worshippers.

What appeals most about this Madras Canvass is that you can connect to these works, and even understand them. They are intelligent, and yet not forbiddingly highbrow. They don’t go over your head, even if your head happens to be as dense as this writer’s. These works are straightforward. Much like the city.

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