Art commune

Art commune

K C S Paniker’s dream project, Cholamandal, conceived in the 1960s, stands out as a rare artist-driven initiative to this day, reminds GIRIDHAR KHASNIS.

On April 13, 1966, an association of artists from Madras (now Chennai) pooled its savings and acquired 10 acres of secluded land on the Coromandel Coast. A month later, the first batch of eight artists moved in to live and work there. The artists’ village was named Cholamandal.

“Whether artistic products emerge from this colony or not, it is undeniable that the choice of the location is eminently artistic,” stated a newspaper editorial. “This is the most artistic thing that has happened to the Bay of Bengal since, about a thousand years ago, a Chola emperor dispatched a navy across it to conquer parts of Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia.”

K C S Paniker (1911-77), the then principal of the Government School of Arts and Crafts, Madras, and the brain behind the Cholamandal initiative, reflected on the idea of artists’ village in a letter written on February 26, 1966. “I am not going to be here (college) much longer,” he wrote. “It has been a wonderful period of work and usefulness… these 20 years and more. I now feel I need a fresh adventure; an opportunity to work on a much larger canvas of life. I mean our Centre.

It is so tempting, so alluring, so relaxing without dull and philistine government servants in the way. I want to simplify my life to the barest minimum… amidst a family of artists who can always get along together splendidly, so long as they don’t allow philistines to get into their midst. I promise anyone who comes to us a good living and financial and other social security.

At least, I feel there is no harm in dreaming.”Paniker’s dream and the story of the village are set out in Cholamandal: An Artists’ Village, edited by Josef James and published by Oxford University Press (2004/ 400 pages/ Rs 2995). In his introductory essay, James points out several unique features of Cholamandal. For instance, he says that the village neither received nor asked for any funding from the government, quasi-governmental bodies, charitable foundations or persons. Apart from the small grant that it was entitled to, like any other art organisation in the country, it had no particular support from art bodies like the Lalit Kala Akademi.

“The land where the artists set up their village was purchased with their own money. They built everything — their houses, studios, gallery, theatre, workshop and kitchen — on their own. In other words, the artists who make up this settlement owe their village and the living they have managed out of it to nobody’s charity, patronage, munificence or eccentricity.”

It was not easy-going for Cholamandal artists, particularly in the early stages. “For earning a livelihood, we did batik painting,” recalled K R Harie, one of the first artists to settle in the village. “First, a few artists set up their cottages… some of us stayed at the batik shed itself. For food, we bachelors ran a common kitchen with the help of a cook. Initially, there was no bus facility to the village. We used to hitch a ride on lorries carrying sand or go by horse cart to where the city started and then take a bus to Madras. If we had to make a telephone call, we had to walk more than a kilometre to Dr Dhairyam’s home for the mentally challenged.”

Setting a new trend

The Cholamandal artists were among those who desired to set a new trend in art, rejecting the ‘so-called progressive school (of Bombay artists), which adopted various techniques and approaches to make art prevalent in the West’. For them, a good artist had to be a good craftsman, and ‘there could be no art without craftsmanship’. In craft, they also saw the cure for the alienation of art and artists from their own humanity and of those around them. They used the ‘art-meets-craft’ approach, where artists made handicrafts for a living even as they pursued their art.

“Clearly, Paniker was himself the prime visionary and the nerve-centre of the whole development,” writes James. “His own attempts to move away from an emotive valuation to a holistic and transcendental description had, by the early sixties, taken him to a point where the established order of craftsmanship in the medium had to be critically examined and possibly redone. While this focus shift appeared in a summary form in his own work, the results obtained by his colleagues in their own individual exercises fully stood witness to this.”

Over the next few decades, Cholamandal started attracting national attention. Among those who became well known as Cholamandal artists were M Reddeppa Naidu (1932-99), J Sultan Ali (1920-1998), Akitham Narayanan (b.1939), Devan (b.1928), M Senathipathi (b.1939), D Venkatapathy (b.1935), V Viswanadhan (b.1940), S G Vasudev (b.1941), K S Gopal (1938-89), V Arnawaz (1945-1988), K R Harie (b.1941), K Ramanujam (1941-73), S Nandagopal (b.1946), P Gopinath (b.1948), and C Douglas (b.1951). Paniker himself remained inventive and active until his death in 1977, 10 years after he had moved into the village.

While many artists developed an intimate relationship with the Village, not everyone remained there. “Some found the closeness and constancy of the nascent ruralism too parochial for their spirit,” writes James. “Two of them went away to Paris (Viswanadhan and Narayanan) to prompt themselves with the excitement of that historical art metropolis.

Two others married visitors from abroad and accompanied their spouses, one to West Germany (Douglas), and another (Paramasivan) to the United States. Another (Jayapal) desired more domesticity for his family than he could find in the village and left for his hometown. A few preferred to remain where they were in town but stayed affiliated to the Village. One remarkable painter (Ramanujan) found the Village too open for the protection he sought from his own genius. He painted away helplessly, brilliantly and finally, out of desperation, ended his life in his hut in the Village.

Besides these, ego problems of many kinds did arise often enough in the Village, shaking its picture of tranquility.”

Criticism

The Cholamandal experiment has received its share of criticism. “The place, unfortunately, did not evolve and reach the levels it had promised,” says an art historian. “If you see the works of Cholamandal artists, there is hardly any growth or inventiveness. Some of them have certainly made good name for themselves, are well-settled in life but have not contributed to contemporary Indian art in any significant manner. No major artist has emerged from its stable in recent times.” Despite all the shortcomings, the Cholamandal Artists’ Village stands out as one of the few artist-driven initiatives in the country.

An exhibition of paintings, sculptures and drawings in small format by the Cholamandal Artists is on at Gallery Time and Space, Lavelle Road, till October 5. Particularly eye-catching are the works of (late) Paniker, (late) Arnawaz and Viswanadhan.

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