Madras Art Movement: DAG explores the “regional modern”

The “regional modern” of the Madras Art Movement has not always had its due. A retrospective at the DAG in Mumbai rectifies that, with works by SG Vasudev at C Douglas

Indian modern masters dominate international auctions of works from the region. FN Souza, Tyeb Mehta, VS Gaitonde and others of the Bombay progressives are now household names, mainly because of the prices their works command. Now an exhibition by DAG, which opens in Mumbai on July 20, broadens the prism through which we view modernism in Indian art. Paradoxically, it does this by focusing on “regional modern” – a retrospective on the Madras art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which deliberately worked to develop an idiom devoid of Western influences.

All of the 22 artists featured in the show – such as SG Vasudev, KV Haridasan and V Viswanadhan – were former students of Madras College of Arts and Crafts. The movement happened by default, says Ashrafi Bhagat, an art historian and critic who curated the exhibition, after a critic in London in 1954, while appreciating the skills and artistry of the KCS artist Paniker, criticized his works for their lack of “Indian quotient”. “He was working in the post-Impressionist style and the critic’s remarks made him realize that he needed to move away from the influence of European modernists and look to the regional and canonical tradition to chart a new course,” explains Bhagat.

(Clockwise from top left) Works by K Sreenivasulu, Dhanapal, Paniker, J Sultan Ali and C Douglas

(Clockwise from top left) Works by K Sreenivasulu, Dhanapal, Paniker, J Sultan Ali and C Douglas | Photo credit: Mallikarjun Katakol

In search of identity

Paniker was principal of Madras College, a dynamic space where this line of thinking fueled debates between students and professors. “There have been discussions about what our Indian identity is. Whether we should follow Western art or do something different,” says Bengaluru-based Vasudev, one of the earliest artists associated with the movement who, incidentally, has a retrospective currently on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art. from Mumbai. At that time, while searching for his “way”, Vasudev deliberately avoided watching Western art and movies for a year. “Paniker himself was inspired by his son’s trigonometry notebook,” he says, referring to works of abstraction featuring what resembles the writing of ancient languages.

Vasudev’s inspiration was vast, through his interest and involvement in different fields of the arts, from Kannada literature and Carnatic music, to theater and dance. Girish Karnad, with whom he developed a close friendship, introduced him to the best of Kannada literature, and he did the artistic direction of the film. samskara, based on the book by UR Ananthamurthy and starring Karnad. His work inspired by Kannada poet DR Bendre Kalpavrisksha Vrindavana was perhaps one of the starting points for Vasudev’s exploration of the “Vriksha” theme of life and death in his works.

Madras Art Movement: DAG explores the

minimalist expression

The DAG exhibition presents the works (more than 80 of them) of the central group of artists “responsible for the development of the movement with Paniker in painting and S Dhanapal in sculpture, and the artists whose visual language and vocabulary are agree with the nativist philosophy. [of looking towards regional folk art and craft traditions]says Bhagat. Other names include L Munuswamy, C Douglas and Rm Palaniappan who made various figurative and abstract works.

The latter entered Madras College in the 1980s, towards the end of the movement. Although he never interacted with Paniker, many other senior artists such as RB Bhaskaran and Alphonso Doss were his teachers. Chennai-based Palaniappan’s first interest was capturing forms of flight – an obsession after watching the film Fall of Berlin when he was 13. As his conceptual work developed, it became more minimalistic and “reduced to one line”. “I realized that any movement is only a line, and the smaller it is, the more it becomes a point. Once I understood that, I used it in my work,” he says.

Madras Art Movement: DAG explores the

Change the standards

Bhagat points out that it was quite recently, in 2001, that there was a call, by art historian Dr Shivaji Panniker, to “introduce the notion of regional modern to be included among the many histories of the nation”. “. While individual artists have been recognized for their work, Vasudev acknowledges that despite their contribution to Indian art history, the Madras art movement has, until now, not been seriously discussed. “The main reason is that we didn’t have an art history department, and we didn’t have any reviews to write about it – apart from Josef James, professor of economics at Madras Christian College who s was interested in arts, and later Ashrafi Bhagat. That was the biggest drawback.

Some 50 years after the movement “establishing modernity in the South”, there may be a turning point.

Modern Madras: Regionalism & Identity is until 12 October at DAG, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai

Christopher S. Washington