An Idea Takes Shape
Cholamandal Artists’ Village situated in Chennai on the East Coast Road leading to Mammallapuram, marked the 50th year of its establishment in April 2017. As one enters the artists’ village, on the right is a huge banyan tree, which was a fledgling sapling at the founding of the artists commune and today has sunk its roots deep. But the question arises whether the senior artists and the next generation will continue to deepen the roots. The Artists Village was a vision of K.C.S. Paniker, who envisaged artists living as a commune to foster the spirit of artistic brotherhood and collective organization, with a mutual exchanges of ideas on creative projects. It provided a place of residence and anchor for the artists’ economic survival through the creation of individuated handicrafts. S.G. Vasudev a senior artist and former resident of the village now settled in Bengaluru says, “Paniker in an interview had said that Cholamandal is an experiment and even if it can help half a dozen artists to achieve something, that itself will be an accomplishment. And he also said that he does not know whether Cholamandal would be an artists' village after one generation”. Speaking to P. Gopinath a senior artist at the village, he said, “The very fact that we have survived and continued successfully for fifty years is an achievement.”
The period of the early 1960’s was a trying one for the Madras artists. Patronage in visual art was non-existent. A lack of contemporary art awareness was a glaring lacuna, consequent to the privileged status given to dance and music. The visual arts of painting and sculpture were a subject of incomprehension for the public generally. In Bombay, European war émigré Walter Langhammer with support of ‘The Times of India’ had advanced the cause of the Progressive Artist Group. In Delhi Dr. Charles Fabri with the aid of the ‘Statesman’ peddled the ideas of Delhi Shilpi Chakra. But in Madras, a conservative daily like ‘The Hindu’ did not offer support, while ‘The Mail’ was British owned and had no interest in the creative arts, patronizing only the decorative crafts. Within such a milieu it was difficult for the artists to find an appreciative patron. Many who graduated were absorbed as art teachers in schools, designers in Weaver’s Service Centre, finishing artists in commercial art establishment or as hoarding artists. K. M. Adimoolam joined the Weaver’s Service Center but made a hasty retreat giving up the job to concentrate on his art. Redappa Naidu joined the same establishment and retired from there. In this dismal scenario a proactive solution was required and K.C.S. Paniker, Principal Government College of Arts and Crafts (1957-1967) stepped in to solve the problem. Talent and skill he realized was abundant in his students and he had to find a way to harness it after they graduated by continuing in the artistic profession.
Paniker had introduced batik in the curriculum at the institution in the early 1960s, and the creative and experimental agenda was extended to the production of other crafts like leather articles, wooden and metal artifacts, ceramic ware, and jewellery. From small beginnings at the School’s premises of holding exhibitions and sale of these craft articles, Paniker expanded his activities outside the institutional premises as demand arose for these products, with local consumers appreciating the artifacts that were distinctly different from the mass produced ones.
In order to channelize the profits of these artifacts, Paniker in 1963 established the Artists Handicrafts Association (AHA). According to Maithily Jagannathan, who reported in a newspaper, “A gathering of artists in 1963 decided that traditionally arts and crafts have always been clearly related and hence in their free time artists would take up any craft that has a steady market. Thus began the Artists Handicrafts Association, which provided facilities for part time work in crafts like batik, metal and leatherwork. The Tamil Nadu state Akademi provided the studio to the association and their first exhibition brought a profit of Rs. 20,000.” The Association made its sales through Handicrafts Board, State Art Emporiums and V.T.I. that also helped process their foreign orders.
The Birth of the Cholamandal Artists’ Village
Having generated the seed money, Paniker desired a residential work-center for the artists that would not be far away from the city and would function on a co-operative basis. On the Coromandel Coast, six miles south of Madras, 9.05 acres of land was acquired in April 1966, (an acre was Rs. 4000) and Paniker’s brainchild came into existence - The Cholamandal Artists’ Village. This name, given by Paniker, was to reinforce his ideology of being Indian in spirit by a conscious link with the past heritage, as well a mark of continuity of tradition. With the birth of this concept of an artist village, Paniker had set himself and the group on the path of bold experimentation. It is sheer coincidence that it developed on a nine-acre land situated barely thirty kilometers from Mammallapuram where anonymous master craftsmen of the Pallava dynasty had once sculpted . The land was allotted to thirty members. According to Vasudev, who was then the Secretary of the Artists’ Handicrafts Association , “Cholamandal is perhaps the first of its kind anywhere in the world, a vision of fulfillment, a place where the artists meet society as an integral part of it”. He also forcefully reiterated “there is no ideology or art style to which an artist must conform. The two basic freedoms so vital to an artist - freedom of expression and freedom from the shackles of earning a livelihood are provided here. This leaves the artist free to create as he wishes.”
The Artists’ village was not only the locus of painterly and sculptural creative activities, but also a place where the allied arts of dance, drama, theatre, music, poetry reading and active discussions on art happened. The performing space was named Bharathi after the Tamil poet, and hosted a galaxy of visitors. The village space also served international visitors who came and left a slice of their memorable sojourn. A Dutch artist built a potter’s wheel and a New Zealand artist thoughtfully put together an urgently needed kiln for the village. American printmakers especially Paul Lingren, introduced a range of new techniques in printmaking and in an admirable display of community feeling, the West German Government donated the cost of a two- apartment guest house to the village. The symbiosis occurred between a domestic and an international fraternity that soon brought Cholamandal Artists’ Village on the international map. Acceptance and recognition came from diverse quarters like the Venice Biennale, the Paris Biennale, the Sao Paolo Biennale and theCommonwealthArtFestivalinLondon.
K.G. Subramanyan had eulogized this concept when he wrote, “Paniker persuaded young artists to call off their dependence on commercial galleries and live in a kind of commune, living and working together, and sharing their success and failures, practicing art in a larger spectrum was a remarkable achievement.” For Paniker another important concern in setting up the Artists’ Village was also to provide shelter for a talented homeless artist like Ramanujam, who could pursue art here.
Described by A.S. Raman the art critic, as ‘a village of the artist, for the artist by the artist’, its foundation resting on the concerted efforts of the artists’ community without government aid. This feature, Paniker had vehemently postulated in an editorial in The Hindu, in late 1960s. According to Gopinath, “many artists like L. Munuswamy, A.P. Santhanaraj, K.M. Adimoolam, S. Dhanapal, C. Dakshinamoorthy, Anthony Doss, R.B. Bhaskaran, V. Janakiram and many others had purchased the land but left by late 1960s due to availability of jobs as teachers in the Government College of Arts and Crafts or as designers in Weavers Service Centre”. Many commended Paniker’s initiative while others condemned it as highly communal and suffocating. It still remains a home to its diaspora artists like Viswanathan and Paramasivam who regularly visit the place as they have built their homes here.
Cholamandal has the distinction of being one of the few artists’ communes in the world to have survived successfully. It also saw two women artists purchasing land with the avowed idea of marking their presence within a male dominant community. They were Anila Jacob (sculptor, who sold her land to a chain store and now lives in Kerala) and Arnawaz Driver who later married the artist S.G. Vasudev.
Cholamandal in its fifty years of existence has witnessed many highs and lows and has taken on different hues and texture. The founder members have succeeded in realizing their professional goals by achieving recognition and national fame. But they have become insulated from the developments and advancement in the world of art, and only occasionally hold individual shows. The artists have woven a web of complacency around themselves, in which their creative penchant, a commitment to explore and experiment with newer media and technologies is lacking. The stylistic formulae developed in the 1960s and 1970s remain unaltered with slight modulations. It is not surprising that Geeta Doctor in an article scathingly described the artists’ village as the ‘Cholamandal ghetto’ gesturing towards the tight mindset of the elders of the village, who find it difficult to accept young artists approach to art making involving contemporary themes, materials and media. And if they persist, are marginalized to find their own place under the sun. V. Viswanathan who regularly visits his home here from Paris said, “We need to bring in fresh and young blood in AHA by involving artists who are not residents of Cholamandal, and their ideas and approach will inject a new vibrancy here”. He feels that the village manifestly needs intellectual vigour, nostalgically recalling his earlier days here when it was a beehive of activities.
Of the thirty artists who had initially resided only thirteen remain. The property of the demised artists have been either sold by the family or rented out to artists and non-artists. According to Vasudev, “My suggestion in the beginning was that land should be allotted to artists on lease basis was not accepted. The ownership of land has given room for non artists to buy and build their own homes here.”
With the senior artists having moved into Madras’s history of modernity, a need was felt to establish a museum that would have a representative work by them. This initiative of AHA with financial aid from the corporate, in February 2009, a Contemporary Cultural Centre comprising 10,000 sq ft of space, including K.C.S. Paniker Museum of Madras Movement and two commercial art galleries Indigo and Labernum was inaugurated. The extension of the cultural centre as Gopinath had opined was to revive the library and establish the archives. The Golden Oriole serves as a space for holding residencies and workshops.
Yet, the Progressive Artists’ Association (PAA) founded in 1945 remains active to which enrollment of membership is open. The PAA annually holds a show, which showcases works of all those residing in the village and wishing to exhibit. Among the second generation, some of them practice art as a vocation and they exhibit their works here, keeping alive Paniker’s policy of visibility to every artist. The drifting threads of artistic loom, hence metaphorically gestures towards the second generation through their artistic disconnect, enticed as they are by other lucrative professions and the village remains primarily a place of residence. According to Vasudev, “ the excitement of the 60's, 70's and 80's has gone. The heated discussions one used to have on art or life has diminished. I find the sand of Cholamandal smells of art and that is the reason I continue to do some activity there. The future of Cholamandal is to create number of studios for artists desiring to work here and to create a friends Society to generate friendship and funds.”
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