K C S Paniker (1911 - 1977) was an inspiring art educationist. Two generations of better known artists from the deep south would testify to the true content of the statement. But that does not say much about his significant contribution to modern Indian art. Of a greater importance was his role as an institution builder. The adaptation of the medieval guild concept for building the Cholamandal artists co-operative was a visionary act, likes of which there are only a few examples in modern India. However, even this visionary act cannot be regarded as a significant contribution to modern Indian art per se. Of a greater importance to modern Indian art was his adaptation of post- impressionist style for landscapes that soon led to the formation of the Progressive Painters’ Association of Madras in 1947-48. The formation itself was in line with the major shift in the art praxis of the forties which saw the successive establishment of the Calcutta Group in 1943, the Progressive Artists Group of Bombay in 1947 and the Delhi Shilpi Chakra of 1951.
The artists forming the groups believed that the western Modernist axioms of art epitomised the ‘progress’ of art in two ways. Firstly, the axioms freed art from being subservient to all other human concerns and had put a premium on the autonomy and other unrelatedness of art. Secondly, the axioms supposedly had freed the individual artist not only from serving the cause of myths, institutional religion, society, polity and literature, unless one desired to serve any of these on one's own terms, but also from the shackles of handed down visual language, convention, style and tradition. The conviction led to several programmatic dos and don’ts. The first was a denial to do anything with myths, legends, history and literature. And the second was a disinclination to exhibit any linguistic, idiomatic and stylistic affinity with any tradition of art from India's past. This rejection itself was considered as a progressive mentality. As the Modernist western art was considered to have discovered the ontological truth of art through the discovery of the language of form and colour in autonomous art-space, and through freeing the individual’s will to form, varieties of the Modernist western art became models for achievement of ‘progress’ in art. From media, methods and techniques of picture and sculpture making, to the adherence of genre norms, to take-off subject matters, to the choice of styles the 'progressive' Indian artists made it a point to follow the lead of various tenets of the Modernist Western art.
Now, this paradigm shift in the Indian art which came about in the forties and the fifties was neither unprecedented nor aberrant. From the early thirties, as independence of the country was becoming a distinct possibility, the character of Indian nationalism was changing. The more articulate and active leaders of the polity and the civil society were shifting their attention from identity construction, in millenniarist terms, to the digits of future nation building. It should, however, be admitted that for a handful of reformers and litterateurs this preoccupation had always been there, right from the first third of the nineteenth century. The thirties of the last century saw the emergence of sustained organised articulation of programmes for ensuring the future participation of people in the affairs of the state, securing of justice for all, economic growth and welfare and extension of economic, political and social opportunities. In respect of human achievement in each of these fields, the western experiments and experience were studied, and some of these were found to be worth adaptation for the progressive development of the future free country. Even though the political, economic and legal programmatic ideas always had a dimension of progressive social change, in so far as cultural changes were concerned, even the most progressive leaders of the polity and the civil society would remind the cultural activists of the necessity of maintaining separate identity, an Indian identity. However, in the projects for adapting the western models for political empowerment of people, extension of justice, social change and economic development, the leaders of the polity and the civil society gave a priority to adaptation of relevant elements after necessary change. Considering the fact that the Western models of modernist transformation were more the products of Western history than rationally conceived ontological essential truth of any worldly phenomenon or praxis, our social visionaries thought, that as our historical development had taken different trajectory, our situation and mentality necessitated careful choice of only the relevant Western models, and integration of elements after change, for modernist transformation. An increasing number of individual artists from the thirties and the early forties, have been turning their gaze to various past and present art systems of world, for picking up elements for integration, on finding the conventional, both of the parampara kind and of the western academic systems of art, as inadequate for objectifying both the individuality of life-world experience and the emerging mentality. Knowing fully well the persistence of social patterns and mentality, and especially the visual culture, the sojourner of the thirties and forties believed that the points of convergence would have to be built in the changing existing systems of art for reception and eventual integration of borrowed elements. The fully integrated loaned element should not look or function as in the donor systems, and continue to remind of exogenous origin. And so the Indian modernists of the thirties and forties were different.
The organised art movements of the forties and fifties tended to jettison all integrationist caution out of consideration (for the larger relevance of art) and go all out for what they thought to be universally valid 'Modernism', lock, stock and barrel.
However, as the core of western Modernism, namely building of a parallel and autonomous world of art, apart and away from the living, throbbing, and pressing phenomenal world remained unattainable for the artist of an under-developed country, still living in largely ethnocentric solidarities at various levels, the varieties of Modernist western art which still exhibited traces of societal and phenomenal causation of individual artists' motivation became favourite models for emulation with the Indian Modernist artists of the forties and fifties. Most of them got engaged in finding out subject-matters from experience which would have equivalence to the subject-matters usually chosen by the Modernist European artists, so that the Indian artist could render them in either a post-impressionist, or a fauvist, or a pseudo-cubist or an expressionist manner. Inexperienced subject matter without any subjective internalisation began to be taken up as take-off points for exercises in post-impressionist, fauvist, pseudo-cubist and expressionist modes of visual presentation. Only a handful of artists would adapt a western Modernist linguistic mode after being convinced about the adaptability of particular language for objectifying his/her subjective appraisal of the experienced reality, K C S Paniker undoubtedly was one of those rare exceptions in the late forties and early fifties. Even though fascinated by the Gauguinesque post-impressionist non-representational use of colour-combinations and heavy contour lines to delineate images, Paniker would put an emphasis on reflected and refracted light, on colour-tonalities, for visualising his subjective experience of Kerala rural scenes in the water-colour landscapes he painted between 1951 and 1960. This was an adaptation of post-impressionism for objectifying a personal impression of a real-life experience which had very little to do with cold description of landscape situation.
For this kind of an achievement, Paniker could have been remembered as an efficient transliterator. But he was a far greater mind to be satisfied with so small an achievement.
Pictorial transformation of the visual experience of his land in accordance with certain kind of post-impressionist praxis, could not contain his search. According to the 'Some Notes on My Work and Career’, Paniker had written for the Catalogue of his Festival Hall Exhibition in London of 1965. By 1956 Matisse had started drawing his admiration for the play of his almost-calligraphic lyrical lines on freely floating colour fields of two dimensional pictorial spaces. Yet his lines remained wedded to images, and the coloured pictorial space to phenomenal space. By 1960, Paniker was to discover similar formal qualities, especially design of linear rhythm, producing lyricism in "Indian murals”. One only wishes Paniker was a little more specific as to the murals he was referring to. However, from his admiring mention of Lepakshi and Sittanavasal elsewhere, we may surmise that he was perhaps referring to those murals. His discovery, no doubt was triggered on by western Modernist art, but it led to a new assessment of one's indigenous art tradition. From landscapes Paniker turned towards figurative compositions, at around 1960. The figures not only were linearly defined, their rendition would bring forth memories of figuration in old Indian murals, as well as in some narrative reliefs. In Paniker’s own words, "my figures shared more of the lyrical quality of Indian murals; ... they seemed to fill the canvas with a certain urgency of design". A strong undercurrent of design, integrated by linear rhythm, did pervade Paniker’s The Garden series of paintings, but he would never resort to patterning of comprising forms. Indeed, as he says himself, "by 1963 I had already arrived at a new and more congenial form where free calligraphy and inscribed symbols along with figures, all embedded on a bed of tones, simple in colour and texture, almost monochromatic, decided the main character and message". In other respects too, he was trying to distance himself from western Modernist art practices. In the same essay, he says that from the impressionists to the American Abstract Expressionists there has been a noticeable tendency towards building three colour harmonies. He says, "I felt it would be a great relief if I could unobtrusively remove one of these colours each time from my canvas. Soon my pictures began to look quite comfortable and peaceful in two colours". The change Paniker was referring to in his short note on his work became noticeable with his painting, The Fruit Seller, painted in 1963. But it was just the beginning. Let us stop here for a while from taking an account of K.C.S. Paniker’s further move from the point he reached in 1963 to think aloud about why we consider this particular trope or turning point of what was to follow as the most valid reason for our remembering and honouring him as an architect of Indian modern art. But before we proceed with our arguments in support of the submission, we ought to take into consideration another significant contribution of Paniker to art activity. It was no mere accident that after the 1963 turning point of his creative thinking that K.C.S. Paniker established the Cholamandal Artists' village. Paniker was guided by a grand integrationist vision which encompassed his idea about the ontological nature of art that he held at that juncture of development of his creative personality. It might not have been an articulated conception. It might have been just an intuitively held idea. But that was enough to make him launch this ambitious project. As an enquiring admirer and close examiner, earlier of Matisse, then of Paul Klee and yet later of the German Expressionism, K C S Paniker had intuitively, as it seems, arrived at the conclusion that art owes its origin as much to a primordial drive inherent in human beings, to making of marks. Some of which become signs and as to the more cultivated ones will lead to (construction of) forms. It is the primordial drive to mark making that lies at the root of calligraphy, which basically is an act of making of marks with massy-line or linear-mass on a two dimensional surface. The physical gesture of making such marks, on the proper places of the surface make the marks indicate the mentality and the immediate drive that motivated their making. Such an assumption was at the root of the Expressionist emphasis on gestural brushwork. It was again the basis of Abstract Expressionism. Interestingly, Roberto Sebastiano Matta (b. 1912) a Chilean painter living in Paris, following the surrealist reasoning of the role of unconscious and subconscious mind, developed paintings with automatic writing, in the fifties, as a surrealist variety of abstract art. It was at the same period that Antonin Tapies, a Spanish painter, started simulating the canvas surface, like walls of primitive dwellings and sandy beaches of sea-shores and making marks and indicators on them. Just as the human beings driven by primordial instincts do. Although there is a probability of Paniker seeing the works of Matta and Tapies, in course of his travels in Europe and Americas in 1959, 1961 and 1963, the viewing of their works did not leave any significant mark on his thinking. Or otherwise, he would have mentioned their names somewhere. In all probability, Paniker had arrived at his idea by following the logic of one of Modernism's suppositions. So for him in the sixties there no longer was a necessity of following any particular model of the western Modernist art - as if in justification of the Modernist supposition of universality of the primordial drive for mark making on surface. In 1983, Jagadish Swaminathan discovered a system of mark-making on the mudwalls of their hovels, by the Hill Korwas, of Sarguja and Raigarh districts of present-day Chhatisgarh. The Hill Korwas were food gatherers and shifting cultivators. As a preliterate community they had no script, consequently they did not read. Yet, they made marks on the walls and floors. The marks which looked like letters of a script. But these were no letters of a readable language. Sometimes these letter-like whorls, zig-zags, circles, semi circles tended to get connected to take the notation of a human or an animal figure, at other times they tended to agglomerate to suggest the form of a plant, a sun or a moon etc. There was hardly any possibility of Paniker's seeing these so called magical writings when he had started painting his Words and Symbols series of paintings.
Although Paniker had not followed the work of Matta and Tapies and had not seen the so-called magical writings of the Hill Korwas of faraway Sarguja and Raigarh, following his intuition and pursuing the logic of ontological essential of art, he had come to believe that when the primordial urge to mark-making repeatedly engages someone in the act, he/she succumbs to the magical spell of the act and its outcome. As the marks often tend towards image indicators they take on the property of signs, enhancing the magical efficacy of the marks further. But had Paniker been content with this finding only, he would have been another painter like Mork Tobey or Samaru Korwa (whose work on paper are on view at the Roopankar Museum of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal). It is good to recapitulate that K.C.S. Paniker had arrived at his Words and Symbol series of painting after having been convinced about two things and not one. The first being the primordial and almost magical quality of calligraphy on surface, the second was the cultivated quality of linear rhythm which bind the calligraphic marks into a design. Writing about the genesis of his Words and Symbols series of paintings, he wrote to the effect that when he was still engaged in the exploration of calligraphic lines on two-dimensional surface and building of fluid design with linear rhythm, his attention was drawn to the linearly rhythmic design formed by Malayalam script-centric penmanship. It was almost at the same time that he chanced upon some traditional horoscope scrolls, containing both calligraphic writings and carefully crafted geometric signs which functioned as symbols. The calligraphic writings, together with geometrical symbols, sometimes interspersed with linear indicators of figural images formed grand dynamic designs of great value in which all distinctions between mark making, sign forming, image conceiving and representing tended to make all divisions between abstraction and empathy irrelevant. For thirteen long years, between 1963 and 1976, Paniker, through his art praxis, would objectify his creative conviction to prove that there was a hierarchical connection and continuity between the primordial drive to make marks and cultivated will to form symbols with the desire of reflecting on life-world playing its part in between. This grand cognitive sweep encompassing the conception of art as mark-making to construction of signifiers, to conceiving of images, albeit ignoring altogether the representational function of art, makes KCS Paniker a modernist artist with a difference. As we have tried to indicate, it was perhaps Paniker’s close reading of thoughts behind Indian visual culture and not just the paramparas of the high arts of the mainstream that was perhaps responsible for the ideas which led to the paintings of the Words and Symbols series. So different and authentic are these paintings from anything that preceded in Modernist western and in modern Indian art and even from what Paniker himself had done before, and yet they are so rooted in rationale of creativity, that we should not have any hesitation of remembering and honouring Paniker for the Words and Symbols series of paintings, if not for anything else. Paniker’s lasting contribution to modernist art has been this project of holistic integration of the primordial with the most sophisticated. Thus was born an ‘abstract art’ which was neither born out of post-Renaissance rationalism nor out of post - industrial revolution triumphalism.