Artists: Notes on Art Making

The idea of an isolated Indian painting seems as absurd as the idea of creating a purely Indian mathematics or physics would seem absurd. In this sense, the problem of indigenous source does not exist at all. Or if it did, it would solve itself. An Indian is an Indian and his painting would naturally be qualified by that fact, whether he wills it or not. But the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any country.

Though there are undoubtedly painters of an older generation who have exercised an influence on new Indian painting, such influences do not affect the evolution we are concerned with. If art is our concern, then art is one. It always has been one in all its essential characteristics. What we discount today are the accidental characteristics in so for as these are regional rather than personal.

It is obvious that an individual's temperament is formed, or at least strongly influenced, by his environment. For example, the general impression of tranquillity given by Dutch art is directly related to the flat meadows round Antwerp, whereas the vigour and movement and massiveness with which an individual like Rubens handles similar themes is the expression of the temperament that reacts against its environment.

Placing the Madras School of Art in its proper perspective, it would not be wrong to define it as the sum-total of influences of individuals, periods, peoples and regions.

Historically, the Madras School originated with D.P. Roy Chowdhury, the first Indian Principal of the Madras School of Arts and Crafts. The art scene in South India at that time was totally devoid of Fine Arts as understood today. After the glorious period of the Cholas, there had been a degradation that had set in following the con-fused political situation and the uncertain social and economic conditions. When D.P. Ray Chowdhury took charge of the School, there were only craftsmen in the Institution working perhaps on furniture-making, wood-carving, icon-making-craftsmen who had been engaged in producing artifacts with traditional designs for the colonial rulers.

D.P. Roy Chowdhury, though a product of the Bengal School, had his eyes firmly set on the principles of art enunciated by the Royal School of Art, England, Therefore, South Indian artists who came to learn art from Roy Chowdhury were caught in the mixed influences of the realism of the British School and the romanticism of the Bengal School and these two streams functioned literally as two parallel forces. it is doubtful if such a situation existed in any other part of the country. While the natural reaction among the artists was to unearth the roots of Indian art that were buried deep into the past, they found nothing wrong in having a look at Europe, the influences of which had already started seeping in through the Wes-tern India represented by the Bombay School. The artists welcomed the new ideas as a result of which the entire philosophy of picture-making underwent a change.

And that is where the parting came-the parting of ways between D.P. Roy Chowdhury and his colleagues. K.C.S. Paniker and a few others felt the urge to move into the world stream of art, whereas artists like S. Dhanapal, K. Srinivasulu and P.L. Narasimhamurthy remained totally unaffected by the new influences.

It has been said of Dhanapal that he is a man born "with a certain link with the past." He is one Indian sculptor who carefully studied the country's art and found that the essence of Indianness lay hidden in the arrangement of the subject, the distribution of space, the rhythm of form, the expression of the shape and its simplification. He made a closer study of the Chola and Pallava sculptures and the sculptures of Mathura and found that the Indian head studies were far sup-erior to those done by the sculptors of the European School. He began breathing the Indian environment and developed a style rooted in the soil. His "Head of a Woman", "Mother and Child", "Avvai" and "Three Women Standing" reflected his deep search for the basic Indian concept captured in modern lines. Even his "Christ" was a totally Indian concept and as he himself said: "I don't think anyone in the West has conceived of Christ in this manner- the twisted face and the incised body, exaggerating the expression of pain."

In the last one decade, Dhanapal has done sculptures in the series entitled "Composition" both in cement concrete and bronze, mostly of human figures, either individual or in a group. There are men, women and children in his work who acquire special characteristics through his personal style and touch-his own individuality and imagination.

Dhanapal no longer sees the man but only the subject and the shape, and moulds according to his own medium and mood. To him, who had once mastered the dance forms of Bharata Natyam and Kathakali, learning the rhythm of the human figure, grace and movement have become part of life.

There is a twinness in the art of K. Srinivasulu and P.L. Narasimhamurthy obviously because of their more immediate common inspiration of Andhra medieval mural art, particularly the legendary frescoes of the Lepakshi temple. The two artists have also collaborated to reproduce with skilful fidelity many of the outstanding panels of this temple. The intense inspiration of Lepakshi has coloured Srinivasulu's works as could be seen from his "Lotus Garland" and "Green Room". Also throughout his life Srinivasulu has felt a deep kinship with folk art. The colourful, fascinating folk creations of Andhra Pradesh have provided the basic motifs as in his "Fisherwomen" "Nadaswaram Players" and "Fish Sellers". To Srinivasulu, the attraction for folk art is a matter of deliberate choice. He seizes upon the beauty of form and colour characteristic of folk art, crystallises and reinterprets the various elements in a highly personal style.

Being an admirer of classical Indian art and its qualities of line and colour, Narasimhamurthy gradually developed a love for the classical style of painting. His travel through the villages of South India brought him into intimate contact with the simple rural folk and their varied art and in his classical-folk phase, he drew freely from the abstract forms in Indian art-the Ganesha, Narasimha and the Linga. He has been experimenting on the art of creating lovely miniatures from the classics and has made nearly three to four hundred direct brush drawings and paintings from the Ramayana. His "Story Teller" is one in this great series.

Direct in the line of Roy Chowdhury, Paniker and Dhanapal are A.P. Santhanaraj and L. Munus-wami who stand out in the Madras art scene as truly Indian and contemporary artists. Being under the tutelage of the great teachers, both Santhanaraj and Munuswami were highly influenced by them andyetboldlyexperimentedwith the Western techniques without stopping with what they had learnt from Roy Chowdhury, Paniker and Dhanapal.

Santhanaraj, in the process of this experimentation, achieved a new range of consciousness, no longer entirely linked to his original knowledge, but leading to an independence of spirit that made him fight a bitter battle with his own self for a number of years. Space had been his magnificent obsession from the very beginning, and sitting on the vast expanse of sands by the seaside, he would wonder about the sky, the stars and the universe that remained suspended like a mass from infinite space. His constant effort was to relate space to life and his restless pursuit emerged as nude figures with a touch of abstraction and a mass of cubic chaos.

As he sped across in his journey of self-discovery he painted "Red Space"; "Through the Forest", "A Version from Vrindaban" and made numerous classic creations which he refused to exhibit. "I wanted to know my own identity first before trying to project my image," he said. The problem of identity haunted him, and in the throes of this struggle, he threw away his canvases when he could not achieve the desired results slashed them into pieces when he was unhappy and burnt them when he was angry.

Today, Santhanaraj has solved his problems so far as art is concerned. He says: "To me a painting is not important because of object motivation or its romantic importance of form-far more important is to be governed by the atmosphere. Just as in music, so also in painting, it is the atmosphere which should be the most important obsession."

"The field of art, when I came to study under D.P. Roy Chowdhury presented the picture of a superstructure upon the past without much integration," says L. Munuswami, who is now Principal of the Madras College of Arts and Crafts. "The modern idea of painting and sculpture appeared to be grafted upon it- an idea for its own sake. Like others, at the beginning, I too assimilated the mixture of the British and the Bengal School and made my first departure from the Madras School when I looked at the West for fresh inspiration. My roots in Indian art had already been strengthened by my intimate association with Dhanapal, and the continuous experimentation with Western methods and techniques helped me develop into a fully mature artist till I arrived at a concept of art which was totally my own."

According to the Western technique, a painting is an easel painting with four sides within which to play with space, colour, line and form. All these have to be limited and planned for a given area, This is the Western way of composition.

But in the Indian tradition, it is a continuous progression and flow of form, line and colour with a beginning and no end. The philosophy behind this is the limitless space within which man and universe has to function and unlike in the West we believe that life is an endless cycle and what cannot be accomplished in one birth can be achieved in the next. Munuswami, in elaborating this concept, says: "When I begin to paint, I begin to get new ideas and I link them up as I go forward instead of reverting back to the original and re-working on it. My canvas is a panoramic one, unrolling as I progress in thought and develop my own technique."

Again, his application of colour is something unusual. "I use colours in more or less transparent luminosity, deliberately avoiding opacity. The philosophy behind this technique is that the area on which I am painting is not blind, impenetrable space. To me it is space into which I can travel in and travel out. Fluidity of colour and lines help me express myself unhindered as I travel in my imagination. The technique, medium, material- -all synchronise. It is the oneness of thought and action in the given space which give my painting the quality of limitlessness."

Munuswamy strongly believes that it is the personal philosophy of an artist that matters most in his own formation rather than technique and craftsmanship. "It is only then that you stop and look around yourself to trace your identity-watch the masterpieces of antiquity which throw on you the responsibility of linking yourself up with the traditions of the past. It is only then that the superstructure of art that in the beginning appeared not to have so much integration does not appear disintegrated any more. There are spots of light on its windows, there is fresh breeze passing through its corridors. At last, the past is linked with the present and there is continuity of thought and tradition."

J. Sultan Ali, another student of D.P. Roy Chowdhury, underwent an altogether different development. Engaged in teaching and administrative work till the sixties, which left him totally disillusioned, he violently broke away in the following years from all his safe moorings to plunge into creative activity. He had been attracted by the work of Dr Verrier Elwin, an authority on tribal art. The figures of tribal men and women fascinated him. They were chaste, vibrant and strong, and Sultan All thought: "Why couldn't I look to them for inspiration?"

The tribals indeed fired his imagination and were fully and totally reflected in his work. He paid a visit to Bastar in Madhya Pradesh to see the primitive men and women in their own surround-ings and also went to Santiniketan to see the Santhals. The tribal influence seeped into his art as a result of which his style of work gathered a primitive force.

Sultan Ali's work came to full fruition in Cholamandal, Madras. Here in the peaceful artists' village with the sea in the background, he has created his world of fantasy-the world of birds, bulls and snakes-of the kings of the sun and the moon, of Garuda and the Dharti Mata. Some of his outstanding creations drawn directly from the ancient tribal lore are "Nagaraja", Yadagiri", "Do Seera" and "Nava Seera".

Sultan Ali says: "Various elements such as symbols, human and animal figures, birds, demons and so on have been used in my paintings, these have been taken from indigenous sources. These elements are not copied or imitated, but are my own statements, my own specific forms which by constant use have become synonymous with my personality.”

The genius of the three sculptors - P V Janakiram, S. Kanniappan and T. R. P. Mookiah blossomed under the guidance of two powerful figures of the Madras School - S. Dhanapal and K. C. S. Paniker, and then flowed into three different streams.

Janakiram’s true period of creativity began with the use of sheet metal for sculpting technique which is hardly new to this country. Indian craftsmen had exploited the repousse technique thoroughly for icon-making and decorative purposes, Janakiram had to explore the possibility of utilising this ancient art formtosuithis contemporarysensibility and environment and therein lay his problem.

The artist says: “In adopting the copper repousse technique, I have been deeply influenced by South Indian temple sculpture with its wealth of pillars, metal door-reliefs, icons and the polished covers in the repousse technique called Kavachas, which are fixed on the images such as the winged Garuda, the Hamsa, the coiled Sesha, which is the couch of Vishnu and several other representational votive articles in sheet metal.” His well-known copper sculpture “Two Figures” is executed in pure folk style and has been inspired by the exciting Indian iconography. “Woman” - a simple piece with an irresistible mood of lyricism, has the quaint mood of saints and kings and a time lost in the far past. “Kaliya Mardan” and “Deity with Worshippers” are again basically Indian in theme and reveal the full potential of sheet metal and wire. The studies of animals and birds stand out as the three-dimensional pieces in Janakiram’s highly individualistic range of work.

To Kanniappan, it is very important to take up those ideas and shapes which are easily understandable by the ordinary people. He wants to be close to them, he wants to be one of them and would like the people to appreciate his work to any difficulty.

In his view: "That is how the art of the past is---taken directly from and related to life. Look at the temple, it is shaped after the form of man. Look at the icons, they are straight and simple like the human body. Look at the Linga, and closer home look at the seven gods in our (South Indian) villages made out of brick stones. What more simplification could you expect of an artist in depicting his ideas? The simpler art is, the more it is rooted in the soil, the longer its life is."

This is Kanniappan's firm belief and has under-lined all his work-in the past and now. In fact it has been a passion with him to find out the link between the tradition of the past and the trends of modern days and this search has made it possible for him to maintain that continuity in work that bridges his early metal work, experiments in ceramics and the present preoccupation with industrial materials.

Kanniappan has been a major force in the field of ceramics in Tamil Nadu. He has lifted ceramics from a state of ordinary crudity to a level of high artistry in a happy blend of the traditional and the modern. "The designs," in his own words, "have gradually changed from realistic to abstract. and yet they remain totally Indian."

He has experimented with various concepts in metal sculpture, sometimes it has been a flying bird, sometimes an agile snake, sometimes it has been just the concept of freedom or justice. His work entitled "Progress and Prosperity" is an outstanding work in which metal and plastic combine to create a vivid impression of green fields, buzzing industrial activity and the serenity of Indian culture.

The brilliant terracottas of Mookiah are veritable masterpieces of a primitive strain expressed through a modern idiom made eloquent by his own relentless experimentation. An appreciation of Mookiah's art involves understanding the Indian approach to nature and its relationship to man and animal, to myth, to time and space.

Hailing from the mountainous district of East Ramanathapuram (Tamil Nadu) where thick forests reach out to the horizon to meet the sky, Mookiah equates nature and design in a quite particular way. He does not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as wild. To him the primitive people are not savages, nor are the roaming animals untamed. He addresses the humans, animals and birds on equal terms with-out in any way disturbing the natural order, and thus becomes the intercessor between man, animal, the four quarters of the earth and the cosmos. His expressive patterns-in painting or sculpture-tell of the authority of sky and land, light and water, greenery and man's sympathy with these phenomena.

Some of Mockiah's contributions in terracotta are "Horse", "Horse and Rider", "Warrior" "Snake and Bird", "Drummer", "Karagam Dancer", "Family", and Bull Fight". He has very close affinity with the animals he models, be these bisons, bulls, elephants and horses and part of his success is attributable to his ability to penetrate to the depths of animal behaviour and psychology. In "Bull Fight" he produces the imagery of the untamed reaches of his own land where thousands of members of the folk society gather to watch in unashamed thrill the danger and death involved in men fighting wild bulls for hours at a stretch. His "Drummer" and "Karagam Dancer" are pieces which come to direct grip with the raw primitive element in man, dredging it up from beyond sight into consciousness before its nature and meaning are lost.

His innovativeness, it must be remembered, is not due to the conscious action of an "avant-grade" but derives from true tradition- Indianness.

A. Alphonso, K.M. Adimoolam, R.B. Bhaskaran, S.G. Vasudev, C. Dakshinamoorthy, P. Gopinath and S. Nandagopal constitute the core of the modern generation of artists in Tamil Nadu involved in incessant experimentation and creativity. Their Indianness as well as contemporariness are both beyond question.

The art of Alphonso has a lot to do with his childhood and he recognises so in saying: "Primarily, what we carry around with us is a memory of our childhood back when each day held the magic of discovering the world." A strong streak of religion ran through his family and Alphonso was attracted towards paintings depicting Christian themes. Looking back, he remembers to have been fascinated by a Tanjore-style painting of Krishna, having drawn the figure with the flute again and again till the image became part of him.

In his grown-up years, he was attracted by the Hindu and Buddhist iconography as he travelled all over the country studying the paintings in Tanjore, Mysore and Ajanta. "Ultimately," he says, "the influence of Indian art and civilisation superseded my earlier exploration of new horizons in European modern art and I broke away from the Western fold to create paintings distinctly my own."

Being a radical, Alphonso suffers from a sense of bondage in the midst of social norms and whenever there is any interference with his personal freedom or for that matter any living being, he reacts sharply which is reflected in his works. His "Ravana", "Krishna and Bakasura", "Rebels" and "Christ Accused" are his vehement protest against persecution, suffering and misery which often assumes gigantic proportions.

When his anger subsides, sets in depression and in this frame of mind he has created some of the bestportraitsofBuddha, Krishna andJesus. He confesses that there are moments when he turns his face away from society and goes away to live among the villagers whose life has not yet been moth-eaten. In the peaceful rural atmosphere, he either paints a landscape or creates a "Village Musician with the Flute", or comes up with a major theme such as "Birth of Consciousness" where birds flutter their wings in sheer joy and the flute plays freely representing the liberated spirit soaring towards cosmic freedom.

In his latest paintings, Alphonso is able to find a link between the free, unfettered life of our ancestors with the space-oriented vast cosmic life being experimented with in the West through the development of science and technology that is simultaneously reflected in the plastic arts.

K.M. Adimoolam grew up in the midst of Nature's many-splendored beauty. Generations in his family were devotees of Lord Vishnu and Adimoolam, as a young boy, travelled in and around his village spending hours in temples. He made pen-and-ink drawings of the temple sculptures-traditional figures and forms-which had a tremendous impact on his work as a mature artist. Two of his major drawings "Resting Spot" and "Full Moon Day" have a definite sculptural bias which has been evident at all stages of his development.

When Adimoolam broke away from the black-and-white medium and entered the world of colours, he painted "King and His Queens", "Mourners", "Battle", and "Rider"-all in water colour based on Hindu mythological and Indian folk themes. A classic creation was "Animal" which depicted a state of subconsciousness, a dream, creating an atmosphere of unpredictability of life. The painting reflected the mental state of the artist-a state of turmoil which fully revealed itself through a course of five years which constituted a period of intense struggle for Adimoolam. The artist was in the process of freeing himself from all his earlier influences including the Chola masters and establishing his own personality.

"Animal" and another painting entitled "Forces" were forerunners of Adimoolam's well-known "Space" series which began in oils, moved on to black and white and has now come to a stage where he is freely using both.

Adimoolam's concept of space is none other than the concept of freedom-freedom from the restriction of ideas, restriction of expression and restriction of medium. He says: "Just as a musician creates a raga and floats in ecstasy in space, I too in the joy of creation, float in unfettered space. I have at last achieved my own style, my own identity."

R.B. Bhaskaran, as an artist, has always been seized with the great questioning about the coming into being of life-the process of growth and death-the beginning and the end of all forms-the "Life's Cycle". His pseudo-Indianism which had emerged in the early days in the forms of the identifiable symbols such as the linga, trisula, temples and snakes, has been swept off by his blinding search to understand the expression of life in one form or the other and to understand the universe through his own self.

His "Life Cycle" has been followed by "Evolution"-an experience in between life and death. In capturing this experience, Bhaskaran has used every possible form that has a beginning and an end-plants, flowers, hills, trees, horses, elephants, owls, crows, embryos, insects. His only aim has been the result of the process of living and when he did not want to be static in his forms, he has created movement such as through birds-their fluttering wings, or the cat, caught in the quick flipping of its tail, superimposed one above the other. He works without any restriction, any rigid convention, any set laws, and as he experiences life, it registers itself into a painting, in a work of art-the mark of a particulars period.

In his latest series "Marriage Portrait", he raises the fundamental question as to why traditions are blindly followed by society and what are the values involved in them.

Bhaskaran says: "My paintings reflect what I am at this moment, how I understand life. It is the assimilation of the process of living which is the sum-total of my painting."

C. Dakshinamoorthy is a creative artist who does not belong to any school of art, neither does he have a philosophy of art. "I have no 'ism', no brand name-I can be distinguished only by my own individual style. I am original, for to create is to originate," he says.

Elaborating this process of creation, he states: "I gather my themes from society at large, from the environment I live in and in due course evolve a singularly personal way of expressing my poetic response to reality."

The core of his art lies in revealing life as he experiences it, in laying bare the universal through the study of the particular, in unravelling the mystery of the inner structure of life by dissecting, analysing and rebuilding the shapes and forms as evident on the outer surface. He has tried to express in his drawings, paintings and sculptures the very roots of life and worked on an endless number of female nudes, animals, birds and trees. His women with their split faces and limbs and juxtaposed bodies, his expressionist elephants, horses and birds, his queer and complex graphic compositions saturated with many layers of meaning are all products of a deep aesthetic necessity dominating the artist's reflexive consciousness.

S.G. Vasudev is possessed by the vision of the "Vriksha"-the Tree. He is enchanted by it. He says: "The Tree seems to me to be the centre of the universe, connecting the earth and the sky and holding all other elements of Nature around it."

For several years Vasudev's subject had been the "Mithuna" theme. In Indian mythology, the Mithuna figures depict love and Vasudev had developed this theme to encompass human figures, animal forms, trees, mountains, the sun, the moon and the stars-all in a great fantasia seething with life. Explaining his interpretation of the Mithuna concept, Vasudev says: "It is not just the act of love between man and woman. It is a vast concept of love between all forms-between the planets and the earth, between the mountain and the sea, the trees and the birds, reptiles and animals".

Then one finds him working towards and grappling with the central theme in his painting. “The Vriksha” The branches and the leaves of the Tree merge with the planets above in an upward thrust. Various forms such as the fish, reptiles and other living organisms are thrown around which readily merge with the concept and the form of the Tree.

Vasudev is confident that he has a tremendous lot more to achieve in the "Vriksha" theme. He feels in good time other figures will emergeonthecanvas and the Tree mightbe reduced to a symbol holding together the entire creation of his fantasy.

P. Gopinath, who has made a comparative study of the Western and Indian methods of art, says that in traditional Indian painting and sculpture as seen in Hindu and Buddhist temples, the human figures and all animals and natural forms are represented in an abstract or idealised sense which is purely artistic and highly creative, But this school of thought was totally suppressed during the colonial rule in India. The foreign rulers failed to understand the true philosophy behind Indian art as also the traditional (symbolic) art forms end conveniently imported into this land the materialistic concept of Western art.

As a result, he says, while the Western artist enjoys an unbroken tradition of painting and sculpture from the ancient to the modern days, the Indian artist is lost in the whirlpool of broken centuries. The Indian artist today stands condemned in two ways, either he is a direct product of the Western art movement wielding his knowledge as an analytical weapon or he is hauled up for aping the latest trend in Western abstraction which is none other than Eastern symbolism that found its way into the West in the days of Indian affinity with Egyptian, Cretan and pre-Pheidian Hellenic art. And this is not the problem of Indian artists alone, but the problem of all artists in the Third World.

In evolving his art, Gopinath has been influenced by the Madhubani paintings of Northern India. The basic characteristic of all folk art is that the forms are simple, bold and clear. Their strong living shapes and bright colours contribute to a vigour and animation not to be found in the more complex art forms. The artists states: "I found in them a preference for simple outlines, a choice of typically representational lines and rejection of accessory elements". The influence of folk art is evident in his work "Ritual Memories".

When he has eliminated figures from his paintings and turned to symbols, concentrating totally on design, he has created a beautiful series entitled "Biomorphic Images."

Young sculptor S. Nandagopal, who has to his credit well-known creations such as "Koorma", "Tortoise as Deity", "Deity'„ Ritual Image" and "Naga Symbol", would declare without hesitation "All my works have been influenced by indigenous sources".

Tamil art, quality wise, is extremely rich and has got diverse facets which have consciously and unconsciously influenced Nandagopal. "I would like to refer to the Naga stones which are strewn all over Tamil Nadu. They have an iconic two-dimensional effect. I have been immensely influenced by them in evolving the monumental structures of my sculptures".

"The other influence has been the Narasimha symbol in front of the temple and the adjustment of space between the main temple and the minor sculptures. The treatment is more aesthetic than functional and that is the aspect that has appealed to me. There is beauty in the whole composition and arising from this I have tried to deal with the problem of incorporating the idea of space in contemporary sculpture which is not an easy task considering the fact that one has to receive a similar impression through a frontal view. This aspect of space for the creation of beauty is very different from other parts of the country".

According to Nandagopal, the glory and the dimension of ancient classical art is so vast that it is not possible for a modern artist to derive any specific or direct influence from the same. That is the reason why artists proceed from folk art to modern, for folk art allows them to make their individual innovations.

In the beginning, he derived inspiration from the tribal art of Bastar and then Tibetan art (which is not strictly indigenous). But then folk art alone was not enough. One could only use it as a springboard and could not evolve totally based on folk experience. One had also to have a touch of the classic though there was no need to be directly connected with it.

As Nandagopal would analyse it: "The problem is that an artist does not all the time know how he is going to evolve. In that way every artist has to follow his progression and enrich himself with the experience of the past and move forward to absorb the modern influences and hold his own to call himself an original artist".

He himself reached out to the past through the folk medium and tried to understand the art of the West. "Thereby I resisted being too much taken in by any single influence. However, it was important to me to accept the sum-total of indigenous influences based upon which I have applied modern techniques such as welding, silvering and colouring. My art is very individual today, having moved on from all influences, without denying any of them".

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, April 1985

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