K.C.S. Panicker's contribution to modern South Indian art is priceless. 2011 marks the legend's birth centenary.

The modern art movement in South India is indebted to K.C.S. Panicker for several reasons. His monumental role as an intelligent artist who synthesised the modernist language of art by addressing issues of pan-Indian culture, has always been a subject of research. His contributions as a teacher who led a generation of artists and as the founder of Cholamandal, Chennai, Asia's first artists' village, were crucial in mapping South India in the modern art movement in India. 2011 is the birth centenary of this legendary artist.

Beginning his career as an artist only at the age of 30, Panicker, who was born in Coimbatore in 1911, celebrated his native Kerala on his canvas from memory. It is amid the canals and coconut groves of Ponnani, Malappuram district, that he had spent some four years of his childhood. It is from this nostalgic memory that the first visual impressions of Kerala emerge from the brushstrokes of an artist. And no artist before or after him could absorb the land and life of Kerala as passionately as Panicker. Along with the throbbing life and rhythm of the land, Panicker's landscapes also featured people – the Mappila fishermen, crowds in the local market, the workers of Ponnani… With sweeping washes of water colour, Panicker's brush assimilated the beaming sunlight filtering through the coconut leaves and the dappled lake shores in momentum.

Introspection

In the mid-fifties itself Panicker had begun to review his own formalistic intentions and stylistic traits in comparison with Indian fresco and bronze traditions.

The paintings of this period such as ‘Blessed are the Peace Makers,' the ‘Pregnancy Ward' series, ‘Malabar Peasant,' and ‘The life of Buddha' are the reflections of his research into Ajantha murals, Mahabalipuram rock reliefs and Chola bronzes. As he travelled widely in Europe in the late fifties, his passion and concern for Indian art grew deeper.

As veteran artist K.G. Subramanian observed: “His Western excursion affected him like it affected most Indian artists of any individuality; it threw him back on himself, it was as if across the seas a strange longing for his land caught him in the pit of his stomach. On his return he became a strong ‘indigenist,' though not in the traditionalist sense.''

The longing for indigenous identities in art practices were generalised and misunderstood for a long period in our regional writings on art. There were some mistaken attempts to portray Panicker either as a metaphysical painter or a neo-Tantric artist. On the contrary Panicker went deep into the radical streams of calligraphy and to the origins of the visual language of his own environment.

As part of his search for a new pictorial order, Panicker observed scribbles of children, admired the works of Paul Klee and Jamini Roy, and learned the illustrated writings (vattezhuthu) of Malayalam on palm leaves.

Result of research

His ‘Words and Symbol' series of paintings are the result of this intimate research, which represents the conceptual acumen of his inner vision. Seemingly abstract, ‘Words and Symbol' series carry the entire landscape which inhabits the ‘particular' and the ‘universal' together in a coherent space.

Painted in 1975, ‘The Dog' is perhaps the most striking painting after the aforementioned series. An apocalyptic vision of death, ‘Dog' remains like a premonition of human predicament. But in the ‘River' painted in 1976, Panicker once again returned to his familiar environment. ‘River,' shot with a golden orange colour, is a biomorphic vision of life. Once again there emerges water bubbles, falling leaves, boats, the drum player and the calligraphic motives which Panicker observed as the “intimate human usage evolved through ages.”

From the canals of Ponnani, Panicker arrived at this universal romantic vision of the river, in which he gathered all the images of organic essence. The genius died in 1977, and was cremated on the beach at Cholamandal where the unknown artists of Mamallapuram were buried centuries ago.