A painting by Rani Pooviah now finds a place in the K.C.S. Paniker Museum of the Madras Movement, thanks to a donation

Over 50 years ago, a young artist named Rani Pooviah lived in Chennai, and taught at the Government College of Fine Arts. One of very few women in the field at that time, she was a gifted artist, a beloved teacher, and an integral part of the group of visionary artists, led by K.C.S. Paniker, who founded Cholamandal Artists’ Village in the 1960s.

A tragic accident cut short her life and her career, but not before she had made a significant contribution to the Madras Movement. That contribution was in danger of being forgotten, but now, her legacy has been enshrined in the K.C.S. Paniker Museum of the Madras Movement, in the form of a painting donated by P.M. Belliappa, in association with the Coorg Association of Madras.

Glaring omission

“I’ve been working at finding her works for some time,” said Belliappa, who knew Rani and her family personally. “Last year, I finally did. It had been haunting me that her paintings weren’t a part of the Museum. It was a glaring omission, a serious lacuna.”

“Rani and I both come from the area of Kodagu in Coorg, and she’s the only artist of such distinction to have come from there,” he adds. “So this donation was meaningful to me in more ways than one.”

For S. Nandagopal, who runs the museum, seeing this painting was a journey back in time. “When I joined the college as a student, Rani was teaching History of Art,” he says. “I remember, the first thing she said in class was that we weren’t going to talk about Greek or French art history, but about what some of our own great artists such as Janakiraman had done. That was a wonderful thing.”

Both men recall her being a vivacious and beautiful woman. “She was so exuberant, and she talked to us about a lot more than just art,” says Nandagopal.

After nearly a decade at the College, she got married and left for the U.S. That was where tragedy struck — Rani was in a car accident that left her in a coma for 13 years, never to recover.

“Her husband sent us some slides of works she did in the U.S.,” says Nandagopal. “They were incredible. If only she’d lived, she would have done some truly great work.”

The painting that has been donated to the Museum is one done by Rani in 1962, and captures her own particular style.

“When you look at her paintings, you see pure art, not bogged down by commercialism,” he says. “How sad it would be if younger artists never even knew who Rani was.”

Making sure the work of the Madras Movement artists is not forgotten is the purpose behind the Museum. “We’re in the process of acquiring more and more older works to try and fill the gaps and document the Movement completely,” says Nandagopal.

Thanks to the generosity of Belliappa, one important gap has been filled, and the memory of a pioneering young woman artist, captured for posterity.