Produced for the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore, the two-part documentary ‘Modern Art in Tamilnadu' runs for about less than an hour. Yet it appears to have covered most of the vital aspects of the history of Tamil Nadu's art scene from early 1850. The documentary has been directed by Amshan Kumar, writer on films, whose book ‘Cinema Rasanai' is considered a pioneering work in film aesthetics in Tamil.

The first part goes back to the genesis of modern art and covers its growth up to the 1960s. The then British rulers established the Government School of Industrial Arts in Madras in 1850 with a view to inculcating Victorian taste among art students. However, it was only in 1929 that modern art took firm roots in Tamil Nadu, when Devi Prasad Roychoudury became the Principal of the School.

The statues of Mahatma Gandhi and the Triumph of Labour on Marina, sculpted by him stand testimony to Roychoudury's vision. He was mainly instrumental in inspiring a whole (young) generation interested in modern art and was responsible for establishing ‘Madras School' in the world of art.

“There is an interesting story,” says Amshan Kumar. “Once when D.P. Roychoudhury was painting, the coffee he was sipping spilled on it. Students watching him thought that he would discard it. No, he ordered for more cups of coffee and poured all over the canvas and made it one of even tone. This shows his creativity!”

It was then the period of K.C.S. Panicker, who took up the mantle of projecting modern art in Tamil Nadu. From water colour he switched on to oil painting. He was the one who laid great emphasis on the Indianness of our art. He founded the Cholamandal Artists' Village.

Another institution that nurtured the artistic talents of students came up in Kumbakonam. The town, surrounded by mighty temples, provided ample scope to hone the artistic skills of students on the traditional lines. It was christened the Kumbakonam College of Arts & Crafts in 1962. According to Amshan Kumar, eminent artists such as S. Dhanapal, A.P. Santhana Raj, R. Krishna Rao, R.B. Bhaskaran, Vidyashankar Sthapathi and Alphonso Aruldoss served in both Chennai and Kumbakonam. Works of C.J. Anthony Doss, L. Munusamy, Krishna Rao, P.V. Janakiraman, Ramanujan and a few others are discussed.

The second part covers the movement from 1970s till now. It carries the brief interviews of R.B. Bhaskaran, Alphonso Arul Doss, Achuthan Koodallur, K. Muralidharan, Vidyashankar Sthapathi and so on. Adimoolam's transition from black and white line drawings of Gandhiji to abstract oil paintings was as courageous as it was fascinating.

Figure distortion

Famed artist and art director P. Krishnamurthy's opinion that figure distortion, which arrived from the West after experimentation, was indeed introduced by the Indian artists very early on. Artists from the younger generation such as Aparajithan, Shilesh and Srinivasan also find a place with their works.

While the English script for the documentary has been done by Lakshmi Venkatraman, the Tamil version has been handled by Amshan Kumar himself. A. Sarangan has wielded the camera and the voice over has been provided by Selvakumar.

Since the venue of the screening was the College premises, majority of the audience was students. Amshan Kumar answered questions posed by them.

Excerpts:

Why the documentary chooses to be illustrative and not exhaustive in showing the artists?

“Being the first documentary that chronicles the entire history of modern art in Tamil Nadu, a limited time frame has its own charms and perils. I am not partial towards a few and biased against some of the artists. Duration of time decided the number of artists. Artists featured in this documentary are important, but those who do not are no less important. Inclusion of 50-plus major artists would have made the film like a catalogue and have done justice to none. My aim is more such films should be made and they should bring in artists who are not featured here.

Why did he make this documentary?

My aim is to demystify modern art since in the public mind it is thought of as abstruse and arcane. I think the film has achieved the objective, since many artists have explained their work in great detail and also worked in front of the camera. Viewers will feel that they are in the privacy of the studios of artists, watching as they work. I am grateful to all of them and the Central Institute of Indian Languages, as this documentary is first of its kind.

Amshan Kumar has produced around twenty documentaries. They include ‘Bharathi,’ ‘U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer,’ ‘Dr. C.V. Raman,’ ‘Ashokamitran,’ ‘Badal Sircar’s Third Theatre,’ ‘Mangroves,’ ‘Tamil Theatre,’ and ‘Village Knowledge Centres’ among others. He made a feature film ‘Oruthi’ based on Ki. Rajanarayanan’s story ‘Kidai’ This was shown in Indian panorama and won an award, too. Amshan Kumar is currently working on a feature film.

Keywords: Amshan Kumar