Legacy sits lightly on Maniam Selven, who is taking forward his father’s art, on his own terms.
A talk with Maniam Selven leaves one with the dizzy feeling of having boarded a time machine. Son of illustrious Maniam, that legendary artist who made Kalki’s sagas come alive, he has had the fortune of being acquainted with his father’s contemporaries, his own generation and Gen Next, that includes his children and grandchildren. “I’m blessed that way,” acknowledges Maniam Selven, an epitome of humility. “They still call me Logu (Loganathan) and I’m grateful for their affection.”
Ma.Se’s brush with art started rather late, when he was 16. “Father never forced me to draw or paint. What next, I wondered after finishing school, and chose to join the Chennai School of Arts. I discovered that I could draw fairly well and dedicated myself to the course.”
And Maniam Selven enjoyed the five-year course. Especially the tours. “We were taken across the country and it was highly educative and thrilling,” he says. “I went back to these places, including Ajanta and Ellora, but the impact they made on me as a student was something special,” he adds.
Did his father teach him the nuances? “My father died in 1968, when I was 18. He breathed his last holding my hand in a firm grip. Looking back, I feel he passed on the legacy to me at that moment. A transfer had taken place, quietly.
(It is a recurring image during the conversation. Ma.Se. refers to Michaelangelo the genius and his painting ‘The Creation of Adam’ in this context.)
“He is inspiring me, teaching me every day. Sitting down to work, I sometimes feel empty. On such occasions, I take a look at my father’s creations and feel rejuvenated. A fresh vigour flows through the veins.”
“It was sheer struggle for eight years, 1968-76,” recalls Maniam Selven. He gave up his job with an advertisement firm in search of something more challenging. “It was a bold move and an enormous risk, because freelancing gave the freedom but was not remunerative. I ploughed on. Magazines supported me and gave me assignments and that kept the spark alive.”
Maniam had laid the path for his son to walk on but the latter was clear that he should not be a clone. It was not an easy task. He evolved from illustrating for short stories to more elevated subjects. And there is no room for violence or vulgarity. “Yes, my pictures are meant for the family to enjoy,” stresses Ma.Se. It is a stunning array that the artist spreads out. Nature in all its glory, Woman in different moods, illustrations for children, portraits, robots… water colour, oil, acrylic, mixed media… the versatility is amazing, a penchant for experiment evident.
Maniam Selven considers the work he did for the Upanishads commissioned by the Ramakrishna Mission as the most challenging. “The abstract concepts had to be visualised and I sat down to work after reading up on the subject. It gave me fulfilment,” he says.
“My father teamed up with Kalki and they created immortal works. They were made for each other, one of a kind. He didn’t dabble in anything less. He had achieved in a short span of time what others wouldn’t in a whole life time,” observes Selven pointing out a massive painting made when MS left to attend the Edinburgh festival. With the Big Ben in the background, the Thames flowing over which an aircraft hovers, Maniam has captured the mood with symbols of music woven into the picture. “This picture adorned the walls of MS’s house and was moved here after her demise,” Selven explains.
He speaks highly of Gopulu. “Incomparable strokes!” he exclaims. He loves the veteran’s sketches for jokes. “I asked my father why he didn’t attempt it and he said, ‘I’m afraid it will dilute my style when I’m doing serious work.’”
Ma.Se’s favourite artist?
“Nature is the best painter,” pat comes the reply. “There is no way we can compete with her palette. I marvelled at the magic that unfolded when I was in the Himalayas. Staying close to Manasarover, I went up to the lake, armed with a camera, to catch the first light. It was absolutely dark and silent. Not even a silhouette could be made out. The first ray of light appeared and I got my directions. Slowly the scene changed as colours streaked the sky and birds began to chirp. It was as if the Five Elements were waking up from deep meditation.
“My camera went busy as I captured as much as I could. When the pictures emerged, it was visual poetry - from a dark outline, Mt. Kailash gradually revealed itself bathed by the sun’s rays, to rise as a dazzling golden peak.
“I travel with my pictures, each a unique journey. There is still a long way to go to attain fulfilment. My search will continue as long as the yearning remains.”
The Chozha Prince
As a teenager this writer was fascinated by ‘Ponniyin Selvan.’ ‘Sivakamiyin Sabatham’ was gripping, ‘Parthiban Kanavu’ enchanting and ‘Alai Osai’ a class apart. But the Chozha Prince made a tremendous impact. Maniam’s illustrations of the characters contributed in no small measure. Thus it was nostalgic to revisit the volumes, brought out by Ananda Vikatan with the legend’s pictures intact. “The edition is a sell-out, informs Ma.Se. It was a revelation. Appa is immortal. Non-pareil,” he adds.
Has he tried to reproduce his father’s illustrations?
Selven is clear about it. “I did, for ‘Sivakamiyin Sabatham’ and all along I had the feeling that I was not doing the right thing. I cannot surpass him. I thought it was a sacrilege to even think that I could match him... I’d rather leave the sanctum sanctorum alone.”
How many of us know that Ma.Se is the artist that created Adhyantaprabhu enshrined in the Madhya Kailash temple in Chennai?
“When I was approached, I refused. The concept of Vinayaka and Anjaneya in one image was unheard of. I didn’t know whether I could even attempt at something on those lines. A year later, the request was renewed. After much hesitation and consultation with seniors and experts I drew an image that visited several temples of both deities. It met with approval and the sculpture took shape.
Sharing ‘Pradosham’ with S. Rajam. Drawing illustrations for Kalki’s ‘Arumbu Ambugal.’
When a child turned the Siva Selven had drawn on Sivaratri night upside down to reveal Ganesa. “It was not intended. I was in tears.”
Water colour. “It is a delight, to go with the flow.”
Camera. “It preserves what I observe.”