Kochi’s tryst with art began much before art galleries and art shows came into vogue. The city, like the art that is bandied around today, has a contemporary memory. Contemporary, like in art parlance, is that which is created and continues to the present. The past is not for them; so too are the art and artists of an era gone by. They are often dubbed ‘outdated, irrelevant’. And then, they argue, the contemporary is always collectively much more socially conscious.

No wonder a pioneer like Artist Mattappilly Raman and his two multi-talented artist sons, M.R.D. Dathan and M. R. Baburam, and their invaluable contributions have been conveniently forgotten. As someone rightly said the city has a wonderful memory of forgetting!

“Does the city ever care for its artists? I don’t think so. They live, work and are forgotten. The case of Raman Master and his two sons is a perfect example of this,” says veteran artist M. V. Devan.

Raman Master was perhaps the first artist from the State to travel and study in Calcutta, then an important art hub, like Florence, Paris or Padua. “Travelling to Calcutta was a long haul those days. My father’s desire was met with stiff resistance at home. A chance meeting with the Guru (Sree Narayana Guru) at Alwaye changed everything. The Guru convinced my father’s parents to send him to Calcutta. With Rs. 10 given to him by the Guru my father set off on an art odyssey,” says M. Dilipkumar, Raman’s youngest son, an artist who is now into acoustics and designing museums, auditoriums, and theatres.

At the College of Art, Calcutta, Raman was mentored by some of the greats of the time like Percy Brown and Jamini Prasad Ganguly. He graduated, spent a couple of years at Shantiniketan, before crisscrossing the country painting portraits, perfecting the art he learned.

First of its kind

He returned to Cochin and started the Cochin School of Arts in 1932. It was a first of its kind school in the State. Raman Master was accorded the title of ‘The Palace Artist’ by the then Maharaja of Cochin. The school provided training in wall posters, clay modelling, book illustrations, Indian style of painting, miniature and original design for advertisements. “The school trained students in commercial art, what is today called applied art. It also provided coaching for the Madras government technical examination and awarded diploma in drawing and painting. Then, it was the only aided institution for fine arts in the State to do so. I also wrote one of those exams,” remembers Devan.

The intention was evident. Raman Master wanted his students to be artists, not recluses, aggrieved by the order around them, forever fighting a battle within, those who stuck to the worn out philosophy of art for art’s sake. He believed that artists needed to be self-sufficient and independent. “I had completed my high school and had a lot of time. First I thought I’d learn to play the violin and joined Kalabhavan. That was when I saw Cochin School of Arts. I went in but was told admissions were closed for the year. That was how I joined Kerala Institute of Arts. Classes here were only in the evenings. So the next year I joined Cochin School of Arts. Both Dathan and Baburam were there. And it was here that I first saw a portrait of Raman Master, painted by I think Dathan. I was stunned to know about this pioneer and his works. Later, I saw his portraits at the Hill Palace, guest house, Port Trust and realised his greatness, his vision,” says noted artist Kaladharan.

Raman Master’s oeuvre was not just in portraits. He was a brilliant sculptor who created the first bronze statue in the country using the Lost Wax Principle. “The Sree Narayana Guru statue that he made along with my brothers was unveiled by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan in 1969. It was the first of its kind in the country though much later there were other claimants for this,” says Dilipkumar.

Unfortunately, these claims have been recognised and credited, while Raman Master’s efforts forgotten. All the Narayana Guru statues or portraits that one sees today have been inspired by what Raman Master and his sons did decades back.

Dathan and Baburam cut their teeth in the Cochin School of Arts. They presented a contrast in their personalities and their work. While Dathan created numerous life-style statues of important personalities across the State, award-winning paintings and pastel paintings on silk, Baburam moved on a less-travelled path of creating pavilions for exhibitions and trade fairs.

“Dathan must have made at least 200-300 statues of Narayana Guru alone. And there are those of Guruvayur Kesavan, Vallathol at Kerala Kalamandalam, Swami Vivekanada and Mahatama Gandhi (both in Ernakulam), Tapovan Swami in Mumbai, Panampilly Govinda Menon, C. Kesavan, and V. K. Krishna Menon at Kozhikode,” says Dilipkumar.

Kaladharan feels Baburam the artist went unrecognised. “Babu was a brilliant artist. He was a perfectionist who specialised in the use of soft, pastel colours. He also did some good, life-like portraits, like that of Dathan. The statuette given at the Kerala State Film Awards, I understand, was designed by Babu.

He won many national awards for his paintings before he moved on to set up ‘Pavilions and Interiors India Pvt. Ltd.’. The pavilions that he created for exhibitions in the country and abroad stood out for the theme murals that he used to draw. He was so successful that today around 2,000 people work for his company and has branches in cities across the country. No mean achievement for an artist.”

Three artists, all of them trendsetters in their own fields, Raman Master and his illustrious sons blazed a trail that multitudes of future artists imbibed. You’ll find products of Cochin School of Arts and understudies of Dathan and Baburam flourishing.

But when Kochi has turned a much-sought after art destination, has the art world really given them their due?