KCS Paniker's personalised brush strokes speak of his fascination for Kerala, the “lost horizon of his childhood.” A tribute to the celebrated painter on his birth centenary.

Kovalezhi Cheerampathoor Sankaran Paniker (May 31, 1911 to January 15, 1977) was born in Coimbatore. The indigenous aesthetic idiom reflected in his work evolved from his practice, study of art history and a response to his inclination to choose or reject an approach in style or method. This style or method may well be from the Art Historical reference and from his own experience of moving through a whole gamut of lexis while he practised. In several accounts especially written and published by Padma Jayaraj in Narthaki, this observation gains ground. She mentions that his works “carried the imprints of the water-logged landscape of Kerala, its life, arts, and philosophy when he moved out in early childhood. His career as a painter moved through three distinct periods. His early paintings, in water colours, depicted the wonders of rural Kerala. In the second phase, the rustic people with a distinctive Dravidian stamp marked his humanscape. The final segment had a visual language culled from symbols and motifs from Kerala's arts and metaphysics.”

Early paintings

Paniker's early paintings in water colours are incandescent, expressing the reflections of the bright sunlight on coconut and areca nut plantations, green fields won over by the breeze. The sense of sunlight and shadows created patterns in his naturescapes with the notion of human participation formed by suggestive strokes.

Living in the parched lands of Tamil Nadu, the artist reminisced of the “lost horizon of his childhood”. The landscapes of Kerala were realistic representations articulated with personalised brush strokes that bore allegiance to the abstract, romantic and decorative and this body culminated his works of the 1940s.

Later human forms in the bucolic filled his images. His fascination with the narratives from the paintings of Ajanta narratives started in early 50s; this guided him further to study the sculptures of the Chola period in the mid 50s. At a certain phase, the background of his paintings depicted by the crowd was evocative of the murals of Kerala, the background depicted its crowd.

This sensibility is echoed in the painting titled “The Farmer of Malabar” — a portrayal of the way of life in the saga of humanity. His reflective image-memory firmed the forcefulness of a range of his paintings.

In the Peace-Makers series, the people are rendered realistic and yet simplified. Indigenous in character and intention, they are pronounced with linearity. The visual language of KCS confirms the story of a milieu, dreamy, buoyant and entrenched in the pastoral. His series of the Garden and that of the Mother and Child brought in a strong element of expressionism as one witnessed the lines gaining strength and power while the palette changed to an intense earthy luminosity. Amrita Jhaveri in the publication A Guide to 101 Modern and Contemporary Indian Artists observes that “with his Garden Series (1953 - 61), that he began to eliminate volume and perspective, relying solely on line and colour, influenced by Jamini Roy, his figures became flat and folksy, with pronounced heads and staring eyes.”

It is noteworthy that this series brought in a gradual move towards his final burst through with his series titled Words and Symbols. But prior to this he journeyed conceptually as well from the provincial to the universal, and stylistically evolving from impressionistic to post-impressionistic. While the preoccupation with iconic depictions of Gandhiji, the Buddha and Christ divulged his secular stance.

The persuasion of Ajanta is flagrant in his works of this episode. The imagery that he fashioned in Mother and Child transports to memory — Kerala's performing art forms. His syntax loomed in the series of the “words and symbols” Paniker integrated — elements that looked like algebraic equations, Arabic numerals and Roman script, he assimilated the Malayalam script too, finding space for shapes and scriptorial forms between clusters of elements, rendering them indecipherable.

Arranged across the canvas, these various elements formed part of an overall design. In describing this pristine language of Paniker's new-born works, K.G. Subramanian wrote “...an intriguing carpet of colour fields and calligraphic texture, with a distant visual reference to our old manuscript rolls.” Dynamic in brilliant reds, greens, yellows and orange, works titled Crowd, the river of life carrying, dog, birds, animals, and fish — whispered with an element of cubism also reflects the influence of the occult and the tantric of the ritualistic practices. Works from the later phase show, a spontaneous use of gold, silver and vermillion, reflective of a cryptic imagery.

This idiom was crucial to Paniker's non-compliance to the idea of the Western influence, frequently reflected in the works of artists both contemporary to and preceding his time. Further from a distinct point of view, Words and Symbols is an ingredient that connotes the impression of Mohenjo-Daro, on which Paniker's deliberation requires to be noted — “They hark back to the weird, but spiritually uplifting figurative exaggerations of ancient Indian painting and sculpture.” In this sense Words and Symbols situates itself as a construct of the cultural hold, cutting edge in the context of his time, locale and practice.

KCS engraved a function not only for himself but also other artists of the country who were engaged in evolving — by breathing an essential pictorial language in 20th century Indian painting.

A strong believer in the crucial connection between art and craft, Indian identity and contemporaneous knowledge, Paniker established the Artists Handicraft Association in 1963. He founded and established the Cholamandal — an artist Co-operative with residence — studios in 1966.

The writer is Art historian and curator.

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