Sky-blue rafters, stained-glass arches and ornate grills… Anusha Parthasarathy takes a closer look at the country’s first fine arts institution

Inside the halcyon campus of the Government Fine Arts College in Egmore, sculptures gaze thoughtfully, an old well is dressed up in colours and arbours are covered in green creepers. It’s colonial administrative building and its sky-blue rafters, stained-glass arches above doors, squares of frosted glass and ornate grills stand witness to the country’s first fine arts institution, the Madras School of Arts, which began in 1850.

Principal V. Chandrasekaran has been in charge for the last 20 months and is familiar with its history. “The college was initially a school of arts and crafts, started by Dr. Alexander Hunter,” he says. “It functioned for two years in Popham’s Broadway and trained craftsmen, printers and draftsmen for the Government.”

The school was started to cater to the needs of the royals back in Britain. And so, the furniture, curios, metalwork and even jewellery were sent to the Queen. There are traces of this in the museum inside the college, but it has been off bounds for a few years now.

In 1852, this school was taken over by the Department of Public Instruction. This is when Alexander Hunter began to reorganise the curriculum, with the consultation of East India house and the Royal Academy of Art in London. “Soon,” says Chandrasekaran, “The School of Industrial Arts was opened with two departments; Artistic and Industrial.”

Artists and experts from England were called to teach design and art subjects at the school. A manufacturing unit was started at Poonamallee Road and a sergeant was put in change. It was here that several students trained by the school were given employment. “E. Milford was the man behind the manufacturing unit. And it was he who provided jobs for all those students. Some of the superintendents of the school were E.B. Havell, W.S. Hadaway and the very popular R.F. Chisholm,” adds Chandrasekaran.

E.B. Havell introduced wood carving, carpentry and metal work units around 1877. He encouraged studying indigenous arts and was a huge support to Abanindranath Tagore, an eminent Indian painter in those days. Later, it was Tagore’s student, D.P. Roy Chowdhury, who became the Madras School of Arts’ first Indian Principal in 1929. It was he, who introduced training in fine arts.

“In 1961, under K.C.S. Paniker, the Madras School of Arts became a college and the administrative control of the School came under the Department of Industries and Commerce,” he says. “Panicker allowed artists to show their creations and the school became known for its fine arts courses.” In order to sell their art, 38 artists formed the Artists Handicrafts Association in 1963. As their handicrafts business flourished, they brought a few acres off Chennai to start a commune. In 1966, along with K.C.S. Paniker, began what is still considered among the 10 biggest art movements in the country, the Cholamandal Artists’ Village.

The transition of the school from a utility-based training institute to a fine arts college is evident through the many installations, sculptures and paintings on the campus. Students study and work in workshops sprayed with colourful paint while others sit and chatter between ponderous sculptures. Over the years, the college’s faculty has included artists such as Thiruvalargal Ulaganatha Mudaliar, R. Krishna Rao, A.P. Santhanaraj, C.J Anthony Doss, S. Kanniappan, P.B. Surendranath and so on.

Now, the college, spread over four acres, offers specialisations in painting, visual communication design, print making, sculpture and industrial design in textile and ceramic and has about 489 students. “We have six undergraduate courses and five in post graduation. The speciality of the college is its national-level study tour, where students will spend 63 days touring the country studying its art, history and tradition,” says Chandrasekaran.

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