Akila Kannadasan talks to Velu Viswanadhan about his journey from the Cholamandal Artists’ Village to Paris

Viswanadhan’s father was not home. A customer had come to place an order for a wooden statue. He asked if the14-year-old can make it for him instead. Viswanadhan was surprised, but agreed. The art of carving statues in wood was recorded in his mind since he grew up watching his artisan-father at work. “I took a piece of wood, gave it form, and painted it,” recalls the world renowned artist, who was in the city to participate in Art Chennai.

With a head full of grizzly hair and a puffy grey beard, the 74-year-old has paint stains on his hand — probably from his latest rendezvous with the brush. “The customer was pleased. He was going to worship it! He placed some money on a betel leaf as is the tradition, and gave it to me.”

This was Viswanadhan’s first tryst with art. Growing up in the village of Thrikkadavoor in Kerala, little did he know that he will one day travel the world and become a popular name in the world of art. He studied like everyone else of his age and went to college. But he was expelled for his active participation in politics. As destiny would have it, art came to his rescue. “I met a portrait painter in my village who was preparing to send his student to Madras Art School.” Viswanadhan decided to apply. When his father found out, all hell broke loose. For even then, the arts were not considered as viable career options. “He was very angry. He wanted me to do something substantial in life.”

Despite the discouragement from his family and the little money he had, Viswanadhan packed his bags and came to Madras. It was 1960; a year when veteran artists such as Adimoolam, Haridasan, and Dakshinamoorty also stepped into the Art School.

“So this is how I started.”

India-inspired

It was around this time that artists, poets, and writers intensely discussed on Indian identity in the arts. “What do we follow? The very rich and complex Indian tradition or the acquired European tradition?” A conclusion was arrived at. “We decided to analyse and synthesise our own identity and style,” he says. But times were not great for an artist in Madras. “We were always asked, ‘so you’re studying art? What next? What would you do for a living?’ People never bought art; we were not encouraged.”

The Village by the sea

That’s when K. C. S. Paniker, the principal of Madras School of Arts, envisioned the idea of “a space for artists to do their research and express themselves creatively and not commercially.” He, along with his students established the Artists’ Handicraft Association as an extension of art that would help sustain themselves while they pursued their artistic endeavours.

“The third and fourth year students created handicrafts and held an exhibition in the college,” recalls Viswanadhan. With the money they made, Paniker asked them, why not buy a piece of land that would support them? “Some 40 of us, including his old students bought 12 grounds.” Located by the sea, far from the bustle of the city, it had perfect ambience for a creator to work. They named it Cholamandal Artists’ Village. Later on, “people around the area sold their property to us,” he adds.

Viswanadhan saw the Village grow right from the time the first cottage was built. “You had to take a jhutka from Madras to reach Cholamandal. The journey left the traveller covered in red from the mud roads.” With sand dunes all around, a well in the centre, and the sea at walking distance, the Artists’ Village was beautiful.

Those who saw it wondered if it was a dream. “It was, but it was a real one,” he says.

Trip to Europe and thereafter

Viswanadhan briefly settled in Cholamandal. But he decided to travel. “Friends arranged an exhibition of my works in a garden and bought me a one-way ticket to Europe with the money.”

The trip changed his life.

Viswanadhan travelled across Europe and saw the original works of masters such as Van Gogh and Edvard Munch about whom he had studied back in Madras. When he arrived in Paris towards the end of August 1968, the world of art embraced him. His first exhibition was held in 1970. “After the show opportunities to work there opened up. It has been 46 years since I started a life in Paris,” he smiles.

All these years in Paris, Viswanadhan was “the outsider”. “As an artist, whether you are at home or elsewhere, you are always an outsider. That’s how you best observe people.” He loves to travel. “I have to keep moving,” he says. “It is the most important thing.”