A love for challenge
“But he does not look like Christ,” frowned KCS Paniker’s niece, scrutinising his painting. He rebutted, “Have you seen Christ?” No, she said and Paniker argued, “Then, how do you know what he looks like?”
Early into his career, Paniker’s right hand developed a tremor. His son S Nandagopal recalls, “My father consciously switched to his left hand and trained himself to paint again.” At one point, he was making marvellous works that sold like hot cakes. “If everyone likes my watercolours, there must be something wrong with me!” concluded Paniker. He stopped making them and told his wife Rama Bai, “Suddenly the sales may drop. But you cannot grumble.” Enduring stringent times, he challenged himself, evolving through five completely different phases. American critic Clement Greenberg visited India for the show Two Decades of American Painting in 1967 and gave a lecture at the Madras School of Arts. Seeing a bad slide reproduction, Paniker observed, “Oh, you think this is good enough for the Third World?” Greenberg invited him to Delhi to see the show.
- Debi Prasad Roy Choudhury (1899–1975) an eminent Indian artist is famed for his sculptures Triumph of Labour (1959) and Mahatma Gandhi both at Marina Beach, Chennai. Choudhury was Principal of the Madras School from 1929 to 1957.
- A good part of Paniker’s life was spent around the stretch between the College of Arts on Poonamallee High Road and the arterial hub of Mount Road, around where major centres were established including Lalit Kala Akademi and British Council. The family home was also in the vicinity.
- Daughter-in-law Kala Nandagopal recalls his strong ethical stance and humane nature. He had an international outlook but also mingled at the grassroots comfortably. With his thirst for knowledge, he was full of the history of other places. In 1954, he managed to rustle up the money to travel to London and Europe. Wherever he went, he would bring back a piece of textile for his wife. When he went to Moscow in 1959, he brought back a piece of Tamurlane’s mausoleum for Nandagopal.
An early passion
In 1911, Paniker was born in Coimbatore into a large family of eight siblings. He lost his father at the age of 11 and his mother died soon after. Under the care of an elder sister, he came from Kerala to Madras. At the Madras Christian College School, seeing a young boy painting, Paniker started to paint scenes from his village and felt an irrefutable connect. As he wrote in ‘Why do I paint’, “Canals used to make me highly emotional. And my eyes used to, at such times, fill with tears.”
After graduating, he worked at the Post and Telegraph offices on Poonamallee High Road. Every day, on his way to work, passing the Madras School of Arts and Crafts, he saw DP Roy Choudhury working at the entrance; on his way back, he would still be at it. Fascinated, Paniker quit his job and a good salary to join the School in 1936. Choudhury recognised his potential and created a teaching post for him in 1941. Artist Sushil Mukherjee from Ranchi would recount, “Paniker and I did not have a pie in our pockets. But we dreamt of changing the world.”
A wise counsellor
Paniker met Rama Bai, who was Choudhury’s student, and got married. When he became Principal of the College in 1957, Paniker’s home was open to students. When a girl came to him for matrimonial advice, he was heard saying, “Do you like him or not? Take a stand!” An avid world traveller himself, Paniker organised India tours for students to get an all-round exposure. He believed in direct experience and said, “When you like a person, go through the person. Avoid it and you will get nowhere.” Nandagopal quips, “My father would say: try always in your profession to meet someone great.”
Acting his compassion
Paniker wrote under the pen name Sunanda, combining the names of his daughter Sumitra and son Nandagopal. Often, he would recall the heart-rending Maupassant tale of two birds killed in a hunt to his family. The story had indelible roots. Principal Roy Choudhury was into wrestling and hunting. “Come on Paniker, try,” he once said, giving him a rifle to shoot at a bird. Paniker shot and it fell to the ground. Paniker determined, “I will never shoot again.” He was not a man to hide his emotions. He was away travelling when his pet dog died. “When we broke the news to my father, he turned to the wall, his eyes filled with tears,” recalls Nandagopal. Paniker responded urgently to crises. When an orphaned child in Bengaluru was being ill-treated, he whisked Jaya into a basket and drove her away to Chennai, where she became part of their household.
Marrying art and craft
The Lalit Kala Akademi was housed in a building in Vepery close to the School of Arts. Students who came from the suburbs stayed in the rooms there. The seed for the idea of a commune for artists grew from here to manifest as Cholamandal. According to Nandagopal, “The land for the artists’ village was bought for ₹72,000 from a Muslim gentleman, and all 17 cousins had to sign the agreement.” Paniker’s was the second house to be built in this uncharted land. After retirement in 1967, he lived here. We cannot separate the man Paniker from his art. Cholamandal, a unique experiment, grew with his founding vision, “The greatest craftsmen are the greatest artists.”