Madras Art Movement: DAG explores ‘regional modern’

The Madras Art Movement’s ‘regional modern’ hasn’t always got its due. A retrospective at Mumbai’s DAG is rectifying that, with works from SG Vasudev to C Douglas

July 12, 2019 03:35 pm | Updated 05:10 pm IST

Modern masters from India dominate international auction sales of works from the region. FN Souza, Tyeb Mehta, VS Gaitonde and others of the Bombay Progressives are now household names, mainly because of the prices their works command. Now, an exhibition by DAG, opening in Mumbai on July 20, widens the lens through which we view modernism in Indian art. Paradoxically, it does so by concentrating on ‘regional modern’ — a retrospective on the Madras Art Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which deliberately worked towards developing an idiom bereft of western influences.

All the 22 artists featured in the show — such as SG Vasudev, KV Haridasan and V Viswanadhan — were one-time students of the Madras College of Arts and Crafts. The movement came about by default, says Ashrafi Bhagat, an art historian and critic who is curating the show, after a critic in London in 1954, while appreciating artist KCS Paniker’s skill and artistry, criticised his works for lacking the “Indian quotient”. “He was working in the post-impressionist style and the critic’s remarks made him aware that he needed to move away from the influence of European modernists and look to the regional and canonical tradition to charter a new trajectory,” says Bhagat.

(Clockwise from  top left) Works by  K Sreenivasulu, Dhanapal, Paniker,  J Sultan Ali and  C Douglas

(Clockwise from top left) Works by K Sreenivasulu, Dhanapal, Paniker, J Sultan Ali and C Douglas

In search of identity

Paniker was principal of the Madras college, a vibrant space where this line of thought fuelled debates among students and faculty. “There were discussions around what is our Indian identity. Whether we should follow western art or do something different,” says Bengaluru-based Vasudev, one of the early artists associated with the movement who, incidentally, has a retrospective currently showing at Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art. In those days, while figuring his ‘way’, Vasudev deliberately avoided viewing western art and films for a year. “Paniker himself got inspired by his son’s trigonometry notebook,” he says, referring to works of abstraction featuring what look like the script of ancient languages.

Vasudev’s inspiration was vast, through his interest and involvement in different fields of the arts, from Kannada literature and Carnatic music, to theatre and dance. Girish Karnad, with whom he developed a close friendship, introduced him to the best of Kannada literature, and he did the art direction for the film Samskara , based on UR Ananthamurthy’s book and featuring Karnad. His work inspired by Kannada poet DR Bendre’s Kalpavrisksha Vrindavana was possibly one of the starting points of Vasudev’s exploration of the ‘Vriksha’ theme of life and death in his works.

Minimalist expression

The DAG exhibition showcases the works (over 80 of them) of the core group of artists “responsible for developing the movement along with Paniker in painting and S Dhanapal in sculpture, and those artists whose visual language and vocabulary accorded with the Nativist philosophy [of looking towards regional folk art and craft traditions]”, says Bhagat. Other names include L Munuswamy, C Douglas and Rm Palaniappan, who variously did figurative as well as abstract works.

The latter entered the Madras college in the 1980s, towards the end of the movement. While he never interacted with Paniker, many of the other senior artists such as RB Bhaskaran and Alphonso Doss were his teachers. Chennai-based Palaniappan’s earliest interest was in capturing flight forms — an obsession after watching the film Fall of Berlin when he was 13. As his conceptual work developed, it became more minimalistic, and was “reduced to a line”. “I realised that any movement gives only a line, and the smaller it is, it becomes a point. Once I understood that, I used it in my work,” he says.

Changing norms

Bhagat points out that it was fairly recently, in 2001, that there was a call, by art historian Dr Shivaji Panniker, to “introduce the notion of regional modern to be included among the many histories of the nation”. While individual artists have been recognised for their work, Vasudev acknowledges that despite their contribution to Indian art history, the Madras Art Movement has, till date, not been debated seriously. “The main reason is we didn’t have an art history department, and we didn’t have critics to write about it — apart from Josef James, a professor of economics at the Madras Christian College who took an interest in arts, and later Ashrafi Bhagat. That was the biggest drawback.”

Some 50 years after the movement “established modernity in the South”, there may be a turn.

Madras Modern: Regionalism & Identity is on till October 12 at DAG, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai

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