Art spanning three generations

It will be a showcase of Maniam, Maniam Selvan and his daughters.

December 10, 2009 06:50 pm | Updated December 11, 2009 12:11 pm IST

Maniam Selvan

Maniam Selvan

In Chennai, December is the season of music and dance. But this year's events-crowded festival calendar includes a unique celebration in “Vaazhayadi Vaazhai”, an exhibition of paintings by artists belonging to three generations — the late Maniam, son Maniam Selvan, and grand daughters Subhashini Balasubramanian and Dharini Balakrishnan (December 11-26 , The Gallery Sri Parvati, Eldams Road).

The chief guests at the inaugural (6 p.m.) today are artist/musician S. Rajam, artist/illustrator Gopulu, K. Rajendran, former editor, Kalki, novelist Vikraman, and artist/film actor Sivakumar.

In the 1940s and 1950s, a whole generation of Tamil readers, including senior dancers and musicians, were entranced by Maniam's (1924-68) illustrations for the enormously popular historical serial novels of Kalki Krishnamurthy. Filled as they were with elegance, bhava, and ambience evoking details, Maniam's drawings of characters such as the sculptor Ayanar and the dancer Sivakami became part of the Tamil psyche awakening to nationalist pride and cultural renascence. Maniam got to paint mudras, adavu and karana postures at the revivalist phase of Bharatanatyam, inducing wonder and awareness among lay readers of the popular weekly. Eminent dance guru Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam admits that her fascination for Maniam's paintings made her want to become his apprentice.

Initiated into painting by his uncle, young Maniam was introduced to novelist Kalki Krishnamurti, editor of the eponymous weekly, while still a student at Chennai's art school, with Panikker and Roychowdhury among his teachers. The impressed Kalki gave him a job on the spot, and when Maniam demurred saying he would join the office after completing his studies, the writer asked, “Are you going to draw or your diploma?”

Maniam gave up his course and began to illustrate Kalki's serialised novels ‘Sivakamiyin Sabatham' set in the Pallava kingdom (700 A.D), and ‘Ponniyin Selvan' depicting the glorious age of the imperial Cholas a thousand years ago. Since this was the first time such a resplendent historical past was used as the backdrop in Tamil fiction, Maniam got the chance to create dramatic visual history. He was to tell his son later, “Kalki became my guru and guide.”

With the writer, he travelled to the places where the stories unfolded, sat in front of the sculptures and frescoes of Ajanta, Ellora, Hampi, Badami, the Elephanta Caves, Mamallapuram and Thanjavur, to sketch and paint. The swift deterioration of the frescoes since then has increased the value of Maniam's faithful representations.

This was the first time such “visiting” projects were undertaken by a creative team in Tamil journalism. The exposure gave him the ability to recreate the past with aesthetic conviction and vivid empathy. When Kalki's ‘Parthiban Kanavu' (1959) was filmed with Vyjayantimala and Gemini Ganesan in the lead, Maniam was the obvious choice for art director. He also designed costumes for a few other films.

Maniam's illustrations added such value to the novels when published as books that the grave statesman Rajaji was moved to warn book borrowers and library readers in his preface to “Ponniyin Selvan”: “Maniam's illustrations will tempt even good people to steal.”

Though he died in 1968 at age 44, Maniam left his vision of India's great epic, the Ramayana, when he illustrated Rajaji's ‘Chakavarti Tirumagan,' retelling of the kavya of Valmiki and Kamban in Tamil prose, serialised in Kalki .

Maniam died young, but his love of brush and paint lives in his only child son Maniam Selvan's heart. A gold medalist from the College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai, he has exhibited his work in Chennai and Hyderabad. Maniam Selvan is a leading illustrator in Tamil magazines – with a style of his own, and a fan following for his depictions. Every writer, from Sujata and Sivasankari to Vaali and Vairamuthu, knew that his line drawings added cache to their writings.

Professional artist

As a professional artist he produced drawings, illustrations, portraits and paintings on many themes, for journals and advertising agencies, designed costume, title and publicity for State and Central government projects and the film industry. He was art director for ‘Pandavas,' the 3D animation trailer by Pentafour India.

The NCERT Award and Chitrakala Bharati have recognised Maniam Selvan's achievements. More important, approving senior artists Ganapati Stapati and Gopulu have conferred the titles ‘Oviya Mamani' and ‘Gnana Bharati' on him.

Not surprisingly, Maniamselvan's daughters Subhashini Balasubramanian and Dharini Balakrishnan have also turned artists. Her training in music has made Subhashini visualise auditory experiences in her paintings, and explore the relevance of ragamala miniatures in contemporary contexts. Dharini's penchant is for water colours. A presentation artist creating interior and exterior views for a Chennai-based architect firm, she has also produced sets and props for movies, and illustrated books.

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