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Pages from art history

At a time when art was rarely covered by the media in Chennai, the Artrends journal, produced and edited by eminent artists of the city, fulfilled an important need.

August 13, 2011 03:55 pm | Updated August 14, 2011 01:24 am IST

S. Nandagopal. Photo: S.S. Kumar

S. Nandagopal. Photo: S.S. Kumar

In 1961, a dedicated group of artists in Madras established an art journal, which ran for the next two decades developing a significant national and international following along the way. The group was the Progressive Painters' Association (PPA), founded in 1944, and consisting of some of the most eminent artists of the city. The journal was Artrends, a labour of love that painstakingly combined write-ups on Madras-based, pan-Indian and international artists of repute, editorials on important issues in Indian contemporary art, discussions on high-profile national and international art events, and essays by some of the best-known art writers of the era.

New life

Now, 50 years later, the journal — all its issues in their entirety — is being resurrected as a coffee table book by the same name, brought out by the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, and the Cholamandal Artists' Village, Chennai. The book, which will be released at Cholamandal later this month, represents more than just a slice of Indian art history; it is a virtual storehouse of information on 203 remarkable artists, many of whose contributions have been all but forgotten, and the reflection of a time of great change and dynamism in Indian contemporary art, a time about which very little other documentation exists.

“This is one of the few magazines which covered art in that period in India,” says sculptor S. Nandagopal, who has been instrumental in putting the book together. “These artists did fantastic work — work that's still inspiring — but young artists today don't know anything about them.”

He gives the example of R. Vardarajan, a talented graphic artist with a distinctively eccentric personal vision (Artrends describes it thus: “Beneath the weirdness of his imagery is the exquisite dream of the child”). In the 1950s and 1960s, he exhibited widely nationwide, and his pieces were featured at the prestigious Paris Biennale in 1961, but his work has faded into oblivion since.

Ironically, the Artrends journal came into existence all those years ago to help artists publicise their work, to prevent them from languishing in obscurity. “In the 1960s, we didn't have any support from the media in Madras — we had to go to Bombay or Delhi to be known,” recalls senior artist S.G. Vasudev. “K.C.S. Paniker felt we needed to start a magazine on art with a local as well as a national and international outlook.”

Led by Paniker, the visionary principal of the Government College of Fine Arts and founder of Cholamandal, members of the PPA such as Reddeppa Naidu, P.V. Janakiram, Srinivasulu, L. Munuswamy, A.P. Santhanaraj, Varadarajan, A.S. Jagannathan, S. Dhanapal, M. Senathipathi, K.V. Haridasan, M.V. Devan, Vasudev and others brought Artrends into existence in October 1961. It wasn't easy; funds were meagre and there was no outside support for the publishing process.

“We'd sit and manually typeset the pages ourselves — a couple of pages would take us nearly all day – and then read the proofs over cups of tea and coffee,” says Vasudev. “Each issue that was completed was a matter of joy. Some ended up becoming controversial, when artists elsewhere didn't agree with the articles but it was all very healthy.”

The editors and writers of the journal certainly didn't pull their punches when it came to expressing opinion. You had strongly-worded commentaries on everything from art criticism (‘What's wrong with our Art Criticism?') to the growing market for art in the 1970s (“The development of a market for art… is not altogether a happy thing”), art education (‘Can art be taught?'), and the role of the artist in society. You had a series of brutally honest reactions of Indian artists to the “Two Decades of American Art” exhibition organised by the Museum of Modern Art, New York at the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, and discussions on India's showing at major international shows such as Biennale events at Venice, Paris and Sao Paula. At the core of it all, you had the continuing debate on ‘Indianness' in art, on finding a balance between Indian artistic traditions and modern Western sensibilities (‘Is Tradition A Hindrance?', ‘The Indian Element', ‘Whither Indian Art?', etc).

“Artrends captured a search for identity that was emblematic of the time,” comments Nandagopal. “Artists in the 1960s and 1970s were trying to find an amalgam between the East and West, a way to bind the Indian ethos with Western abstraction.”

Indian contributors included some well-known names from across the country, including Mulk Raj Anand, S.V. Vasudev, Keshav Malik, Geeta Kapur, Sandip Sarkar, Ghulam Sheikh, Jag Mohan, Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, S.A. Krishnan and more. You also had a fascinatingly varied selection of articles taken from international journals, books and newspapers — ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent' by T.S. Eliot, for instance, ‘Dear Theo,' a series of letters from Vincent van Gogh to his brother, pieces such as ‘How Jean Cocteau Viewed Life Just Before Death' from the Los Angeles Times, and write-ups on Western artists such as Paul Klee and Howard J. Whitlatch.

Every volume was, in addition, dotted with wise and pithy quotations from the Bible, the Panchatantra, Plato, Salvador Dali, Tagore and Comte De Lautreamont, and the poetry of A.K. Ramanujam, R. Parthasarathy, Gopalakrishna Adiga and others.

The paucity of funds, however, meant that the periodicity of the journals suffered in patches. Begun as a quarterly in 1961, with sculptor Janakiram as the editor, the journal began to appear annually during the 1970s, and there were no issues at all between 1967 and 1971, until Josef James, respected art critic and professor of economics at Madras Christian College, took over as editor, giving it a new lease of life.

Final days

The final stretch was from 1978 to 1982, when the journal was edited by senior artist Haridasan, following which the PPA took a decision to lay it to rest. “By that time, the picture had changed, with newspapers and magazines covering art regularly,” says Vasudev. “We no longer felt the need for Artrends.”

Today, things have come full circle, with the need to shine a light on that era of Indian art arising anew. Putting together the book was a labour of love in itself. First, Nandagopal had to trace all the issues, which were scattered with artists and art collectors across the globe. Then came the job of reproducing it all — 400 pages and 650 images of artworks.

“The lead type on the written matter was starting to wear off, so all of it needed to be re-typed and then converted to the original font,” says Nandagopal.

After months of intensive work, Artrends becomes available to art students, art lovers and collectors in Chennai this month, followed by launches in Bengaluru and Thiruvananthapuram in September. The release also marks a beginning of sorts; Artrends is the first in a series of such compilations of significant art magazines and journals planned by the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, for the near future.

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