Motorcycle Diaries India / A 40 Year-Old Dream

Anita Kainthla is a freelance writer, author and a new contributor to The Liberator. She recently visited the Cholamandalam Artist's Village in the city of Chennai in South India, and decided to share in The Liberator's online extension of Motorcycle Diaries.

March of 2009, saw five Sundays and one of them fell on the 15th. The sky was a brittle blue on the 15th, the sun sharp and me in good cheer -- all essential ingredients for a field trip were in place. I had been hearing on and off about the Cholamandalam Artists village during the last two years of my stay at Chennai and I’d noticed its conspicuous signboard-ed entrance while zipping to Mahabalipuram, a couple of times. But not until the five Sunday-ed month of March did the opportunity surface for me to journey there.

Spring time is easily the most favourite of my seasons but in most of India it passes as swift and silent as a whisper with the fierce, hungry summer close at its heels. Before the spring speedily fades into oblivion, the birds barely have time in which to mate, nest and hatch. It is only mid March and the spring is already beginning to heat up. The Artist’s Village, by its very name is suggestive of a sun-walking- through- dusty tracks exercise, and this was the appropriate time for it, while the spring was yet around.

You have to travel 6 miles or about 8/9 km south from the city of Chennai, to reach Cholamandalam. It takes roughly 40 minutes traveling time but I wished it would stretch out into four hours. It’s the road, ECR or East Coast Road that makes most people wish that way. This four lane road, running between Tiruvanmayur in Chennai and Pondicherry is amongst the smoothest and most gratifying stretch for travel in the country, both in terms of construction as well as scenic qualities. You automatically throw your head back to savour it. But 40 minutes don’t last long and in a single sweep I’d taken the left off the main road, into the mouth of the prominently marked Cholamandalam entrance. The welcome you receive is way warmer but far pleasanter than the weather. Just inside the gate leading into the main building, that houses the newly inaugurated art gallery and some administrative offices, a few men and one woman were lounging in the garden. Two out of them had the classic artist’s markings- the long khadi-ish looking kurtas and the scraggly unkempt beards and hair. I was genially directed into the art gallery by the company of the artists. There was only one condition- no photographs to be taken inside the gallery.

You enter the gallery through a display of the artist’s handicrafts, some of which are on sale and reasonably priced. This section holds you for a long time before you can start the actual tour of the gallery- because here, on display are such artworks on sale, the likes of which are not to be found in the slickest of malls. I had just finished perusing this section before being startled by a voice right behind me. Mr. Gopinath, one of the Kurta clad, beard supporting gentleman had probably sensed my ineptitude in the understanding of art and had come to my rescue. He knew my agenda was not understanding the fineries of art but knowing the niceties of the story behind the Cholmandalam concept. And so he began almost immediately.

Cholamandalam was conceived of in the early 1960’s, by one Mr. K C S Paniker, the principal of the Madras School of Arts. Both, the Madras School of Arts as well as Mr. Paniker are legendry figures and just as Gopinathji was going into details about them, I suggested we sit. We pulled plastic chairs and Mr. Gopinath continued-

The Madras School of Arts was established during the British colonial rule in 1850. Some amongst the British found that Madras had some of the most talented and intellectual minds in the world, so the British had also established a huge settlement in and around Madras. At first traditional artists were employed to produce exquisite varieties of furniture, metal works and curios and their work was sent to the royal palaces of the queen. However, in a very short time, this institute established itself as the first school of art in India. It pre-dates even the University of Madras! In time it came to be called, The Government College of Arts and Crafts.

In 1936, a 25 year old K C S Paniker joined the Madras School of Arts and Crafts, to pursue its three year course. At the end of three years, he became a teacher there. The next thirty years or so saw Paniker develop into an internationally acclaimed artist. He soon realized that art in India had still not found its place and majority of the talent from his art school was being lost as artists would abandon their passion once out of college, in search of careers that were paying and recognized. In 1944, he tied his talented and willing students into The Progressive Painter’s Association. In 1954, he was nominated as one of the 9 Eminent Artists and Members of Executive Board of the Lalit Kala Academy and traveled the world over, holding one man exhibitions. This trip opened up to him the indigenous traditions of the Indian artists and from then on he started his search for an art, he described in his own words as, “Indian in spirit and worldwide contemporary”. In his work, wherein he had dared such a prospect, he was making a significant departure from the state of art in the country which was, as he put it, “at best, an almost sterile Indian version of a European way of art expression”.

Towards the end of the fifties, many painters and sculptors from his school, had joined with him in the search of what amounted to a new way of life in contemporary art.

The venture was an exciting one but very exacting too. In addition to the instruction and practice that they were involved with demanded conviction, a general resourcefulness and uninterrupted work. Some of the artists lodged together outside the art school and after the day’s painting and sculpting in the school, they continued their work in the rooms and corridors of the Lalit Kala Academy, nearby. The involvement, the activity it gave rise to and some memorable achievements that were being realized by these artists soon started to outgrow the arts school and the artists were exposed to the crucial problem of existence. This problem was aggravated by the complete lack of sensitivity of the artist’s families and the society in general; they faced ostracism and were completely abandoned by both. As they finished school, they were faced with the question of livelihood, for themselves and for their dependants. Some called it quits but others were not ready to believe it was the end, the dissipation of all they had worked for, of all they had discovered, believed in and created and most of all the community they had made for themselves.

In February 1963 the artists, 40 in number formed themselves into the Artist’s Handicrafts Association. By 1964 they held an independent exhibition of their art and handicraft work and it was a success, much larger than their dreams; their earnings totaled an unbelievable Rs. 50,000! They were never going to look back now, even though they knew that this was just a start. It was Van Ggoh’s dream to have an artist’s village but while his contemporaries in Europe couldn’t make it a reality, thousands of miles away, a small band of Indian artists persevered to make it happen. Costing a mere Rs. 4000 for an acre of land back then, a group of seven artists bought some acres of land in the outskirts of Chennai and utilized the rest of the money to form a co-operative that would help them survive. This still did not win them acclaim or acceptance from family, friends or society, they remained as shunned as ever, maybe more. But inspite of everything they went ahead, built a few huts around a largish hall or dining area. They worked feverishly by day, inspiring each other and creating exquisite art works in their huts. But there were other kinds of work that needed to be done too- water had to be carried over a long distance, food cooked from what vegetables the village folk generously donated to them and long distances had to be covered on foot to reach the nearest bus stop. And just when things were seemingly settled two devastating occurrences shook this small company.

One -- K. Ramanujam, a physically challenged but very talented artist, whom the others took turns to bathe, dress and feed, committed suicide, disillusioned by his handicap. And two -- a severe cyclone ravaged their hutments and much of their precious artwork. There was a general feeling of disconsolation for a while but they overcame that too and went on. Some others joined them, more land was slowly purchased and the village grew. All constructions were now prepared with brick and mortar, the membership to the co-operative had increased to about 30, work became steady as their artistic ventures began to be recognized, till the artists boldly began proclaiming that this was not one amongst these kinds of places in the world but the only kind of artist’s co-operative in the world!

Gopinathji, one of the founder members of this unique establishment has an impish smile when he finishes the story by saying, “It was the era of Beatles, the hippies, the revolt against establishments and we were inspired by that”.

Among the unique features of the centre is a 2,600 sq. ft. museum, dedicated to the Madras Movement, bringing together the works of 50-60 major artists from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, under one roof. And then there is the 1,500 sq. ft. gallery for Cholamandal artists, and the three commercial galleries available for rent. Now over 40 years later, the space is all set to be used for another first in Indian art- the Cholamandal Cultural Centre, a 10,500 sq. ft. museum and exhibition area, complete with restaurants and a garden full of priceless old granite and metal sculptures. Like all major museums of the West, this centre will also offer plenty of spots for visitors to rest their feet and enjoy a snack.

It’s not much of a village now with all these modern constructions but the surroundings are pristine and peaceful. I’d made an off season visit and was glad for that. The dusty, gravelly track, with the artist’s living quarters on either side of it was almost deserted, except for a few kids here and there. Attached to some of the quarters I saw studios of the sculptors and painters, with unfinished works lying in them. I proceeded to peep and click pictures till I was unexpectedly asked to stop and come inside into one of the houses I was straining to look into. It was the house of Mr. Nandan, one of the founder members, who began as a painter but in the 70’s turned to sculpture. “I thought if I were to go blind one day I wouldn’t be able to paint. So what kind of work could I do then? Only sculpture! And also with painting I realized that one can only see one dimension, in sculpture one can see behind the sculpture too or even have two different things sculpted on both sides of the piece”. He actually showed me one such piece he had done.

‘Isn’t it tiring, all the hammering and chiseling’?

“One doesn’t feel the pain at all. The only thought is about what shape the work would take. Even while bathing I’m seeing it and thinking what I can do with it”.

‘Did he face ostracism from his family for being part of this movement’? No, he was amongst the lucky few, his father was very supportive of his work and decision. Mr. Nandan was part of the first seven artists who helped set up the village, went with it through all the vicissitudes along with the others and today, more than four decades later looks back only in pride and satisfaction.

“We are only 18 of us left now. We did try to get some young artists to become part of this co-operative but they had very commercial ideas for expanding the co-operative. We could not allow that because we had started out with only one thing- dedication to art. We could not let it be subjugated to commercial expansion. So now we do not allow new members. Yes, artists are allowed to come here, rent a studio or even home and work and put up their work in the gallery. But no new permanent members.

After we are no more, of course the young people can do what they wish and will do so too but at least we can’t allow that in our lifetimes”.

In the driveway of his small but artistically designed home and studio, a worker was engaged in hammering away large chunks of stone from a huge piece, along the charcoal lines drawn on it by Nandan. He would later do the finer work himself.

I took some pictures of the proud artist in his studio before leaving Cholamandalam, which is more than just an artist’s village; it’s a forty year-old dream.

{ exclusive feature}

We're a human development centered cooperative, producing in part through the generous and faithful contributions of our North Star members. Choose your membership: Annual ($36), Monthly ($3), ($5), ($10), ($15), ($30), ($70), ($200), ($500), ($1000).