As a former colony, it has always been easier for India to define itself in relation to the West than to its neighbours or forefathers. In the story of modern Indian art, however, there have been several instances when artists have performed the arduous task of reinventing their Indian identity. The Madras Art Movement (late 1950s-80s), led by artist and educator KCS Paniker (1911-77), is one such example. An exhibition titled Madras Modern: Regionalism and Identity at DAG’s Kala Ghoda gallery in Mumbai provides a comprehensive look at this movement. On display are about 80 drawings, paintings, sculptures by 22 of the Madras Moderns, including iconic works by S Dhanapal, J Sultan Ali, C Douglas and S Nandagopal.

Edited excerpts from curator Ashrafi Bhagat’s interview with BL ink .

Why are the Madras artists often overlooked when we talk about modernism in Indian art?

The Progressive Artists’ Group (popularly known as the Bombay Progressives) tends to dominate the narrative of modernism in Indian art. That group consisted of aggressive artists such as FN Souza, who formulated the group’s manifesto declaring that nationalism, which prevailed in pre-Independence art, should not be part of the modern artist’s work. He wanted artists to look towards cubism, surrealism and other European movements for inspiration. Secondly, this group was in the commercial hub of the country. There were venues to display their works and there was a receptive audience.

Madras was conservative. The curriculum of the Madras School of Arts and Crafts, for instance, was craft-based. It was only in 1930, when DP Roy Chowdhury joined as principal, that fine art was introduced. And in 1957, when Paniker was made principal, were students exposed to European modernism.


The first Madras Modern: Artist and educator KCS Paniker.


It wasn’t until 2000 that academic research on the subject was undertaken. In 2017, NGMA Bengaluru had an exhibition dedicated to the Madras Moderns. That was the first time the movement got visibility as a whole.

Do you think the movement had more in common with the Bengal School of Art than with the Progressives?

The main commonality was their decision to look towards tradition for inspiration. In the Bengal School of Art, which was led by Abanindranath Tagore, many artists combined the iconography of Indian miniature paintings with that of Japanese wash technique. For them, the point was to look away from Europe and employ indigenous themes, iconography, techniques and material.

Paniker followed a post-impressionistic style similar to that of Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh till he had an exhibition in London in 1954. There, a critic told him that his work lacked an “Indian quotient”. This led him to rethink his identity as a painter. At the same time, he became aware of how Jamini Roy used the folk-art tradition of his native place, Bankura, to create his own language.

He then studied Indian murals, especially the ones in Ajanta, the l artworks made during the Pallava and Chola dynasties, and south Indian folk art. But, unlike the Bengal School of Art, which flourished between the 1900s and ’20s, the Madras Art Movement took place in the postcolonial era, between late ’50s and ’80s. As an independent, Third World nation, our art had to be both Indian and international. Paniker and his students going back to tradition has to be framed within this context of identity crisis and postcolonialism.

Were there any drawbacks to going back to tradition?

Not at all. Paniker had a core group of intelligent students. They would often discuss the state of modernity in the nation. He brought in the argument that regional culture could be reinvented according to each individual artist’s sensibility. It is how Paniker came to create his own celebrated Words and Symbols series. Many continued to use European modernism as a reference point. (Sculptor Dhanapal, for instance, was influenced by Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore as well as Pallava sculptures.)

Tell us about the role of Cholamandal Artists’ Village in the Madras Movement.

In 1966, Paniker, along with about 40 artists, moved into a 10-acre plot that they had collectively purchased. The Village gave them a space to live, to create art and make handicrafts, which they sold for a living. If it wasn’t for the unique model of Cholamandalam that allowed for the pursuit of independent art while generating income, the movement would not have survived.

What influence does the movement have on the current crop of artists from the south?

None that I can think of. The new generation has exposure to international art and access to exhibition spaces. Many of them have studied in the Government College of Fine Arts in Chennai, but their techniques, use of material, iconography, vocabulary are all different. The Madras Movement is now a moment in history.


The exhibition at DAG in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai, has been curated by Ashrafi Bhagat


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

Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in Delhi