While we know quite a lot about the Bombay School of Art and the Bengal School of Art, the Madras School of Art, referred to the Madras College of Arts and Crafts, has never really been in the mainstream and, definitely, not in the public realm. Partly because the college founded by Dr Alexander Hunter, an English surgeon, in 1850, initially focused only on crafts. It was only on the appointment of DP Roy Chowdhury in 1930 that the fine arts curriculum was introduced. And the first batch of students passed out in 1934, much later than the predominantly art-focussed The Government College of Art in Kolkata, founded in 1854, and Bombay’s JJ School of Art, founded in 1857.
Mumbai’s Delhi Art Gallery has gotten some of the Madras Art Movement’s works at the forefront with an exhibition titled Madras Modern: Regionalism & Identity. Curated by art critic and historian Ashrafi Bhagat, the display of 80 paintings is being described as modern and regional nativism. It includes works of J Sultan Ali, Sreenivasulu, S Dhanapal. P Gopinath, Achuthan Kudallur, Reddeppa Naidu, K Ramanujam, S Nandagopal, R Palaniappan, R Santhanaraj, M Suriyamoorthy, L Munuswamy, C Douglas, Muralidharan and SG Vasudev, who also has a retrospective show at Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art.
These works, sourced from the Delhi Art Gallery, Piramal Museum, National Gallery of Modern Art, Kolkata National Museum of Art and some private collectors, are known for its engagement with the line, colours and motifs and forms specific to the regional art and craft traditions and folk arts. The paintings are vibrant and have an inherent dynamism that marks a special saliency, says Ashrafi.
The Madras Art Movement, an effort to portray and explore regional Indianism, came about by default. In London, in 1954, Paniker, who mainly worked in Post-Impressionist style then, was appreciated for his skills and artistry but criticised for his works that lacked an Indian quotient.
“The critic’s remarks made him aware that he needed to move away from the influence of European modernists and look at the regional and canonical tradition to charter a new trajectory,” says Ashrafi. As the administrative head of the Madras College of Arts and Crafts, he could discuss the finer aspects of modern art with his students and faculty members and talk about the state of modernity within the nation. It was through discussions, debates and arguments that he established the notion of looking towards regional folk art and craft traditions, considering these to be “the deathless store of energy” that could be revived, reinterpreted and revisited through the artists’ modern sensibilities. “Nativism was the word that I applied to this philosophy, as a similar movement was also taking place in literature where a premium was placed on regional languages,” says Ashrafi. So, nativism, as a philosophy was region-based, deriving a vocabulary from inscriptions, kolam (Rangolis in South India) designs, folk Gods and Goddesses, dance accoutrements and toys.
But it must be, however, noted that not all artists favoured this philosophy. They believed that as Indians, Indianness was integral to their persona and their creations didn’t require the above-said elements to convey Indian ethos. “Hence, MAM artists made for a heterogeneous group who approached their native culture differently,” says Ashrafi.
The Madras Art Movement artists are aligned in so many ways (and have departures and digressions), yet very little effort has gone into making them part of the mainstream discourse. “These are extremely important painters with an impressive body of work to their credit. They need to be better known in India, among collectors and art lovers, but also internationally, since they represent a certain synthesis of ideas that forms a critical discourse in India’s art history,” adds Ashrafi. And this is why DAG’s Madras Modern: Regionalism and Identity becomes a historical exhibition, which will also travel to other cities after its run in Mumbai.
The hope is that the artists’ legacy of the ambivalence of tradition and modernity, which was melded with regional vocabulary to create a distinct language, lives on.
The exhibition at Delhi Gallery of Art, Kala Ghoda, is on till October 12.