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Indelible presence

It was K.C.S. Paniker's vision that led to the definition of the southern region within the pan-Indian art movement. ASHRAFI S. BHAGAT remembers the stalwart.


K.C.S. Paniker ... a visionary.

IT was an early summer morning in 1938. Standing on the front steps of the Madras School of Arts and Crafts was a student of slight build, medium height, smart in khaki pants and white shirt with a sun hat strapped to his chin. The late Sushil Kumar described how the student walked up to him, shook his hand and said: "Hello, you must be the new student from Bihar. Glad to meet you." The student was K.C.S. Paniker and the two had a long association cut short by Paniker's death in 1977.

January 15, 2002, marked the 25th death anniversary of this stalwart who left an indelible mark in modern art. A visionary, an ideologue, a pioneer in the establishment of the Madras Movement, Paniker's single-minded pursuit led to the definition of the southern region within the pan-Indian movement. Paniker initiated a regional modern art movement now characterised as the Madras Movement.

Though he joined the Madras School of Arts and Crafts in 1936, Paniker had begun showing regularly at the exhibitions of the Madras Fine Arts Society from 1928. In 1941, Paniker joined the faculty with D.P. Roy Chowdhary as the head. The latter's retirement in 1957 put Paniker at the helm of affairs.

Paniker's early works record the pristine wonder of the world of light, colours and forms that he effectively rendered through the subjects of his hometown in Kerala.

By initiating a creative dialogue through his works, Paniker's pragmatic perception was manifested in these early studies. Moreover, he was also searching for a mode that would associate his figurative composition to a larger spirit of design namely the picture surface only. In this effort, he was informed in his experimentation by the inspiring works of Jamini Roy.

Paniker's turn to abstraction was logically and intuitively achieved. In his "Garden" series (1955-62) and "Mother and Child", he conceived his forms intimately with line and colour. His human forms, under the strong influence of Jamini Roy, had become sketchy with pronounced heads displaying strong folk features of wide-open static eyes. Paniker, in the "Garden" series, was attempting distortion for subjective expression and this catharsis was to surpass virtual plasticity. This was a struggle for dematerialisation that eventually pushed him to an abstraction of a different category that he would celebrate as "Words and Symbols."

In this breakthrough series, Paniker mutates and plays with basic concepts. These derived from the vernacular idioms and mathematical configurations armoured his expressions.

Paniker not only played upon the abstraction of the words and scripts but also incorporated mathematical formulae, algebraic equations and diagrams of horoscopes. The first painting in this direction was "The fruit seller".

The early 1960s were a trying period for the Madras artists. Patronage was rare. A lack of awareness of contemporary art was glaring. This has been explained by the conservative and orthodox mindset and a tradition where dance and music were more popular than visual arts of painting and sculpture. As a profession, this was not a viable economic proposition.

In 1963, Paniker started the Artists Handicrafts Association to provide economic autonomy to artists who could create individualised craft art to enable them financial support. This gave them flexibility in their operations without full time employment.

Paniker wanted a residential work-centre for artists that would function on a cooperative basis. Thus was born Cholamandal Artist Village. The name was given by Paniker to reinforce a conscious link with the past and to the continuity of tradition.

Cholamandal created an aura of intellectual exploration within the "illusory" cohesive artist community, bound as they were by local culture, through a shared vision, higher purpose, ideology and aesthetic goal. As long as Paniker was the moving force, the community held.

It was not as if he did not have his detractors but none can deny that defining role in the establishment of the Madras Movement.

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