Brush with peace
Unique in character, concept and context, Cholamandal is an example of cooperative enterprise and community living. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN traces its story, outlined in a recently released book.
Cholamandal, an exciting and exacting venture ...the Bharathi open-air theatre.
A FEW kilometres away from Madras city on the Coromandal coast, the boom of chisel and hammer rises in the sandy wilderness, above crashing waves and soughing winds. The huts huddling in the casuarina groves find their inmates painting and sculpting all day, devoting a few hours to some craft of their choice.
Some artists actually live in the casual shacks. Others commute from the city, a daily odyssey on bumpy jutkas over muddy tracks, "all the way" from the then deserted suburb of Adyar. Taking the bus involves a two-hour wait on the forlorn track. The oasis is far from the madding crowd, but has neither phone nor electricity, not even a teashop. A makeshift mess can only serve spartan needs. But all hardships are forgotten in the euphoria of possessing their own land, evolving their own community, and most of all, in the exhilaration of undisturbed creativity.
The lushly illustrated Cholamandal: an Artists Village (OUP), edited by Josef James, weighing a wrist-wrenching 21/2 kg, presents this dramatic Madras experiment in text and visual.
The mad adventure began in the 1960s, with 30 artists who believed in their dreams. Art did not sell, but they could not abandon their quest. They did not want to take up other professions, not even as designers or art teachers in schools. Such pursuits left little time for creativity in the stifling city. K.C.S. Paniker, Principal of the Government School of Arts and Crafts, envisaged and fostered a new movement. Part time craft work yielded enough money for the group to be free to follow their calling. In 1966, craft sales realised enough to buy 10 acres of land on the outskirts of the city. The same year saw six artists moving to live and work on their own land. A community was born.
Opening with a historical account of the village, the book devotes chapters to its artists, each by an art critic of the artist's choice. The writings are uneven ranging from the informed to the pedestrian. But together they manage to paint a vivid scenario. The layout is neat rather than innovative. Not all the photographs are evocative. But they turn the text into reader experience. Black and white pictures from the past stir nostalgia with hazy charm.
The late Josef James, art critic and academic, has varied his style to suit his purpose. His Cholamandal story is lay reader-friendly, lit with telling details and rivetting end notes, while his critique of artist Douglas has adopted an erudite diction. A spare directness evokes the tragic life and death of the mentally challenged K. Ramanujam. In all, James has combined the critic's acumen with the insider's empathy. Had he not himself lived with the community he has written about?
Crisp, engaging Ernst W. Koelnsperger describes the growth of S.G. Vasudev, from signs and symbols to the actor-observer relationships in his "Theatre of Life". Alberte Grynpas Nguyen sees the Paris migrant V. Viswanadhan's geometric forms and colour codes feeding on twin cultures. M.V. Devan learns that Akkitham Narayanan's geometrical patterns come from the "labyrinths of the past". Ebrahim Alkazi believes that through forms harsh and brutal, Sultan Ali "sought ananda ... to come to terms with that unnerving reality". Ashrafi S. Bhagat traces the use of myth and epic in Reddeppa Naidu's desacralised images. Sculptor P.S. Nandhan believes that a life without disturbances promotes creativity, but not shutting out the world. Candid moments include S. Paramasivam telling Cathy Spagnoli, "If I can't teach myself to change, that would be a weakness." K.R. Harie of the first batch muses to Lakshmi Venkatraman, "What we carry around us is a memory of our childhood."
Among present day residents featured are P. Gopinath, A. Selvaraj, D. Venkatachalapathy, Rajasekharan Nair and Richard Jesudoss. Only three women figure in the muster Arnavaz who died before realising her full potential, Mumtaz and Anila Jacob who moved away.
What makes the Cholamandal experiment unique? "Ritualistic identification," declares James, "as the ritualistic approach eliminates the ego and solipsism in the traditional disciplines." The anonymity of the ancient Indian masters takes their art beyond the personal, towards the truly human, universal, transcendental. We find a corollary in Paniker's voice, "Can India, with our present brand of internationalism, ever hope to paint or sculpt with true significance so long as we deny our ancestors so long as they do not assert their immortality through us?"
The Madras artists realised intuitively how craft, which wrought marvels in Harappa and Mohenjodaro, Konark, Khajuraho, Tanjore or Madurai, banished self-centred individualism. "In craft, therefore, they saw the cure for the alienation of art and artists from their own humanity, and of those around them."
More practically, while they could hardly sell their paintings in the 1960s, avant garde wood/leather work, ceramics and batik found a good market, and even familiarised buyers to modern art.
Today the same Cholamandal artists' village is a tourist attraction on Chennai's well maintained East Coast highway. Visiting artists from other parts of India and the world are accommodated in guesthouses. Some of them have marked their presence with open air sculptures on the campus. The resident artists have homes designed to express their individuality, with studios attached. There is a workshop for metal work, and a gallery of painting, sculpture, graphics and drawings. Though the centre is not immune from horn blare and tyre screech, a tranquillity hangs in the air, nurtured by luxuriant greenery and birdsong. The original Artists Handicrafts Association is still in charge of the colony, though some of the original 1966 group are no more, or have moved out.
Art movements can be invigorating, but ephemeral too, as they rise out of contemporary needs. In his Foreword, N. Ram, Editor-in-chief, The Hindu, says that the book's "fascinating and moving story of how artistic freedom was aspired for and won along a path strewn with obstacles ... is part elegy, part scholarship and part informed journalism." Paniker himself believed that the Cholamandal experiment was meant for a single generation. But the children of artists Senathipathi, Harie, Haridasan, K.S. Gopal and Richard now work full or part-time on stone, metal and canvas. Smiles Senathipathi, President of the Cholamandal association, "Perhaps the village will last longer than Paniker thought."
Sculptor S. Nandagopal talks about the significance of the Cholamandal movement and the need to record its history.
WHAT made you put this volume together?
Everybody knows about the Progressive Artists' Movement in Bombay with Raza, Souza and Husain. But did you know that in 1944 Chennai had a Progressive Painters Association? We know so little about the art scene in the South, and therefore, a book on the Cholamandal experiment becomes important.
Artists the world over have rebelled, and created their own spaces within or away from cities. What is so different about Cholamandal?
Journalists come to Cholamandal and write about "whispering winds" and "mermaids on the sea". But its significance lies in the philosophy that fired the experiment. The Madras sculptors based their work on the line, developed a frontal quality, emphasised craft.
Do you think this was a haphazard happening?
No, the 30 artists here were held together not by scenic beauty or peaceful ambience, but by a contemplative vision.
There have been other artists' villages in the world.
Worpswede in Germany has IT people and engineers, McDowell's colony in upstate New York has 31 disciplines. Israel poured funds into Ein-Hod, but the artists don't feel at home there. If Cholamandal has been active for four decades it is definitely because the artists feel a sense of belonging. To own your land is to fulfil a primordial urge, it roots you. Especially when bought with money raised by your own labours, as the artists did, and built every dwelling themselves. (Laughs) Sharad Pawar wanted to model an artists' village in Colaba on Cholamandal. "Can we do it," he asked. "We did it on a shoestring budget. You have munificent backing," I countered. It came to nothing. Hyderabad Minister Rhoda Mistry said, "we offer golfing and boating but the artists stay away." Kerala could not succeed in a similar venture.
Are you saying that Cholamandal will survive?
My father K.C.S. Paniker loved the film "Camelot" because he said it epitomised the ephemeral, the brief shining moment. Cholamandal is like that. But what a glow while it lasts! Putting the articles together I learnt so many things about this place, and my fellow artists, that I didn't know before.
What principle would you single out as vital to this experiment?
These artists didn't fall into the trap of Bohemianism. Not that we didn't have our eccentricities. But every artist tried to live honourably with his craft, without begging and running after funds. They opted to live away from the city, but not to alienate themselves from society. They believed that character and self respect were all important to an artist, as to anybody else.
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