Memories of Madras - Portrait of artists as young men

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9 Aug 2011
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S. Nandagopal traces the journey of art from the Government College of Fine Arts to the Cholamandal Village

The Government College of Fine Arts is the oldest art institution in the country, started in 1850 by Sir Alexander Hunter. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when my father K.C.S. Paniker was the principal of the college, we lived on the campus, in a beautiful colonial house with a four-acre garden filled with huge trees.

Many people aren't aware that the college wasn't originally begun as an institution for art, but as one for crafts, in order to rehabilitate Indian craftsmen, and to make the queen's jewels. If you were to visit the museum on the college grounds (which is now closed), you'd see an array of ancient jewels and crafts. Unfortunately, a lot of these have been pilfered over the years.

Because of the emphasis on crafts, there were departments for woodwork, metalwork, filigree, engraving, enamel work, batik, leather batik, etc. In the last few decades, all of these departments have closed down, and the legacy of these crafts is slowly being lost. Back then, however, all art students had to compulsorily spend time with the master craftsmen who taught in these departments. These teachers came from surrounding villages in response to advertisements that were placed in Tamil newspapers, and were from families that had practiced the craft for generations.

At that time, the Tamil Nadu State Lalit Kala Akademi was housed in an old, dilapidated three-storey building in Vepery. It was there that the concept of struggling artists earning a livelihood by creating and selling crafts — such as batik and ceramics — was born. Artists started working there, and it served as a sales centre as well. We would be at the college all day, and would rush to the Akademi at 6 p.m. to work on our craft.

It was a thrilling time, with 20 to 30 artists working in shifts at the premises all through the night. I remember doing batik out in the open verandah on the third floor late at night. There was no doorbell in the building, so we would tie one end of a string around an artist's toe and let the other end hang down three floors to the ground before we went to sleep. When the next shift of artists arrived at 2 a.m., they'd wake us up by tugging at the string, so that we could let them in! I visited the building a couple of years ago, before it was demolished, and found batik wax still on the floor of the verandah; I was transported back 40 years.

It was the experience of working and staying together at the Akademi that gave rise to the idea of the Cholamandal Artists' Village. The large batik exhibition we conducted in 1965 — the first of its kind in India — was a sell-out and we raised nearly Rs. 40,000, which went towards purchasing plots at Cholamandal. I remember, parents of students being concerned when we bought that land — they thought we were up to some nefarious activities!

There were a lot of strange stories doing the rounds in those days about Cholamandal — one Malayalam magazine claimed there were mermaids by the sea! The truth was much more ordinary. It was a lonely place, though. My father's car was the first to come down that road, and those living there had never seen people from the city before. In the beginning, artists had to wade across the Buckingham Canal and then take a jutka to get to the city! Later, in 1966, the 19C (C standing for Cholamandal) bus started plying every two hours, like a shuttle, from Adyar to the Village. If we missed it, our only way to get to college was to travel on the sand lorries going to and fro. On moonlit nights, you could see the moonlight reflecting off the sea right from the Village. It was a different life, a different world.

BIO: S. NANDAGOPAL Born in 1946, he is one of the most eminent sculptors. He became the youngest winner of the National Award at the age of 23, and has numerous other national and international awards to his credit. A life member of the Cholamandal Artists' Village, he has been closely involved with a number of projects there, including the opening of ‘Cholamandal Centre for Contemporary Art' and the ‘Museum of the Madras Movement'.

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