A self-conscious wander between Thiruvannamalai and Thirunelveli


By Ebenezer Singh

In the year 1947, after the second World War, Western nations were blazing with expressionist and abstract expressionist visual idioms; India had only just thrown off its colonial shackles. When Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson were busy redrawing the art map of England, the British India had contrived watercolor paintings by English illustrators, which adorned the walls of their colonial buildings and clubs. The art schools that the British left in the hands of the Indian artists in Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai carried a heavy load of desperation in terms of the global artistic milieu.

To escape the subaltern miasma that they had been placed under, Indian artists undertook a gargantuan effort to learn and unlearn the Western modes of artmaking. Benode Behari Mukherjee and K.C.S. Paniker set astounding creative precedents, breaking the cultural monotony set by the British and diverting the course of Indian visual culture towards a kind of artistic liberation. Paniker, and those who came after him, redefined the standards for south Indian art practices.

The artistic grammar of Buddhist monks, seen so vividly on the cave walls of Ajanta, and the visual principles inherent in the Sithanavaasal murals have something in common. In exploring a chosen space (unlike their Western counterparts) the Indian artists of yesteryear who created the glories of Ajanta and Sithanavaasal distorted the flatness of the space and spread the images all over the picture plane. The primary concern of these artists was to highlight the characteristic features of the images using the senses, rather than building an empty three-dimensional illusion.

European artists waited centuries for this knowledge of spatial awareness to enter their visual vocabulary; it would eventually be brought to their attention through the French master Paul Cezanne. Indian artists, however, could boast of this awareness well ahead of the Europeans. Through his sublime jathaka painting series, K.C.S. Paniker espoused the now-prevalent flat-depth painting mode. Although Paniker moved on to inventing symbols in his works, his students continued to explore the two-dimensional space in novel, unusual ways. A.P. Santhanaraj and L. Munuswamy are two great artists who exemplify such an exploration; their conscientious negotiations between figural representations and the space in which those figures reside have fundamentally changed the way south Indian artists today approach their own picture planes.

Space, Body, Land and Senses – A self-conscious wander between Thiruvannamalai and Thirunelveli is an exhibition that begins with A.P. Santhanaraj’s legacy, moves on to Chandrasekar’s psychosomatic, cathartic modes of expression, highlights my poetic inquiries into the spirit of humanity, and finally arrives at A.L. Aparajithan and his potential for moving the south Indian art dialogue forward. A.P. Santhanaraj taught Chandrasekar, who in turn taught me; A.L. Aparajithan then studied under me, completing the visual art phylogeny tree that was first sown over fifty years ago under the auspices of those great postcolonial Indian masters. Both the direct tutelage of the preceding generation’s visual leaders, and the Ekalavya -esque determination of their students, this unprecedented show investigates the artistic lineage of south Indian visual culture.

As an artist of extraordinary sophistication and pomp, Santhanaraj at first exulted in a kind of cultivated pageantry. He acquired this penchant for ostentation from his teacher K.C.S. Paniker, and from the many Western masters whose works lent him much inspiration. But Santhanaraj began to look beyond mere grandiosity; with Paniker’s idiomatic tools in hand and his own streak of originality, Santhanaraj sought to unravel seemingly mundane, local mysteries. In a manner, synonymous with the techniques of French post-impressionists, Santhanaraj started building sensual spaces on his canvases, packing them with intense, layered sensations.

A painting by A.P.Santhanaraj
A painting by A.P.Santhanaraj

Born in the temple town of Thiruvannamalai, Santhanaraj’s choice of metropolitan Madras as the location for his art practice was a unique one. Santhanaraj’s numinous and dramatic personality required that he rub shoulders with Madras’ foreign envoys and intellectual gentry, while still maintaining a modicum of his traditional lifestyle. The histrionic bonhomie of the big city, combined with the sharp intellect necessary for the urban artist’s survival and success, suited Santhanaraj’s nature very well. With his characteristic geniality and eloquence, he would often explicate the oxymoronic duality of Indian and Western art to his students and friends alike. His mind was governed by an inimitable admixture of the Tamil Siddhar mystic tradition and an unsurpassed knowledge of Western art principles. Such a visual philosophy clearly announced Santhanaraj as a clairvoyant of the south Indian art scene as early as 1970s.

Belying his metaphysical proclivities, however, are the people who figure in Santhanaraj’s work – they are simple villagers who made his acquaintance during his Thiruvannamalai days. Although the artist conveys them as unpretentious rural folk, the role these men and women play in his drawings and paintings are distinctly personal and artistically surreal. In Santhanaraj’s work, his exploration of the human form becomes a game for the senses; amid his extemporaneous distortions of said form, the artist overlays an ethereal persona of grace over the space of his canvas. With a Cezanne-esque play on colors, Santhanraj’s works take the viewer in to a world of spatial poetry, inconceivable in its wit and nearly overwhelming in its articulation.

Curious, mountainous edifices that encircle bodies of water often figure in his images; they are poignantly reminiscent of his miraculous escape from drowning as a child. But even in the absence of such a narrative, Santhanaraj presents the viewer labyrinthine conundrum – to what extent do his constructions inform the space they inhabit in nature? Besides mastering such visual and cerebral aesthetics, Santhanaraj is also successful in using unlikely and unconventional mediums, like color markers on paper. He layers his available space with multiple tones and values, making the viewer forget the fact that the medium is a common commercial product. Thus, the artist thoroughly involves the viewer, and invites them into his spatial cadence.

Like Santhanaraj, Chandrasekar (or Chandru, as he is more affectionately christened) is also an amiable member of the south Indian artist fraternity – a kindred spirit with charisma to spare. But behind his humanity and benevolence lies an intense artistic passion. Born in to a family of calendar artists and farmers, those around Chandru realized very early that he was something of a drawing wunderkind. Diligent in pursuing the limits of his prodigy, Chandru learned the nuances of drawing and painting under his uncle, who was a celebrated calendar artist in the small town of Virudhunagar. The town would come to boast of much more than a few small-scale industries and farm lands – the skills that Chandru cultivated at Virudhunagar enabled him to draw and paint like a virtuoso. He was soon fêted as the student-extraordinaire at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai, where he studied under Santhanaraj himself.

As he continued extending the limits of his ability, the poet in Chandru was awakened by his introduction to the surrealist artists of Europe. Such influences opened newer modes of expression for him, armed with his considerable powers of visual allegory. An unspoken parallel exists between Santhanaraj and Chandru as artists – they both allow their bodies and senses to overtake and optically infuse their image-making process. Though both the artists were in awe of their Western counterparts, they were also assured of their own intuitive wisdom; their sagacity steered them above such externalities as style and influence. In the process of arriving at this wisdom, however, Chandru questioned the very skills for which he was venerated and sought to deconstruct the art of his forebears.

What makes Dravidian art and architecture so unique historically, is its power to incorporate the myths and epics of northern India into its art making, yet still build a relevance in the south Indian milieu. The artistic genius of a Dravidian stapathy , for instance, was measured in terms of the creative modes he used to visually realize the stories of the gods. Though these modes are most superficially addressed through the names of the kings or the kingdoms (as they are in history textbooks), the distinct style of the chief artist can elevate such myths and epics from historicity and save it from anachronism in succeeding centuries.

The perspicacity of the stapathy from the Chola Dynasty, as seen at the Tanjore Big Temple, still captures the hearts of all who visit it; it is bound by neither time nor history but is instead freed from such limits by the sheer genius of its creator. Every sculpture, painting and architectural endeavor seen at the Temple sharply identifies the mode of the Chola stapathy. During his travels, a young Chandru found himself revitalized by his town’s own temple. He had lived, played, worshiped and even drawn under its stone bowers, but as time passed, he uncovered a newfound awareness for that temple. Its ancient gaze enabled him to discover his more secret, sexual, poetic and altruistic personae.

Every artist engages, to varying degrees, in a voyage of exploring their own sexual cognizance. But such journeys are rarely undertaken alone; a soundboard is needed, whether that be a member of the opposite sex, the same sex or alternatively, a transcendental endeavor that the artist is fully engaged in. The latter was the case for Chandru; he realized that every temple could be such a soundboard for the artist. Such places of worship nullify one’s own desire towards angelhood, or they exaggerate that same desire. The young Chandru’s path to poetic justice was realized with an encounter that was equal parts angelic and whimsical. He once stood at the corridor of a pillared sanctum, marveling at a lamp-bearing woman who had been carved exquisitely into stone. So magnificent was her breasted façade, that Chandru barely held up his hand to touch, and he could feel the tenacity of her fullness.

Perhaps the same epiphany that visited upon Santhanraj during his near-drowning made a stopover at the young Chandru at the temple. The women of the lamp, or paavai vizakhu , lowered her arms, let go of the lamp midair, and blessed Chandru with both hands over his head. Suddenly, the image of women as objects of desire morphed, and what stood before him instead was the all-benevolent mother. He now found himself occupying a new mode, a new idiom that neither the surrealists nor any of his teachers could have imagined. His mode was now about realizing the fullness of his being, aided solely by his senses and the heavens, which gladly opened its cloudy gates to better bless his approach to drawing and painting.

In the early 1980s, long after Chandru discovered his calling, I moved to Madras in pursuit of an art education. My hometown was Tirunelveli, a temple town that nurtured several writers, poets and intellectuals who brought much of Tamil Nadu’s original writing and philosophies to the fore. In unconscious preparation for my life as an artist, I completed the necessary intellectual prerequisites of art history, world literature and contemporary culture before arriving in Madras. I frequented the city’s libraries to a wantonly ravenous degree, in my unconscious effort to reach the same oracular insights as my forebears. Finally, it was the writings of modern masters that opened the doors of critical thinking – Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian divulged a great deal to their Eklavya as he sat poring over their images and writing within Chennai’s libraries.

In some ways, my meeting with the now-teacher-par-excellence Chandru at the College of Art was akin to a life-altering experience. I was engaged in portrait drawing that day, shrugging off my woes as a first-year student and settling into my academic pursuits. But charcoal was a daunting medium to me at the time, and I realized with a flush that I had gone too far to rectify some of the strokes on my portrait; something had gone amiss in the spaces between my fingers and the paper. As the teacher for the day, Chandru peered at my drawing and asked me to get him an eraser. With an ease that I would one day flourish with my own hands, he erased the offending strokes, and the portrait started to gleam under his touch. Thirty-odd years have passed, and Chandru is still a teacher, friend and co-traveler with whom I have undertaken both physical and metaphysical adventures.

I found Aparajithan Adimoolam as a young student at the Government College of Arts and Crafts in 1993. I had become a teacher at the very school I had studied at, and I understood early on that the basis of all pedagogy began with exposure and depended on the vulnerability and openness of the student. In the realm of art education, susceptibility to such exposure is a key virtue, even a righteous one. I found considerable vulnerability in the words and works of Aparajithan, with whom I have since been collaborating. Since susceptibility is a virtue of virtues, only the exposed gets exposed to, in the realm of art. Learning itself is a righteous act and Aparajithan and I took a tour of friendship and artmaking since 1993.

For artists like Aparajithan and I, the Italian transavantgarde movement of the early 1980s opened our eyes to the more pressing concerns of our collective cultural progress. Francisco Clemente, Sandro Chia and Mimmo Paladino changed the visual dialogue of the West, but also metamorphosed our own inclinations towards artmaking. Aparajithan’s lyrical self, for instance, now finds images much like an exiled mystic finds water in the desert; the invention happens instinctively and Aparajithan records the image impulsively.

This show documents a minor history of how a milieu is bound together in time, emotion and sentiment. An unseen cord of respect and friendship traverses the spaces between eras, building a language that tightens the knots of history. It is our inescapable desire to live by the religious order of the senses, and to record our transactions with time on canvas. For we are all devout worshippers at the temple, requesting daily visual inspirations and making do with occasional epiphanies. Here, we engage once more with the cultural zeitgeist that drove our hands to make images. Here, we uncover the result of our epiphanies to you.


L Munuswamy, a contemporary of AP Santhanaraj and a pioneer in newer painting modes in south Indian art

Ekalavya, a king of Mahabharata times. He mastered the art of archery by having the sculpted figurine of Drona in front of him since Drona refused to be his guru.

Siddhars are Tamil mystics, saints, poets, philosophers and medicine men

Sivakasi and Virudhunagar, the commercial hub in Tamil Nadu for calendar printing and other small scale industries like fire crackers and match boxes. These artists designed calendars, fire cracker cartons and match box covers.

Stapathy is the master artist, architect and the designer of the Dravidian Temple

‘Paavai Vizakhu’ literally translated as the women with a lamp is an addition over every pillar of every Dravidian temple of Tamil Nadu. The stone cut lamp is filled with oil and a wick burns and lights the corridor.

(D. Ebenezer Sunder Singh, the author of this article, was born in 1966 at Tirunelveli, a town in Tamil Nadu, and grew up in the midst of age-old traditions, imbibing a great deal from the rich cultural milieu that surrounded him. It is no wonder then that Singh is known as one of India`s most promising new talents. His sculptures, paintings, prints and drawings are recognized all over the country, and this versatile young man has exhibited and won honours for himself ever since he began his career as a professional artist in the early 1990`s. Religion and religious themes play a big part in Ebenezer`s art, which is influenced by Hindu ethics as well as Christian beliefs. Spirituality is also a very important ingredient for this artist, whose paintings have an undeniably Indian character, but are subtly twisted by his very contemporary idiom and his translation of the mythology of our subcontinent. This is what makes Ebenezer`s art rich in substance and meaning, making it universally appealing.)

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