IT might seem a contradiction in terms, but the most successful artist working in Chennai, currently, is the dancer Chandralekha. She is not just the most dynamic face of contemporary dance in India, with her austere, yet erotically charged compositions of dance movements by a hand-picked group of dancers who perform with robotic precision under her silvery gaze, she epitomizes the absolute need to create a brand image, no matter what the art form, in today’s competitive system.
‘I have always had a keen sense of space’ she explains. ‘It’s something that comes very naturally to me. It’s spontaneous.’ Her posters that are now collectors’ items underline a strong design sense. Many of them, made to emphasize some aspect of female power, use traditional elements such as the eyes from a Durga mask, black, white, red or ochre colours and diagrammatic lines, or grids that frame the image in a boldly modernistic, meaning spare and bare, idiom.
As for those who enter her home, with its intimate, open-to-sky but stone wall enclosed theatre at Skills on the beach-front at Chennai, will acknowledge there is the same experience of a living space that has been informed by clear geometric lines. It is neither entirely new nor entirely traditional. The mandala-like enclosure of the theatre is approached by a meandering pathway through a garden that has become overgrown with trees that were planted over the years. For a performance, the viewer has to grope her or his way through a tangled semi-darkness, before getting a glimpse of the small opening that beckons with a tantalizing force of flickering light forms, merely glimpsed or hinted at on the stage deep inside a dark and apparently empty space. The audience sits on the ground within this space. The close proximity to the performance space, a bare platform with just a couple of pillars to frame it in vertical lines, not unlike the ones that Chandralekha has used in her posters, the use of dramatic lighting that bathes the area in a suggestion of gold or red against the blackness, underlines the effect of a painting that is in progress.
Since there could be no performance that would be complete without Chandralekha herself providing the abhinaya or emotional focus, even if only by her luminous presence on the side, one can only describe her as the central image of Devi, Durga, Shakti work-in-progress that is being created in dance on the stage. This again suggests that there is a link, a wholeness of inspiration that runs through her work – from her posters, her architecture, to her choreography – that however natural or instinctive is more in keeping with a traditional form of aesthetics, where every aspect from the visual to the aural to the performing arts, no less than the decorative and ornamental ones of textiles, jewellery, brass, gold or silver, were produced as alternative versions of celebrating the spirit within. Obviously, in most cases this was the image of the deity inside the main sanctum of the temple.
In today’s world, where the artist is both a performer and the tangible or easy to digest object of the performative moment or skill, it is not difficult to accept that Chandralekha is herself the most visible aspect of her creative process. It is important that she remains successful for she is the icon of her success. Never mind that in her early productions, she felt impelled to criticise the old patriarchal forms of worship that extolled the virtues of this god or that within idolatrous modes of worship, of which dance was just the one that she appeared to be challenging.
Chandralekha has described the manner in which she choreographs her works elsewhere, so we shall not elaborate on this except to note that it is as she says a very ‘instinctive’ approach. She uses her dancers as moving signs on her canvas, drawing lines or patterns with their perfectly tuned bodies which are most often clad in her favourite colours – black-white-red-ochre, the earth colours, or blues and greens that are complementary.
Her use of esoteric names for the different compositions enhances the sense of being in touch with the mysterious and the eternal. There is none of the vulgarity associated with a title like ‘Vagina Monologues’ that one might encounter with a term such as Yantra, a composition in which she explores the female body, though they may both be exploring the same terrain as it were. Just as the visitor to her theatre has to traverse a wandering path, she too has found her inspiration in many of the till then little used traditions such as the Kalari or the Kerala form of martial arts, the Japanese Noh theatre, strong lighting techniques borrowed from western modern dance forms and placed them on the sturdy base of Bharata Natyam that has always been her starting point.
Far from forsaking tradition, she has transformed and made it an instrument that she can now use in her very own and distinctive manner. And patriarchy be damned, it is much more politically correct in today’s context to focus on the female body that has found resonance both as a glamorous form and artistic fetish in a consumer driven society.
The reason that we have focused so extensively on Chandralekha’s contribution to contemporary dance is because it underlines some of the problems that are faced by the artists working in the visual arts, painting and sculpture, in the South. By contrast, the Tamil Nadu artist today, working in a contemporary idiom is all but invisible.
‘No one comes to our shows. Not the general public who say they cannot understand what we are doing, not the other artists who have already established a name for themselves, not the gallery owners who prefer to promote the work of outsiders and not the critics, who are controlled by the more successful commercial galleries.’ This is the complaint made by any number of young artists who come rolling out of the Government College of Arts every year.
This time round it’s been voiced by a group of four artists who graduated in l998 and who have put together a group show that they have named ‘Genesis’. Each one is talented in his own way. Alagar Raja works in fibreglass, wood and acrylic colours to create highly schematic compositions that have a 3-D effect to explore what he explains in Tamil are evocations to ideas of birth and rebirth and a search for matter before the actual moment of creation, what he calls ‘The Birth of Art’. He has used traditional symbols of triangles and circles in a freewheeling manner that shows a serious engagement with his subject which is not trite or repetitive. Narayanan uses tight box-like frames to convey a highly textured and at times even richly layered effect, while Prabakaran has created a large tableaux installation in sand and painted strips against the wall.
Next to him, Ganesh uses shiny metallic objects – pieces of glass, discarded ball bearings, rows of staples and so forth – with equally reflective or brilliantly coloured metallic strips of paper, X-ray images and so on to construct a highly complex and convoluted impressions of a city seen from different perspectives. These young artists have used a great deal of skill and imagination to reinvent a landscape of ideas and feeling. Without an audience to look at their work, far less support it, it will be difficult for them to keep going. To add to their lack of visibility, the group is so idealistic about their art that they do not even sign their works as a mark of identification with the old tradition of master-craftsmen who worked in guilds. What can one make of such idealism except to shake one’s head and tell them that they are making sure that no one will recognise them in today’s highly individualistic culture.
‘I’ve got resigned to the idea that no one will come to my shows,’ says Natesh, an older artist, who is in fact highly successful as an installation artist with an appetite for huge outdoor constructions that are not meant to last longer than the time of the show, and who also works as an innovative stage designer. ‘That’s why I make my installations to last for just a couple of hours, and use materials that are easily available. I know that no one is going to buy my work and that I will die without getting any recognition. But that does not bother me one bit. I still wake up in the morning and feel full of energy. For instance, this morning, I applied a whole segment of my canvas with Cadmium yellow paint. It was wonderful, even though there was no one to see it.’
He laughs as he says this to the Genesis group. They merely look even more dejected. ‘If only we can get one person to buy one of our paintings, we could afford to keep our show going for another week.’ Their show is at the Lalit Kala Akademi gallery, that they all admit has the right kind of light and space for a work of their size and aspirations. But the truth is that without the support of a more dynamic commercial gallery person to promote their work, it will never attract an audience.
Soon enough, each one of the artists is bemoaning the fact that as long as they do not get the official patronage of those who occupy the places of power in New Delhi, it will be difficult for them to continue. Whereas in earlier times, it was possible for an artist from Chennai to seek his or her fortune in Mumbai at one of the better known galleries in the Fort area, not only are these now fully booked many months in advance, with each region aggressively branding and promoting their own stable of artistic productions, the ‘Madras’ artist, as anyone from the South is labelled, has little or no cachet at all. Even discerning editors, sitting in Mumbai, who commission work on the South Indian art scene groan in advance, ‘No, please no more of those cheap decorative gimmicks you Southies love!’ Or worse, ‘We are so tired of the Cholamandal style,’ as if every artist from Chennai, or the South could only come from Cholamandal. The South is just not ‘sexy’ enough, to use the current tabloid term to sell either articles or works of art.
How did this happen? As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, the reasons are both historic and institutional. If we start with the pre-independence period and the years following that great moment of connectivity of thoughts and minds that took place in the country, we will find that the artists of that era were fired by a common impulse. This was both to free themselves from the restrictions of the colonial past and to rediscover and reinvent a manner of expression that would be simultaneously ‘modern’ and ‘ancient’ in keeping with the freshly articulated and officially sanctioned belief in a glorious past for the country. Artists were those who were entrusted with the task of unveiling these eternal truths that had merely been obscured through time and circumstance. South Indian artists felt particularly privileged. They could actually boast of a near unbroken tradition in many areas of artistic endeavour.
With the impetus given by a charismatic figure such as K.C.S. Paniker, who was not only Principal of the College of Arts, but who eventually went on to be a founder member of the Cholamandal Artists Village just outside Chennai, the best-known experiment in the South that would combine the living tradition of crafts with the infusion of artistic techniques and ideas brought in from all sides but particularly the West, there was a veritable explosion of talent that nurtured several gifted persons. One has only to mention persons like Redeppa Naidu, Sultan Ali, P.V. Janakiram and S. Dhanapal belonging to the first wave of artists who combined both streams, the old and the new, while retaining a strong stamp of their own selves in their work to demonstrate this.
A second wave of artists amongst whom we may name Viswanathan, S.G. Vasudev, S. Nandagopal, K.V. Haridasan, P. Gopinath, C. Douglas, who are still very active, and others like V. Arnawaz, Jayapal Panicker and K. Ramanujam, who are no more, established the idea that there could be a group of artists who might belong to the same place, but who worked in a highly innovative and individualistic manner.
Apart from those who had an affinity with Cholamandal, there were those who were more closely identified with the College of Arts. Among these are L. Munnuswamy, Santhana Raj who belong to the old guard and R.B. Bhaskaran, K.M. Adimoolam, Dakshinamoorthy of the next generation, with highly gifted individuals such as Thota Tharani, Rm. Palaniappan and Achuthan Kudallur belonging to neither faction but floating somewhere in between.
From the very moment that it was conceived, the Cholamandal Artists group managed to create an impression that they were somehow separate and enjoyed an exclusive right to represent Tamil Nadu’s artistic heritage. Whether they were perceived as living in a citadel of artistic privilege meant to keep out outsiders, or as a closed community of self-serving artists, can be endlessly debated. It is certain, however, that they managed to evoke a long lasting hostility among the rest of the community of artists living in Chennai. Indeed, we might even say that it is because they were ‘the community’ of artists no other group has felt secure enough to survive as a group, or even want to be seen as a community of artists.
The real sufferer is, as we have seen, the fresh entrant into the artistic field. There is no one to act as a mentor or guide to the outside world. The decline of the artist’s role as the keeper of the nationalist image or inner flame, also implying a lessening of importance at such venues as the once highly publicized and popular Triennales and Biennales that took place at the centre of privilege and position, New Delhi, the chance that artists from far-off places could be seen and have the opportunity to see for themselves how other artists were working, has also declined. This has increased the sense of isolation that the artist from Tamil Nadu now faces. Unlike his or her peers in a place like Kolkata that too suffers from the same political and institutional isolation, there has been no popular movement in the arts which has come to the rescue of the individual artist.
What did invigorate the public imagination was, of course, the Dravidian movement. Not only did this replace the old ideals of a pan-Indian consciousness, it introduced another very powerful medium – cinema. Without going into further detail, it suffices to say that the cinema became as all-encompassing as religion was at one time. The actors who played the role of various gods and triumphal heroes and gently smiling Mother Goddesses and voluptuous heroines had little trouble in morphing into the real life saviours of the people. As is well-known, the models that were imitated drew on Soviet style realism to create images of invincible power, kindliness towards the poor, a lover of literature and so on.
The traditional artists who had once painted the murals in temples were effortlessly absorbed into painting the film sets and fantastical props that went into creating this parallel world. Their apprentices would start their careers painting the giant billboards, the street-level slogans, the crude wall pictures that began to proliferate on auto-rickshaws, lorries, push-carts, and on places of popular usage such as barber shops and fruit and pan stalls. Initially, these brightly painted banners or billboards promoted the film stars. At a later stage, the film stars and their creators, the endlessly quoted script-writers of witty dialogues and easily imitated lines of banter and repartee became the leaders of the Dravidian movement and its various offshoots and soon it was they who, in their dual garb as politicians-saviours of the masses, dominated the Chennai skyline.
With so much competition, the master painters of these billboards borrowed their techniques from many different sources. Their images owed as much to Ravi Varma and his favourite portraits of Indian womanhood in all her pan-Indian yet also Europeanised glory and the Impressionists as to more traditional Indian sources depicting the various rasas or moods laid down in the canons of dance and theatre. So it was that a film savvy crowd walking beneath these gigantic billboards could easily assess the gamut of emotions being presented to them by just registering the main colours – red for passion, purple and black for evil, golden yellow for goodness and, of course, pink for the hero and heroine – no matter what the Dravidians’ truth to skin tones might be.
Not only did this coarsen the visual language, the type of reality that these painted vistas created in the public mind – of gardens filled with variegated flowers, with a small Japanese style wooden bridge across a pond filled with lotus blooms, a snow clad Mt. Fujiyama perhaps at the back or brilliant sunrises (many of them carrying not-so-hidden symbols denoting the party in power) – became the standard. These very same dream landscapes are now sold as laminated posters or mounted works of ‘art’ that are hung inside most homes to serve as indication of the person’s individuality. If the Ravi Varma prints of the goddess of good fortune still dominate the more public areas of commerce and prosperity such as the entrance to a home or office, the framed pieces of chocolate box scenery showing nature’s bounty fulfil their complementary role inside the private office, doctor’s den, or living room. As though to underline their importance, most television serials recreate homes that have the same stereotypical landscapes on their walls.
Is it a surprise then that the Tamil Nadu artist finds himself in such splendid isolation? Despite such a monumental neglect, there is still much to rejoice however. There are many instances of individuals fighting back, indeed even rejoicing in their solitude. There are sculptors like S. Swaminathan who works using large blocks of granite that he chisels in rough chunks as though in homage to the great monuments of the past; or Raj Thiagarajan, an industrialist turned sculptor in his spare time, who fashions small pieces of plasticine into minimalist forms that are imbued with primitive strength after they have been chiselled and polished by a group of traditional stone sculptors; A. Balasubramanium who works in 3-dimensional compositions as large and lifesize as himself (since they are plaster casts that he’s taken of himself) and which have already earned him wide acclaim; or S. Dinakar Sundar who works on the specially treated leaves of lotus flowers; Jacob Jeburaj and B.O. Sailesh from Cholamandal, who create installations and work at different locales and make use of a wide variety of materials; or P.G. Dinesh a young artist from Kerala, who lived at Cholamandal for some time, whose feline series and recent box-like compositions show a sense of defiance in the face of neglect.
They may appear timid at first. They may find it difficult to speak in perfect English sometimes, though they have mastered the art of communication having travelled to the outside world. They may not project the glory of their national or regional affiliation or make special claims for an identity that might give them a fleeting sense of belonging. They may not create an art movement. Nonetheless, they are filled with a determination to forge ahead creating their own reality out of their fractured heritage.