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Cholamandal An Artist’s Utopia

Cholamandal Artists’ Village in Adyar, Chennai – “Indian in spirit and worldwide contemporary” – has carved itself a permanent place on the art map of the world.

The rays of the morning sun beam across the green woodlands to a reddish mud avenue with tall palm trees on either side. The breeze carrying the whisper of casuarina groves has a salty tang. Everything is still except for an occasional bird call and the sound of waves breaking on the not-too-distant sea shore. I am at Cholamandal Artists’ Village, said to be India’s largest self-supporting art colony and one of the most successful in Asia, located about 9 km from Adyar, Chennai. I am here at the invitation of S. Nandagopal, a sculptor of renown, whose creation Tree (which now adorns a children’s park in Mumbai) made a national record as the largest stainless steel structure. More recently Memories of a Hero Stone, another creation of his, hit the headlines as the largest welded copper and brass sculpture in the country. Nandagopal is the Secretary of Cholamandal Artists’ Village which is the brainchild and creation of his father, K.C.S. Paniker. I realize how fortunate I am to be introduced to Cholamandal by him. As he takes me round the village I listen enthralled to the story of how his father’s dream grew to be a concrete reality within a span of three decades.

K.C.S. Paniker, an outstanding artist with the natural gift of leadership, was the second Indian Principal of the Government College of Art & Crafts, Chennai. He was also a trend-setter who combined creative zeal with a new and radical concept of art. Unlike many others of his time, he did not believe that modern art was a gift of the West and firmly believed that India could and was evolving its own version of modern art – a belief shared by his students to whom he was a father figure. He described it as something that was ‘Indian in spirit and worldwide contemporary’. Many painters and sculptors joined him in his quest for what amounted to a new version of contemporary art. New York Times paying a tribute to Paniker in 1968 stated, “He was using myths, symbols and ancient script in patterns that sought to recapture the spirit of centuries ago while retaining a modern approaches.” This is evident in the work of Cholamandal artists which continue to have a strong regional flavour.

What inspired him to think of an independent artists’ village, I ask Nandagopal and why the name ‘Cholamandal’? he smiles as he continues with the story. “Some of father’s serious students continued to work in the rooms and corridors of the state Lalit Kala Akademi building nearby after their regular classes. They were worried about how they should keep up with their work once their college days ended and they were forced to eke out a livelihood to support themselves and their families. Would it mean the end of their artistic dreams? That is when the idea of a self-supporting art colony came to father. He realized that they could not possibly exist on fine art alone. The obvious solution was to turn to creative handicrafts for which there was already a market and devote a few hours each day making them. This would bring about an independent means of supporting themselves. They could carry on with their art, painting or sculpture the rest of the time. As for ‘Cholamadal’, the name means the land of the Cholas, a famous Tamil dynasty. They were great patrons of art.”

Paniker organized an exhibition of batiks – a form of art highly popular even then – done by the staff and students of his college. It was a total sellout and helped raise Rs. 10,000 – not a small amount in those days. In the February of 1963, 40 artists formed a society and registered it as Artists Handicrafts Association. Paniker’s dream was to give the artists an independent and self reliant existence, working in the relaxed atmosphere of their own homes. He bought 10 acres of land in the outskirts of the city. The place was an uninhabited stretch of sand with casuarina trees growing wild with just a small, sleepy fishing village nearby. Not only was it far from the madding crowd, away from the heat and dust of the city, but being near the East Coast Highway, it was perpetually full of tourists on their way to Mahabalipuram. It was an ideal locale from the commercial point of view as well. And there was the sea nearby, beach with silken sands, the shady casuarina groves, the song of birds and the constant reverberation of breakers in the background. What could be more artistic and idyllic?

Paniker divided the land into plots and offered these for sale to artists who bought them according to their needs and means. On 13th April 1966, the transaction was complete and the first group of seven artists moved in next month. Among the early settlers were K.R.Harie, R.B.Bhaskaran, K.M. Adimoolam, S. Kanniappam, Sampath Kumar, Jaipal Paniker, A.C. Mammen, V. Viswanathan and others. Paniker himself joined then two years later after his retirement from the College of Arts.

But was settling down in the poetic wilderness an easy task? “By no means!” Asserts Nandagopal, “It was pretty tough putting up the huts. The artists had to traverse a distance of six miles or more to buy vegetables and provisions. There were no proper roads between the main East Coast Road and our village except for a rough cow track. The went shopping once a week and lived on dry grains that wouldn’t spoil. It meant walking the distance when there were no buses or hitching a ride onto passing lorries! It was particularly tough during the rains as the cyclones sometimes blew away our houses and work into the sea putting everything back to square one!” He bursts out laughing as he remembers the time though he was very young then.

Cholamandal Artist’ Village is now a charming cluster of artists’ studios, a permanent gallery of paintings, graphics, drawings and sculptures, a workshop for batik and metal work, guest houses, the office of the Artists Handicrafts Association and the houses of the artists who live there. There is a striking sculpture park and an open air theatre where performances take place, a guest house donated by the West German government and two studios donated by the TCI groups, available on rent to artists, art students, art historians and lovers of art. Twenty-one of the original 40 artists continue to live and work here. Tey do not accept new members but there are always half a dozen younger artists working or studying here. A percentage of the artists’s earnings makes up a fund which helps pay their joint expenses. Though most of the artists continue to produce batik even now they are able to live comfortably from their paintings and sculpture. Their work is widely recognized as some of the best art produced in post-war India. The artists have regular exhibitions across the country and abroad.

As we stop for a coffee break at the canteen-shed with a thatched roof my eyes wander across to the sculpture park which offers a wonderful collection. What is most striking is the way they blend with the landscape. Nandagopal tells me about the sculptors who made them. They are all celebrities – Paul Beckmann from Netherlands, Paul Schneider from Germany, Thomas Link from Germany, Hiroshi Mikami from Japan, Reijo from Yugoslavia, Ajit Chakrabarty from Calcutta, Sarbari Roy Chouldhury from Santiniketan, Nagji Patel from Baroda, P.V. Janakiram from Chennai, Rajasekharan Nair from Cholamandal, C. Dakshinamurti from Chennai, S. Kanniappan from Chennai and Venkatachelapathy from Bangalore among others.

Even more striking is Cholamandal’s sunken open-air theatre, which was made from a dried-up pond around which a tablet stage was built. About 350 spectactors can sit around the stage to watch performances. Artistes who have performed here include musicians like Dr. M. Balmuralikrishna, M.D. Ramanathan, N. Ramani ; dancers such as Alarmel Valli, Chitra Visweswaran, Leela Samson and V.P. Dhananjayan. Theatre people include Badal Sircar and Koothu-P-Pattari. Maurice Bezzart of the Belgian National Theatre and two of his colleagues presented a ballet based on the Siva-Parvati theme where 60 local artistes also took part.

Cholamandal has been the venue of a number of major artists’s camps. The first workshop was held here in 1988 with seven participants – a Dutch, A Yugoslav, a German and four Indians. The second followed in 1989 with one German, one Austrian and three Indians. The third in 1990 had two Japanese and one Indian artist. One of the recent ones was the workshop dedicated to the Golden Jubilee of Indian Independence held in 1998. Distinguished visitors from abroad who have spent time at Cholamandal include Sir Anthony Caro, Chester Bowles, Queen Mother Juliana of the Netherlands, Princess Wisdon Ali of Jordan, the Spanish Queen Sophia and her sister Princess Irene, Andrez Wawrzynisk, Jeannie Auboyer, Simone and Andre Bonjaiboult and many others. Cholamandal has indeed become the artists’s Utopia, making a vision come alive.

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