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Paniker's legacy

This assessment by the late JOSEF JAMES, art theoretician of the Madras Art Movement, tracing the various stages of the late K.C.S. Paniker's work and artistic journey was made just before a substantial collection of nearly 75 major paintings was gifted to the `Paniker Gallery' in the Trivandrum Museum, Kerala.

S. NANDAGOPAL

"Christ and Lazarus", K.C.S. Paniker, water colour, 1950.

OF course, everyone knows Paniker. A whole generation of fellow artists in the country, some of them students with him in the School of Art, Madras, and then, a later generation of artists whom he inspired in Madras and led in what is known as the Madras movement of the 1960s — a movement which changed the course of contemporary art in India. Also a whole host of admirers in India and abroad and many others who loved and sought his attention for the person that he was. Many would have seen his pictures in Madras and other places in the country, a few at a time exhibited along those of others, many of them his own students.

An impressive collection of nearly 75 paintings and four bronzes covering over a period of 40 years of constant creativity, showing a spirit one might have suspected but never really met, is now housed in the Museum of Trivandrum, Kerala, at the Paniker Gallery.

Contained in the wonderfully assuring personality of his, was a mind that could delight like a child's, a spirit that could cry with the greatest anguish and an intellect that could cut through with an amazing quickness. Each picture brings the man together and all of them together make a life lived through in complete honesty but precariously.

Landscape, his first love

The landscape was Paniker's first love and the quiet sensation in almost all his work. The delight he took in it comes up in the play of his line later on and sometimes in the almost trembling colour. And to both these, the impulsive washes in these water colours have been the first joys and antecedents. One would have wished to see for instance, much more of his water colours of the late 1930s and 1940s. The ones that are in the museum give an indication of the way he delighted in the mood and memory of places, the spontaneous emotion true enough and sufficient to call thought and fancy to order. Sorrow and reflection came on and he grew anxious and pained. Much of that came through in figure drawing and groups that he did in the 1940s and 1950s. This is most adequately conveyed in the drawing "Lazarus" which is perhaps one of Paniker's greatest pictures. It is an excellent group study for one thing, but it is precious for the compassion of love with which he redeems the almost overpowering feeling of horror and dismay. This has come on again powerfully in him on two occasions: in "Blessed are the Peacemakers" and in "Melon Eaters". The anxiety, almost fear, comes out in another remarkable drawing, "old man". He seeks to reject all foreknowledge in doing this. Such knowledge and certainty that is needed to do the figure, he created almost existentially, searching and instantaneously finding it with his line. The line twists, snaps and frays and yields for him a language for the existential poetry which he brought to a height in the later "Garden" series of pictures.

There is of course, a powerful intellect at work in all this, afflicting him with dilemmas of its own making. His own love and study of the masters of

European art had opened up for him the technique, vision and spirit of that great tradition, and yet, his own requirements whetted by his study of European experience make him look away and turn to entirely different sources. The spirit of unknown masters that had been breathed into the master works of our art: Khajuraho, Mahabalipuram, Konarak, moved him powerfully. The vexation it caused him can be seen in the picture, "Lumbini". One sees him rely on the sheer strength of his craftsmanship to carry him through. He moved on, as he did with the earlier feelings of dismay and anguish.

The `Garden' series

In the "Garden" series of pictures, Paniker brought together, in a convincing personal style, the knowledge, ability and experience of a very mature painter and the innocence of an unspoiled artist; the profundity of one who can look far and beyond and the passion that will not let the present depart. With these pictures, the innocence and experience grew past the warm security of his emotion and he turned larger than life.

For a brief while after these pictures, Paniker attempted to contain himself in a series of the most unusual figure studies and groups. In a series of Christ drawings done in the early 1960s, he negotiated anatomy to contain the newly found power and complexity. It was brute, but characteristically, he made the agony come over and finish the state of mind. He then turned towards the multi-headed and many limbed forms of Hindu imagery to execute a most uncommon combination of figure and group studies. But as he worked on, the images receded from him leaving in their places mysterious silences and utterances in strange signs and tokens. The Christ series and the "Subramanya-Arumuga" series mark the point of entry into the later "Words and Symbols" series.

The world of "Words and Symbols" is a very daring conception in contemporary art. Painters have, of course, used symbols and in ancient times the script, but none has conceived anything so full, complete and contemporary entirely in terms of words and symbols. His colour gets disembodied or denatured in these pictures, but much of its life, as found in his early water colours, issues out in the spirited passages in line. With these, Paniker, in these pictures, visualised immense arrays of forms of life coming together in a design of great grandeur and mystery. With a vision as large as that, minutely strict and yet so sensitive in its comprehension, Paniker makes the group and figure for an uncommon beauty.

The illusion of space, of light and colour in his early water colours, the emotion and pain of his figures and groups he dispels as he searches in these great pictures for the "word" that can inwardly assure and give peace. It is indeed a tribute to the great painter to house under one roof an amazing collection of his works left behind by him and gifted by his family, for in these pictures there is the spirit which knows and loves its humanity.

An exhibition of K.C.S. Paniker's drawings and sketches from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s will be on view at the Art World Gallery, Chennai, from November 1 to 23, 2004.

Remembering father

MY earliest impressions of my father is of a person who was always surrounded by a doting group of art students who took his critiques on their work very seriously. It was in connection with this that I once asked him how he managed to tell them honestly what he thought of their creations. This query is quite pertinent at all stages of development. Often I have observed art columnists tearing apart a young artist's show, leaving him absolutely bewildered. My father had a wonderful answer to this. He told me that if the colour in a work was good but the drawing quite appalling, he would tell the student how lovely his colour was, but never mention anything about his drawing. On quiet reflection the student would ponder over the remark and realise why his teacher never referred to his drawing at all. This would eventually bring out the best in the student instead of remarking on his poor drawing which father believed was akin to sticking a knife into him and scarring his creative development.



K.C.S. Paniker

Early enough I realised that my father was a perfectionist and achievement oriented in his zeal to promote excellence in art. His exacting standards caused the best in an artist's work to come to the fore. I remember him regaling me with tales of human endeavour and the ways in which such things were brought about.

An incident regarding Chandra Gupta Maurya particularly caught my imagination. Chanakya took him to meet Alexander the Great who was camping nearby. One look at the great conqueror was enough. It transformed Chandra Gupta, and the rest of course is history.

Why Cholamandal?

Why Cholamandal? It is a question that has often been asked. When I think about Ramanujam, that demented genius of a painter who took his life when he was hardly 31 years old, this question answers itself. Probably my father had artists like him in mind when he dreamt of a place like this.

Ramanujam came from an impoverished Iyengar family in Triplicane. Congenitally handicapped, which caused a slurring of his speech and crippled by severe schizophrenic tendencies, he sought refuge in his awesome drawings and in his strange world of dreams. Ramanujam had observed local theatre groups and musicians perform at the open-air-theatre at Cholamandal and it seemed to him perfectly natural that he would also be given an opportunity to narrate his stories based on the dreams that haunted him constantly.

On his request, my father ordered for some refreshments to be served and Ramanujam's story telling session began. They would invariably be of royalty and of a world of fantastic creatures where everyone existed in harmony, perhaps quite in contrast to the tormented world of taunts and derision he had to face in reality. As expected, as soon as the refreshments ran out and it began to grow dark the artists trickled away one by one and finally only my father remained, listening patiently to him, both of them silhouetted against the setting sun. He would often wonder as to what would happen to Ramanujam if Cholamandal was not there. It had served, to some extent, to cocoon him from a world that was brusque and had no time for him at all.

S. NANDAGOPAL

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