Regional cosmopolitanism: Focus on the fading lights of the Madras movement
Dhvani Se Shabd Aur Chinh, an ongoing exhibition at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, reintroduces us to forgotten painters, such as K.C.S. Paniker and R.B. Bhaskaran, who were central to the 1960s Madras Art Movement, writes
ing the big questions, such as nationhood, history or the human condition, these artists developed a taste for minor concerns and dallied with regional themes. Everyday rituals and ordinary landscape got pride of place on their canvases, with folk forms guiding their hand.
But this served merely as the starting point for artists associated with the Madras Art Movement. Thereafter, each followed his own, wildly inventive, sui generis trajectory. Paniker, for instance, began with abstract landscapes and, advocating the use of native flavours in Indian paintings, ended up with his magnificent Words and Symbols series, for which he covered whole canvases in indecipherable signs and illegible scrawls of text.
These later paintings by Paniker look like massive pages torn out of some obscure holy manuscript. At Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), you can see a few of these manuscript-paintings, now on display as part of an ongoing exhibition, called Dhvani Se Shabd Aur Chinh. The title can be simply rendered into English as “From Sound, Letters and Symbols”; but dhvani has a more complex meaning in Sanskrit aesthetics; it refers to the poetic essence such is left unspoken by the poet, and is by nature ineffable. Paniker experimented with text and colour, with noise and silence. So he would have been well-placed to appreciate this ambiguity attached to the word dhvani.
But the present show isn’t only about Paniker. Other masterpieces from Madras are also here. The artist R.B. Bhaskaran, another noted alumnus of the Madras School of Art—around which the movement had formed back in the 1960s— has sent his 1985 etching, The Owl & The Moon. It has a deceptively simple composition: against a beige backdrop, there are just two elements rendered in black, owl and moon. Look closer, and you’ll see the exaggerated attention given to details here: too many lines and swirls on the feathers of the owl, too many craters on the surface of the moon. Both