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

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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

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