Marking Emergence of Regional Modernism: A Perspective on The Madras Art Movement
Marking Emergence of Regional Modernism: A Perspective on The Madras Art Movement

Marking Emergence of Regional Modernism: A Perspective on The Madras Art Movement

Author: Ashrafi S. Bhagat
Originally published in NuktaArt, 2nd issue, January 2006
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Installation by Amin Gulgee and Painting by A.P.Santhanaraj, Rural Scape (detail)

In the south, centered at Madras (present Chennai, India), with its locus at the colonially Government College of Arts and Crafts – there emerged The Madras Art Movement in the early 1960s.  The Madras group was a heterogeneous constellation of artists who banded together under the authoritarian leadership of K.C.S. Paniker (1911-1977), the administrative head of the art institution. This movement was pushed by creative visionaries, and Paniker in painting, and S. Dhanapal (1919-2000) in sculpture.

This period was critical in the formation of the movement in Madras, partially conditioned by Paniker’s exhibition at London in 1954.  His work was commented upon by the critic Ludwig Goldschreider for its lack of “Indian feel”.  Since the nation was in the throes of an identity crisis, it allowed Paniker to set an agenda to research, redefine, reinvigorate and reinvent regional art forms that were classical, folk and tribal.  These forms could be cleverly melded with European stylistic formulae to establish the expressions of artists in Madras.  Paniker, with the support of his colleagues at the institution, along with a group of dynamic and ambitious young students, held discussions on the mobilization of the cultural vocabulary of the region. The ideas that emerged from within this core group resulted in articulating an ideology premised on creativity sourcing the vernacular1.

From the historical perspective, the local and regional defined its space in the emergence of this movement by a group of pioneering artists.  Foremost among them were Paniker, A.P. Santhanaraj, L. Munuswamy, Anthony Doss, Redappa Naidu, K. Sreenivasulu and Sultan Ali in painting, and Dhanapal, Janaki Ram, Kunhai Kunhiraman in sculpture. It took shape in the critical period of the early ’60s partially due to the marginalization of the Madras group within the pan national milieu2 – and as a search for an Indian identity.

In the late ’50s, Paniker introduced pedagogic changes, making the development of the individual student central to his teaching and introduced the study of modern European masters, particularly of the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Expressionists and the Cubists. This was to have far-reaching effects, simply because the students could move beyond the pedantic empirical-perceptual approach advocated during the regime of Roy Chowdhary iii 3.

M. Redappa Naidu, Legend of Garuda


In analyzing the Madras Group it becomes clear that one factor that was at the heart of its development was the ambivalence of tradition and modernity, in the use of iconography or their visual language that was either figurative or abstract.  This was because the agenda of ‘regionalism’ or/and ‘nativism’ defined the artistic ideology, which was in tandem with Dravidian culturalism in which the visibility of its art forms came from a new Modernism. Modernity referred to the notion of a creative freedom, as artists freely explored contemporary materials and techniques.

The Regionalization of the modern idiom was pronounced in the artists of the Eastern (Calcutta group of artists) and Southern territories in terms of drawing on folk and tribal arts.  In a way nativism or regionalism was an attempt to battle the invasion of ‘alien’ sensibilities particularly within the visual arts.  This also referred to the American hegemony in culture and negated the influence of Post-Painterly Abstraction and Abstract Expressionism on Indian artists.  The rippling effect had an indirect bearing on the question of modernism and its appropriation by Indian artists in the ’50s.  Modernist art forms, therefore, had to be understood as uneven and varied, embedded within the violent, chaotic social formation following Independence.  Apart from the emotional instability of artists, the post-Independence situation led to a major dissatisfaction…a feeling of incompleteness, and an uprootedness regarding the derivations that referred back to the Western norms.

The search for authenticity by Indian artists led them to investigate a varied iconography and to look at the sacred, which appeared problematic.

Thus looked at it in such a perspective, the modern art historical discourse has caused an inversion of the representation of hierarchy, secularizing the sacred and successfully projecting the substratum of indigenous cultural forms (folk and tribal arts marginalized by the colonizers) to become prioritized.  This centrality of an indigenous subculture during the nationalist discourse has played a decisive role for the artists to negotiate their ‘Indianness’ fused as it was with political ideology.  In the post-independence milieu of the early ’60s, it became visible within the Madras experience.  With vernacular culture thus strategically opening up space for artistic negotiations of forms and idioms by artists with a modern sensibility, it set the stage for past traditions to reappear. A reading of this nature also opens up space for the spirit of postmodernism defying the Greenbergian confines of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.

Art forms that served as points of reference were Kalam/Kolam or the floor decorations, Amman goddesses, Gramadevatas, puppet art forms, wooden toys, dance masks, ritualistic tantric yantras, astrological diagrams, textile designs (Kalamkari), temple carvings and epic and religious texts.  This valorization of Dravidian cultural images in art created a meaningful dialogue between the past and the present and set the stage for the future.

K. V. Haridasan, Nirvriti Yantra (detail)
K. Ramanujam, Built Great Mansion (detail)


In modern Indian art of the ’70s, the use of the human form was part of a program to represent the culture/surroundings.  This was to effectively battle abstraction that had become a privileged expression for the Indian artists and instead opened up a trajectory based on the notion of an Indian culture.  Artists distilled elements from personal experience for a more meaningful statement.

Modern approaches have combined the canonical art of the country and primitive or folk subject matter and styles with the content of high art.  Within the Madras Group, beginning with Paniker, senior artists such as J. Sultan Ali, K. Sreenivasulu, A.P. Santhanaraj, M. Redappa Naidu, Alphonso Arul Doss, S.G.Vasudev, K. Ramanujam, R.B. Bhaskaran, M. Senathipathi, C. Dakshinamoorthy, Arnawaz Vasudev, T.K. Padmini, C. Douglas, and K. Muralidharan employed high art content centered around the mythical and religious, and articulated it in folk and tribal art styles. The critic Jag Mohan is quoted (on an exhibition held in Bombay in 1966): “the exhibition sent by the South Indian Society of Painters made it obvious that ever since K.C.S. Paniker became the Principal of the Madras School of Arts and Crafts… Madras painters are anchored firmly in figurative painting, attempting to explore the relevance of the myths and symbols of the Southern peoples in their paintings” iv 4.

But the Madras Group was not exclusively figurative, as there were artists who did explore abstraction. Noteworthy artists within this category are Paniker (Words and Symbols series), L. Munuswamy, K.V. Haridasan, K.M. Adimoolam, V. Viswanathan, Akitham Narayanan, Jayapal Panikkar, P. Gopinath, K. Damodaran, Rani Pooviah Achuthan Kudallur, and Rm. Palaniappan.

D.P. Roy Chowdhary created an ambience for the study of 19th century Western art.  In the ’40s, Paniker’s oeuvre comprised primarily of the brilliantly rendered landscapes of his native village of Ponnani.  In the ’50s, his focus shifted to the human form. Paniker played with line and evolved strokes that were short, broken or choppy, enabling a gestalt or a line that was stark and taut.

It was this period, which saw him dissatisfied with the western influence, leading him towards introspection in search for a national idiom.

Through his awareness of regional art forms that he referred to as a ‘storehouse of deathless creative energy’, he initiated an investigation of traditional repertoire. The articulation of his modern sensibility sourced locally or regionally, confronted the hegemonic Euro-American centrism.  This truism is manifest in his oft-quoted axiom ‘Indian in spirit and world-wide contemporary’. In 1963, Paniker transited to his celebrated series of Words and Symbols with his painting ‘The Fruit Seller’ which was the beginning of his quasi abstract works. It established Paniker’s avant-gardism with bold and emotional regional specificity and simultaneously its problematic identity with his crucial intervention in the ’60s.

K. C. S Panikar, Fruit Seller


Continuing the interest in folk art forms and deriving their style purely from it are the artists J. Sultan Ali and K. Sreenivasulu (1925-1995).  The latter is considered the ‘Jamini Roy of the South’.  His use of motif derived from the folk tradition of puppetry and toys of Rayalseema in present Andhra Pradesh, manifests his visual language, in which the dominant line marks it with his modern sensibility.  The other important artist known for his active engagement with myths and epics is seen in Redappa Naidu (1932-1999).  It is the deconstructive practice, wherein the iconography of its imagery was demystified so as to suitably place it within the modern paradigm in which Redappa Naidu created his hermeneutics.  Redappa mediated his artistic search through temple icons (‘Deity series’ that include the ‘Devi’ and ‘Ganesha’) as well as through epic narratives like the Mahabharata and Ramayana. A.P. Santhanaraj (1932), like Munuswamy, is considered one of the pillars of the Madras Art Movement. He is both a significant teacher and artist.  With other pioneering artist-teachers within the institution, he was responsible for creative, technical explorations and personalized iconography based on the culture of hometown Thiruvanmalai. His compositions have pastoral themes in which the figure of the woman played a central role.

Alphonso Arul (1939-) mediated his artistic expressions through religious or Christian subject matter and S.G. Vasudev (1941- ) derived inspiration from poetry, theatre and folk art idiom.  While R.B. Bhaskaran (1942-) and M. Senathipathi did not conform to the reconfiguration of regional art forms, they invested their interests within social contexts as the Marriage Photograph series of the former and issues of angst and stress confronted by individuals in the case of the latter.

Sultan Ali, Tribal Dance (detail)
A. P. Santhanaraj, Rural Scape (detail)


The senior abstractionist within the Madras Group is L. Munuswamy (1927), an artist equal in artistic stature to Paniker.  His identity within the Madras Group was chalked by his ideology, premised within a larger world tradition and a broader parochial outlook.  The abstraction he created had an international character, particularly his affinity to Abstract Expressionism, although this was emphatically manifest in its gestural brushstrokes.

The most programmatic and a compelling project in the ’60s in the search for a national and cultural identity was Neo-Tantric Art – a term coined to denote a form of abstraction developed by a small group of Indian artists – particularly Shankar Palsikar, K.V. Haridasan, Om Prakash, Prafulla Mohanty, Biren De and Ghulam Rasool Santosh.

Haridasan (1937- ) categorically defined his visual language as specific to his home state of Kerala.  The dominant motif in Tantric art was the yantras or geometric diagrams.  Haridasan had a strong predilection for the oval, which he considered as a potent Tantric motif.  This oval was suggestive of Brahamanda, representing ‘sunya’ or nothingness, the egg or the ‘bija’, the seed. V. Viswanathan (1940- ) categorically defined his body as a yantra (geometric diagram) with finite limitations. K.M. Adimoolam (1938 – ) is well known for his black and white ink drawings as well as for his abstractions.  In the early ’60s, Adimoolam was an integral part of Panikre’s ideology. The aesthetic of P. Gopinath’s (1948- ) art was grounded in structured colors and planar forms derived from the cultural matrix and from nature.  The Biomorphic Series that he started evolving in mid ’70s was thus informed by his assimilated experiences from Paniker’s Words and Symbols to Neo-Tantricism, to a study of color experimentations reminiscent of artists like Kandinsky, Delauney, and Matisse, to traditional art forms in Indian miniatures and Madhubani folk art.

Achuthan Kudallur’s (1946 – ) mental landscape was crowded with childhood memories of his home near the river.  The experiences of the performance of magical rituals accompanied by the chanting of mantras and the rhythmic drumming in the fire light; the exorcism of the spirit with its quaint dance and eerie sounds; the festivals, and the Kathakali dances were mental images that Achuthan recapitulated in his abstractions.

Rm. Palaniappan (1957- ) is a graphic artist whose interest lay in the intangible dimension of space, concepts of time and movement transcending the material manifestation of science and technology

K. Sreenivasulu, Fisher Women (detail)


The strength of this group of artists, loosely confederated together, lay in the nature of their experiments. They interacted through the medium of European modernist styles conflating their experiences of vernacular culture with modernity.  Despite hegemonic ideologies manifested in modern Indian art, the Madras Art Movement aimed to valorize the superiority of Dravidian culture by synthesizing its varied traditional art forms with ‘Modernism’. This explains the resurgence and maximum visibility of folk art and inspiration derived from historical heritages of South Indian dynastic kingdoms in this Movement.

During the colonial rule the relation of knowledge and power produced cultural hegemony contributing to the establishment of a distinctive Tamil culture by challenging the cultural hegemony of the Brahmins.  This was the first ‘valorization’ of a Dravidian race and in art of the ‘60s it continued and translated as valorization of its folk and tribal art forms to privilege any other influences within the framework of modernism, thus leading to the definition and establishment of The Madras Art Movement in which the local/regional factor played a dominant and a defining role.

Biography: Dr. Ashrafi S. Bhagat is Head of the Department of Fine Arts, Stella Maris College, Chennai, India.  Her doctoral thesis was on ‘The Madras Art Movement.’ She has published research articles in books and journals, and written exhibition catalogues for artists. She freelances for India’s national daily – The Hindu.


  1. The Government College of Arts and Crafts in Madras, the only colonial established art institution [1850] offered art education in the South, until in 1975, when the College of Fine Arts in Trivandrum was established.  Consequently, a large number of students from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamilnadu gravitated here, productively leading to the establishment of The Madras Art Movement.
  2. This was due to its marginalization from the colonial regime premised upon economic, cultural, social, political and other factors, which disallowed the growth of this presidency in comparison with Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta, thus remaining a provincial back water. In addition, the art education curriculum designed at the Madras School of Arts and Crafts was to make the students artisans rather than artists.  This situation prevailed until 1929, when Roy Chowdhary brought in major changes with the introduction of a fine arts curriculum.  The consequences of this marginalization were that artists in  northern India were not sensitized to artists from the region beyond the Vindhyas.
  3. The first Indian artist principal after a series of Englishmen who served as superintendents of the Madras School of Arts and Crafts.  It was founded as a private commercial enterprise by a medical doctor Alexander Hunter in 1850, which later served as a model for art schools founded in Bombay [1854], Calcutta [1857[, and Lahore [1867].
  4. Jag Mohan, ‘Art Chronicle’, Lalit Kala Contemporary, No. 4, April 1966, pg. 28.
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