Many anniversaries occasioned the volume of Paniker, published by Artworld in 2016 – the fortieth death anniversary of KCS Paniker, a widely influential painter, the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publishing house and Chennai’s oldest gallery Artworld, as well as the fiftieth anniversary of Cholamandal Artists’ Village – the Chennai landmark that Paniker helped found.

Paniker was born in Coimbatore in 1911 and spent his childhood in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. He studied art at the Government School of Arts, Madras, and was appointed as a teacher there after graduation. By 1944 he had established the Progressive Painters’ Association, that enabled artists to exhibit all over India, and later, London. In 1954, he was nominated as one of the nine eminent artists and members of the Executive Board of the newly formed Lalit Kala Akademi. This was also the year he exhibited in Paris. By 1957, Paniker become the Principal of the Government School of Arts, a post he held for the next decade.

Before he retired, Paniker made a contribution to the Chennai cultural scene which he will forever be remembered for – he founded the the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, a 10-acre plot of land composed of studios, permanent collections, workshops, and guesthouses for visiting artists, all built by artists themselves.

Cholamandal Artists' Village in Chennai. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0

The village is one of Chennai’s many tourist attractions, but in May 1966, when the first artists moved in, it was a sparsely populated casuarina grove, far from the metropolis of Madras, with no electricity, roads or bus service. Today, the city has closed in and it is no longer the serene, remote suburb it once was. The early inhabitants Paniker brought with him were mostly fellow teachers and students, people in search of a new artistic idiom, one which believed in tradition, but not simply the re-creation of a hallowed past. Despite the many institutional positions Paniker had held, he refused government money and commercial work for the village.

Indecipherable answers

Paniker, a finely photographed book, gifts us a glimpse of the meditative oeuvre of the artist through the words of four writers. Michael Lockwood’s photographs are accompanied by writings from Josef James, Ludwig Goldscheider, Rebecca Brown and Paniker himself. James was the early chief ideologue and champion of Chennai’s art world, as well as a friend of KCS. Goldscheider is the co-founder of Phaedon Press, while Brown is the Associate Professor in the History of Art at Johns Hopkins.

Brown’s article, excerpted from her book Art for A Modern India, makes the interesting case that Paniker resisted banishing the Indian visual past from scientific and national progress and also refused to see the past as holding all the answers to the present.

This is a key insight for all artists and thinkers: the past is both necessary and inadequate. Many well-known paintings of Paniker consist of what look like manuscripts and locutions of script that seem to resemble an ancient language, but on a closer look are not recognisable as belonging to any language.

It is a powerful idea. In India we believe that so much of who we are is hidden in ancient manuscripts, that we must labour to bring it forth into the cold world of type and print. In Paniker, the gaze of the viewer is locked into an answer that cannot be deciphered – I can see the alphabet, maybe read some letters, but the words as a whole resist, push me back. What I am then forced to see is not the answer, but the mystery.

As Paniker writes in the Written Picture, which is excepted in the book, the very posture in which we hold ourselves as we carve an inscription onto rock or labour onto palm-leaf, has itself become an embodied memory, a shaping of the world in the image of our hands and eyes. Scripts and handwriting show infinite variation, making us simultaneously both universal and unique. Many of the great world calligraphic and tabular traditions such as Chinese, Arabic, Tantric and Kalamkari attest to this deep visual quality of script and word.

Photo credit: Cholamandal Artists' Village

Art as emotive speech

What has perhaps been less commented on is the sheer beauty of the colour that Paniker bathes several parts of his canvas in. There are the most delicate saffrons, salmons, pinks, cyans and amber. Gelatinous ovoid shapes balance gingerly, often pierced by script. There are figures that look culled from astrological charts, Mayan symbols, others like maps pointing us to unknown ranges of mind and cosmos. There are patches of manuscripts within the larger shapes, and the bare outlines of the stark shapes of rivers and trees.

Paniker wrote an essay called Why do I paint? which is also excerpted in the book. He writes:

“[As a child] canals used to make me highly emotional. And my eyes used at such times to fill with tears…I began to paint continuously from then onwards...At this stage [the childhood of painting canals, coconut, paddy], painting had been a source of joy. I had no serious worry. I began to gain strength steadily to to reach a well-defined goal.” 

Of course, the goal changed as soon as it was reached, and there were further struggles – for instance, how to reconcile “Ajantha and Van Gogh”. When he felt he had reached this level of questioning, he grew certain he had contributed to the world of art. To go further, to be ever more avant-garde, sometimes meant to go back to the archaic. He found a kindred search in Paul Klee’s exploration of Egyptian art, of lines that he described as “simple and full of life”.

Photo credit: Sahapedia/ Facebook

Paniker, via Klee, quotes C Rajagopalachari, who says that the same culture-defining artwork, like the Ramayana, in different contexts would mean something equally powerful, but very different in meaning and interpretation.

Paniker says that Indian modernity is still in its infancy – “there is nothing much to be ashamed of in these early struggles on the road to modernity and self-discovery”. Creative art begins with dissatisfaction at present syntheses: “Release from limitations…can become a reality only when the Indian artist is really and truly tired of the present situation. He must feel intensely the need for something new which will stand for him more fully. And then, he will search for it with his whole being…”