Cholamandal Artists’ Village is a phenomenon in itself. Not just because of the paintings and sculptures that its galleries house today, but also because of its inspiring history of how it has stood the test of time. The story is symbolic of the challenges that artists in India have encountered and how art as we see it today has evolved through time. In 1965, 30 artists and sculptors came together with the guidance of the visionary artists Dr K C S Paniker. Paniker was the then Principal of Government College of Arts, Madras – an institution that was instrumental in setting the terrain for modernity in art in Madras. The aim of the 30-member artist’s commune was to bring forth an environment where artists can freely express their creativity and build a self-sustaining future for them. Thus was born the Cholamandal Artists’ Village!
Salabhanjika met with veteran artist D Venkatapathy, one among the first batch of artists who moved into this uninhabited piece of land along with Paniker years back. Venkatapathy recalls that era when the area had no electricity and no public transport. The only mode of travel was a cycle that he and other artists owned. But those challenges did not deter any of the artists from following their dreams. He fondly recalls that those hardships are probably what eventually helped make the Village into the serene and welcoming place that it is now. He goes on to proudly say that all that we see today have been built with the money that the artists collected through their own craftsmanship, without even a single penny of government support. This was one of the ground rules that Paniker had set at the time when the commune was created. Perhaps he had wanted to avoid any form of subservience to the government of that time. From starting out as an endeavor to encourage modern art, the Village has now evolved into one of biggest self-supporting art colonies in the country. The colony also houses visiting artists who stop by for workshops and residencies.
The collective of artists at Cholamandal have been credited with bringing modernism to art in South India and for the Madras Movement of Art of the 1960s. As a quote by art critic Geetha Doctor displayed at the gallery rightly points out “The real struggle of an artist is in unlearning tradition” and this was why the Madras Movement was created. The movement gained momentum through the actions of pioneers such as Paniker in painting and S Dhanapal in sculpture. It is interesting to note that within the movement itself, there were two broad styles – figurative and abstract. Senior artists like Venkatapathy gravitated towards the figurative school of art and have been strong proponents of it. But he goes on to add that the beauty of art lies in the fact that every individual can bring out his own style and there are many exceptional artists who have done wonders in the abstract style. The artists in the Village had a unique opportunity to practice and profess their art without distractions. In addition to this, Paniker strongly believed that any artist has to be self-sustaining and encouraged the residents of the Village to create artistic crafts that also served as a parallel source of income.
The Village houses two galleries – Indigo and Labernum where an art-lover can spend hours gazing at the masterpieces brought to life on canvas by the stalwarts. Venkatapathy’s son and a reputed artist himself – Shri Umashankar graciously showed us around. There is the 'Museum of the Madras Movement', where works of prominent artists of the movement are displayed including Venkatapathy, V. Viswanathan, Arnawaz Vasudev , S G Vasudev and many more. Each artist had a distinctive style that allowed them to stand apart from the others in the collective. A perfect example is the style developed by Vekatapathy that includes the fascinating Cave Series, Hill Series and Totem Series kept on display in the galleries. The Artists’ Village also opened new avenues to women artists who defied patriarchal hierarchy such as Arnawaz Vasudev, Anila Jacob, T K Padmini and Rani Nanjappa. The gallery display includes a work from the Words and Symbols series by K C S Paniker. The work took inspiration from the Malayalam script, mathematical formulas, goddess images, snake forms and Kolam designs. From an artist’s perspective, it looked at contemplating tradition and reinventing varied art.
Today, the Village is headed by M Senathipathy and has an open air theatre for dance and theatre performances as well as a park where sculptures by artists are on display. Many of the former artists are no more and some have moved out, but this is no way diminishes the glitter of what Cholamandal stood for. It is a synonym of the ground-breaking change that just a group of artists can bring to the art landscape of India. Here’s to hoping that the Village continues to inspire many more generations to come.
How to Reach Cholamandal Artists’ Village
By Air: Chennai is the nearest airport, which is approximately 15 km from Cholamandal. Adequate buses are available to reach Cholamandal from there.
By Rail: The two major railway stations - Chennai Central and Egmore are the nearest railway stations to Cholamandal. Adequate buses are available to reach Cholamandal from there.
By Road: Cholamandal is well connected by public and private transport to Chennai and other neighboring areas
Cholamandal Entrance timings: 9:30 AM to 6:30 PM
Entry Fee – INR 30 for an Adult