Cholamandal Artists’ Village is every art lover’s dream - a unique cultural meeting ground where an artist can live his passion to the fullest. The Village was built with this very purpose of allowing artists to pursue and flourish their art without distractions. Today, every visitor to Cholamandal takes back with him a piece of history embedded deep within his mind. As you step in through the gates, the atmosphere radically shifts from the hustle and bustle of the East Coast Road to one that is serene, yet with a life of its own. It is in this perfect setting that Team Salabhanjika spoke to veteran artist D Venkatapathy, one of the pioneer members of the conclave who along with founder KCS Panicker and over 35 other creative artists, painters and sculptors brought the idea of an exclusive artists’ village to life in 1966.
D Venkatapathy was born in Vellore in North Arcot district of Tamil Nadu in 1935. His obsession with drawing and painting led him to earn the Technical Teacher’s Certificate in Freehand Outline and Model Drawing in 1958. It was this undying love for the canvas and paint that pushed him to join the Government College of Arts and Science in Madras. He soon graduated with a First Class Diploma in painting. His association with the institution and its then Principal KCS Paniker was a turning point in his artistic life. He met and worked with Paniker who was the founding father of Cholamandal Artists’ Village. Venkatapathy was one among the initial members of the artists commune who came together to create a space for themselves in the outskirts of Madras city. These creative souls formed the Artist’s Handicrafts Association in 1963 to sell their works. In an effort to build finances, they began to create handicrafts and were among the first in the country to produce the vibrant batik fabric. The sales income from their first batik exhibition was pooled together for buying 8.5 acres of land for the Village. And the rest is history!
Venkatapathy vividly remembers the time when the surrounding areas of the Village were just deserted land. The hardships that the group faced without electricity or adequate transport facilities were met with grim determination. The cause that they worked for was what drove them forward. The visionary KCS Paniker believed strongly in the idea that artists should be able to stand on their own feet. This was the foundation on which the Village was created. It was an avenue for an artist to express his creativity and to share with and be inspired from others. The funds from shows and exhibitions were used to build individual houses for artists within the Village premises. Today nearly 20 artists live on the premises and practice their work. It is awe-inspiring to note that everything that we see today at the Artists’ Village is built solely from the artists’ earnings without any form of government funding. This was in fact a guideline laid down during the time of Paniker, who did not want any undue dependency created through such government funding. This is arguably one of the underlying reasons for the commune’s success as well.
Venkatapathy is a proponent of the figurative school of painting and this is evident in all his work. His masterpieces include works in the totem series and paintings inspired from nature such as the elaborate Hill Series and the Cave Series. These are intricate works of art that showcase the passion and brilliance of the artist in him. His work is on display at the galleries in the Village and has been appreciated within and outside artistic circles through a number of awards and honors. To quote a few from the long list, he has been honored with the Silver Medal from the Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta in 1964, Tamil Nadu State Academy Award, Madras in 1966, Wild Life Campaign Award from the Government of Tamil Nadu, Madras in 1966, Silver Medal by the South Indian Society of Painters, Madras in 1966, Kalai Chemmal Award by the Government of Tamil Nadu in 1998 and Silver Plate Award for art contribution from AIFACS, New Delhi in 1996. He was elected as an eminent artist by the General Council, Lalit Kala Academy in New Delhi in 2003. He has also been part of a number of exhibitions at Cholamandal and across the length and breadth of the country.
For many of the artists’ families, the Village is where their children and grandchildren have been born and brought up. While a few of the artists from the founding members group have moved out, Venkatapathy and his wife Shanthakumari have continued to stay on at the Village. Their son V Umashankar, himself a well-known artist was also brought up at the Village. Being surrounded by an artistic environment eventually led him to choose a career in this field. In addition to pursuing his passion as a solo artist, Umashankar is the Assistant Professor in Visual Communication at SRM Arts & Science College, Kattankalathur. He firmly believes that having an artistic background is a great boon for any aspiring artist. Combining that with a formal arts degree helps young artists in developing their skills faster and better. He feels this is what many of the young artists lack today. Many of them turn to art midway in their life without any formal training to fall back on. While there are always prodigies, most art is developed through years of practice and experimentation. You will try your hand at different options, learn from masters in the field and will slowly but surely develop your own unique style. This is where the training through institutes is important. This defines the true journey of an artist and there is usually no shortcut to it. His words ring true as we look around at the sprawling Village around us that has successfully brought many creative visionaries to the national and international realm over the years.