Kovalezhi Cheerampathoor Sankaran Paniker (K. C. S. Paniker) is one of the most important painters who evolved a radical pictorial language in 20th century Indian painting.
K C S Paniker’s earlier works were watercolor landscapes of coconut groves, canals and crowds. Though these landscapes refer specifically to Ponnani, a village in the Malabar Coast, Paniker lived and worked mostly in Madras, now fondly referred as Chennai. He had stayed at Ponnani for only a short period of three years in his early childhood, when he studied at AchuthaVarrier School.
The nostalgic visual memory is a persistent factor that inspired many of his paintings. The boat men, the Muslim fishermen, boat jetties, people coming from the market, are his favorite subjects that absorbed the rhythm of the plebeian life of Kerala. Village scenes blending the sights of coconut and arecanut groves, Sandy plains, blue skies, lakes, green fields, beams of sunlight clouds and colorful dusks were etched deep in his mind.
It was a long cherished dream of young Paniker to paint these people and landscape. In 1971 he said: “I began to draw the pictures of villages and coconut groves with which I was familiar with in Kerala. The sight of canals was highly inspiring and it made me highly emotional. Tears welled up in my eyes at the sight of it. Knowing that it was quite unbecoming of a man, I was at pains to hide the tears from others by quickly wiping them off."
Paniker was born on 11th of May in 1911 in Coimbatore. His father was a medical officer in Madras Medical Services. After school education Paniker got a job in Postal Department. But he resigned it to join Life Insurance Coporation of India. During this time he happened to meet Mr. Roy Choudhary, the then Principal of Madras School of Arts. And he joined the school 1936 for a three year course. On completion of the course he joined Madras School of Arts as Teacher in 1941.Paniker's emergence as a panter was in 1930's. Those days the Indian Arts had two mainstreams. One of the Western style of Victorian flavour. Rajaravi Varma was the pioneer of this stream in India.
By the end of 1940’s Paniker started working on human groups, based on immediate environment and on Biblical themes. Biblical themes like Christ And Lazarus, Christ Healing the Leper, Peter's Denial are some of the Biblical subjects of his painting at this stage. In these paintings, Paniker had restricted the use of colour and suspended the form in a monochromic lucidity.His thorough understanding and mastery over the human figure, helped Paniker to articulate various figurative compositions.
Two paintings of large groups of people belong to this period show the dark areas of street life. The anxiety and helplessness in the faces of these elongated human figures express the situation of the drown - trodden after the Second World War.Colour is almost absent in these works but the details are depicted with decisive strokes of masterly precision. During the 1950’s Paniker began to feel dissatisfied with the hegemony of Western art.He started experimenting with the mural and sculptural traditions of India.
(In a large size canvas titled as Blessed are the peace makers done in 1957, Paniker attempted to compose and mould the figures in the style of Ajantha frescos.)
1953-54 Paniker toured extensivly and had exhibitions in Europe. This trip made him more confident about indigenous traditions and ideological position that an Indian Artist has to occupy for himself. As painter K G Subramanian puts it: “His western excursion affected him like it affected most Indian artists of any artist of individuality; it threw him back on himself. It was as if across the seas a strange longing for his land caught him in the pit of his stomach. On his return he became a committed indugenist, through not in a traditionalist sense.”
Paniker went deep into the great narrative tradition of the Indian mural, which he had been experimenting since the Blessed are the peace makers. The Life of a Malabar Peasant painted in 1955 is a pictorial narrative of the different stages in the life of an unknown peasent. The pictorial space is integrated with crowded human figures that are set in the vegetation of tropical landscape. The earlier expressionistic figuration is totally absent, and a new figurative approach has evolved out of his interaction with the simplified modelling of the Chola bronze.
The stylistic refinement is strikingly minimal and never defies the human situation represented. The socio- cultural scene of the mid 50’s in Kerala was also to be considered while descusing The life of a Malabar Peasant. The reflection of the working class ideal in theatre and literature had srtong presence cultural psyche of Kerala, an aftermath of the communist upheaval.
Lumbini or Life of Budha painted in 1956 is a departure from the peasent ideal to a philosophical ideal. Painting belonged to this phase, Lumbini, The Garden and summer series display philosophial formulations about man and nature. In these paintings. Paniker de-individualized the human figures into universalised human iconic forms. He departed from the specific geography of landscape to a romantic conceptual space. In terms of colour his canvases became light and foggy with pinkish pigments.
Genesis is a narrative of the three stages of Man-Woman relationship. Figures are again simplified in linear sweep with large heads and puppet like bodies. The flat pictorial space is divided into shaded thick strokes that suggest different stages of life. This treatment is similar to the oil sketches of Mother and Child series drawings, which he had been doing quite often during this period. These oil sketches were done on paper and conceived as complete drawings.
There came an important occasion which inspired Paniker to associate his ideas on pictorial language and calligraphy. He remembers:
“One day suddenly I happened notice a page from the mathematics note book of a young student. Arabic figures Latin and other symbols of Algebra and Mathematics and the linear and other formation of geometry all helped me to a new idea. I had been familiar with these past but only a student of maths. But now these opened out a vista of creative art with renewed ardour, I plunged into the new phase in 1963. By the time my lines had began to assume the essence of words and symbols.”
Fruit Seller was the first painting to which Paniker tried to synchronise the alphabet with the pictorial image. This painting is a statement on the entire process of painting that Paniker intended to take up further. The title of the painting and also the idea of the ‘mental process of picture making- a predominant concept about child art of modern painting- is also inscribed prominently in the painting. From the calligraphic pictorial order, Paniker’s research went further to the folk and local traditions and also to the organic relationship of the written word. He found the written word as the most intimate usage of man evolved through the ages. He says:
“Every letter in the written word has a highly evolved form, a form attained through usage and guided by man's racial or national sense of seeing and shaping, the line following the laws of continuity and free manual rhythm of action, man has been writing for centuries.”
With great enthusiasm Paniker came across the palm leaf manuscript and astronomical chart of Kerala. The written words and the rendering of the quiescent lines in these manuscripts synthesized in to a new pictorial language as Words and Symbols. Most of the written forms all over the paintings do not have a communication function but the images do trace back to historical sources. They are symbols. A symbol is not an absurd image. A symbol is neither an abstract motif.
The Mohanjo daro bull, the image of sun, the weighing balance, the fishes and snakes are all symbols that exist in the inherent consciousness of Indian tradition. The nostalgic landscapes of his earlier canvasses now paved way to a nostalgia of the past. A part inhabited by symbols, manuscripts, icons and the written word. But Paniker was not a traditionalist or a person lived in the metaphysics of the past. He had his strong reservation about the rigid revivalistic tendancies appeared around this period, especially about the Tantric traits.
Paniker was a very articulate teacher and devoted a significant time in teaching and organizing his student activities. Paniker became the principal of Madras College of Fine Arts and crafts, after Devi Prasad Chowdhary under whom he studied painting. Paniker married Ramabai and had two children Sumithra and Nandagopal.
In 1944 -he established the progressive painters association in Madras. In 1966 Paniker founded the Chozhamandal artists village in Injambakkom, 20 kilometers away from Madras City. Cholamandal artists village, the first ever Artists colony in India was established. was a dream project of Paniker – a materialization of his Vangoghean concept of a place where artists live and work in togetherness. On a lonely stretch of Eight acres of land on the coast line of Bay of Bengal where lonely casurina trees were the only signs of life the Dreamland of Cholamandal was born. Cholamandal also aimed at the promotion of indigenous arts and crafts that creative artists can take up for their livelihood.
Hardly a few kilometres away from Cholamandal lies the land of unknown sculptors of an ancient times, Mahbalipuram. Their carvings on the rocks stand as an eternal masterpiece work. Even today we see them as great sculpture works. These astonishing work of art might have been the motivating force for Cholamandal, and a blessing too.
It was Paniker who introduced the medium of illustration to Malayalam. His illustrations to novels and short stories appeared in magazines like Jayakeralam and Mathruboomi had created a new concept in malayalam literary circle.
A renaissance man of last century, Paniker also initiated the publication of an magazine called Art Trends, which introduced contemporary trends in Indian art. Paniker himself started introducing new trends by assuming the pen name Sunanda. Paniker also wrote the editorial notes of Art trends in the early period of publication.
In 70’s Paniker has been slowly stepping towards the last stage of his art and life. The pictorial space of his canvases crowded with writing and symbols in the dark space background showed certain transformation.
The mysterious abstract background of words and symbols started disappearing and paving way for simple linear spaces of unconventional landscapes. These informal, unconventional space brought a geography of its own – a geography that inhabited water, trees, fishes and minute living organism.
The premonition of these images can be traced back from the nostalgic Ponnani landscapes. The subtle rhythm and colour of the water body of these CROW series that contain the monkeys, birds and fruits is a rebirth of his obssesive imagery.
Perhaps the most haunting of Paniker in his creative life is the Dog painted in 1976 . Unnaturalistic and aggressively distorted, the Dog arrests the veiwer with illusion and mystery. The face of the Dog has the sparks of man, the image of crow remains like the Bali kakka - the crow that comes to take the meal in the death ceremonial rituals in Kerala. Creating the feeling of some unknown human predicament, Dog has become an icon of Death.
Another painting named River, painted in 1974 , is a very significant one while considering the total vision of Paniker painted. A river with falling leaves. A river with fishes and jelly fish. A river of boats, and drum player. In this romantic vision of river, Paniker gathered all the images, that were intimate to him. From the intimate use of lines and colours Paniker presented landscapes on pictorial space. A radical manifestation he achieved from the intimate usage through the ages.
Paniker died in Madras 15th January, 1977.
As a man who always travelled with a romantic passion for history Paniker penned down these words to a young jewish couple he met in Paris in the early 50's:
"How the years pass. Imagine I am 60 today. My address in Cchozhamandal is permanent. This is the last lap of race of life. No more shifting. Chozhamandal is our artists' village on the sea. It is amidst rural surroundings and Casurina trees. Perfect silence and peace. The ancient burial ground nearby abuts on the sea. The waves almost lick the feet of the ones laid there to rest in perfect solitude. How wonderful. A small area of this vast burial ground is set apart for the burial of traditional crafts man- the carver, the goldsmith etc... In India of old, the line that divided the craftsman from the creative artist was thin. Her greatest artists were also her greatest craftsman. Some day I will be laid there. Sure, I shall not in bad company. Then masters of Mahabalipuram and Salluvankuppam were laid there 1400 years ago."
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