What is it? Where is it? You will not find the word in any dictionary and it is the name of a place which you will not find on any map. Certainly not on the map of Chennai where it belongs, although for its importance it deserves a place on the art map of the world. Cholamandal is a village of artists, by artists and for artists.

A Dream Come True

Cholamandal, halfway between Chennai and Mahabalipuram, sits pretty smugly choosing to remain deliberately unconcerned. Cholamandal is not even on the tourist map of Chennai. But swarms of tourist keep descending on this serene rural settlement. No wonder that artists to whom grapes are sour keep complaining that Cholamandal survives only on tourist patronage, which is of course not true.

Cholamandal is a name familiar to the artist community from Kashmir to Kerala and Manipur to Maharashtra. It has the image of the artist’s Utopia that works of a dream come true. Indeed the name is music to the ears of the small artists’ fraternity that lives at this idyllic, seaside retreat. The name itself has a venerable ancestry, suggesting imagination and refinement on the part of those who chose it. 1987 is a tar of great rejoicing for the Cholamandal artists. For it marks the completion of two decades of their brilliantly conceived and lovingly reared handiwork. Appropriately there has been a year long programme of cultural activities at different centres, designed to promote inter-disciplinary interaction.

The artists who live at Cholamandal constitute a cohesive community of artists committed to a work ethic that is idealistic without being unrealistic and pragmatic without being sordidly competitive. It is geared to a perfectly sane philosophy of action, based on healthy confrontation, consensus and co-existence. The Cholamandal artists have nothing in common except their strong, irresistible urge to stay together – that is, except their collective effort to contribute to the growth and development of Cholamandal, their common heritage which represents a unique experiment in unity in diversity.

In fact they are as proud of Cholamandal’s wholeness as they are of their own separate and highly sensitive identities, constituting its ethos. They have nothing to do with the metropolitan Chennai because Cholamandal symbolises a totally different lifestyle and value system. It is a strange mix not mix-up of independence and inter-dependence. The artists here are no doubt touchy, temperamental and tough. There is nothing they love more than their own freedom. They are too individualistic to be organised. But still they remain united because of their shared loyalty to Cholamandal which to them is an epitome of the spirit of give and take. They fight, quarrel, argue, dissent and spit on one another’s faces so that they understand one another better, come closer and stay together.

There are of course exclusive artists’ colonies and settlements in other countries too. Even in India two or three exist in other States, but they are all different. For example, Bombay has its Kalanagar where successful artists live comfortably, even ostentatiously, in total isolation. The Garhi village near Delhi has only studios and workshops where artists work for a few hours and go away. And even while they work, they have no dialogue. Both Kalanagar and Garhi are the gifts of the government. The proposed artists’ colony in Calcutta is a non-starter. New York has its Greenwich Village. There artists live and work as socially incompatible individuals with no shared ideals or interests. West Germany has its 80 year old Worpswade near Bremen and Israel’s Ein-Hod is a village totally sponsored and sustained by the government.

The Volatile Visionary

Cholamandal is altogether different from these artist colonies which have no artists’ participation to boast of. It owes its origins to the dreams of just one man whose diabolical driving force happily matched his visionary frenzy: KCS Panikar, now no more. He succeeded Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhuri not only as Principal of the Chennai – based Government College of Arts and Crafts but as the father figure of the local artists.

I don’t know how successful Paniker was as a government employee for he was a born rebel, fearlessly fighting for unpopular causes. He was temperamentally anti-Establishment, though he himself never hesitated to impose his own elitist, one-man establishment on those around him. He was a benevolent dictator. He was a tough and trustworthy comrade and confidant. He was a fervent do-gooder, efficient organiser, militant crusader and brilliant painter. He did immense good even to his enemies because of his compassion and magnanimity. He organised a number of activities for the benefit of his fellow-artists, crusaded for the recognition of the South’s rich contribution to the mainstream of modern Indian art and painted great canvases with power, empathy and skill. Paniker was a good artist. But since he had no heart in the avantgarde, he failed as an exponent of the modern idiom. He was essentially an academic painter. No wonder that his modern compositions seemed strained, superficial and self-conscious.

Paniker was feared and admired rather than loved and respected as much for his creative vitality as for his organising ability. Feared because of his bark which was worse than his bite. Indeed he had a very rough exterior. In a sense he was a paradox. For, he was as unpopular as he was charismatic and was a cult figure as long as he lived. He may or may not be remembered for what he achieved in other fields. But Cholamandal will forever remain a living monument to his memory.

The Unique Experiment

What is the real significance of Cholamandal? How is it unique? Cholamandal is unique because it is entirely a product of the artists’ own efforts and resources. Paniker did not approach the government for any help or assistance. He even rejected an offer from the Ford Foundation. In 1964, he collected a few artists and held discussions with them about the feasibility of a project which would enable them to live together as a community, living on income from the sale of not only their creative works, for which the scope was limited, but of handicrafts with immense commercial potential.

His argument was that since in India down the ages the line dividing crafts from arts was too thin, almost non-existent, the painters and sculptors were justified in having a second string to their bow.

They agreed and began to work out details. He and his colleagues bought land at competitive rates, prepared their own layouts and designs for the settlement and met construction costs from their own meagre funds. They formed Artists’ Handicrafts Association. The land acquired was: 8.05 acres near the seashore, six miles south of Adyar on the East Coast Highway. The original list of participants comprised 60 painters, sculptors and print makers. They bought land according to their needs and resources. On April 13, 1966, Cholamandal was born. Today the village wears such a charmingly unspoilt and rustic look because of the pioneers’ vision, taste and sensibility. Jeannine Auboyer, Conservateur en Chef du Musee Guimet, Paris, says: “It is a wonderful enterprise and I wish it is copied in Paris.”

Cholamandal is unique in another sense of the term. It is supported by the artists themselves from their own earnings. They live like one family and quarrel too like members of a joint family. They contribute to a common fund on which they draw in a crisis. The fund is also utilised for the benefit of artists in distress. What one sees at Cholamandal is democratic socialism in action socialism that is not emotional or ideological but functional. There are very sordid squabbles even among families: So the acrimonious in fighting that goes on at Cholamandal need not be taken seriously. Basically they remain united by the ideals and principles that made Cholamandal possible.

The Self-Sustaining Community

The original idea was to enable the Cholamandal artists to earn a living from the sale of his own well-crafted batik so that he could go on with his creative work untroubled by financial worries. The fee for life membership was fixed at Rs. 25. Architects and commercial artists were not eligible. Today, however, the rules have been relaxed. Associate membership is open to writers, musicians, dancers, actors, etc., as the promoters are keen on encouraging inter-disciplinary dialogue.

But associate members cannot acquire land: They can only perform at the local open air theatre. The Cholamandal Association has a President, a Vice President, a Secretary and a Committee. The General Council meets once a year to elect new office-bearers.

Today Cholamandal is a unique symbol of cooperative enterprise and community living. The basic framework of principles and priorities for which Cholamandal stands is safe in the hands of the present members whose attachment to the village is very strong, whatever be their differences on other issues. Here are a few illustrations. When AC Mammen suddenly died of heart attack a few years ago, the Cholamandal residents made prompt arrangements for the immediate relief and rehabilitation of his widow and children by giving them the necessary financial assistance. When she and her children decided to leave Cholamandal, the Association repaired and renovated her house, fixed a tenant for it and ensured that she received her rentals each month punctually. In 1969 the cyclone caused severe havoc to Cholamandal which was nearly destroyed. But the residents did not lose heart. Working collectively as a closely knit family they launched a crash reconstruction programme and Cholamandal sprang to life once again with renewed vigour and verve. The Association takes good care of every member. Whenever an artist has a lean period, he can borrow up to Rs.300 from the Artists’ Aid Fund created by the sale of paintings donated by the members. Generally the borrowing artist repays the loan in three or four months. At Cholamandal the monthly incomes of artists range from Rs.700-Rs.800 at the bottom to Rs.7000-Rs.8000 at the top. But there is no class consciousness.

Cholamandal has a permanent art gallery, an excellent library, studio facilities, a metal work-shop, a brick kiln, an open air theatre, and a guest house constructed with the help of the West German government. There is also a graphic press designed by Jyoti Bhatt and executed by his father at a cost of Rs-3000 including transportation charges.

A kiln for terracottas was set up with the help of a visiting Dutch potter who in turn learnt the batik technique from the local artists. The open-air theatre is popular. It has grown out of a natural depression around which a tablet stage was built. Spectators sit around on sand dunes. Many famous artists have performed here. Once Maurice Bezzart, President of the Belgian National Theatre, and two of his colleagues assisted by 60 local artistes presented the Shiva Parvathi ballet here. Another celebrated artiste who performed at the Cholamandal Open-air Theatre was Badal Sarkar. Cholamandal also has a publications division. It runs a quarterly, Art rends, which appears to have some problems because of the editor’s illness. In 1977 Cholamandal celebrated 30 years of Indian independence by bringing out a prestigious publication, Indian Art since the early 1940s. Many foreign artists visit Cholamandal from time to time and stay on for long periods. For example, the French artist couple, Simone and Andre Bon-jaiboult, came in 1973 for a brief sojourn but stayed on for nine months.

Cholamandal derives its income from the sale of handicrafts, publications, members’ contributions and entry fees collected from artists participating in various exhibitions.

The criticism against Cholamandal is that it is inbred and too craft-oriented. But on the whole a Cholamandal-based artist is happier and better placed than his confrere who has to work for a government design centre or an ad agency. Cholamandal is the home of a happy family whose members live cheerfully and productively working, exchanging ideas, exploring areas of common concern and striving in general for a new order based on shared principles, priorities and perceptions. Here one is happy to see artists engaged in informal and spontaneous discussions, relaxing at a diversity of cultural activities and cementing their social togetherness through moonlit dinners. Cholamandal has given its artists a new vision, a new mission, a new commitment and a new challenge.

Dr. A.S. Raman

The author is a distinguished art-critic and a former editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India.

Courtesy: The Heritage

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