Those were the days: Artist S Dhanapal, Colossus of Indian modern art

The evolution of India’s modern art – from the colonial era to independent India is fascinating to observe, though in retrospect, the transition was anything but easy.
Those were the days: Artist S Dhanapal, Colossus of Indian modern art
Artist S Dhanapal (left); one of his creations

CHENNAI: The study of any civilisation cannot be undertaken in exclusivity. An examination of its art is important as the two concepts are intertwined.

Artists usually find themselves at the crossroads at the turn of history. An interesting example of this transpired in India post 1947.

After Independence, artists in the nation had to establish their individuality and aspirations in the light of hard-won political freedom.

The evolution of India’s modern art – from the colonial era to independent India is fascinating to observe, though in retrospect, the transition was anything but easy.

The career and catalogue of Madras-based artist S Dhanapal (1909-2000) clearly explains the route that Indian artists took to shake off the last remaining vestiges of colonialism to create a new school. Dhanapal was an epitome of creativity. He could turn his hand to anything and create art out of it. Whether it was ink or paint on paper, or clay or wood, the artist was known to excel. His autobiography begins with the words, “Lucky are those who are born in Madras.”

Dhanapal was the only son of a grocer based out Kutchery Road, Mylapore. After his father’s untimely death, the only outing he was allowed, barring school, was to the Kapaleeswarar Temple, accompanied by a sister.

A mainstay of temple festivals in the South is the vahana, adorned by the sculptures of different sacred animals and mythical creatures, that carries the idols in a procession.

Their creation required great skill in which different pieces of carved logs were assembled to form the desired shapes. Even as a child, Dhanapal was observant of these artisans at work and he had made up his mind on what he wanted to do with his life.

His school teachers also noticed his drawing skills and suggested he join the Madras College of Arts and Crafts. The oldest institution imparting art education in India, was an establishment with the stated aim of “...improving the taste of the native public as regards beauty of form and finish in the articles in daily use among them.”

Put simply, its core output was making aluminium utensils and furniture. The College later became oriented towards the regional and rural craft industries, mainly for the purpose of exporting products to England.

In 1929, things took a dramatic turn following the appointment of sculptor Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury as the first Indian Principal of the College. Chowdhury, who had also founded the Lalit Kala Academy, re-established the identity of the college as a centre for fine art education.

From then, artists began engaging with the indigenous artistic sensibilities of the region. Dhanapal joined the college as a teenager following a rigorous screening process.

By the time he would leave the institution as the Principal, the College had turned out to be an assembly line of artists. Dhanapal and his colleagues re-structured the curriculum to create a fertile breeding ground for southern artists.

As a student, he was obsessed with drawing architectural structures and frequented the People’s Park zoo and Moore Market. When he heard that Bangalore was an excellent place to paint, he didn’t feel like asking his mother to fund the journey (she supported the family selling pickles).

So he cycled all the way to Bangalore. Even though Dhanapal was with the drawing department, he assisted Chowdhury with his sculptures, which helped him become an accomplished sculptor later in his career.

Dhanapal was keen on the performing arts too, and would paint posters on walls through the night for a cup of tea, bun and four annas, which would be spent at Carnatic kutcheris.

Upon seeing the pioneer of modern Indian dance, Uday Shankar’s troupe in Elphinstone Theatre, he was surprised that men could dance, and he decided to learn Bharatanatyam. He soon joined a dance troupe and performed in dance dramas as well.

Combining academic rigour with dance, he stood for two days before the Triplicane Parthasarathy idol, sketched the ornaments and had them fashioned in his college.

would even act in a film as shiva with a real cobra on his head dress. The hero Dhandapani Desigar would move to the other end of the camera frame for safety while Dhanapal fearlessly managed to perform the scene.

But suddenly something sparked within him and he lost interest to perform and his dancing career was abandoned.

After a trip to Shantiniketan in West Bengal with his mentor KCS Panikkar, who succeeded Chowdhury as Principal, Dhanapal returned to the realm of painting. With a diploma, he sought out to make money through commercial art, but gave up on that pursuit as his creativity persisted.

Dhanapal returned to the College of Arts, this time as a lecturer for a starting salary of Rs 28.

In the beginning, there were signs of the colonial aesthetic in his artistic identity. His paintings in the 40s exhibit the link to the Bengal school. Post independence, he settled in a nativist style of modern art inspired by folkloric imagery, tempered by rural and temple iconography.

Towards the later years, his abstract experiments invoked temple art to conjure new interpretations.

In the early 1960s, DP Roy Chowdhury had set the stage for the development of the Madras Art movement. This effort was given a thrust by visionaries like Panikkar in painting and Dhanapal in sculpture.

An artist village, which until then was a fixture of European culture, was established in Madras and named Cholamandalam.

Dhanapal also enjoyed sculpting statues of politicians such as K Kamaraj, Periyar, and Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, as well as artistes like Bharathidasan. It allowed him to interact with them in close quarters.

After the death of Mahatma Gandhi, Dhanapal decided to sculpt a statue in his honour.

With a picture of the Mahatma, he would stroll for an hour on the beach at dawn for 100 days.

When the bust was finally finished, Dhanapal was not satisfied as he was used to his subjects remarking that the statue bore their likeness.

So, Kamaraj sent Devdas Mohandas Gandhi, the fourth son of the Mahatma to see the statue. After Devdas spent an hour before the statue in silence, he turned to Dhanapal, teary-eyed and said, “I felt like I was in the presence of my father.”

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