Icon of Tamil modernity

Print edition : November 29, 2013

Self-portrait, pen, ink and wash, 2006.

K.M. Adimoolam. His works have multiple strengths.

K.M. Adimoolam is the proud inheritor of a tradition that kept its eye on the elusive but ever-present idea called the Tamil heritage.

THE sheer richness of technique and artistic brilliance makes K.M. Adimoolam a metaphor for Tamil modernity, which began its journey nearly 150 years ago with the saint-poet Ramalinga Adigal, popularly known as Vallalar, creating an oeuvre of work that embraced love and shunned exclusivity. Vallalar’s idea of inclusivity makes him the father of Tamil modernity. There are five critical elements in his work: simplicity, lyricism, compassion, search for truth and, finally, absence of literal interpretation of earlier texts.

When Vallalar was at his prolific best, the colonial administration took over the Madras School of Art, a private initiative of Dr Alexander Hunter, in 1852 and rechristened it The Government College of Industrial Art. With the freedom movement gaining ground and with the emergence of multiple social movements, the political landscape of Madras, now Chennai, underwent a huge change and the quest for “our own idiom” played a key role in transforming the creative thrusts in all forms of narratives.

Two intrepid artists—D.P. Roy Chowdhury and K.C.S. Panicker—with enormous sense of purpose and drive decided to inculcate the idea of Indian modernity as opposed to replicating Western sensibilities. Their influence did not restrict itself to just the Madras school but found reverberations across the subcontinent. Like the Congress party which led the anti-colonial struggle, these artists were pan-Indian in their approach. But the Madras school could not be oblivious to another struggle that was going on in what is now the State of Tamil Nadu. It was the Self-Respect Movement.

The Self-Respect Movement’s cultural practices helped in many ways to retain the polyphonous nature of Indian creativity. It was the first conscious cultural attempt that prevented the diverse subcontinent from falling prey to homogenisation. The cultural universe of the movement spanned all forms of narratives—cinema, theatre, literature, music and the visual arts. While the role of the Indian Left in creating the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and the Progressive Artists Group have been well documented, the cultural history of the Self-Respect Movement has not been systematically written.

While Roy Chowdhury and Panicker represented a pan-India resurgence of Indian art, their colleagues S. Dhanapal, A.P. Santhanaraj and L. Munuswamy represented the additional nuance brought in by the Self-Respect Movement. Dhanapal interacted closely with both Self-Respect Movement leaders and Left leaders such as P. Jeevanandam, who represented the Tamil sensibilities among Left leaders. If Dhanapal’s journey from being an illustrious painter to a modern sculptor gave the members of the Madras school an idea of the dexterity of multiple media and material, it was Santhanaraj’s quality of line that gave them a firm grounding in the principles of drawing. Munuswamy’s inspiration from mainstream cinema and socio-political movements led them to the idea of being embedded in their own society.

Adimoolam is a proud inheritor of this tradition which had its eye on the elusive but ever-present idea called the Tamil heritage. Adimoolam’s works have multiple strengths. He drew and painted, he experimented both with black and white as well as colour, he illustrated and worked on abstracts, he worked on a range of single themes and expanded on ideas.

His conceptual universe was brilliantly layered: contemporary in its artistic sensibilities, he drew from the local idioms rooted within the larger experimentation of Tamil modernity and pushing the boundaries constantly.

Adimoolam worked closely with the major figures of modern Tamil literature and was a sharp political observer. He realised the emancipatory potential of the Self-Respect Movement and considered himself a part of the democratic struggle against caste-based bigotry and felt the need to promote the vibrancy of people’s language and culture. At the same time, he was aware of the dividing line between democratic artistic pursuits and populist posturing and never crossed this sacrosanct line to become puerile in his approach to art and living.

What stands out in this extraordinary artist’s long journey from Keerambur, a village in Tiruchirapalli district of Tamil Nadu, to major galleries across the globe—he had the honour of being one of the commissioners for the Ankara Biennial in 1990—is his artistic integrity. He explored many media and surfaces—oil, charcoal, pencil, pen, brush, knife, kerchief and fingertip to either colour or draw on paper, canvas, walls, fabrics, ceramic and stone. Whatever the medium, the unique artistic personality of Adimoolam stood in bold relief.

His work for the mainstream media retained the rigour of an artist of the highest calibre, yet remained accessible. In a sense, he became a one-man art appreciation course for two generations of Tamils who grew up between 1968 and 2008. Adimoolam played a key role in giving contemporary Tamil publications their present vivacity, elegance and refined notion of colour.

Images courtesy: K.M. Adimoolam Foundation for Arts.


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