The triumph of labour

From time to time, artists have celebrated the triumph of labour. With their collection of works, a group of art students from Tamil Nadu now turns the focus on the lives and concerns of labourers.

The Triumph of Labour statue created by Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury on the Marina.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST, whom The Guardian once described as a curator who never sleeps, explained the task of a curator in accessible language: “It [curation] means to preserve, in the sense of safeguarding the heritage of art. It means to be the selector of new work. It means to connect to art history. And it means displaying or arranging the work. But it’s more than that. Before 1800, few people went to exhibitions. Now hundreds of millions of people visit them every year. It’s a mass medium and a ritual. The curator sets it up so that it becomes an extraordinary experience and not just illustrations or spatialised books.”

India has witnessed the arrival of intelligent and engaging curators in the last two decades. With the art calendar being filled with exciting events—from the India Art Fair in New Delhi to the Kochi Biennale—these curators have sharpened their skills and navigated the world of art through numerous, varying signposts: some are thematic, some are based on material, some are retrospectives to celebrate individual artists and some bring together artists of a select school.

The Kochi Biennale has developed the Students’ Biennale, an exhibitory platform that runs parallel to the main Kochi-Muziris Biennale, with a view to reaching out to state-funded art colleges across the country and encouraging young artists to reflect on their practice and exhibit their work on an international stage. Chennai-based C.P. Krishnapriya, a practising artist and an alumna of the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai, curated the work of students from the college in Chennai, the Government College of Fine Arts, Kumbakonam, and the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram. Students from Thiruvananthapuram chose to explore how skill and craft play a role in creating a work of art.

In the case of Chennai and Kumbakonam, Krishnapriya took a look at the now closed museum in the college in Chennai to see what would go into it if artists were to recreate the museum and an archive that is living and not dead. Drawing from the history of the college, their location within it, and their own lives, she narrowed down her search to looking at the place of labour in such a recreated space of exhibition. For her, Chennai and Kumbakonam share more history in the instituting of art and the colleges than is usually assumed, with a crossover of artists and art teachers, from their inception to the present. When she brought the students of these two colleges together, an organic linkage surfaced among the students themselves, not just in their approach to art but also in the process of making art.

“It meant labour itself had to be looked at critically, beyond what was in the Western anthropological representation of colonial photo archives and in the valorised post-Independence representation in Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury’s Triumph of Labour statue. Whether, and can, such representations celebrate labour and labourers and pose their lives and concerns centrally became the driving questions for the examination,” says Krishnapriya.

The Madras School of Art—as the college in Chennai was originally called—was established in 1850 as a private institution by the colonial medical doctor Alexander Hunter and was taken over by the British East India Company in 1851 as a centre to provide craft material for industrial and public works construction. Under colonial rule, the city witnessed a massive construction boom to house the new institutions created by the regime—the University of Madras, the High Court, railway buildings, offices for the police and other colonial officials, to name a few. It had departments for drawing, engraving, pottery, photography and an industrial department focussing on building materials and embellishments. The school was transformed into a major centre for arts learning when Ernest Binfield Havell was appointed as its Superintendent in 1884. Havell was transferred to the Calcutta school, and it was there that he met some of India’s finest artists, who wanted to look at the Indian mode of working; Roy Chowdhury was one among them. It was Havell’s recommendation to the colonial administration that paved the way for Roy Chowdhury to move to Madras in 1928 first as Vice Principal of the college; he became its first Indian head in 1929.

It is the pioneering role played by Havell and Roy Chowdhury that shaped modern art in India and gave it its own idiom and identity. In Chennai, two major public works of art by Roy Chowdhury mark the Marina promenade: the Gandhi statue in the south near the Director General of Police’s office and the Triumph of Labour statue in the north near the University of Madras. By taking up labour as the theme for the students from Chennai and Kumbakonam, Krishnapriya located them within the history of the Madras metaphor, which is distinct from both the Bengal and the Baroda schools.

Fundamental questions The journey, says Krishnapriya, took the artists not only to the industrial roots of the college and its brick kilns but also raised questions about the role of the canvas and the pedestal and who and what is depicted on these. What is the role of artisans and crafts? What is the difference between traditional and commercial art? Is the status of artists trained in institutions inhibiting their interactions with traditional artists? She felt that the journey might provide a clue to answering some fundamental questions: who is an artist?, what is art?, what is the purpose of art? Can art ever be an isolated exercise? What is art’s narrative and within what and whose context? These students’ work was well received and appreciated in Kochi and later travelled to Spaces in Chennai for a week-long display and evening discussions.

The numerous works of art that came out of this exercise using multiple materials and myriad narratives do seem to provide answers, though implicitly, not explicitly. These works do have all the markings of artists-in-the-making. There is tentativeness to the lines, colours sometimes fail to stand out, and some ideas remain polemical without transforming themselves into a work of art. But every exhibit has a context and a personal story and can be seen as one more point in the continuous line of the Madras school. For instance, A. Thalamuthu reproduced the “school of arts” brick, found in college. The college’s kiln standardised the size of bricks, 9 inches by 4 ½ inches, for the growing construction work within the city nearly 150 years ago. The brick kiln in the college, as seen by some in the closed college museum, is a part of the photograph archive.

The college lost some of its industrial components when in 1962 it chose to focus on arts and crafts and was renamed the Government School of Arts and Crafts, and then the Government College of Arts and Craft. “The craft department of woodwork and the craftsmen working in it, as with some other craft-based departments, then found their way out when the emphasis in the college changed. With the histories of the college being available mainly as hearsay, or remaining hidden, there is a need to recreate the histories not just in museums, archives, and library but with life,” says Krishnapriya.

New look at colonial prints A set of diptych photographs titled “re-clicked” showcases an interesting reinterpretation of colonial prints. In 1885, the photography department, the first in South and South-East Asia, came into being in the school. A group of students—K. Deepika, A. Kameshwaran, K. Padmapriya, M. Sinduja, A. Thalamuthu, R. Moovendhran, V. Saranraj and A. Sandhiya—identified some colonial photographs that may have been shot in the college. They felt that these images were orchestrated and were removed from their usual milieu. They saw the set of photographs as a colonial narrative and reductive in its approach. The artists recreated the same compositions by becoming the subjects themselves to bring back the subjective dignity and render them personal and contemporary.

Among the various crafts the college nurtured in its heyday, carpentry was given pride of place. Apart from the usual doors and windows, the carpentry department was involved in helping the textile industry design its weaving shuttles, block print wooden casts and furniture. It was not just stone that was rendered fluid in the portals of the college but even wood was reimagined in myriad shapes and forms from pure utilitarian items to exquisite ornamental items. However, the department lost its sheen over time and was shut down when the institution became a fine arts college. Deepika, who hails from a family of woodworkers, decided to do a woodcarving of a womb within a bearing. Her sister was pregnant and she asked a few questions: What is a child born into? Why is childbirth called labour? What is labour pain? What dies, what lives, what is made to be born, what is discarded? Why was the woodwork department at the college discarded? Can there be art without craft?

Labouring women Other participants picked up the gender question posed by Deepika in her woodcarving. Each came up with a new strand to weave a tapestry in the form of fabrics. Sinduja wove silk on silk portraits of four weavers from Kancheepuram. These weavers do not wear the silk that they weave it. It is too expensive. It takes 10 days to make a saree for a family. It is always a family affair. And they earn about a thousand rupees for each saree, which forced Sinduja’s family to abandon their traditional weaving work. Sinduja’s other work, titled “Mother accounted”, is a dosa pan used by her mother. Inspired by Ambai’s Tamil short story “ Veetin moolaiyil oru samaiyalarai ” (A kitchen in the corner of the house), she accounts for the unacknowledged and unaccounted labour of her mother, of women, of domestic labour.

The joint work titled “Labouring women” by Deepika, Kameshwaran, Padmapriya, Sandhiya, Sinduja and Thalamuthu is a Kalamkari saree with natural pigments on cloth. The textile department is one of the few craft departments that survived the metamorphosis of the college. While the looms are still there, the focus has moved away from the weaving to purely designing. Some of the best designers in most of the Weavers Service Centres, a Union government institution, including Redappa Naidu and K.M. Adimoolam, were from the Madras school. In this full-length Kalamkari saree, these students have used different motifs to decorate the fabric: everyday tools, utensils of daily life, public and private interactions, and finally a woman giving birth—literally in labour. “Labour means giving a new life,” they assert.

Students also documented the work of bronze sculptors working in workshops in Swamimalai, near Kumbakonam. This video, which has a tantalising bilingual title, “Pattarai within pattarai, play within work”, provides a context for the creation of the college in Kumbakonam. It was an attempt to understand traditional artistic labour, the changes it has undergone, and the linkages of the college in Kumbakonam with the number of small sculpting units spread all around Swamimalai. In 1887, when the Kumbakonam School, as it was called then, started, it was an initiative of local artists who were working on bronze, an unbroken tradition they could trace to the later Cholas.

An artists’ book series titled Lives: Workers and Work , done collectively by the students, brings out, through a series of drawings and paintings, the various aspects of labour that goes into the creation of a work of art as well as life. It also raises a few pertinent questions: Whose work is recognised and whose is not? What are the dilemmas at work, in work as art? Whose work finds a place in museums, libraries and exhibitions? How to represent class, caste, gender, abilities, skills, trainings, access, and reductions in art without letting it become a prosaic statement?

Track cleaner on pedestal Thalamuthu’s fibreglass sculpture of Revathy, a railway track cleaner at the Central station, Chennai, is an act of celebrating a real worker rather than an abstract concept of labour. The idea of putting the bust of Revathy on a pedestal was a conscious one. The pedestal was made of a parcel box and it subtly inverts the idea of hierarchies in the worlds of art and life.

The collective work “Triumph of Labour-reimagined” is an act of ironic subversion. Roy Chowdhury’s iconic sculpture was commissioned to commemorate May Day celebrations in independent India. What happens when that sculpture is reimagined as a painting? What was missing in the most visible public art of south India? The oil and the acrylic on canvas speak for themselves and leave us with more questions.

The defunct museum at the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai.

C.P. Krishnapriya, who curated the work of students from three colleges in south India at the Students' Biennale.

The Government College of Fine Arts with the “school of arts” brick in the foreground.

Group of carpenters at work, Madras, 1870.

Group of domestic servants at Madras in Tamil Nadu, 1870.

Re-click: Group of carpenters.

Re-click: Group of domestic servants.

Portrait of a seated girl wearing jewellery, Madras in Tamil Nadu, 1872.

Re-click: Portrait of a seated girl wearing jewellery.

Gentoo dancing girls of Madras displaying jewellery, 1870.

Re-click: Dancing girls displaying jewellery.

Jewellery worn by weavers of Madras, 1870.

Re-click: Jewellery worn by weavers.

“Triumph of Labour-reimagined”, oil and acrylic painting.

Another interpretation of the Triumph of Labour statue.

“Mother accounted”, M. Sinduja’s work features a dosa pan her mother used.

A joint work titled “Labouring women” is a Kalamkari saree with natural pigments on cloth.

At the Students’ Biennale in Kochi.

In an artists book series titled “Lives: Workers and Work”, a series of drawings and paintings bring out the various aspects of labour that go into the creation of a work of art as well as life; shown here, railway track cleaners.

In an artists book series titled “Lives: Workers and Work”, a series of drawings and paintings bring out the various aspects of labour that go into the creation of a work of art as well as life; shown here, weavers.

A womb within a bearing, a woodcarving by K. Deepika, who hails from a family of woodworkers.

A bust of Revathy, a railway track cleaner at the Central station in Chennai.

Students documented the work of bronze sculptors in workshops in Swamimalai, near Kumbakonam, in a video titled “Pattarai within pattarai, play within work”.

Students documented the work of bronze sculptors in workshops in Swamimalai, near Kumbakonam, in a video titled “Pattarai within pattarai, play within work”.

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The Triumph of Labour statue created by Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury on the Marina.
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