‘Kovilpatti: The Town That Papered India’ celebrates the unsung heroes behind printed imagery

An exhibition that pays tribute to the artists behind famous printed pictures 
Movie star Padmini dancing before a statue of Buddha — M Ramalingam (1960)
Movie star Padmini dancing before a statue of Buddha — M Ramalingam (1960)

The mid 20th century was the heyday of printed imagery in India. It was during this time that a group of artists in a tiny town in southern Tamil Nadu became a creative force in this industry. Led by a charismatic elder, C Kondiah Raju in Kovilpatti, these artists, several of whom had, like their guru, been drama scenes painters, actors and musicians for drama troupes, set up photo studios and began to paint for the big printing companies in nearby Sivakasi. Their images, for calendars, magazine and book covers, the cinema, invitations, labels and greeting cards became popular throughout India and wherever Indians settled abroad. However, the artists who created these images were unknown to their audiences despite the enthusiasm for the printed versions of their work in the forms of framed pictures, calendars, magazine covers, and cinema banners. It is to these artists that Kovilpatti: The Town That Papered India, an ongoing exhibition at DakshinaChitra pays tribute to, tracing the contributions of this extraordinary group of artists to what was the most influential style and form of Indian art of the 20th century, and to the ways that many Indians still visualise their deities, their politicians and their celebrities.

Curated by Dr Stephen Inglis in collaboration with Chithiralayam, the exhibition showcases a rare collection, including original paintings of this group. Telling us about how he managed to put together this exhibition, Stephen, who is a university professor and museum specialist having done his doctoral research in Tamil Nadu, focused on the potter/priest community in the region of Madurai, says, “It was possible to put this together because the sons of the artists have gathered a collection of their works and we’ve kept in touch for 40 years, since I first interviewed their fathers.”

Talking about the challenges in curating this from a distance, Stephen says, “The challenge, indeed, was the distance and logistics of curating via the internet. I was unable to come to India this fall. Luckily, there was a good team at DakchinaChitra and we managed to showcase this exhibition together.”

Popular art in Kovilpatti started in the late 1940’s with the establishment of Devi Electrical Studio by C, Kondiah Raju and his students TS Subbiah, TS Arunachalam, S Meenakshi Sundaram, M Ramalingam, S Sreenivasn, and G Shenbagaraman. Initially, they created backdrops for photo studios. These backdrops were sold to studios throughout the country, as far as Kashmir.

Child with doves — M Sreenivasan (1970’s-80’s)
Child with doves — M Sreenivasan (1970’s-80’s)
 Krishna and Radha
— M Ramalingam 

“Soon, these artists started painting pictures of gods and goddesses, popularly known as Sami Patam, for the printing industry of nearby Sivakasi. Retail stores selling textiles, jewellery, snuff, and sweets and almost everything else ordered calendars to give to their customers. The printers of Sivakasi used an album or catalogue showcasing the works of various artists to show their clients. The printers felt if the album cover page had a print painted by Ramalingam, for example, it would sell well,” Stephen explains.

Among the five founding artists,  Kondiah , Subbiah, and Ramalingam specialised in calendar painting. Meenakshi Sundaram designed studio backdrops, and Arunachalam handled the photography and printing.

Matchbox ad featuring Vijayanthimala
— TS Subbiah

Stephen studied anthropology and museology at the University of British Columbia, at Madurai Kamaraj University and at Calcutta University, concluding with a PhD from UBC in 1984. His field research was undertaken over several years in the late ’70s and early ’80s with Tamil potter-priests. He had a long career at Canada’s National Ethnology and History Museum and is currently an Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University where he teaches Asian art and curatorial studies. “While involved in Tamil potter-priests research, I became curious about the ubiquity and impact of printed imagery and sought out the artists. Although there were several centres of creation and production of this work throughout India, the Kovilpatti group was very successful and influential. And I have always wanted people to know who these artists were,” he says.

On till November 26, 
10 am to 6 pm. At Varija 
Art Gallery, Kanchipuram.

Email: rupam@newindianexpress.com
X: @rupsjain

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