Turn off the main road in Injambakkam, down an inconspicuous narrow street, and one may find something other than a few stray houses and a cow set against the backdrop of coconut trees. One may find a self-sustaining world famous artist’s village, set against the backdrop of coconut trees.
Cholamandal village is the largest such artist’s commune in India. Spanning a total of ten acres, it consists of a museum, two galleries which can be rented, a few studios for visiting artists, and several houses of the original resident artists, whose descendants live there till date. It is around 9 kilometers from Adyar, and can be reached by bus or car.
On entering the main area, the Cholamandal Centre for Contemporary Art, one is greeted by the sight of a curious Louvre-esque glass pyramid, along with several granite statues, in a courtyard preceding a large brick building – the ‘Museum of the Madras Movement’, which showcases artworks by the founder of the of the village, K C S Paniker, and several others. The paintings in this museum date from post-Independence India, at the time of an art movement called the Madras Movement, and is believed to be one of the finest art collections in India. Indeed the paintings do not conform to the norms of the day – strange abstract works in oil, detailed ink-on-paper sketches, lithographs, and a piece of modern art, made using a printing press, each with fascinating interpretations.
Around this building, one can find the International Sculpture Park, a garden with imposing twisted metal works and monumental granite and cement sculptures, under a canopy of greenery. A small canteen is tucked away in one corner, with a few stone benches surrounding it. This is rather a favoured place for location sketching; on a good day one is likely to see several of the resident artists and visitors immersed in their work, armed with charcoal, pencil and paper, scribbling away.
A walk around this area takes one past two galleries and one studio, all for rent, down a dirt path lined with quaint and spacious houses, similarly covered by lush greenery, arching creepers and flowering pink and white bougainvillea. At the end of the road, it opens out into a wide forested ground with a large sunken circle – the open air theatre, where performances take place.
In conversation with Jacob, an artist involved in the workings of the place, he talks about its history. Started in 1966, it began as a retreat for founders to focus on their work, a congenial space for them. They wished to be isolated; this can be seen from the dirt roads and location. The association was licensed in 1968; and the artists sustained themselves by selling their various handiworks – batik, avant-garde wood and leather work. Thus Cholamandal Village became one of the only self-sustained artists establishments, not funded by the government. Of the forty original members, twenty-one remain; no new members are accepted. However, artists are funded and allowed to stay there on a temporary basis.
He then elaborates on the feel of the village, and life in it – a peaceful, serene place, where an artist can work free of any constraints. He spends his time however he wishes to spend it; works erratically at odd hours. One also gets to socialize, to meet new people, like-minded people, to collaborate on projects. Last but not least, one can truly get a taste of the rich culture and heritage of the South while staying there.
Artists all over India and the world come to visit Cholamandal village. Over the years, the association has had several tie-ups with international organizations, one such venture having given rise to the Sculpture Park. Several workshops are conducted there; including one recently by the Fine Arts Club of IIT-M, where various artists from cholamandal village put ideas of negative space and capturing essentials to creative use. The aspiring artists selected a negative space in their surroundings and filled them.
Whether you wish to go there to bring out the dormant artist in you, to critique and speculate on famous works of art, to stretch the bounds of your imagination in conversation with the residents or simply to enjoy the feel of the place – Cholamandal village is definitely worth a visit for any art enthusiast; I would even suggest that the not-so-art enthused give it a try.