So far in Tamil Nadu, we have had the opportunity to meet several contemporary artists, view their work, and interpret how contemporary art informs religion, caste, and gender. Although modern art in both Chennai and Madurai is both public and flourishing, it appeals only to a select group of people because of the sustained popularity of traditional Tamil art. The styles of art and mediums used are as diverse as the backgrounds that each artist comes from.
The first artist we met was Chelian: we were warmly invited into his workspace, an apartment-turned-storage facility in a bright Chennai neighborhood. Chelian’s artwork has developed over his productive 30-year career, in which he has been recognized extensively at local, national, and international levels. He is both a painter and a sculptor, and uses very distinctive techniques in creating his work. Some of his work is entirely abstract; he splatters colorful paint onto a canvas. The subjects of much of his other work include the Buddha, Indian classical dancers, and women with beautiful faces and flowing hair, which he creates by scratching paint into the canvas in an impressionist-like technique. Chelian’s work has been influenced by his views on social issues such as the oppression of Indian women in a highly patriarchal society; he seeks to paint women as liberated individuals, depicting them as having long, flowing hair with serene faces. Chelian’s lower caste status and apparent financial and professional success exemplifies the ways in which caste and class are not always connected.
We were also invited into the home of a Tamil Muslim artist named Raffic. His work is mostly collage; he combines cut-out photos with a colorful shellac of paint to create dream-like, ethereal scenes of his imagined ancient Tamil world. We have seen that so much of the hundreds of years old architecture in today’s Tamil Nadu has been covered by modern storefronts and billboards, and Raffic seeks to restore the past as a time in which Tamil culture was at its height. Much of his focus is on architecture and people, who he depicts as faceless in order to represent humanity as a whole.
We have come to a familiarity of understanding with both the work and lives of Chelian and Raffic, but these are only two of the artists that we have encountered so far: interactions with G. Raman and K. Babu are also part of our studies. Art is a significant part of South Indian culture, and we are excited about what we will continue to encounter throughout this course.