Aashna Abrol discusses life, art, and Cholamandal Artists Village with the veteran artist SG Vasudev

Updated: Aug 17

Born 1941, SG Vasudev was one of the founder-members of Cholamandal Artists’ Village, established in 1966, in Chennai. Experimenting with diverse materials like wood, metal, ceramic, tapestry, and other found objects, his primary and formal content is withdrawn from nature and its pervading essence. Among all the themes that he has explored, the Vriksha or ‘Tree of Life’ is the most crucial one. In addition, he has also worked on the concepts of Prakriti and Purusha, which embody the mythological theory of creation.

Discussing his works, association with Cholamandal, South Indian Modern Art and The Open Frame opens up unknown pages of history that everyone should revel in…..

AA: You made cartoons and your father opposed your decision to pursue art! Please share with us how it finally happened?

SGV: I had begun my art practice as a caricaturist. At the time, my parents did not know what I was doing and were only keen on wanting me to graduate in the sciences. My father, being an agriculturist, who had enough land around Bangalore thought I would be of help to him. However, that was not the case because my academic grades throughout school were not the best and I could not get into any professional courses.

Nonetheless, G. Venkatachalam, an early 20th-century art critic, who saw my drawings, said that I should study art and pursue it professionally. I was only 18 then; this encouraged me and eventually, I convinced my parents. In 1960, I got admission into the art school in Chennai. Although my father was supportive of my basic necessities, I had to work as designer and illustrator for some magazines to make some money. in 1964, I got National Scholarship of Rs 250 per month, for two years, which sufficed my expenses. In 1967, I received National award from Lalit Kala Akademi, which convinced my parents of my art career. This was a huge step for me in pursuing what I really enjoyed confidently.

AA: Being a founder member of Cholamandal artists’ village and your association with KCS Paniker makes me want to ask you about south Indian modern art. Could you recollect some anecdotes?

SGV: Modern art in south India started with Devi Prasad Roy Choudhury, maybe around the ‘50s. He was the principal of the School of Arts and Crafts- Madras (now Chennai). It was KCS Paniker, who became principal after him, inspired a lot of his colleagues at the art school and many students, who shaped that movement. In the 1960s, they discussed at length how one should be an ‘Indian’ artist and yet globally contemporary as well.

So to achieve this, a few of us experimented with various traditional art forms. Some went into Tantric while a few experimented with text on canvas, folk and tribal art. But they all could bring out contemporary works and were not sucked by the traditional art forms. And at a similar time, "Cholamandal" was created. It was an experiment. To make a living artists extended their art to create new forms in craft. The experiment succeeded. And if even an artist worked on this for about two hours a day, he could make enough for his livelihood. “Cholamandal” was not created for any art movement, as many people think.

SG Vasudev, Tree & Monkeys, Tapestry in Silk, 96 x 146 cms

AA: You also practice fascinating copper embossing, batik, stainless, woodwork, ceramics and silk tapestry. You shift from one material to the other. While some artists stick to one medium for life, your adaptation is flexible and intuitive. Please comment.

SGV: The Chennai School of Art and Craft had an excellent crafts departments. Students were free to explore and learn new techniques. That is how everyone’s interest developed in ceramics, batik, etc. Again it was in Cholamandal that artists desired to learn various crafts, and so they invited teachers from the crafts department to teach. This is where we learnt copper embossing, too!

At this time, we also realised that there is a very thin line that divides art and craft between in India.

“What do you call the people who built Mahabalipuram, Kailashnath Temple, Ajanta and Ellora, artists or craftsmen?!”

My interest in exploring various mediums began by engaging with wood inlay artists and weavers, ceramists. And I strongly believe that Indian contemporary artists ought to have a good understanding of Indian craft, which will help them to achieve some thing different from the western art.

SG Vasudev, Tree of Life, 2011, Relief on Copper, 120 x 206 cms

AA: You were influenced by D. R. Bendre's poem, Kalpa Vriksha Vrindavana, which is a permanent inspiration in your Vriksa series. How has your art practice changed over such a long time?

SGV: As a student, perhaps in my fourth year of art school, I was strongly influenced by Francis Newton Souza. I not only got inspired by his work but also visited Mumbai to meet him when he had come down from London for his exhibition at Jehangir Art Gallery. His influence lasted an entire 2 years until I finally had had enough and was ready to move on...

In 1967, the year I got the National Award of Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi, I had my exhibition of paintings in Dharwad, Karnataka. There I met D.R. Bendre whose poetry inspired me. I did a series of paintings inspired by his poem titled them Kalpa Vriksha Vrindavana. One of the painting is in the collection of NGMA, Delhi. But it was only in the early 70s that I came across a book, Tree of Life, which led me to create a series of my artworks called Vriksha. This theme went on for almost ten years and it also helped me to sort out my technical problems.

SG Vasudev, Earthscape, 1996, Oil on canvas, 108 x 154 cms

The 60s and 70s observed a paradigmatic shift in the major cities of India like Chennai, Baroda, Kolkata, Delhi, Bombay (now Mumbai), etc. However, the scenario of contemporary art had indeed differed from what it was. But we are not privy to the same due to the absence of tangible literature on them. SG Vasudev shares,

“Unfortunately, there is no publication of the art and artists of that period (born between 1935 and 1945) excepting catalogues and a few books by the artists to go with their exhibitions. Neither Lalit Kala Akademi nor any other Art organisation and Art Galleries took up to highlight this period”.

“J.Krishnamurti talks attracted me while I was a student at the School of Arts. He used to come every year to Chennai and give his talks on various subjects. What I liked about his saying ‘ the truth is said only once’. I appreciated his words mentioning that one should solve one's problem's and not look towards any other thing for help”