Picturising the Rural By Perumal

Start Date : 01 February 2023

End Date : 05 March 2023

The works of recently deceased artist P.Perumal (1935-2019) is synonymous with the exploration of the life and people of a rural milieu.  His engagement with this subject is reflective of his childhood days spent in the picturesque Koomapatti village near Srivilliputtur, Tamil Nadu.  As a young boy, he was an enthusiastic participant in the festivals of his village, partaking in dance ceremonies and painting on walls prior to the Pongal festival. This interest in art led him to the Madras College of Arts and Crafts, the oldest art institution in the country which was then under the helm of the well-known sculptor D.P.Roy Chowdhury.

Perumal graduated in Advanced Painting from the college in 1957 having gone through a six-year course. During the first two years of this course he was taught by H.V.Ramgopal, subsequently by Dhanapal and finally by K.C.S.Paniker, whom he interacted with again when he secured the National Scholarship (1962-1964). These teachers shaped the young artist and until his last days he held fond memories of them as he recounted in the documentary Perumal’s People that “Whenever the Aruvathimoovar festival happened in Mylapore, Dhanapal would invite me to his house. I would be given a separate room and he would encourage me to draw as much as possible….Ramagopal was slightly reticent. But he taught us how to draw.” While he learnt the principles of drawing from Ramgopal and the beauty of Indian art and culture from Dhanapal, it was K.C.S.Paniker, with, who impacted him the most. Paniker not only improved his artistic technique, such as by teaching him how to hold a brush, but also impressed on him the need to create an identity through art. 


Paniker’s insistence on individuality in art led Perumal to the realisation that his experiences were uniquely his own and could be a valid starting point for his art. He thus turned to a subject he knew intimately; the life of people in the village. His yearning for the life he left behind in order to pursue art translated into a lifelong engagement with rural subjects in his work. Perumal’s works are timeless depictions of his village, its people and their life that he observed as a child and later during his yearly visits. In the words of the artist, ‘How can I not be influenced by my living past which has been an integral and compulsive part of my psyche?’ The life cycle of villagers punctuated by births, deaths, festivals, rituals and games became his primary subject matter. Having been a keen observer, and in some cases even a participant, his paintings intuitively depicted rural sports and dances such as sadu gudu, kabbadi, karagattam, mayilattam, bull fights and silambattam.  Some of his works were also based on Christian themes, a religion he embraced later in his life, but set in the familiar rural context. One can view Perumal’s engagement with his roots in the context of the Madras Art Movement, that took shape in the 1960s, where artists drew inspiration from regional culture in order to evolve an art that would be ‘Indian in spirit yet worldwide contemporary’.  

Another point of commonality that Perumal shared with other artists of the Madras Art Movement was his career as a teacher. Like many artists of the Madras Art Movement, teaching was an important aspect of his art practice. His teaching career began at the GMTTV High School, Madras where he worked as a drawing master between 1964 and 1973. Despite a demanding job, he continued to practise art and some years later began teaching at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Madras where he nurtured many artists. 

Over the course of his lifetime, he won many awards notably the Madras State Lalit Akademi award (1963 and 1967), the Tamil Nadu Ovia Nunkalai Kuzhu award (1979) and the National Award (1990-91). These awards and accolades were yet another acknowledgement of the artist’s prowess. Perumal’s compositions had a sense of mobility as the figures moved easily across the landscape while going about their activities, both mundane and festive, connected with rural life. Textures imbued his painting with an earthy quality that complemented his subjects. Painting directly on the canvas with minimal drawing, he maintained a spontaneous and easy approach towards his subjects. He acknowledged this saying, “somehow expressing the way people are and how they suffer comes very naturally to me. I want my art to reflect their life so I focus on their life, their celebration, their joy and suffering.” Indeed, even as he lived in the city for the greater part of his life, his paintings, prints and sculptures, revealed his deep love and anchoring in Tamil rural life.

The exhibition is on display from 1st February to 5th March 2023.


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