The Phantom Lady Strikes Again
There were some people who were crucial cultural players who seem have slipped out of the country’s cultural memory. The Phantom Lady rediscovers the critic and connoisseur Govindraj Venkatachalam .
'BEAUTY IS MY ADVENTURE'
ON THE LOST CRITIC G.VENKATACHALAM
Ram Rahman, while on a conversation on dance in Facebook, urged me to write a column on the important art critic Venkatachalam who it seems the world has forgotten. (I had always been wary of Facebook, thinking of it as a repository for dog, cat and baby lovers or for various kinds of self- indulgence and self-promotion, but it seems that it can also urge you to write.) G. Venkatachalam – “Venka” to many - was an important early critic, connoisseur, nationalist and Theosophist from Bangalore who was a patron and godfather to many artists. He is credited with discovering the genius of M.S. Subbulakshmi, who he met when she came as a sixteen year old to record in a studio in the city, and whom he immediately proclaimed as an immense talent.
There is an essay on him in a 1947 book Eminent Indians by the Sinhalese political journalist D.B. Dhanapala, where he writes, “ He is of great consequence for he belongs to a category of people who have made the colourblind see: Ananda Coomaraswamy, E B Havell, James Cousins, O C Ganguly, Percy Brown, NC Mehta, Stella Kramrisch. I am not quite clear where exactly in this list Venkatachalam’s place is; but he has done as much as anyone of these in making India art-conscious.” He talks about him as a great popularizer of art, “ While we learned the finer points and the more intricate philosophy of Indian art from men like Coomaraswamy and Havell we also learned to love Indian art as something connected intimately with us from Venkatachalam. He gave us the personal details of the artists, created them into human beings of flesh and blood…he infused ease into aesthetics, personality into painters; and friendliness into frescoes.”
Venkatachalam belongs to a quaint world of cultural clubs, drawing rooms and “At Homes”, where “Beauty” was sought and ideas like “soul”, “essence” and “inspiration” were intensely discussed. He is one of the cosmopolitan modernists of the pre-independence world, travelling all over India to give talks with “lantern slides” and representing Indian culture internationally. It is a bohemian, free wheeling world where nationalists and people from the arts travelled widely and knew each other intimately. In fact, Venkatachalam was so well known in Ceylon that Dhanapala makes a plea that he should be appointed cultural ambassador in Colombo.
When I was a student in Bangalore in the 1970s Balan Nambiar once took me to see a collection of Bengal School paintings housed in the Theosophical Society building in Ulsoor. There were many paintings of important artists hung in a large, gloomy hall, many of them damaged and ill kept. He told me it was Venkatachalam’s collection and that most of them were gifts. There seemed to be nobody in charge looking after them. The collection seems to have disappeared since, and like “Venka”, is lost to the art world, unknown.
S.G. Vasudev who was a protégé of Venkatachalam, said he first met him in 1959 when Venka saw his youthful paintings and urged him to join the College of Arts in Madras, convincing Vasudev’s reluctant parents and recommending him to the principal K.C.S. Paniker. He is not sure whether Venka was a theosophist (he was close to Annie Besant, though in his book Fragrant Memories he praises the philosophy of Jiddu Krishnamurti), but said he used to stay in the Theosophical Society whenever he came to Bangalore or Madras. Perhaps with his peripatetic bachelor life, Venka had no fixed home. Venkatachalam introduced Vasudev in the 1960s to painters like Husain and Satish Gujral, when they were largely unknown in the South and said he was collecting works to build up a permanent gallery of modern art named after Fred Harvey to be housed in the Theosophical Society in Bangalore. He was also collecting the works of KK Hebbar, Ara and KCS Paniker and of young artists like Vasudev, Viswanadhan and Rani Nanjappa. Vasudev remembers seeing a portrait bust of Venka done by Debiprasad Roychaudhury.
Venkatachalam is said to have had a genius for making friends. A close friend was “Kidi” Seshappa who brought out a political magazine called Kidi (“Spark” in Kannada) in the 1950s. Kidi Seshappa was exposed to art through Venkatachalam who persuaded him to take an exhibition of Indian art to Europe in the late ‘60s. Vasudev says that he was supposed to go along with the exhibition and help set it up in various countries, but finally it was Viswanadhan who went along with Seshappa and who historically remained behind to make his career in Paris.
Out of sixteen books written by him, I have one in my collection called Fragrant Memories published in 1941 by the Hosali Press in Bangalore and described as a book on “Modern poets, Painters, Dancers and Musicians”. The book is autobiographical and ranges from his meetings with Rabindranath Tagore in Mysore and Santiniketan to encounters with painters like Abanindranath and Gaganendranath, K Venkatappa , Sarada Ukil, Chughtai and George Keyt, musicians like MS, dancers Balasaraswati, Rukmini Devi, Shanta Rao, Uday Shankar and Ramgopal , critic Kanhaiyalal Vakil and Japanese writer Yone Noguchi ( father of Isamu Noguchi), philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, politicians from Nehru to Mirza Ismail; and in Shanghai, the Communist and Mao supporter Agnes Smedley. Even the politicians he likes are aesthetes. Venka is a man of the Indian Rennaissance, influenced by the ideas of Ananda Coomarswamy and Havell and a strong supporter of the Bengal school of art. In an amusing chapter on meeting Kanhaiyalal Vakil in Bombay, he describes the hot arguments they have on Bengal versus Bombay art and finally concludes that both were in fact fighting for the same cause.
Dhanapala writes about his art criticism as if he were a method actor: “Venkatachalam has a mind that is so plastic that it can fit itself into the crannies and crevices of other minds, making them his own. He is sensitive to a high degree to the intentions of the artists… like a great actor living the role he has to act, he gets under the skin of the artist… if he wishes to draw our attention to the Persian glories of Chugtai’s work he travels all the way to Lahore, has Mughulai dinners with him, sees him at work and play, before he makes an estimate of his work ”.
Venkatachalam describes himself as a dilettante and a born vagabond, tramping the streets of various cities in India “ discussing men and matters, art and artists”. For a dilettante, he is rather cultivated and knowledgeable about the arts, quoting Roger Fry and Clive Campbell often. He is impatient of traditional and conventional teaching and supports the freshness of invention, admiring rebelliousness, stubbornness, modesty, and austerity in his subjects. In his writing too he is suspicious of pedantry, “ Scholarship, I have always held, is a positive hindrance to art appreciation. You soon get lost in the archeology of it and the beauty, the simple direct beauty of a thing escapes you…”
Sukanya Rahman writes an amazing story about her grandmother Ragini Devi in her book Dancing in the Family. An American who trained herself to be an “Indian” dancer, Ragini falls in love with the poet Harindranath Chattopadyay and pregnant, leaves her husband Ramlal Bajpai in New York to come to India. Her daughter Indrani Rahman is born prematurely on the ship and she is stranded penniless in Pondicherry, unable to enter British India as her husband is a nationalist on the run from the police. On learning of her sorry state, Venka comes to her rescue along with Harindranath’s wife Kamaladevi and Annie Besant, looking after her and later taking her to meet Vallathol at the Kerala Kalamandalam. That is how she becomes the first woman to be trained in Kathakali and soon begins her travels with Gopinath popularizing the form across India. He was also instrumental in shaping Indrani's career, starting with her first performance at the Theosophical Society in Bangalore in 1949, after her training with U.S. Krishna Rao.
A bachelor himself, Venka is described as living an “enviable roving, rolling, carefree, bachelor life with the whole of India as his horizon … in Bombay for a month, in Calcutta for two, in Mysore for six and in Madras for a week ”, travelling widely in “Japan, Java, China, Korea and Ceylon carrying the gospel of Indian art”. The last time Sukanya Rahman met him, she says, he had a pretty young lady draped on his arm.
It is the norm today to describe a certain kind of liberal, modern milieu in India of the 1950s and ‘60s as Nehruvian; when in fact it was a continuation of the exciting, open, intellectual world that existed before independence. G. Venkatachalam’s writings open up a fascinating history of the burgeoning cultural scene being fashioned at the time (though he was a player post-independence too, being part of the Lalit Kala Akademi and cultural bodies), and of the unconventional friendships and relationships which shaped them.
I have always envied the film world its “film buffs”: those tireless enthusiasts who so love films and filmmakers; and it seems that here is a man who is the original Indian “art buff”- who takes such pleasure in art and artists - that we so lack.