Back in 1944, at his house in Chengalpet district, the lime pasted walls beckoned artist Senathipathi to sketch. A tiny piece of broken charcoal in hand, the seven-year-old boy began drawing all over the walls of his landlord father’s house. The picture of Krishna that his uncle from Puducherry had drawn, which was the starting point of it all, still stays fresh in his mind.
“I used to get a lot of thrashings for drawing on the walls of my house,” laughs M Senathipathi, the president of Cholamandal Artists Village, now 80, as he fondly revisits the first spurts of discovering art as his life’s calling.
The artist is walking me through a collection of 42 of his life’s works, titled ‘Worlds Within His World’ — which includes even his latest — at Artworld, the quaint and aesthetically designed gallery tucked away in the narrow alleyways of Teynampet. Between discussing the artwork, he delightfully strays into various anecdotes that span his 50-odd years of work as an artist.
At the farther end of the gallery is an interpretation of the Mahabharata. The Pandavas and Draupadi have made an appearance here, their bodies filled with geometrical patterns coloured in earthy tones. Draupadi demands the foremost attention with her posture while the Pandavas, around her, are transfixed by her sheer beauty. Contorted figures and geometrical shapes within them, speak of a certain need to break away from passive images, which Senathipathi terms “flat”. The earthy tones, with the prominent shade of red, stare at you with a sense of permanence — as though stating a fact.
‘Cubism’, the word keeps popping up in my head, as I walk past one painting after another. And rightly so, because the artist himself admits to being a great fan of Picasso’s works and his style.
“The geometrical figures make the image sharp. Almost as if, it’s coming out of the canvas to say something,” says Senathipathi, as he speaks of his love for the technique.
Though he draws from Cubism, he makes sure that his work has a character of its own. The fact that human emotions form the underlying theme of most of his works, contributes to this very character. Which is why themes of love, friendship, revelry, fear and vulnerability make repeated appearances in his pieces. Both in metal, as well as on canvas. Though he used to do a lot of metal sculptures, the artist has now completely shifted to paintings.
“I make an outline with ink and the nib and pour water over these outlines. Sometimes, I let it smudge the lines and move out and at others, I control the flow,” he explains. This technique is what translates to the confusing backgrounds in some of his works.
It was Senathipathi’s art teacher from school who persuaded him to join the Government College of Fine Arts in Madras. Immediately after passing out in 1965, Senathipathi had his first show with two other classmates at the Government Museum’s gallery in Egmore.
He fondly remembers, “Together, we sold 18 works in that show. That was a proud moment.” It was also the time when contemporary art did not have as many takers as it does now.
After a brief break, when Senathipathi returned to Chennai, KCS Paniker, the principal of the college at the time and the stalwart of the Madras Art Movement, invited him to join the Cholamandal Artists Village which was being constructed. But they had to raise funds for the Artists Village: and so, they started selling handcrafted items like terracotta and ceramic works, in an effort to raise money to buy canvases and start their work at the Village. Now Senathipathi lives and practises his art in this space as the president of the Artists Village.
Interestingly, the veteran artist also compares good art to good food: “Only if you enjoy the essence of the art, is it good. Every time you look at it, you should be able to enjoy it. More or less like food, where you have to enjoy every bite,” he concludes.