Romantic comparisons are a staple of the tourist industry. That is, after all, how Udaipur became the “Venice of India,” and then “the Kashmir of Rajasthan.” But the title of “the Norman Rockwell of South India” as a description of the South Indian popular artist, K. Madhavan, (as revealed by his wife, Pankajakshi Ammal), suggests a considerable stretch beyond the insular world of mid-20th century Madras.
How this epithet was devised or circulated is unclear to me; however, it now makes sense that the two artists’ careers should be compared, and particularly Rockwell's forty years doing the covers of Saturday Evening Post and then Look, and Madhavan's ubiquitous colour covers for Tamil periodicals like Ananda Vikatan, Kalaimagal, and Mutharam (Fig. 01).1 The two artists were almost contemporary, working from the early part of the 20th century to their deaths in the late 1970's, but more important was their celebrated capture and codification through reproduction of poignant moments in the life of their respective cultures. Both have been subject to the reproach of the art establishment for what was perceived to be their saccharin sentimentality.
Although Rockwell visited India in 1962, and did a famous Post cover of Nehru the same year, he probably never imagined he had a counterpart in this country. If the influences of popular culture had been more evenly distributed globally in the 20th century, Norman Rockwell might have been known as “the K. Madhavan of Middle America”. Bollywood came too late.
The graphic mythmaking of both Rockwell and Madhavan became so influential that their most beloved designs seeped into a diverse range of vehicles, well beyond the magazine covers where they often originated. This essay begins to reclaim the biography of an exceptional artist, to look at the stunning diversity of his production and to consider his contribution to the aesthetics of 20th century India. This attempt is constrained by the fact that there is no archive of his work of which I am aware and I so far have access to only a few more than one hundred of the thousands of images he created. Most of these have been excavated from the informal inspirational archives (dusty piles of old prints) of other artists who worked for the popular market.
K. Madhavan, shown in Figure 02 near the end of his life, was born in 1906 in Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), the second son of Kesavan Asari and Kaliammal. His family name was Vayalil Veedu. His great-grandfather, Ananthapadmanabhan Asari, was an accomplished ivory craftsman. His father worked in wood and ivory. Madhavan's elder brother, Narayanan Asari, was also a skilled ivory craftsman famed for his St. George figures. His mother’s family, the Thazhasherri Veedu, were one of the families of the renowned Palkulangara guild of ivory craftsmen. A maternal uncle, Padmanabhan Asari, was head of ivory carving at the Trivandrum School of Arts and Crafts, where Madhavan studied. The artistic traditions of his family and community were patronized by the royal family of Travancore. According to Sharat Sunder Rajeev, a descendant of this community, who read an earlier version of this essay posted on Tasveer Ghar and sent in some comments that I am grateful for, the intensive artistic training from both his paternal and maternal relatives bequeathed to Madhavan the knowledge of the nuances of representing Gods and Goddesses and a keen eye for detail.
In 1929, he shifted to Madras where, like many artists of this period (and particularly Malayali artists), he found work with drama companies as an actor, singer and backdrop painter. He was introduced to drama backdrop (purdah) painting by Kannaiah of the Kannaiah Company, a leading theatrical outfit at that time. He is also reputed to have studied painting with Devarajulu, a friend of Hussain Bux, who was a well known artist in both Tamilnadu and Kerala. He is said to have worked for other drama companies as well, including K.S.K Nadar, and T.K. Bros. In this way, he shared an early orientation to all his painted work with other significant painters of South India, including the Kovilpatti group (Inglis, 1999). Here, as in Bengal and elsewhere in India, the connections between printed images and popular theatre are “not only metaphorical and referential but also historically demonstrable” (Pinney, 2004, 34-35).
His "break" seems to have come in the film industry, where he pioneered the production of huge painted banners that announced the opening of popular films. Preminda Jacob credits him as a “master artist of the first generation of banner painters” (Jacob, 2009, 26). By the 1940's he was painting sets and banners for several studios, including Gemini (K. Jain, 2007, 152). He was responsible for painting the banners for S.S. Vasan's Chandralekha (1948) which were deemed a landmark in the film publicity industry. As a teaser, an empty banner was first put up, which was then followed in stages by details of the production house and the film (Ramanathan, 2010). S.S. Vasan, the Gemini Studios founder, called Madhavan "the Father of Movie Banners."2
Even more persuasive are the sentiments of the late banner painter Laksmipathy of the Mohan Arts banner company in this excerpt from a 1990 interview with Preminda Jacob. Of the great “genius” artist, Laksmipathy said, “All of us learned by watching him. He provided the inspiration through which many developed. He was the person who introduced us to the technique of using several colours to create effects. Seeing him we were all astonished. We thought, aa-da-da we could have done it this way!” (quoted in Jacob, 2009, 44-45). The pivotal role of Madhavan in this field was confirmed by Jacob’s interviews at ten other banner companies.
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1 Madhavan also did covers for Uma, Nalayini, Tamarai, Savi, Kalki, Murasolai, and Amudha Surabhi. The Deepavali issues of several of these were eagerly awaited as much for their colour covers as for their contents (Shanmugam and Hari Shankar (2011).
2 Paramashweram Pillai, Madhav Pillai, and R. Madhavan were among other popular early banner artists. Popular banner and hoarding production houses were Baba Arts, Balu Brothers, and Mohan Arts.