Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

"The Norman Rockwell of South India"

Multiformity and Repute in the Work of a 20th century Artist

Madhavan also acted as Art Director for a series of popular movies, including Manamagal and Nalla Tambi for NSK and Kalanju Kittiya Thangam for Padmini. He was also active in the production of cinema posters. "In South India, it was K. Madhavan who set the pattern for film posters. Each cinema house had an in-house artist who used posters to create a large mural at the entrance to the cinema house" (V. Geetha, 2008, 3).3 Madhavan’s most prolific period of work for the cinema--the 1950’s and 1960’s-- coincided with the most creative era of this form of urban art (Rao, Geetha, and Wolf, 2001, 129). Intriguingly, Norman Rockwell’s images have been credited by both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as a source of inspiration (Braver, 2010).

Madhavan became associated with the famous Anand Cinema on Mount Road and its owner, the editor Umapathi, who displayed his framed paintings for the covers of the periodical Uma there. One of these covers is shown in Figure 03.


Always related and never separate from the cinema was work for Tamil politicians and parties. Madhavan’s paintings and cut-outs for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) were particularly appreciated and it is said that its leaders were his loyal patrons. Figure 04 shows a Pongal card made from a Madhavan painting that could be sent as a greeting to a friend during the harvest festival but also carries an uniquivocoal political message (Inglis, 2008). At various times he is said to have done work for a wide spectrum of cinema actor-politicians including Sivaji Ganesan and M.G.Ramachandran (MGR). The latter commissioned Madhavan to paint a portrait of the Tamil playwrite, Paavalar Krishnasamy (Guy, 2008). While Chief Minister (1967-1969), C.N. Annadurai conferred on Madhavan the title “Ovia Mannar” (“King of Arts”).


Madhavan did widely circulated portraits of Nehru, Gandhi, and Indira Gandhi, as well as Rajagopalachari, Kamaraj, Annadurai and Karunanidhi. Some of these hung in Madras’ Rajaji Hall, and were reproduced and distributed throughout India and in the Indian origin communities in Singapore, Malaysia, and London. The portraits of the Dravidian movement’s leaders took on iconic status and reproductions decorated most “lower” caste homes in Tamilnadu (Rao, Geetha, and Wolf, 2001, 129). The depiction of national leaders was sometimes tinged with what I think is a South Indian perspective. Figure 05 shows a Madhavan image of Gandhi distributing apples to children. A close look at the less than worshipful expressions on the faces of the children, however, may be the artist’s way of indicating a degree of scepticism consistent with the tension with North Indian political power and Brahmin control that were part of the Dravidian movement’s platform.


Madhavan also went beyond India’s heroes to paint mid-20th century global personalities, as in figure 06, which shows Nehru and Kennedy shaking hands, with Nikita Krushchev looking down from the clouds above. This is an imaginative take on Nehru's balancing act in probing a relationship with the United States while acknowledging the power of the USSR in driving the development of an industrializing India. Kennedy was a popular figure in Tamilnadu and Kerala and his memory still reverberates through the names of small shops in the South. Many of these images project a particularly Indian approach to realpolitik and a Tamil notion of celebrity and power. It helps remind us that the “Nehruvian vision”, referred to by Patricia Uberoi in reference to internal dilemmas of religious pluralism also had a vibrant external dynamic, particularly in the late 50’s and early 60’s (Uberoi, 2002, 201). Nehru, JFK, Krushchev and Kamaraj, all lost their positions of power between 1962 and 1963, so this helps date some of Madhavan’s most potent political images.



Although Madhavan has been contrasted with his contemporary, C. Kondiayaraju and his “Kovilpatti” group as deliberately turning to secular subjects, "creating a thematic and visual break within the world of popular graphic art” (Rao, Geetha, and Wolf, 2001, 129), Madhavan continually applied his skills to Hindu religious themes as well. Figure 07 shows a child-like Murugan with the temple of Palani in the background, painted for a T.A.S. Rathnam Snuff calendar in the 1950’s. Throughout his career, he painted images of Hindu deities for the calendar and picture framing market. What distinguishes his style from the Kovilpatti group and their successors is that he moved away from the more static and mannered theatre set style that became the norm in south India and embraced a more 'humanized' informality. This was a later but significant example of a tendency that had been part of the evolution of popular style in many media since the late 19th century (J. Jain, 2003, 17). Many of his images of deities share a closer link both in technique and manner with his secular subjects. His earliest design was apparently for Burmah-Shell in the 1940s and some of my favourites are images for snuff and cloth mill calendars. His flowing style and sweet expressions, as exemplified by Figure 08, a calendar image of Shiva and Parvati dancing in the Himalayas, are unmistakable and became a signature for the style of popular imagery in Tamilnadu in the mid-20th century, widely admired and ruthlessly copied.

All the fame and work--at one time he had as many as 25 painters in his workshop--didn’t make him wealthy. He may have been honoured by the Lalit Kala Akademi, but these didn’t permit him to retire, even when his eyesight began to fail. When I spoke with his wife in the early 1980s, four years after his death, she still lived in a small rented house in Vadapalani district of Madras (Chennai), their last residence. Other artists who were trained by or drew inspiration from Madhavan included Maruthi, Sundaram, Maniam Selvam, Dasan, Kandaswamy, Dharmadas, Kuppaswamy, R. Natarajan, and Balan (of Balan Arts). S. Ravi of Sivakasi told me he studied for a year with Madhavan before going out on his own.


His distinctive style was imitated by those who followed him, quite closely by, for example, R. Natarajan, as in this rural scene painted for a magazine illustration (Fig. 09). Many of these were very talented artists, but it remains to be seen if any will survive into the narrow shelves of this history. Since I learned to recognise his individual style, I have also begun to appreciate how artists in other parts of India, particularly in Western and Northern India came to imitate several of Madhavan’s most popular paintings and in this way re-energise their own work.

3 Other poster artists at the time were G.H. Rao, Keta, Ramdas, Nageswara Rao, Somu, and S.J. Nair.

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