K Madhavan (1906-1977)
K Madhavan (1906-1977) Artist Biography - One of the Great Fine Artists and Illustrators of India,South India and Tamil Nadu
(The meeting of Valli and Lord Subramanya: From the collection of Ganesh Shivaswamy)
(A lady by the river: From the collection of T S Hari Shankar)
(The pencil sketches are from the collection of T S Harishankar)
Book Covers, Prints and Postcards
A comparision of a postcard and painting
(This is a postcard from the Pongal series of the God Surya on his chariot: From the collection of T S Harishankar)
(This is an original watercolour painting by K Madhavan of Surya on the Chariot, a theme similar to the postcard above: From the collection of Ganesh Shivaswamy
(This biographical note is prepared by Smt. Gayatri Shanmugam, grand daughter of Sri. K. Madhavan, and Mr. Hari Shankar, his grandson)
Sri. K. Madhavan was one of the stalwarts in the field of classic and oriental Indian art. The outstanding works of Sri. Madhavan enthralled a whole generation and every character he rendered, from historic heroes to classical heroines as well as the village lass took beautiful forms in his drawings and paintings, each masterpiece exuding the essence of the Indian culture. So versatile he was that he handled landscapes, portraits, sceneries, human and animal forms with equal ease maintaining perfection in anatomical as well as the minute details. The paintings of Gods of the Indian Divinity took vibrant forms in the art of Sri. Madhavan and almost all litho press of Sivakasi in Tamilnadu have the original painting of these forms, which has been reproduced to make religious prints, calendars, poster cards and other art forms to be enshrined in temples, houses and public halls and worshipped by the posterity. At a time when dramas were the main stream of mass entertainment, people thronged to see the life-like paintings rendered by Sri. Madhavan on the screens. The beautiful screen paintings of historical events, war scenes, human figures, animals, forts, palaces & landscapes added more intensity to the theme of the drama, transforming the audience into a dream- world where they lived with the characters of the story, thus enjoying every moment inside the theatre. And when celluloid world made initial strides in South India, Madhavan’s paintings and banners depicting the life-size figures of their favourite heroes and heroines set in picturesque backgrounds mesmerized the entire onlookers.
Born in the year 1906 in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, into a family of talented artists, as the second son of Sri Kesavan & Smt. Kaliammal, Sri. Madhavan inherited the family lineage of skill in craftsmanship and fine arts. His great grandfather Sri. Anantha Padmanabhan Asari was the celebrated Architect of the Sree Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple at Thiruvananthapuram and enjoyed patronage of the Travancore royal family. One of his maternal uncles Sri. Padmanabhan Asari was Principal of School of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram and under his guidance Sri. Madhavan acquired preliminary knowledge of fine arts from School of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram. The exceptional talent shown by Madhavan even at a very early stage was noticed by his elder brother & guardian Sri. Narayanan Asari, who foresaw a bright future for him in a place like Madras. That foresightedness transplanted the gifted artist from his native place to Madras (the present Chennai), where he was first introduced into the field of Drama Screen (Purdah) Paintings (painting on the background screens for Dramas) by Sri. Kannaiah, the proprietor of the then leading Kannaiah Company. From then on there was no looking back for the genius and soon he became the unbeatable king of Purdha Paintings for dramas. His paintings were the lifeline for the famous drama troupes like NSK Nataka Sabha, TKS Bros. etc and his name and fame grew sky-high inviting accolades from the elite as well as the common man.
Sri. Madhavan won several awards, titles and privileges and more over greatly fetched the admiration of the common people which made him well known across a wider spectrum of the society. Though he was a versatile artist who has shown his excellence in various fields, he shot in to fame mainly through his contributions to the film industry. At a time when Cinema was the principle mass media of the people of Tamil nadu, Sri.Madhavan painted huge-sized movie banners which attracted huge viewership. People even thronged to see the Theatre decoration made of his paintings before the release of the films. Sri.Vasan, founder of Gemini Studios declared him as ’Father of movie Banners’ since he was the first person to introduce the huge banner paintings for cine publicity in the field of South Indian film industry. He was the Art Director of well known films like Manamagal & Nalla Tambi of NSK company & Kalanju Kittiya Thangam(Malayalam) of Padmini Pictures. Also he did water colour paintings for the cover page of popular periodicals like Ananda Vikatan, Kalaimagal, Uma, Muthaaram, Murasoli, Amudha surabhi, Kalaavali etc. The Deepavalai Edition of Ananda Vikatan, Kalaimagal & Amudha Surabhi were eagerly looked forward to by the public for the beautiful paintings by Sri.Madhavan on the cover page.
He has also done inimitable portraits of famous personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Sri. Rajagopalachari, Sri. Kamaraja Nadar, Sri. C.N.Annadurai, Dr. Kalaigner K. Karunanidhi. etc. which were displayed in public halls like Rajaji hall in Chennai. His popularity spread to places outside India like Singapore, Malaysia, Srilanka, London etc. The paintings done by him for the cover page of the periodical ‘Uma’ over a long period has been preserved by the Editor Sri. Umapathi and as an ardent admirer of these valuable paintings, he displayed them in the hall of his famous Anand theatres located in Mount Rd. Chennai. Sri.Madhavan’s paintings have also given radiant form to various Gods and Goddesses of Hindu pantheon which adorn many temples, houses as well as halls and theatres in Chennai. The paintings and cut-outs rendered by Sri. Madhavan during the public election campaigns were instrumental in laying a strong foothold for Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in the land of Tamilnadu. The popular painting of Sri Annadurai embracing Sri Karunanidhi, which Sri. Madhavan presented to Karunanidhi invited lot of appreciation. His paintings added grandeur to the First World Tamil Conference, in which he painted pictures for books as well as banners depicting Tamil culture in all its fullness –be it the valour of the Tamil Heroes or the beauty of Tamil classical heroines. His paintings of animals especially horses were so vivacious that he was also known as ‘Kuthira Maadhavan’, kuthira being the Tamil word for horse. The royal Travancore family of Kerala also patronized the art works of Sri Madhavan and they invited him to Thiruvananthapuram, where he did magnificent paintings depicting ‘Dasaavatharam’ in the marriage hall of the royal premises. While Madhavan’s brushes depicted the epic of Ramayana, it seemed as if the valour of Lord Rama and the enticing beauty of Devi Sita could never be etched so brilliantly by anybody else. Art works of Sri Madhavan including landscape paintings, portraits and others are preserved in museums of Thiruvananthapuram, Mumbai etc and in foreign countries like France and England.
His verve for doing the works of art was well known that once while doing a life-size portrait of Sri Mahatma Gandhi, which was to be completed within a very short period, Madhavan came to have a swelling in the index finger of right hand. Unruffled, he started engaging his left hand also with the same ease and duly completed the work to hand it over in time.
Sri. Madhavan’s artistic skill was noted, encouraged and patronized by great political leaders of those times like Sri. Annadurai, Sri. Rajagopalachari, Sri. Bhaktavalsalam, Sri Karunanidhi, Sri N.T. Rama Rao & musical maestros like Musili Subramaniya Iyer, Sri.T.N. Ratnampillai, S.G. Kittappa, Smt. Sundarambal, Sri. M.K. Thiagaraja Bhagavathar, Sri.N.S. Krishnan etc, among others. The later heroes of the Tamil film and political world like MGR, Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan, and Chief Minister of Tamilnadu Kalaigner Karunanidhi had high regards for this great artist, who had witnessed their growth from childhood to the pinnacle of their career. For his contribution to the world of Tamil film industry, Sri.Madhavan was felicitated by the Iyal Isai Sangam. For his artwork he was honoured by the Tamilnadu Government under the Chief Ministership of Sri.C.N. Annadurai who conferred the title ‘Ovia Mannar –King of arts’ on him. He was also honoured by the Governor of Tamilnadu during his last days.
Though he had adorned the seat of Art Director of many Tamil movies and other positions and also enjoyed an elite status in the society, Sri. Madhavan was an artist without airs, who was highly gifted, that every stroke of his pen or the paint brush blossomed into a realistic drawing or a beautiful painting. Be it the water colour or oil painting the maestro till today remain unparalleled. Apart from drawing and painting he also had a deep interest and talent in the field of music, dance as well as sculpture and could be rightly called a Sakalakala Vallabhan. Versatile as he was, he did not lay down his favourite pen and brush till his last breath. During the last days of his life Sri Madhavan, whose vision was badly affected, while spending time with his grandchildren, was seen to pencil sturdy strokes reproducing the baby’s pranks and movements through his lively sketches. And Sri Madhavan was an artist sans any contemporaries since his strokes, his colour combinations, his imaginative sketches everything remain unmatched, even to this day. Many artists of today respect him as their Guru, whose strokes have always inspired many a budding artist as well as professionals in the field. And his death marked the end of an era, which unfortunately was looked back or cherished with much less splendor. The unearthed treasure of the life and works of this great son of South India, speak of the lackadaisical approach of the government towards a legend who had contributed inimitably to the art world of the land of Tamilnadu and the whole of South India. But his paintings speak for him, volumes and volumes about the unforgotten legend, who was a gifted artist beyond comparison.
K.Madhavan’s contribution to the South Indian art field has been so unique and immense that, even after his period his paintings continue to inspire the later day artists. Sri Maruthi, the well known artist revered him as his Guru (Maanasika Guru) and was full of respect when he told that he held KM (as he referred Madhavan) in his heart as Hanuman had borne Lord Rama in his bosom. He had collected some art works of Madhavan and opined that KM’s brush stroke was one of its kinds that till today it remains inimitable. While painting a horse, just one stroke of his brush will unerringly picturise the sway of its tail as it leaps forward. Also the colour tones which KM used also were exceptional in every sense and no artist of later days could bring about certain color combinations used by him. Certain colours like the ultramarine blue, which normally artists think twice before using were handled with utmost easiness that in KM’s paintings every colour merged into the totality. No matter which colour is used, his creations took life as he painted them. The charm of the faces, the anatomy of the figures, the emotions in their faces, the natural theme of the landscapes, everything moved a connoisseur of art into ecstasy that KM’s art works adorned living rooms of many great people of yesteryears. KM was highly successful in his career as his artworks drew the attention of both the elite and common plebian alike. He had no reservations in holding on to his works that most of them were offered to his well-wishers and other art lovers. Hence collection of KM’s works remains a challenging job and those who have them are least willing to part with them.
Periyar Sri.C.N. Annadurai was very much appreciative of KM’s art that he was particular that his every party campaign should have KM’s banners as the main highlight. The party’s policies and manifesto were driven into the minds of the people by the forceful paintings of K.Madhavan.
Also the portraits by K. Madhavan are so outstanding that at a time when photography was on the infant stage, many great personalities of the political and social field enjoyed to have their portraits done by none other than K. Madhavan. In one of such portraits of N.S. Krishnan, the leading film personality of his time, NSK is seen to wear a silk kurtha and the portrait awakes one’s awe as one hundred rupee note peeps out of his pocket. This and other portraits of film personalities are available even today at the Nadikar Mandram at Habeebullah Road, Chennai. Once, founder of Gemini studios S.S. Vasan wanted to have a portrait of his mother done and when called upon by Madhavan to see the finished work, Vasan rushed to Madhavan’s studio. On seeing the portrait, in a trance, Vasan walked upto the portrait and embraced it crying ‘Amma’, as it evoked memories of his late mother. Immediately out of his joy, Vasan is said to have rewarded K. Madhavan with a blank cheque for the priceless work.
The illustrious art-life of K. Madhavan faced the first set back when he had a heart ailment and was further affected by cataract of the eye. But his paint palette and brush accompanied him unto his life’s end and even with very poor vision he could create wonderful paintings. By that time the film banners, calendars, cover pages of magazines and other art works were slowly taken over by the print media, K.Madhavan’s film banners and other paintings were gradually receding to the backstage, away from the popular stream. The last period of life of this great man, who once made wonders with colours, who inspired a whole generation with his illustrious paintings and who was instrumental in making the pictorial art a popular art in the whole of South India was not though colourful. That a man of his stature and who enjoyed an elitist status in the society went into oblivion itself speaks a lot of the tragic saga of his in the later stage. Though he was rewarded with accolades and awards, Madhavan’s last days saw him away from the main stream and after his death in the fast pace of life only few stopped to reminisce of this legend and still today KM remains the King of arts – a real King whose life remains unsung and unpraised.
A genius in every sense, K Madhavan paid little attention in saving his wealth and earnings. As happened to the great Artists of his time like M K Thiyagaraja Bhagavatar, K. Madhavan was also not an exception when it came to his fag end. From his palatial bungalow near Kodambakkam he shifted to a small rented house and spent his last days there. In the hey days his art workshop was so stupendous for its architecture and contents with paints, colours and other painting materials imported from Ceylon and Paris. There were always some 20 to 25 artists and helpers for assisting him. Also it was the regular meeting place of great artists of his time like T N Rajaratnam Pillai, NSK, M R Radha and likes. But in the end his fate was like he was confined to a small room in the rented house in Vadapazhani with few of his brushes and colors in a small box. Even then and with a blurred vision he continued giving life for few paintings until his last breath.
K. Madhavan spent a few months in Trivandrum with his elder daughter. But he always wished to spend his last days in Madras, a city which groomed him and gave all the help for his growth. He came back to Madras some 5 months before his death. He passed away in Madras in the year 1977.
K. Madhavan at the time of his death was survived by his wife Pankajakshi Ammal, two daughters and a son. Pankajakshi Ammal passed away 7 yrs later in Madras. His elder daughter, Smt. M . Shantha, married to Mr. P. S. Thankappan (Retd. Jt. Director, Industries department, Government of Kerala) is settled in Trivandrum. She has got a good taste in Painitng and use to draw, but not professionally. His son, M. Velappan is in Chennai and recently retired from Doordarshan. KM’s youngest daughter Smt. T. M. Prabhavati was the principal disciple of Carnatic Music great Late Smt. M L Vasantha Kumari. Smt Prabhavati retired from Tamilnadu Govt. Music College as Professor and is settled in Chennai.
Last but not the least it should be mentioned that we received immense help for preparing this note about the life of KM from Artists Sri Maruti and Sri Dasan