The Indian Quarterly
Utopia Lost Image Credit: The Indian Quarterly
Utopia Lost Image Credit: The Indian Quarterly

Utopia Lost

The once-bohemian Cholamandal Artists’ Village is now a staid 50 years old.

Madhu Jain

It was evening by the time the two artists reached Injambakkam, on the outskirts of Madras. Chennai was still Madras in 1966, and the Cholamandal Artists’ Village was little more than a gleam in the eye of its makers. Exhausted, Velu Viswanadhan and RB Bhaskaran slept under the open sky, guarding the thatch and bamboo they had brought with them to build the first cottage. When Viswanadhan woke the next morning he saw the sprout of a seed on one of the tiny palm trees planted to demarcate the boundary of the land which a group of over 30 artists had collectively purchased to build India’s first artists’ village.

A towering banyan tree now stands where the palm once did. The innocuous little sprout which had embraced and engulfed the palm tree kept growing like, well, Jack’s beanstalk: you can barely see the trunk of the dead palm tree. The Cholamandal Artists’ Village also grew exponentially. There’s barely any trace of quaint huts with thatched roofs or a makeshift museum. Bohemia has all but disappeared from the Village: bricks, mortar, cement and the influx of money from various corporations have transformed what may have been an imagined utopia for the group of former students of the Madras School of Arts. Spurred on by the late KCS Paniker, painter and principal of the college, who moved to Cholamandal after he retired, the artists created a community where they could live and work—on land they owned and in homes and stud

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