Print materials from the Kovilpatti exhibition

Kovilpatti: The Town That Papered India is a new exhibition at DakshinaChitra Heritage Museum, in Muthukadu, Tamil Nadu, India. Curated by Art & Architectural History Adjunct Research Professor Stephen Inglis, it examines an especially rich and innovative period in Indian print culture.

Dr. Inglis writes:

“Art worlds” coexist in every complex society, some of these worlds patronised by elites, others fulfilling the needs of regional or local populations, each with its artists, audiences and technologies. The 20th century was a period during which the printed picture came to dominate the Indian perspective, from domestic through commercial spaces directed toward religious, political and leisure themes. Printed pictures produced by lithography and then photo offset presses could be seen in virtually every home, school, office, and shop in the country

In the mid-20th century, the heyday of printed imagery in India, a group of artists in a tiny town in southern Tamil Nadu became a creative force in this industry. Gathering around a charismatic elder, C. Kondiah Raju (1898- 1976) in Kovilpatti, these artists, several of whom had, like their guru, been drama scenes painters, actors and musicians for drama troupes, set up photo studios and began to paint for the big printing companies in nearby Sivakasi. Their images, for calendars, magazine and book covers, the cinema, and invitations, labels and greeting cards became popular throughout India and wherever Indians settled abroad. This exhibition traces the contributions of this extraordinary group of artists to what was the most influential style and form of Indian art of the 20th century, and to the ways that many Indians still visualise their deities, their politicians and their celebrities.

The artists who created these images were unknown to their audiences despite the enthusiasm for the printed versions of their work in the forms of “framing pictures”, calendars, magazine covers, and cinema banners.

Black and white photograph of a man reclining in a crescent moon, from the Kovilpatti exhibition

“It is one of those unexpected treasures of my fall curatorial project,” says Stephen Inglis. “This is the late great popular painter T. S. Subbiah (1929-2006) demonstrating one of the photo studio backdrops he and his fellow Kovilpatti artists painted and sold before the printed picture market opened up. “

For more information, visit the DakshinaChitra Heritage Museum website.