One hundred years of Silpi, the artist who painted like a sculptor

Written By Xappie Desk | Updated: January 27, 2019 16:19 IST
One hundred years of Silpi, the artist who painted like a sculptor

The very name Silpi evokes awe even as it conjures up lively water-colour images of deities in sanctum sanctorum and 3D-like line drawings of temples and their sculptures.
The birth centenary of P.M. Srinivasan — who was conferred the title ‘Silpi’ by his guru Mali (T.R. Mahalingam) because he painted like a sculptor — passed on January 19 without notice.
He is one among the five great masters — including K. Madhavan, S. Rajam, Maniam and Gopulu — who evolved a unique style from the native tradition and culture and without any foreign influence. Silpi could produce 3D effect in his paintings which is otherwise possible only through a camera,” said noted painter Maniam Selvan.
Silpi had a flair for the brush even as a child and his talent was spotted by freedom fighter and poet Namakkal Ramalingam Pillai. But Silpi’s father Mahadeva Iyer, who had a thriving timber business in Namakkal, rejected the idea of training him as a painter since he wanted his son to join government service.
“But change in family fortunes forced my grandfather to agree to the proposal of Ramalingam Pillai after a few years. The poet took my father with him to Chennai and admitted him in the School of Arts and Crafts,” said S. Mahalingam, son of Silpi.
An extraordinarily talented Silpi completed the six-year course in four years.
“At a time when line drawing was still unknown in India, my father excelled in the genre. If he drew a scene at the Central railway station, he would be there till the last light and would resume the next day. He would create a scene as he saw it and would never allow his imagination come in the way,” said Mr. Mahalingam, who was named after his father’s guru Mali.
Silpi’s paintings were featured in all leading magazines, particularly in Ananda Vikatan, Kalaimagal and Bhavan’s Journal. He turned his attention exclusively to temples and deities on the advice of Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi, paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham. “Periyava (the Sankaracharya) told my father that since devotees did not visit temples as they used to, you have to ensure that the deities reach the houses of devotees through your paintings,” recalled Mr. Mahalingam.
Silpi was allowed to sit in the sanctum sanctorum of temples for hours to paint. He even had access to jewels of the temples to get an idea of nuances and on a few occasions he himself decorated the deities before drawing them. “His painting ensured that we worshipped the deities at home without the push and pull of the crowd in the temples. Once I visited his exhibition in the P.S. School on the advice of my father. I was stunned by the panoramic view of Madurai temple, which he had drawn sitting on the temple tower,” recalled Mr. Selvam. “He explained that he would cover one portion in one sheet and another portion on another sheet and finally merge them. The foreground, middle ground and background with the depth of the field found expression in his work. It was possible only for the only and one Silpi,” remarked Maniam Selvam.