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Pongal Greetings by K. Madhavan

Stephen Inglis

Patricia Uberoi’s illustrated essay “Good Morning-Welcome-Svagatam” inspired me to offer a note on another regional form of popular art…printed greetings to friends on the occasion of the spring harvest festival, Pongal, in Tamilnadu. The images reproduced here are from three such cards


The first card, with two panels forming a single image shows a woman painting the clay pot used to boil the festival milk rice. (Fig. 01a) Her attention is arrested by the vision of the garlanded bull and strapping youth, possibly one of the “heroes” that will participate later in the day in the “bull tie” (jalikatu)  a running of the bulls that often accompanies the festival. (Fig. 01b) This card has been signed by someone from Alanganallur, a town near Madurai, where the jalikattu is perhaps the most famous in the state (and which became deeply implicated in fighting the failed attempt to ban bull sports in spring, 2008). I’ll let the reader imagine whether this young man is her son (motherly pride) or suitor (men sometimes dedicate their “run” to a favourite). Some might suspect an underlying reference to a meeting between Parvati and Siva. Regardless, their encounter features a riveted gaze.

The second card consists of three panels. The first is a classic “village belle” in a sensuous pose, (Fig. 02) with the fertile land and harvest setting off her own beauty, a well-ploughed theme in Indian popular art. The second shows the welcome of the dawn on the Pongal day, (Fig. 03) with the pots just beginning to boil over, as they should, and their worship by the family with the lamp, flowers and fruit. The cut sugar cane, grain and proximity to the fields are all part of the setting. A third panel (Fig. 04) shows a young man who having helped goad the bulls into a frenzy now tries to escape a charge.




The third card (Fig. 05) suggests that the Gods celebrate Pongal along with their devotees. Its two panels show Balaganapati and Balamurugan flanking the boiling Pongal pot.


If these delightful little prints have the easy grace of an experienced illustrator, it’s because they are the work of K. Madhavan (1907-1979) one of the most popular and successful Indian commercial artists of the 20th c. They were probably painted and printed in the 1960’s. I’ve tried to piece together a biographic note, largely through information from his wife, K. Pankajachiammal,  who still lived at their family home in Vadapalani district of Madras (Chennai) in the early 80’s as well as from other artists, but if anyone has any other information or sources, these would be most welcome.

Madhavan was born in Trivandrum (Thiruvanathapuram) into an Asari community family. His father was a specialist in ivory and wood carving. He attended St. Joseph’s High School there and then earned a diploma at The School of Arts and Crafts, Trivandrum.


He shifted to Madras in 1929, and like many other artists of the period, found work with drama companies as an actor, singer and painter of backdrops.

He worked for Kanniya Company, K.S.K Nadar and T.K. Brothers, and learned backdrop painting from Hussain Bux. He in turn included amongst his students, Kandaswamy, Dharmadas, Kuppaswamy, R. Natarajan, and Balan (of Balan Arts).

 If there is a punch line to this story, it is the astonishing range of forms within the genre of popular art to which K. Madhavan applied his skills. He was perhaps best known (or, I should say most widely recognized…he was never well-known) for his covers of Tamil weekly and bi-monthly magazines, including Uma, Muttaram, Kalaimakal, Kalavallai, Nalayini, Kamarai, Kaveri, Savi, Kalki and Anantha Vikatan. It was, perhaps for this work that he earned the title, “the Norman Rockwell of South India”. 

He painted sets and did banners for cinema studios, including Madras’ Gemini Studios in the 1940’s (K. Jain, 2007, p.152*). His wife told me he had received the title of “Oviya Mannar” (king of banners) from C. N. Annadurai (the former chief minister of Tamilnadu). 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 et al, The Hindu, Jan.15th, 2008).  He became associated with the Safire, Yeshwant Veecumsee’s first multi-theatre complex in India on Mount Road. It opened in 1964 with the Safire, Emerald, and Blue Diamond, and closed in the 1980’s. The lobby was still decorated with K. Madhavan’s framed paintings when I first visited the theatre in the early 1970’s.

Throughout his career, he painted for the calendar and picture framing market. His earliest design was apparently for Burmah-Shell and some of my favourites are images for T.A.S. Rathnam Snuff calendars. His flowing style and sweet expressions are unmistakable and became a signature for the style of popular imagery in Tamilnadu in the mid-20th century. Visit the Gallery >>

Dr. Stephen Inglis is a Senior Curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Québec.


Baskaran, S. T.  “Documenting an art form that has vanished”, (review of The Nine Emotions of India Cinema Hoardings by V. Geetha, Siresh Rao, M.P. Dakshina: Tara Publishing, Chennai) The Hindu (online edition), Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2008.

Inglis, S. “Suitable for Framing: The Work of A Modern Master.” In Media and Transformation of Religion in South Asia, ed. Lawrence Babb and Susan S. Wadley, 51-75. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995

Inglis, S. “Master, Machine and Meaning: Printed Images in Twentieth Century India”. In Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds, ed. Ruth Phillips and Christoper Steiner, 105-122. Berkeley, University Of California Press, 1999.

Jain, K. Gods in the Bazaar: the Economies of Indian Calendar Art, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2007. (p.152)

Rao, S., Geetha, V., Wolf, G.  An Ideal Boy: Charts from India, Stockport and Chennai, Dewi Lewis and Tara Publishing, 2001. (p.129)

Read a more detailed essay on K. Madhavan by Stephen Inglis:
"The Norman Rockwell of South India" Multiformity and Repute in the Work of a 20th century Artist

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