The tranquility on the campus of Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, Calcutta, which turns 100 on December 23, 2021, provided the answer to our question: how did a sculptor of unprecedented creativity manage to avoid the limelight and live a “quiet” life for years to come?
It seems the silence in college must have taught world-class sculptor PE Thomas, the lone genius we’re talking about, to stay out of the spotlight. It also made our mission all the more intimidating. Our task was to find specific references to Thomas, the first student of the University of Kerala, in the official documents.
As you walked through the halls, the expansive campus was as always thoughtful, shrouded in the timeless shadows of centuries-old trees, and the centennial celebrations were the last thing on display there.
The sculptures, rock paintings and wall paintings that dot the campus of Kala Bhavana, the University’s school of fine arts, include those created at the behest of its founder Rabindranath Tagore in the 1920s and 1930s.
R Sivakumar, professor of art history, patiently walked us through a timeline of the artists and teachers of Kala Bhavana, stopping to look at us kindly before adding that there seemed to be no specific reference to the first one. student at the University of Kerala. But we could search the archives, he suggested. It took hours to sift through countless files and folders to find recordings with the name we were hoping to see – PE Thomas. The solitary Malayali sculptor has created a work that is small in number but testifies to his ingenious art. He avoided the limelight throughout his life, choosing to devote himself to teaching and spent most of his career in his alma mater.
Exhibit number 817, according to Kala Bhavana records, is an oil painting by Thomas, titled – “A village woman with a jug on her head runs with her child on the bank of the river”. It turns out that the painting is the first work presented by a pupil of the school. A work having a place in the archives of Kala Bhavana is no small feat and Thomas had two entries against his name. There is a sad retort, however; the second, a sculpture titled Happy Family, has been lost from the Kala Bhavana archives. It was the first time (1956) that a work by a student during his university years was installed in Kala Bhavana.
Thomas could have joined such stalwarts as A Ramachadran, KG Subramaniyan, and KS Radhakrishnan – alumni who brought glory and laurels to the university. As little insightful as we have on what prompted his anonymity withdrawal, the amount of freelance work he did during his years as a teacher at the school is impressive. All these elements were created on the premises of the University. Not once has he done a solo show. The only exception to what appears to be a conscious decision to turn its back on awards and the spotlight is a few works on display in a few galleries in Ooty.
PE Thomas was born in Mallappally, a town in southern Kerala, to Poykamannil PM Eppan and Annamma. He completed his basic studies at Kottayam CMS School and College. It was his uncle T Chandy who was then on the editorial board of Malayala Manorama and KV Mathayi, his school principal and a parent, who spotted his talent and helped send him to Santiniketan. He joined the University’s School of Fine Arts in 1954.
“The nest of the world”
Imagined by Tagore as’ Yatra Visvam Bhavatyekanidam ‘- where the whole world can find a nest’, the tranquility of Santiniketan must have won over Thomas right away. The sprawling banyan tree, whose shadow is a revered space for ashramites; because it is there that the emblematic musical tradition of Tagore, “Rabindra sangeet”, took off. Unique traditions like holidays on Wednesdays instead of Sundays and planting saplings during the monsoon accompanied by song and dance – there was something to be impressed and in love with.
Thomas became the disciple of Ram Kinkar Baij, a pioneer of modern Indian sculpture. Baij was then the head of the sculpture department at Kala Bhavana and was a disciple of both Tagore and the famous sculptor and former director of Kala Bhavana, Nandalal Bose. His works such as Sujatha (1935), The Santhal Family (1938), Mill Call (1956) are exhibited on campus and his Yaksha-Yakshi sculpture is to this day on the premises of the Reserve Bank of India, New Delhi. .
Baij’s first instruction to Thomas was to observe nature and try to create replicas of what he had seen. Later he was trained in clay modeling. Over time, Thomas followed in the footsteps of his masters who embodied the spirit of the Reformation. Ringing with this, the art scene of independent India followed Baij’s line of making sculptures using “cheap” fabric and cement.
As a thank you, Baij gave Thomas the keys to one of his studios. Thomas had imbibed the traditions of Baij which are an amalgamation of expressionism, modernism, cubism and the abstract. It was in the classes of Visva-Bharati that he understood that the principles of Freud and Carl Jung had an impact on art. He believed that ancient and primordial forms influenced the human mind. Thomas’ fingers have become magical whatever the medium (cement or fabric or clay). He firmly believed in the saying “art for the sake of art”.
Days as a sculptor
There is a statue of its founder Rama Varma Raja at the Raja Ravi Varma College of Fine Arts in Mavelikara, Kerala. Although the statue is still a key facet of the college today, few people know its sculptor. But, if one looks laboriously through the glass, one name can be read: Thomas PE.
Returning to Kerala after four years of studies at Santiniketan in 1958, he began various missions. He made the statue of the founder of NSS Mannathu Padmanabhan, Kandathil Varghese Mappilai and KC Mamman Mapillai. Mannathu Padmanabhan became so happy that he gave him a gift to Thomas himself. It was in 1963 that he made the statue of Rama Varma Raja. Art critics say it was designed with a psychological vision in its mind. Rama Varma Raja is the son of the famous painter Raja Ravi Varma.
In 1962, Thomas became a teacher when the Sainik School was launched in Thiruvananthapuram. But soon he found the disciplinary school stifling and restrictive. He joined Lawrence School, Lovedale, Ooty, as a sculpture teacher. In 1964, he married Sosamma, a teacher there. A cement sculpture “Mahatma Gandhi” was made in 1964 for the school. In 1965 he completed the statue of Henry Lawrence.
He completed his masterpiece “Gymnast” in 1981. He is 31 feet tall. On the one hand it looks like the image of six gymnasts and on the other the spectator can see eight to 10 gymnasts. But on closer inspection, there could be as many as 15 gymnasts.
“Rythme” and “Danse de la mort”, fashioned in plaster of Paris in 1966, have been preserved in the premises of the Ooty school; “The ‘Family’ (1975) told the story of a daring head of a family who told his family members to emancipate themselves. The statue of Christ in Gethsemane at the sanctuary of the Kandal cross in Ootty, the “elephant” designed for the postal service of the tourist center of Thaipakkad, the statues of “sage Patanjali and the serpent” in front of the hospital of the regiment of Madras in Wellington and the Little Horse at the Ketti Needle Factory in Tamil Nadu are some of his major works.
A loving son of the Church
“Nalla Idayan,” a two-ton concrete structure erected at Marthoma House in Kozhikode, was completed by Thomas at the request of Theodosius Marthoma Metropolitan, who was then Bishop of Kozhikode. It was made in Gudalur and later brought to Kozhikode on a truck. The Metropolitan, who was a student of Santiniketan in the 1970s, actually honored the proud member of the Church by giving him such a responsibility.
The immortality of Christ is an underlying theme in Thomas’s sculptures. Each of his sculptures was a synthesis of real and virtual elements; each part exuding spiritual value. During his childhood, his hobby was making bamboo Christmas decorations. Although he dabbled in several things in his youth, he found his yin as a sculptor.
Thomas’s sculptures were popularized by connoisseurs who lovingly brought them to many parts of the world. No one has yet an idea of how many jobs he has undertaken and completed. The student-loving art master retired from Lawrence School, Ooty after 30 years of service. Later he opened a studio in Marthoma Nagar on the Thorapalli road in Gudalur. Until his death on May 7, 2017, at the age of 83, he brought hundreds of sculptures to life. His wife, Sosamma, lives in the Gudalur house among the sculptures. Their son Stephen is in Oman. Interestingly, his relatives who inform the artist’s wife of a housewarming or reception could receive a sculpture as a gift. What more could one expect from the house of the artist who firmly believed that the sculptor was also a philosopher.
Abandoned painter’s career
Thomas, who also excelled in painting, later gave up his passion for the paintbrush. The reason was simple. He didn’t want to bore his friends because there was too much appreciation for his paintings. His perceptions seemed strange. But it was worth imitating. He believed that art forms were not created for the purpose of mere sales or making money, but for conservation. His students at Lawrence School repeatedly asked him to organize art exhibitions. But he didn’t give in. His philosophy was to make every city beautiful with a number of sculptures. He even ran an art workshop in Oman for this purpose.
One of the four best sculptors in the world
Thomas is considered one of the four best sculptors in the world. Famous art critic Padmanabhan Thampi has spoken of him eloquently: “Afraid of publicity, Thomas has been an introvert his entire life. He was a ‘PET’ to those who loved him. Number one in his music. domain.It would be a great loss to Malayalis if his genius was not properly recorded in history.
Many of his sculptures should have been found in a location at the National Gallery of Modern Arts in New Delhi. During the centenary celebrations of Visva-Bharati University, it is a good time to remember the contributions of PE Thomas. But the debatable question is whether the academy leaders and the mandarins of Vishva-Bharati University are ready to give him the eminence he rightly deserves? At least Kerala shouldn’t forget that.