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Shri Artist P. J Cherian made an entry into the world of art as a painter and art teacher.
Very early in life he showed talent in drawing and painting. When he was in Maharaja’s College School during the fifth and sixth forms, in 1909 and 1910, he decided to appear for the technical exams in art conducted by the Madras government as a private student. He wrote the exams Elementary Free Hand Drawing, Intermediate Free Hand drawing and Elementary Painting, and passed the subjects, with flying colours . During that time he had training under Mr. A.H. Muller who was the drawing master in Maharaja’s college. An expert painter, Muller resigned his job in the college and went to Bombay and became a famous painter. Later he learnt art under drawing master Mr.U.V.Krishna Rao.
A very encouraging incident happened in his art venture during this time. He painted the picture of an elephant carrying a log of wood in water colour and sent it to the Duke of Norfolk in England. Even though he did not expect any reply from him, he not only received a complimentary letter from the Duke but also was given a gold sovereign as a gift. Using that gold sovereign, he bought a good water-colour box and other materials necessary for painting and drew the pictures of whatever he saw in order to develop into an artist. He became well known to the college students and professors and some of them got pictures painted by him. Though he got low marks in the school final examination which prevented him from gaining admission into college, he did not have any sense of regret. He felt that passing higher exams in painting and drawing would be better than a college education. He focused on drawing good pictures and earning the name of an excellent painter. On learning that in Madras he would be able to get advanced training in painting, he decided to go there in 1911. He stayed for two years in Madras and passed technical exams in Advanced Drawing and Painting, & Intermediate Design and Geometrical Drawing, conducted by the Madras government in 1911 and 1912 and passed with a first class in some and with a second class in others.
On his return from Madras he went to Thiruvanthapuram to enhance his painting skills by training under Sivaraman Pillai, the palace artist. But not being satisfied with this teacher, he joined painting classes under the famous artist Rama Varma Raja, son of Ravi Varma, in 1913 in his studio at Mavelikkara. While teaching there on the advice of Rama Varma in 1914 he ventured to establish the Ravi Varma Painting School initially from the outhouse of his rented house and later in the premises donated by Rama Varma. That is how the Ravi Varma Painting School was established in Mavelikkara. Cherian and Artist N.N. Nambiar were teachers there. Even Artist Rama Varma helped by analyzing the works of the students and pointing out mistakes. Today it is a government institution and functioning as the Government college of Fine Arts offering a Bachelor degree in Fine Arts. In 1914 he won first Prize in oil painting at Ochira Exhibition and won a silver medal. This silver medal was the first prize he received in an exhibition. After that, in 1915 and in 1916, and in many exhibitions he was awarded the first prize for oil painting and got gold medals. By 1915, Cherian returned to his native place with a wish to start a painting studio. He started a painting studio in 1916, called Guruvilasam at Thrissur, while also giving painting tuition for daughter of his Highness Maharaja Rama Varma who had abdicated his throne and was staying in Kanattukkara Kovilakam at that time. During this time two of his still life paintings were sent to Thrissur Museum, He was also patronized by Maharaja Rama Varma who also bought some paintings from him. Cherian also got a Job as a painting teacher in 1917 at the Thrissur Govt.Commercial Technical Industrial School which is now Government College of Fine Arts, Thrissur. He received ‘Veerasrinkala’ for painting in 1918 from the King on the occasion of the king’s 60th birthday, which was considered as a great achievement and an honour. The Elayathampuran of Kochi, ( who was known as ‘Dharmika Chakravarthi’ ) also visited Cherian’s studio in Thrissur and bought some of his paintings. He was also given some commissions by the Thrissur Vicar Apostolate Dr. John Menacheri In 1921 he felt that it would be profitable to set up a studio in Madras. Thus Cherian established a painting studio at Broadway,in Madras in 1921. Since this studio was not a financial success, in 1922 he took up appointment as the chief artist at Doss Brothers on a monthly salary of Rs. 150 which was a high salary in those days. Due to his father’s death, it became impossible for him to continue in Madras. So he returned to Njarakkal and started his own Royal Studio in Broadway Ernakulam in 1927 along with Doraiswamy Pillai who was the Kochi Durbar photographer. But in 1937 disaster struck. The Royal Studio in Doraiswamy Aiyar Building in Broadway, was gutted in a fire and burnt to ashes. Cherian was completely devastated, but took solace in the verse from the Holy Bible. “God gives; God takes back; everything that has happened is God’s will. May His name be praised.” During this time he also took up a Job at the Harbour Administrative Office, where Sir R.C. Bristow entrusted him with a unique task. At that time Wellington Island was reclaimed land and was lying barren. Apart from his office and bungalow, there were no other buildings. He wanted Cherian to paint an aerial perspective view of Wellington Island with the proposed buildings and establishments. Cherian drew the topographical aerial perspective view of Wellington Island and Cochin Port trust with the proposed buildings and establishments under the instruction Sir Robert Bristow in 1937 which was appreciated by the officer who honoured him. Cherian was also involved in theatre and cinema around this time.
It was only in 1956 that Cherian took up paints and brush again. He did paintings based on his visualizations of backwaters before and after the Five-Year Plan project. On being exhibited in Thrissur and Trivandrum, these paintings were appreciated by the officer in charge of the project Mr. K.R.Warrier and was commented in the Malayala Manorama news paper dated 14/2/56 which carried an article about this work, stating Mr. Cherian had taken an admirable lead in showing that art could also be used in the reconstruction and development of the nation. Around this time he became an active member of Chitrakala Parishad. Beginning of Chitrakala Parishad in 1957 was initiated during a meeting of painters in Malabar and later at Kumaranellore with Sri. P.T. Bhaskara Panikker, the editor of the Viswavigyanakosam, later Sri K.P.P. Thampi and Sri. K.R. Ravi Varma Raja as its presidents. Cherian took active part in Second Summer Artists Camp of Chitrakala Parishad organized for 8 days in Vivekodayam School at Thrissur in 1958, in which 60 artists participated. This Thrissur summer camp became one of historical importance as far as painting in Kerala is concerned. They did sketching, painting, sculpting, outdoor sketching etc along with discussions on art. ‘Snapakayohannan’ is a small oil painting that Cherian did at this camp. The picture referring to “St.John the Baptist’s Advice” was published in the book commemorating 75 years of “Deepika”. This camp prompted him to do painting in a style slightly different from his usual one. The result was another oil painting ‘Atmiya Vadamvali’, the theme of which was the image of the spirit of a youth being pulled in two directions, the good and the evil in the dilemma of a spiritual struggle. This painting which was acclaimed in many exhibitions was published in colour in the Malayala Manorama annual in 1962. It was also during this time (1960) that the full size oil portrait painting of Law College Principal, P.S.Achuthan Pillai was done. In 1960, on the occasion of the unveiling ceremony of this portrait by the Chief Justice Sri. K Sankaran at the Law College Hall, the administrators of the college made speeches felicitating Cherian and presented him a silver cup. The third annual meeting of the Kerala Chirtakala Parishad was conducted in 1960 under the auspices of the Kottayam branch. Along with the meeting, there was a painting exhibition in which Cherian’s paintings ‘Atmiya Vadamvali’ and ‘The Seashore- Before and After the Five Year Plans’were exhibited. Cherian was elected as the president of Chitrakala Parishad in 1960 at this conference. He served and promoted this organization as its president for 11 years.
In 1960 government appointed a three member Reconstitution Committee to enquire into the curriculum of Fine Arts schools with P.J. Cherian along with K.R. Ravi Varma and T.S. Sheshadiri . They had to evaluate, suggest changes and make a uniform syllabus for the art schools at Thiruvanthapuram School of Arts, Mavelikkara School of Painting and Tripunithura R L V Fine Arts School and submit a report. They submitted the report containing practical directions to the Government. Art education which is holistic and which can be balanced along with academic studies was the dream of Cherian. In one of his articles Cherian writes “In the last century, didn’t the pride of Kerala, Artist Ravi Varma, gain fame not only in India but also in the whole world? In the same way, doesn’t the dear son of Kerala, cartoonist Shankar, also shine like a star in the world of art? Don’t we see another Keralite K.C.S Panicker rising in the field of art? Mustn’t we try to nurture other Ravi Varmas, Sankars and Panickers?” Isn’t it our duty to develop our new growing generation into first class citizens with an artistic sense? Children should be encouraged in art.
At the fourth conference of Chitrakala Parishad in 1961 Cherian was elected President again. In the general body meeting convened on this occasion he enacted “Thee Pidicha Chitrangal”, a play on the life of an artist. In 1962 when the Government constituted the State Lalitha Kala Akademi, at the first General Council meeting of the academy, Cherian was nominated as an executive member of the Finance. In 1964 Cherian took up the commission of two big oil paintings of Dr. Marcos of the Law College, which was unveiled by the Vice Chancellor of the University, Dr. Samuel Mathai, in the Law College Hall in March, 1964 and the painting of Most Rev. Dr. Parekattil for the Bishop’s House which was unveiled at the Sacred Heart Petty Seminary Hall.
In 1968 Cherian was also presented a ‘Keerthimudra’ for long time services in the field of art by Chitra Kala Parishad. He continued to do paintings mostly commissioned portraits throughout his life. Today his paintings are in the collection of Trichur Museum, Dutch Palace- Mattanchery, Hill Palace- Thripunithura,. Ernakulam Guest house, Law College, Ernakulam, Arch Bishop’s house, and in private collections.