The tranquillity on the campus of Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, Kolkata, which turns 100 on December 23, 2021, provided the answer for our question: How did a sculptor with unparalleled creativity manage to shun the limelight and live a 'quiet' life for years?
It seems the silence at the varsity must have taught the world-class sculptor, P E Thomas, the reclusive genius we are talking about, how to stay away from the spotlight. This also made our mission all the more daunting. Our task was to find some specific references to Thomas, the university's first student from Kerala, in the official records.
As one walks across the corridors, the vast campus was pensive as always, cloaked in the timeless shadows of ancient trees, and centenary celebrations were the last thing on display there.
The sculptures, cave paintings, and murals that dot the campus of Kala Bhavana, the fine arts school of the University, include those that were created at the behest of its founder Rabindranath Tagore in the 1920s and 1930s.
R Sivakumar, Professor of Arts History, patiently walked us through a timeline of the artists and teachers at Kala Bhavana, stopping to regard us kindly before adding that there did not seem to be any specific reference about the University's first student from Kerala. But we could search the archives, he suggested. It took hours of sifting through innumerable files and folders to fish out records bearing the name we were hoping to see -- P E Thomas. The reclusive Malayali sculptor created a body of work that is few in number but testimony to his ingenious craft. He shunned the limelight all through his life, choosing to dedicate himself to teaching and spent the better part of his career at his alma mater.
Exhibit number 817, according to the Kala Bhavana archives, is an oil painting by Thomas, titled - 'A village woman with a pitcher on her head is running with her child on the bank of the river'. The painting happens to be the first featured work by a student of the school. A piece of work getting a place on the Kala Bhavana archives is no small feat and Thomas had two entries against his name. There is a sad rejoinder though; the second one, a sculpture titled Happy Family, was lost from the Kala Bhavana Archives. This was the first time (1956) a work by a student during his academic years was installed at Kala Bhavana.
Thomas could have joined the ilk of stalwarts such as A Ramachadran, K G Subramaniyan, and K S Radhakrishnan -- alumni who brought fame and laurels to the University. As little insight as we have about what prompted his withdrawal into anonymity, the volume of independent work he did during his years as faculty at the school is awe-inspiring. All of these were created on the premises of the University. Not once did he hold a solo exhibition. The lone exception to what seems like a conscious decision to turn his back on awards and spotlight is a couple of works exhibited in a few galleries in Ooty.
P E Thomas was born in Mallappally, a town in south Kerala, to Poykamannil P M Eppan and Annamma. He completed his basic education at Kottayam CMS School and College. It was his uncle T Chandy who was then on the editorial board of Malayala Manorama and K V Mathayi, the headmaster of his school and a relative, who spotted his talent and were instrumental in sending him to Santiniketan. He joined the fine arts school of the University in 1954.
Envisioned by Tagore as 'Yatra Visvam Bhavatyekanidam' – where the whole world can find a nest’, the tranquillity of Santiniketan must have won Thomas over right away. The sprawling Banyan tree, the shade of which is a revered space for the ashramites; for this was where Tagore's signature music tradition 'Rabindra sangeet' took wings. Unique traditions like holidays on Wednesdays instead of Sundays, and planting of saplings during the monsoon accompanied by chanting and dancing -- there was much to be in awe of and fall in perpetual 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 renowned sculptor and former principal of Kala Bhavana, Nandalal Bose. His works such as Sujatha (1935), Santhal family (1938), Mill Call (1956) are displayed on the campus and his Yaksha-Yakshi sculpture stands to this day on the premises of the Reserve Bank of India, New Delhi.
Baij's initial instruction to Thomas was to observe nature and try creating replicas of what he saw. Later, he was trained in clay modelling. Over time, Thomas followed in the steps of his masters who embodied the spirit of reformation. Chiming with this, the art scene in independent India toed the line of Baij who made sculptures using ‘cheap’ cloth and cement.
As a mark of appreciation, 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 from the Visva-Bharati classrooms that he understood that the principles of Freud and Carl Jung had an impact on art. He believed that olden and primordial shapes influenced the human mind. Thomas's fingers turned magical irrespective of the medium (cement or cloth or clay). He was a firm believer in the dictum, ‘art for art's sake.”
Days as a sculptor
There exists a statue of its founder Rama Varma Raja at the Raja Ravi Varma College of Fine Arts in Mavelikara, Kerala. Though the statue is a key facet of the college even now, not many know of its sculptor. But, if one peers through the glass laboriously, a name can be read: Thomas PE.
Coming back to Kerala after four years of studies in Santiniketan in 1958, he started taking up various assignments. He made the statue of NSS founder Mannathu Padmanabhan, Kandathil Varghese Mappilai, and K C Mamman Mapillai. Mannathu Padmanabhan became so happy that he gave him a present to Thomas in person. It was in 1963 that he made the statue of Rama Varma Raja. The art critics say that it was designed with a psychological vision in his mind. Rama Varma Raja is the son of renowned painter Raja Ravi Varma.
In 1962, Thomas became a teacher when Sainik School was launched in Thiruvananthapuram. But soon, he found the disciplinarian school muffling and restraining. He joined Lawrence School, Lovedale, Ooty, as a teacher of sculpture. In 1964, he married Sosamma, a teacher there. A cement sculpture ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ was done in 1964 for the school. In 1965, he finished the statue of Henry Lawrence.
He completed his masterpiece work "Gymnast" in 1981. It is 31 feet high. From one side, it looks like the image of six gymnasts and from the other, the viewer can see eight to 10 gymnasts. But on a closer look, there could be up to 15 gymnasts.
"Rhythm" and "Dance of Death", fashioned out of plaster of Paris in 1966, were kept on the Ooty school premises; “The "Family" (1975) told the story of a bold family head who told his family members to emancipate themselves. The statue of Christ at Gethsemane at Kandal Cross Shrine, Ootty, the "Elephant" designed for the Postal Department at Thaipakkad tourist centre, the statues of 'sage Patanjali and the Snake' in front of the Madras Regiment Hospital at Wellington and the Little Horse at the needle factory at Ketti in Tamil Nadu are some of his major works.
A fond son of the Church
''Nalla Idayan,” a concrete structure weighing two tonnes erected at the Marthoma House in Kozhikode, was completed by Thomas at the behest of Theodosius Marthoma Metropolitan, who was the then Kozhikode Bishop. It was made in Gudalur and later brought to Kozhikode on a lorry. The Metropolitan, who was a student of Santiniketan in the 1970s, was actually honouring the proud member of the Church by giving him such a responsibility.
Christ’s immortality is an underlying theme of Thomas’s sculptures. Each of his sculptures was a synthesis of real and virtual elements; every part oozing spiritual value. During childhood, his hobby was making Christmas decorations in bamboo. Though he dabbled in multiple things as a youngster, he found his yin as a sculptor.
Thomas' sculptures were popularised by connoisseurs who lovingly carried it to many parts of the world. Nobody still has an idea about the number of works he took up and completed. The loving arts master of students retired from Lawrence School, Ooty, after 30 years of service. Later, he opened a studio in Marthoma Nagar on the Thorapalli route in Gudalur. Till his death on May 7, 2017, at the age of 83, he gave life to hundreds of sculptures. His wife, Sosamma, lives in the Gudalur house amid the sculptures. Their son Stephen is in Oman. Interestingly, his relatives who notify the artist’s wife of a house-warming or a function could get a sculpture as a gift. What better could one expect from the house of the artist who firmly believed that the sculptor is a philosopher, too.
Abandoned painting career
Thomas, who excelled in painting too, abandoned his passion with the brush later. The reason was simple. He didn't want to annoy his friends as there was too much of appreciation for his paintings. His perceptions seemed strange. But it was worth emulating. He believed that art forms were not made for the purpose of mere sales or making money, but for conservation. His students in Lawrence School many times asked him to organise art exhibitions. But he did not relent. His philosophy was to make each town beautiful with a number of sculptures. He even conducted an art workshop in Oman for this purpose.
One among the best four sculptors in the world
Thomas is regarded as one of the four best sculptors in the world. Famous art critic Padmanabhan Thampi waxed eloquent about him: "Being scared of publicity, Thomas used to be an introvert throughout his life. He was "PET" for those who loved him. Such was his creativity that if he wanted, he could have been the number one in his field. It would be a great loss for Malayalis if his genius was not properly recorded in history."
Many of his sculptures should have been found in a place in New Delhi's National Gallery of Modern Arts. During the centenary celebrations of Visva-Bharati University, it is the right time to remember the contributions of PE Thomas. But the moot question is whether academy leaders and Vishva-Bharati University mandarins are ready to give him the eminence which he rightfully deserved? At least, Kerala should not forget him.