An alumnus of the Govt. School of Arts & Crafts (at present known as the Govt. College of Fine Arts), Madras, Santhana Raj became a teacher there; he also taught at the Trivandrum Arts College (on deputation) and was principal at the Govt. School of Arts & Crafts, Kumbakonam and finally at Chennai. One of his senior students Alphonso Doss says, “he was an extraordinary artist; no one dealt with space so well or the distribution of light and colour. He was like a centrifuge and the students could feel the vibrancy spreading around; he was brilliant and had his own philosophy about art. He adapted the line and mass from the temple murals in his own style”. According to his student Trotsky Marudu Santhana Raj used to deal with a lot of themes from the Tamil literature, myths and folk tales; he also did a series on folk dances, all in his own stylized idiom. His early works had been inspired from Pallava sculptures.
Santhana Raj would communicate his original thoughts to the students and say, “let your expression be bold”. A couple of years junior to him in the School Mr. K. Srinivasan says, “when I was trying to do some academic work, he told me to be free saying nalla kirukku”. “The linear trend of the ‘Madras School’ is well known and no one can beat Mr. Santhana Raj in a span of 50 years”, declares Marudu. He has influenced and educated a generation of artists, many of whom have won acclaim at international level. In the 1960s through ’70s most of the important artists of the South had studied under him.
He used to work along with the students and the latter learnt the nuances by observation. Confirms Alphonso, “his paintings were teaching aids to students”. Marudu recalls an occasion, “I was painting carefully a landscape and he came and stood next to me and said, ‘you are good at what you are doing; but are your eyes shaded like the horses? The blank paper is your world; you can compose from what you see around you; there are no strict rules of colour; keep experimenting’ and pushed me to the next level from academic style”. He was very emotional and spontaneous while talking as in painting or drawing. His works were demonstrative. He used to say, “it is not just drawing, first try to understand yourself”. According to Marudu, Santhana Raj was perhaps the first to adapt colour sketch pens to draw; “he had a special way of using them as no one else had done”. Popular illustrator and artist Maniam Selven says, “I had taken commercial art but used to go to his painting classes to try to understand contemporary style. His approach to life study was special; he’d use bold strokes and walk back to watch them from various angles. In fact he used to arrange the models in very unusual postures”. If his mannerisms while painting attracted Maniam Selven, his appearance, his style of dressing in white and his English fascinated Marudu. Besides winning the National Award twice, he was also honored with both Kalaimamani and Kalaichemmal awards by the Govt. of Tamil Nadu. In the passing away of Santhana Raj at the age of 77 on May 24, 2009, the world of art has lost one of the greatest artists according to another of his students the Delhi-based artist Muthu Koya. Hailing from Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, he spent the last few years of his life also there.