Good in parts

Print edition : November 01, 1997

The exhibition on post-Independence trends at Delhi's Rabindra Bhavan Art Gallery was good to look at, but did not do justice to modern Indian art.

SUNEET CHOPRA

PUBLIC collections of art display different levels of excellence, but they can be far superior to any private collection in terms of quality and range. The exhibition of major trends in post-Independence Indian art at New Delhi's Rabindra Bhavan Art Gallery was testimony to this fact. Private collections can, at best, loan individual works for exhibitions, as they have done for this one, to give an edge to a show of publicly-owned ones. Also, the vision of curators doing a job more or less as public service is far clearer than that of gallery-owners and managers pushing private sales from public venues such as the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) at the tax payer's expense. The exhibition, curated by Rm. Palaniappan, draws primarily from the collections of the NGMA and the Lalit Kala Academi; there is also a smattering of relatively unimportant and mediocre works from Bhopal's Bharat Bhavan.

Wind Form, oil on canvas, 102 x 127 cm, N.S. Bendre, 1962. It reflects the shift from a concern with 'essence' in traditional Indian art to 'matter' in modern art.-

Wind Form

The show includes some striking works, but it cannot be called a comprehensive view of trends and trend-setters in the arena of India's post-Independence artistic expression. A critical eye does not fail to note the absence of that Indore artist, D.D. Deolalikar, the teacher of a whole generation of masters, among whom are M.F. Husain and N. S. Bendre. It is not as if his works are not at the NGMA; they have been left out as a result of curatorial myopia. It is the same case with the sculpture of Meera Mukherjee, one of the leading artists who utilised the lost wax tribal techniques to create monumental modern sculpture. Somenath Hore, one of India's most powerful sculptors, is represented by a minor print, while a sculpture of Leela Mukherjee is included, for no reason at all.

Musical Construction, wood and steel, 28 x 14 x 112 cm, Dhanraj Bhagat, 1967. It shows how material constructs can embody concepts even after they are freed from being mere representations of reality.-

Musical Construction

Similarly, in the graphics section, Chittoprasad, the most important of India's artists who worked on lino-cuts even before Picasso, is overlooked, as is Zarina Hashmi, the first Indian print-maker to achieve fame internationally. Among the young, once again there is the inexplicable exclusion of Neeraj Goswami, universally acknowledged to be among the best of this generation of artists of the personal narrative. The only practising Tantric artist with an undeniably modern expression, Sohan Qadri, is also not included.

Bindu, acrylic on canvas, 175 x 175 cm, S.H. Raza, 1981. It shows the emergence of symbolic and ritual elements in traditional art as pure abstractions. Abstraction is the dominant element in Raza's Bindu series at the turn of the 1980s.-

Bindu

On the other hand, works that have obviously nothing to do with a show of this stature, such as Goutam Vaghela's Yellow River, or a very weak work of K. C. S. Panicker when far better and major works by him are easily available at the NGMA, or an extremely ordinary study of a bull by Sunil Das in no way reflecting the radical use this artist has made of all sorts of materials long before they became fashionable, or a very perfunctory drawing by A.P. Santhanaraj, so much of whose major and painterly work can be found in Delhi itself, or the unbelievably slipshod and mediocre choice of works by Ratan Parimoo, J. Swaminathan, R. K. Dhawan, R. B. Bhaskaran and Homi Patel, among a host of other decorative and inconsequential ones, obviously leave no room for a proper art-historical appreciation. One is left to savour trends rather as one does fashions in a Sunday newspaper. This is the result of excessive formalism in art-historical vision without due concern for the concrete appreciation of the historical evolution of these forms. Only this can explain why minor works of the Bengal masters such as Nandalal Bose, Benode Bihari Mukherjee or Ram Kinkar Baiji, are included. From these works we cannot conclude that it was they who mapped out so much of the trajectory of post-Independence art. Similarly, one wonders why M. F. Husain's Zameen, also in the NGMA collection, has been excluded, when it inspired a whole generation of artists and art lovers. Obviously not enough thought has been given to the project and the now fashionable thematic approach has been used to cover up the lack of rigour, so we get a profusion in the place of a developmental picture of our art.

So What?, oil on canvas, 153 x 175 cm, Arpana Caur, 1985. This work, which was awarded the gold medal at the 1986 Triennale, was the artist's reaction to the massacre of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984. Caur's paintings give a radical content to present-day events.-

So What?

Still, to be fair to the curator, one can string together these developments if one cares to. Certain trends persist. The delicate balance of the figurative and the abstract derived from 17th and 18th century miniatures persists in the artists of the North, carrying us all the way from Nandalal Bose to Gogi Saroj Pal and Arpana Caur, the former blending it with furry objects that border on kitsch and the latter giving it a radical content in relation to present-day events, something court painting lacked in general. In the same way, we see the traditional symbolic art of ritual practices blending with the abstract celebration of the material existence of traces on two-dimensional space. This trend is visible in the work of K. C. S. Panicker, V. Vishwanadhan and Biren De in the 1960s, coming to a fusion with abstraction as the dominant element in Raza's Bindu series at the turn of the 1980s. It is interesting how the powerful ritual traditions of the South and the traditions of modern abstraction based on the material presence of pigment and the brush or pencil stroke come together in the work of a Central Indian artist, S. H. Raza. What is often formally dismissed as eclecticism is the very concrete process of different regional traditions coming together after Independence, carrying forward the momentum of the freedom struggle into the 1980s and the 1990s. That is why in the art of independent India, Muslims like S. H. Raza and Ghulam Rasool Santosh can seek and find artistic fulfilment in the inspiration of tantric symbolism, or M. F. Husain in the epics, while Devyani Krishna finds Islamic calligraphy influencing her expression. A more perceptive eye to such fusion on the part of the curator might have allowed us to see its development and growth or otherwise more clearly. This show unfortunately does not allow one to go beyond the phenomenon.

In the same way, the complex relation between tribal artistic expression and modern sensibilities is only partially revealed. The exclusion of Meera Mukherjee, in fact, prevents us from seeing how it was not only tribal imagery that was appropriated by Indian modernism but also the techniques, while the exclusion of young tribal artists now steeped in modern aesthetic expression, like the Bhopal-based Jangarh Singh Shyam, gives one a very distorted picture of the process as a whole. This two-way dialogue would not have been possible in a colonial state. But the nature of inclusion and exclusion on the basis of formal and thematic criteria has made such an insight impossible without extrapolating from one's earlier knowledge.

Icarus, bronze, 29.5 x 50 x 146.5 cm, Adi M. Davierwalla, 1963. This work, by a master sculptor whose contribution to modern sculpture is all but forgotten in a world of fads and fashions, reflects the beginning of the journey from an icon to matter organised in space.-

Icarus

The curator has highlighted certain significant works, like the Icarus of Adi Davierwala, a sculptor whose contribution to modern sculpture is all but forgotten in a world of fads and fashions, and the Musical Construction of Dhanraj Bhagat that predates those that emerged in the 1990s. The inclusion of a video film of a performance by Ratnabali Kant, an innovative artist who has not yet got the recognition she deserves, was welcome, as was the work of Valsan Kolleri, probably one of India's most profound sculptors, who has evolved his own variant of the balance and harmony in space of Chola bronzes with the material and textural concerns of modern sculpture. But all this is put together rather in the manner of a plate of canapes. There is variety but no direction. This does not do justice to modern Indian art despite being good to look at.

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