It is a mellow evening at Sunaparanta, Goa’s cultural centre, a space at once elegant and intimate. A small gathering of people is scattered around the inner courtyard of this beautiful heritage property for the opening of an exhibition, “Nasreen Mohamedi: From the Glenbarra Art Museum”, composed of the artist Nasreen Mohamedi’s works from the Glenbarra Art Museum in Himeji, Japan. Housed in the museum, the works have already been exhibited in Europe and North America; from Goa, they will proceed to Vadodara, New Delhi, and Mumbai (October 14-November 18 at Sunaparanta, Goa; December 8, 2022-January 15, 2023, at Space Studio, Vadodara; February 3-March 2, at Vadehra Art Gallery, and March 10-April 4, at Bikaner House, Delhi; April 20-May 26, at Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai).
The founder of the museum, art collector Masanori Fukuoka, addresses the group at the opening on October 14; he says that on a previous visit to Sunaparanta, he just knew that the India leg of this travelling exhibition had to open here. Located in Panaji’s elite neighbourhood of Altinho, Sunaparanta is a short distance from the shoreline and miles away from the popular beaches. But Goa, as Fukuoka points out, represents the sea that Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990) loved.
Among the subcontinent’s first and most significant modern women artists, Nasreen, as she was known, was an abstractionist at a time when representational art was the norm in India. Mentored by V.S. Gaitonde and Jeram Patel, and with contemporaries such as Tyeb Mehta and other luminaries from the Progressive Artists’ Group, she exhibited few of her works in her lifetime.
It was only after her untimely demise at 53 that the world began to take notice of her art. Today, her works have been displayed in leading museums and institutions around the world—at the opening of the MET Breuer, with the works of Mondrian at the Tate Liverpool, at MoMA New York, and Centre Pompidou, among others.
“To be with Nasreen was to enter a liminal space where reality was constantly transformed and experienced as if in a trance. How was it possible to see the world in such a different way?” muses Nina Sabnani in her essay “Nasreen: Journeys between Absence and Presence” featured in the exhibition catalogue. Indeed, as you immerse yourself in the remarkable artworks on display, you begin to take in the surroundings at Sunaparanta through Nasreen’s abstract lens—the lines of the Indo-Portuguese pillars, the geometry of its Mangaluru-tiled roof, the curve of the arched windows, the outline of its grand porch.
The first artwork to catch your eye is an arresting graphite, gouache and ink on paper. In the geometry of its graded lines, one interprets the shades of the sea with a curve on the right-hand corner, from which the lines seem to retreat, as perhaps the sandy shore. Like all the other works, this piece too is untitled and left open to interpretation. The exhibition is a veritable sea of minimalist expression in black and white, a collection of over 40 works that include paintings, drawings, collages, lithographs, and photographs from the 1960s until the 1980s.
The sea was a leitmotif in Nasreen’s life, a result of her having spent time in Bahrain, where her father ran a business, and in Kihim (Maharashtra), where the family had a house by the sea. In Mumbai, the extended Mohamedi family continues to live in the ancestral house along the city’s famous seafront at Bandstand, better known as the neighbourhood of Bollywood superstars.
“Nasreen was fascinated by the sea and the desert and photographed them but never exhibited those photographs in her lifetime,” says artist Navjot Altaf, Nasreen’s sister-in-law, who recalls visits to Nasreen’s sister’s Kihim house with her, a journey that involved travels by boat, bus, and khatara (bullock cart).
Navjot Altaf, a leading contemporary artist herself, has an enduring memory of Nasreen from their first meeting in 1972 through her husband-to-be and Nasreen’s younger brother, the late artist Altaf. “I was in my last year of college when we travelled to Delhi to see a retrospective of Amrita Sher-Gil, and we stayed with Nasreen. She was preparing for an exhibition at the Kunika Chemould and had placed all her works on the floor, reminding me of Carl Andre’s tiles,” says Navjot, referring to the works of the American minimalist artist.
She remembers Nasreen as a minimalist in life as in art: “I was amazed at how she could live with such few things.”
Born into a progressive family, Nasreen studied art at St Martin’s in England and then taught at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University, in Baroda; her work was the sum of her education, upbringing, influences, and experiences.
In Geeta Kapur’s essay “Elegy for the Unclaimed Beloved: Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990)”, featured in the exhibition catalogue but originally published in the monograph Nasreen in Retrospect, we are told of the deep impression made on Nasreen not only by artists like Kandinsky and Klee but also by Camus, Plato, and ideologies like utopian abstraction and constructivism; the latter, says Kapur, “use geometrical means… to celebrate a futurist plan of the world…” Most who knew Nasreen and have written about her also mention her spiritual bent of mind: her interest in Sufism and Zen philosophy.
Nasreen’s life and work seem to have a curious connection with Japan. Her father’s business in Japanese photographic equipment sparked her interest and led her to experiment with photography while a trip to Japan in 1981 made a deep impact on her work. “The zebra crossings, for example, captivated her and she took many photographs of road signs and crossings. She also found great inspiration from the raking of sand in the Zen gardens in Kyoto,” writes Sabnani. It is startlingly serendipitous therefore that a large body of Nasreen’s works should find a loving home in Himeji.
The story of Fukuoka’s obsession with Indian art is no less remarkable. The owner of a fish-processing business, it was his admiration for Buddhism that led him to India. When he came across Indian modern art, he wondered why it was so undervalued and felt he had to do something about it. He set out collecting contemporary Indian art with a single-minded purpose—to increase its value. Eventually, he turned a part of his factory into the Glenbarra Art Museum.
His intent was sometimes misunderstood. At the opening in Sunaparanta, Dadiba Pundole, owner of Pundole Art Gallery (now an auction house and the venue of this exhibition in Mumbai next year), admits to being sceptical of the then unknown Japanese collector who went about buying Indian art in bulk. That was until the mid-1990s, when Fukuoka asked him to curate a show; that interaction eventually led to the warm personal rapport the two share today. Pundole explains that Fukuoka followed his father’s advice: “Whatever you do or buy, make sure it’s the best that you can afford.” So even when a young Fukuoka could barely afford the Indian art he bought, he never compromised—something that Pundole only understood later. Did Fukuoka’s buying give an impetus to Indian contemporary art? Pundole says that he did not think about it then but in retrospect, things seem different.
In retrospect, the world certainly sees Nasreen’s work differently. There were international shows in Nasreen’s time, but her works were not always selected. However, Navjot remembers Nasreen’s works getting critical acclaim when she exhibited in India and that she was respected greatly by her students at MSU, Baroda.
It was in 1994, four years after Nasreen’s death, that Altaf and Navjot held the first retrospective of her works titled “Nasreen In Retrospect” at Jehangir Art Gallery and Chemould Gallery in Mumbai. From early 2000 onwards, her works gained visibility in the international art scene after being shown in New York by Talwar Gallery. Around the same time, during his many travels to India and on a visit to New York, Fukuoka would come upon some of Nasreen’s works and acquire them. The rest, as they say, is history.
How would Nasreen, who was known as a reticent, shy person, have reacted to this international acclaim if she were alive? “Perhaps she would have smiled inwardly,” says Navjot.
Janhavi Acharekar is an author, a curator and creative consultant.
- The exhibition, “Nasreen Mohamedi: From the Glenbarra Art Museum”, composed of the artist Nasreen Mohamedi’s works from the Glenbarra Art Museum in Himeji, Japan, opened on October 14 at Sunaparanta, Goa. It will proceed to Vadodara, New Delhi, and Mumbai in the coming months.
- Nasreen, as she was known, was an abstractionist at a time when representational art was the norm in India. It was only after her untimely demise at 53 that the world began to take notice of her art.
- Most of her pieces are untitled and left open to interpretation.
- The sea was a leitmotif in Nasreen’s life and art.
- Nasreen’s life and work seem to have a curious connection with Japan.