Finding an expression of its own

Print edition : September 06, 1997

Indian contemporary art, like art the world over, can share cross-references with that of Europe or Japan; beyond these, it reflects the momentum of contemporary events.

SUNEET CHOPRA

ONE of the more fortunate fallouts of the celebrations marking 50 years of Independence has been the attempt at introspection by numerous private galleries. Between museums and private galleries, museums have done a far better job than the galleries, as is evident from the exhibitions at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), the venue for both the best and the worst of these shows.

The best show was the one curated by R. Siva Kumar of Santiniketan, 'The Making of a Contextual Modernism', exhibiting about a hundred works each of Nandalal Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Ram Kinkar Baij and Binode Bihari Mukerjee. The worst was a selection by critics, obviously at cross-purposes with one another, of works primarily sought to be projected by the Vadhera Art Gallery. It is alleged that Neeraj Goswami, the most gifted of Delhi's young artists, was excluded from the show as he exhibits exclusively at another gallery.

The Birth of Chaitanya Zameen

Not only Neeraj Goswami but many others, including Jamini Roy, were excluded, giving one the impression that there was no art in contemporary India other than those in Bombay and Baroda.

But, as is the nature of things, Santiniketan has given a fitting reply - not only with the NGMA show, but also one (called Talash) organised by Santiniketan artists in Delhi, including Bon Behari Ghosh, Premalya Singh, K. S. Radhakrishnan and others, at Rabindra Bhawan. We were thus reminded how the only art institution that refused funds from Britain in the colonial days represents the best living and changing tradition in art even today.

Moreover, Ebrahim Alkazi's comprehensive collection of the works of the self-taught artist Chittaprosad also went on show at the Art Heritage gallery. Sidharth Tagore has curated a show of Indian abstractionists from Gaganendranath Tagore on. Other exhibitions that fill in the gaps with shows of young artists such as Sukhvinder Singh (at Gallery Espace), Neeraj Bakshi (Village) and Neeraj Goswami and Paresh Maity (Ganesha), allow one to get a good idea of where our contemporary art is today.

After seeing these works, their range and capacity to grasp and communicate realities beyond the false divisions of styles and concocted histories of forms, equally easily declared to be original or eternal, as in post-War European art criticism, one realises that European models will not do. Our contemporary art, like art the world over, can share cross-references with that of Europe or Japan. Beyond these, it reflects the momentum of contemporary events.

As Ram Kinkar Baij, a powerful modern painter and sculptor, who was the son of a village masseuse and barber and who came to Santiniketan on account of the skilful posters he painted during the non-cooperation movement, said: "I do not know whether what I am doing is modern or not, but it is based on my experience."

TO be precise, our modern art emerged out of the experience of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the experience of dismantling the aesthetic of European academism, classicism and orientalism imposed on us by colonial rule in the process of fighting colonialism itself. Ravi Varma's inability to break out of the formal straitjacket imposed on him by Lord Napier was, surely, linked with his concerns with matters relating to the throne of Travancore.

Rabindranath Tagore refused British funds for Santiniketan, renounced his knighthood after Jallianwalla Bagh and rejected both colonial academism as well as its radical version of orientalism. He sought a fusion of the folk and tribal art of the Santhals and the Bengal peasantry. As Tagore and his friends drew closer to the national movement, they could not avoid coming to terms with the aesthetics of those who were the backbone of the struggle against the British.

Nor were forms of art sacrosanct. We can see a powerful link between Gaganendranath Tagore's savage lampooning of imperialism and its brown-skinned agents, both the countrified zamindars and the anglicised bureaucratic elite, and the evolution of an unconventional vision of Cubism that was his own.

True, his cartoons reflect the influence of Bruno Paul, the German cartoonist, and his Cubism, the influence of Picasso; but then, this influence was of artists themselves challenging colonialism in Europe by using African art as a point of departure. In the age of empires, they, especially Picasso, were kindred spirits against its aesthetics. But they grew and developed together. If Picasso influenced both M. F. Husain and F. N. Souza in terms of imagery, forms and life-style, he too was influenced by Chitpur prints - the roots out of which a whole generation of the Bengal school evolved a language of its own.

Also, European influences were not the only ones. Kakuzo Okakura, who founded a school of art in Japan based on the concept of Nihonga (roughly translated as Swadeshi) around the same time as our own Swadeshi movement, influenced the Santiniketan artists to link up with their tradition, observe life and be original in its expression, giving us the works we have today. Our art freed itself in the first decade of the century from British tutelage and came into its own with Gaganendranath Tagore's anti-imperialist cartoons and Cubistic works after the end of the First World War. Anti-imperialism and freedom of expression were the watchwords of this art. That is why it preferred to link itself to the tribal and folk traditions rather than colonial or Mughal atelier ones, in which the artist was always a second-class citizen.

The operative word, however, is 'tradition'. It meant different things to different people. To Ravi Varma it was epic content in a colonial style; to the orientalists, it was a romantic content in the dress of our own Mughal imperial style; to our contemporary artists, it was the life of rural India in its own stylistic clothes, cross-fertilised by a myriad of influences as widely scattered as Japanese screen-painting, German Expressionism, Cubism, Gupta sculpture and Pahari miniatures, to name only a few. Unlike the art of the academicians or orientalists, it was free to find its inspiration, be irreverent about it and express it in its own way. The best of our contemporary art does just that.

One is amazed at the confidence of the imagery even today. When one looks at Chittaprosad's piece showing two tribals killing a tiger, one can understand how in an age when peasant upsurges had driven out the most powerful colonial power, the strength of the weak was something to rejoice over. This was also the period when leading Bengal school artists took to perfecting not only popular mediums like the wood-cut but also began to use time-tested Indian ones like tempera. Today the highest prices are paid for the works of the artist Ganesh Pyne, all done in this medium. This is a tribute to the Bengal masters like Nandalal Bose who reintroduced and perfected it.

AFTER the initial breakthrough of a modern approach in art by Bengal masters like Gaganendranath, Nandalal, Rabindranath and Ram Kinkar, it was left to artists like Jamini Roy, M.F. Husain, K.H. Ara, S. H. Raza F. N. Souza, V. S. Gaitonde and a host of others to fill in the spaces the Bengal artists had indicated. Here too, people like F. N. Souza, K. H. Ara and M. F. Husain were deeply touched by the national movement.

Santhal Family

They were now faced with the new feeling of nation-building art. Ram Kinkar Baij resurrected Gupta grandeur in his Yaksha and Yakshi, representing industrial and agrarian progress, in two massive sculptures now installed at the portals of the Reserve Bank; Krishen Khanna, in his painting of people receiving the news of the murder of Mahatma Gandhi, used the everyday newspaper as an abstract space to contemplate, rather as Nandalal had used the Pahari device of tree-trunks to break the images of Radha and Krishna, but with a new purpose of introducing an abstract element in a figurative work. On the other hand, the late landscapes of Gaganendranath and the early abstractions of Gaitonde have a lot in common.

Perhaps there is never anything really new in human expression; but there are always new ways of saying things. And the art immediately after Independence was expectedly starry-eyed. But then, its healthy irreverence began to be clouded by sycophancy from the time of Indira Gandhi onwards. Even M. F. Husain celebrated the internal Emergency by portraying its perpetrator as a goddess.

However, by then, another major artist had emerged: Vivan Sundaram. His imagery, in his early work, reflected Central American massing of elements, something we also see in the early work of Satish Gujral; but by the time of the Emergency he had blended it into a language of his own with images from German Expressionism. Later he was to use this with devastating effect in his 'Signs of Fire' series of Dadaist boxes, using abstract interconnections to remind one that even the most abstract art is linked to social events and processes and can communicate their impact to the viewer, just as this series does the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the massacre of innocents that followed in 1984.

Between 1975 and 1984, the irreverence that was the life of our contemporary art of the 1930s and 1940s seemed to have resurfaced. From this period on, we get the Bhagalpur blindings series (Manu Parekh), the corrupt politician series (Paritosh Sen), the clowning politician (Dhiraj Choudhary), the anti-Sikh riot series, the widows of Vrindavan and the girl child series (Arpana Caur), the prostitute victims series (Sunil Das), the homosexual men (Bhupen Khakhar) and, in the later phase, Arpita Singh's paintings of revolver-carrying men, culminating in her Durga with a revolver.

Clearly, a major shift had taken place. Instead of the self-congratulatory artists all out to harvest the fruits of Independence or savour the pleasures of London, Paris and New York, no longer as slaves, but from a new world with a freshly acquired self-respect, we get a new generation of critical artists, like Chittaprosad or Zainul Abedin, who take their cue from those who created haunting images of the famine-stricken, the unemployed and the victims of the new machinery of law and order.

IN recent times, the boldness with which the artist community of the country reacted to the murder of the theatre activist Safdar Hashmi, its resistance to the communal frenzy that led to the destruction of the Babri mosque; its defence of Husain during the controversy over the Saraswathi etching - all show a deeper understanding of what our art movement was about and a desire to take up its threads again.

The new generation is less likely to be disoriented so easily. It is applying itself to popularising our traditional mediums like tempera, as Ganesh Pyne has done. The old practice of post-card art was revived by SAHMAT as a tribute to Gandhi and an art with a powerful social commitment reflected in its very being has come to stay. At the same time, installation, construction, and even performance art are coming up, voicing concerns over issues that range from women's rights, communal harmony to hunger, poverty and oppression. Indeed, artists have stood up far more generously than art buyers for a variety of causes, ranging from cruelty to animals to solidarity with Cuba against the U.S. blockade. "The artists have shown themselves to be more generous than the rich who bought their paintings," says Anupam Sud, a well-known Delhi artist, "Why did they have to have a painting to donate money to a good cause? They could easily have given the amount."

The fact that artists are more often generous than patrons, and are often celebrities in their own right, shows that art and artists have come a long way from the humble miniature painter who lost caste for taking up such a low profession and was constrained to toe the patron's line on what to paint and how to do it. Today, in some artists' case at least, the patron is grateful if he can buy a work at all. The artist is not only free from a crippling patronage, but free to create as he or she pleases - and that too, as irreverently as Husain's Saraswati, Manjit Bawa's banana-eating Krishna or Arpita Singh's Durga with a pistol. Modern art is obviously here to stay. And the exhibitions of both the old Santiniketan masters and its young representatives in Delhi show us that it has a continuity going back a good seventy years, which fads and fashions are less likely to be able disrupt than ever before.

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