Ashok Vajpeyi reminisces about J. Swaminathan’s organizational and administrative skills which culminated in completely new and institutional statements such as the Bharat Bhavan and the Museum of Man in Bhopal.
Years ago I borrowed a book from Swaminathan on Marcel Duchamp written by Octavio Paz entitled Castle of Purity which was inscribed by Paz himself. He had written ‘To Swaminathan, who lives not in a castle but in a furious purity’. This has been one of my lasting impressions of Swaminathan. Though he deliberately used expressions which may have been thought to be provocative or offensive, he was basically a very pure man.it is not that he was not visited by emotions of intense like or dislike. But he was a person who was always able to rise above his dislikes. This was one of the most revealing lessons I have learnt from him in Bharat Bhavan. For instance, he was supposed to show neo-narrative art. But he perhaps created the largest collection of this in Bharat Bhavan. He felt that though as an artist and an art thinker he was opposed to neo-narrative art, as the director of a museum he must whatever is significant on the scene.
He was also a man who ceaselessly questioned himself and others. Although he started his career in colonial times as a political agitator and was in the Congress Socialist Party, he took a stand against Jayaprakash Narayan. Consequently, he moved over to the Communist Party which again he left because of his every questioning spirit. He questioned the notions of progress and development, of history and change. He was deeply immersed in Marxist readings but seriously doubted the Marxist notion of history. Without questioning these notions of history and progress, you could not possibly accommodate the folk and tribal art streams in the contemporary scene. Because as long as you believe there are historically backward cultures, you would look upon them as museum pieces and not as living entities.
One of Swami’s lasting contributions, both intellectually and institutionally, is this post colonial aesthetics that he tried to evolve and articulate, the aesthetic which believed that the folk, tribal and urban arts are all equally valid versions of contemporaneity. That there is such a thing as simultaneous validity of cultures is what he was pursuing in restructuring the National Museum of Man of which he became the chairman about two years ago. In this museum, he was questioning the notions of Western anthropology which had its beginnings in the colonial ethos and which considered some cultures historically backward and that the European Man is the apex of human civilization.
Swami in his aesthetics insisted on the primacy of the image but this primacy was also a presence which liberated it from the accidents of history. The image could go beyond history, above time. The historicity of the narrative or the representational images bogs it down and fails to liberate itself.
He came to Bhopal not to start Bharat Bhavan. In 1980, in Madhya Pradesh, we decided to create a state gallery of modern art. Swami was persuaded by us to come and set up the gallery. After he came there, he put forth the idea that there was no point in creating a miscellany, a collection done without any focus by buying some important art works every year. Along with other artists, he evolved a concept in which this gallery was to be different from the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Lalit Kala Akademi. To make the collection distinctive, they identified thirty five to forty artists whose works should be collected in large numbers by this gallery so as to create substantial collections of each one of them.
Around the same time, a decision was taken to complete the construction of Bharat Bhavan which was lying incomplete and uncared for. It was decided that it should be handled by the Department of Culture of which I happened to be the secretary. With Swami’s help, we decided to redefine the idea, restructure the building complex. We were creating four different units, quite independently of Bharat Bhavan --- a repertory, a gallery, a library of poetry and a library of music. We decided that these four were to go to Bharat Bhavan. What Swami did was to redefine the notion of contemporaneity in art which became not only crucial for Roopankar, the museum he created, but for the entire aesthetics of Bharat Bhavan.
Bharat Bhavan is the first institutional statement of this aesthetics in the country. In Delhi, you have a National Gallery of Modern Art where the term modern is exclusively urban, and then you have the Crafts Museum where all the work done by rural and tribal artists is considered to be crafts, relegated to a slightly minor position. By saying that it is a museum, you are already saying that it is something of the past. Now, this is what Swami questioned and what ultimately Bharat Bhavan questioned largely because of Swami, offering hereby a completely new institutional statement of what is contemporary of India, what is truly post-colonial and what is, therefore, truly Indian. It is an irony of fate that though we made the most intensely Indian statement, a government came to power that thought that we lacked Indianness and pushed us out.
Once we decided that Roopankar was to have tribal and urban art, the question arose as to how to make such a collection. It is here that Swami’s imaginative daring, organizational skill and the inspiration that he could infuse into others came into full play. He thought of a very novel way -- he picked up about thirty to forty art students from the various art institutes of Madhya Pradesh. No college of art in the country looks at tribal art even cursorily, let alone kindly or with any understanding. These young men and women were no better. But he organized orientation courses which ran into three or four weeks, prepared lectures and invited other experts to speak to them about anthropology, sociology, folk art, etc, to give them a sense of direction, an eye to discern, what and how to look for. He felt that as far as possible the material collected should be non-ritualistic, so that keeping it in the museum would not look sacrilegious. He then divided them into five or six groups and sent them off with proformas that he had devised himself, to collect art objects and information. He himself, a man with angina, a permanently upset stomach, traveled something like twenty thousand kilometres, in a jeep covering areas that no artist had ever gone before.
I remember a winter day, it was already dusk when Swami arrived at my place and asked if I had any rum as he had run out of it. He was worried since he had not heard from the group which had gone to Bastar. I told him that though I was unable to speak to the collector, I had received information that they knew nothing of the group’s whereabouts. Swami started feeling all the more worried and said ‘I think I must go. ‘I thought hemeantthe next day but he stood up right then and when I asked him where he was going, he said ‘Bastar’. I was astounded as it was already 7:30pm and Bhopal to Bastar was several hundred kilometres. But he left.
Mind you, he came on a salary of just Rs 4, 500 per year, a free house and a car. He came and lived in Bhopal for nine years with one trunk and a suitcase and some stretchers and canvases. He did paint there but he was an incredibly lazy person and would keep postponing things. Yet he was prolific and meticulous when the occasion arose.
Swami did not work on a fixed plan in setting up the exhibits in Bharat Bhavan. He had a keen critical eye. It was not a forethought. When he saw the objects, a pattern would immediately emerge, whether this would go with this or not go with that. The tribal and folk art section was, therefore, not arranged tribe or item wise. One of the statements Swami was making through this was also that the notions of art and beauty being the concerns of the well endowed, that the poor had neither the time nor the time for beauty, were baseless. Here were people miles below the poverty line but they needed and created beauty. They needed things around them that gave expression to their creative self. This recognition, by Swami, mind you, institutionally was a major thing. Intellectually it had been talked about, but nothing concrete had been done before. Then to give them a sense of dignity that they are good as anybody else, that there is a Prema Fatya and a Bhuri Bai alongwith a Manjit Bawa, Ram Kumar and Husain -- this comraderie Swami alone could think of. In a way, this was democratizing the contemporary art scene by bringing to the unnoticed, the underprivileged, oppressed into centre stage, that they are as much a part of the contemporary creative effort as anybody else.
He set up the Design Centre at Bharat Bhavan. Unlike the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bharat Museum is not simply a museum. It has a graphics workshop, a ceramics workshop and a large number of young people from all over the country came there. It became a very lively place and the interaction between folk, rural and urban was not simply a matter of display. They were also coming together and working together. Then there is also The Perceiving Fingers which is a remarkable documentation on the people and art of tribal Madhya Pradesh. Swami read a lot and I cannot remember any other artist of his stature who would have given a very important phase of his life to setting up and running an institution. The myth in Delhi used to be and perhaps continues to be, that artists cannot manage. It’s all right to have them on committees but for actual work, one needs autocrats and bureaucrats. Swami and BV Karanth completely demolished this myth.
He had an excellent sense of design and supervised the designing and printing of even the invitations in Bharat Bhavan. In 1989, we organized a seven day poetry festival. Since it was winter and the venue was indoors, I told Swami that we could not have the same backdrop everyday and needed something that could be easily changed on a daily basis. Swami thought it was an excellent idea and even though I reminded him many times, he did not do anything. Just a couple of days before the event. I got panicky and reminded him once again. He said that he had thought of something and would have it ready by the evening. That evening, I found that he had made seven incredibly beautiful backdrops using different kinds of material.
I recollect another occasion. It was the first week of February 1982 and Bharat Bhavan was to be inaugurated by Indira Gandhi on 13 February. Only a few days were left when it started raining and the inside walls got drenched. Krishen Khanna, Manjit Bawa, Akbar Padamsee, Bal Chhabra and Ram Kumar --- all the senior artists were there to help Swami to put up the show. They worked late, even sleeping on the floor in the gallery at times. There were disagreements but it was amazing how Swami got all these big artists to not only put up the urban art show but also the tribal and folk art.
The impact that Swami had even on the Madhya Pradesh art scene was very deep. Not that young artists started painting like him, he would hate that. He would be able to tell them that they should be doing something which is intrinsic to them. This is not easy, but this is something one must do to instead of painting or sculpting like somebody else. Therefore a crop of young artists emerged in the eighties like Madhya Pradesh like Akhilesh, Robin David, Yusuf, Harchandan Singh Bhatti, whose approach and aesthetics attained distinctiveness because of Swami. Even writers like Dhruv Shukla, Udayan Vajpeyi, Madan Soni, flowered under his influence.
His capacity to relate particularly to poetry, to literature was amazing. We spent some extremely beautiful moments with Nirmal Verma, KB Vaid, Kumar Gandharva and Malikarjun Mansoor. There was a tree in the courtyard of Bharat Bhavan and even when a performance was on, Swami would come there to smoke. He used to smoke bidis as you don’t smoke too much at one go as it keeps getting extinguished. I still imagine him sitting under the tree, somewhat invisibly now, because you cannot think of the place without him. His presence was so large and massive. It is a pity and an irony that just as there was a chance of rehabilitating Bharat Bhavan, Swami who was a very critical factor, passed away.
Swami had the amazing ability to communicate with all kinds of people, of all ages. He would hold forth with intellectuals, illiterates, young people and senior people and would invoke in them a sense of participation. If Bharat Bhavan was a success, one of the major factors was that both Swami and BV Karanth were able to give even the most junior artists a sense that he or she mattered. If any of them had a suggestion, he or she was free to make them and if it was worthwhile, it would be taken up.
Swami was also able to discover creativity in the most incredible people. The clerks of Bharat Bhavan became artists, and, in fact, one of them is a member of the Lalit Kala Akademi. Swami’s servant, a Nepali bahadur became a painter whose works were bought by KB Vaid, Manjit Bawa, etc.
One day, he came to our house just as we were going out to some reception. Swami told us to go ahead and decided to sit in the garden under the big palash tree. We were delayed and when we returned, Swami was sitting there peacefully. I asked him ‘What did you do while we were away?’ ‘Nothing, I was talking to the tree’, he replied. I said incredulously ‘Talking to the tree!’ Swami replied ‘Not only was I talking to the tree, but the tree was also talking to me’. He said this with so much confidence that I could not doubt it at all.
Swami was also unfailingly generous. There was an old aunt of his in Shimla and he went all the way from Bhopal to bring her to his house. As she was bed-ridden,anurse was appointed to help her for an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening. Swami used to pay her quite well but when he left Bhopal, my wife, who was there saw him write out a cheque of twenty thousand rupees for the nurse so that the education of her two children was taken care of.
Again, when he bought works by the folk and tribal artists, he saw to it that they did not fritter away the money. He created a connection between them and Bharat Bhavan which was unique, a very human connection in that he made sure that the money was invested in buying land, bullocks, etc. I believe that there are hundreds of folk and tribal artists whose standard of living went up because of Swaminathan.
He gave them new material and destroyed many myths that they would not be able to handle certain colours or materials. They could be as dexterous and as any urban artist, they could do many things without any previous training. Many of these people would come home and stay in his house. In the evening, if you land up, you would find a couple of Gonds loitering aound. They might have come from Jhabua, Mandla or wherever and they were Swami’s guests. Swami would be talking to them and they would be narrating their tales of woe, legends, etc. Swami got very friendly with Bhikhau Ram, a witch doctor from Bastar who was a tireless drinker. When his drink finished, he would say ‘Battery khatam ho gayee’. He was an interminable talker and knew a wealth of stories. Swami used to say that whenever he was in trouble, he would invoke Bhikhau Ram who would help him. I wonder if he invoked Bhikhau Ram on the morning he died. He would not have since he did not know that death was coming.
He was one man who was never awed by political power. When presidents, prime ministers or ministers came to Bharat Bhavan, Swami always spoke with authority and confidence, always courteous and never fawning. He stood by whatever he said. The then president Giani Zail Singh’s visit was remarkable. He was accompanied by the then governor of Madhya Pradesh, Bhagwat Dayal Sharma, who did not like modern art, finding it in inaccessible, obscure and meaningless. However, he was unable to express his opinion before as visiting dignitaries always appreciated the works. When Gianiji saw an Ambadas painting, he asked Swami, ‘What does this painting say? What is it about? One at least must be able to understand’. Swami looked at him and said, ‘Mr. President, this painting is not about anything else. It is about itself. It is not saying anything else. It is saying itself.’ At this point, the president said, ‘Well, what you are saying is fine and goes far. But after all, people must understand’. The governor, thus emboldened said, ‘Well, I have a friend in Delhi who showed me an American painting that had three lines above, three in the middle and three below. He told me it cost thirty thousand dollars. I would not be willing to give even three hundred rupees.’ So saying, he looked at Swami and said, ‘Sir, since you are the governor of this state, I would not say anything.’ Gianiji, who had a great sense of humour, said, ‘Well that’s all right but the point is that one must understand. You must organize art appreciation courses.’ Undaunted, Swami replied ‘We are planning to do so and we will be happy if you come’. In the meantime, the governor had moved to where a painting by Swami was displayed. For some odd reason, he appeared to like it. He told me ‘Mr Vajpeyi, this is a fine painting and I understand it’. I told him that it was by Swami and perhaps he should voice his appreciation to him. The president who had joined us also liked the work and said ‘Mr Director, I do understand this painting.’ Swaminathan in his own irrepressible, loud and clear resounding voicesaid ‘But Mr. President, I do not understand it.’ We moved on to a Vivan Sundaram painting at which point Swami spoke of him and his leftist ideology. The president said, ‘Political ideology is all right but you must tell them to paint in a way that people are able to understand’. At this, Swami gave the final answer of the evening ‘Mr President, as you know, there is democracy and rule of law in India. I cannot tell a painter that you should paint in this way or that way as he has the fundamental freedom and of expression guaranteed by the Constitution.’ This completely foxed the president who simply smiled and walked on.
When Swami became the chairman of the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sanghralaya, the National Museum of Man, true to his spirit, he started questioning the concept that was already behind it . That it would be an ethnographic museum and that notions of evolution of man would be given an important place were taken to be unassailable facts. All the imperialist colonial notions of anthropology which regarded tribal people as backward. Swami as soon as he took over initiated long range discussions with well informed social scientists, anthropologists and other artists to develop a totally new concept. Firstly, to do away with the imperialist anthropological notions and secondly, since it was a Museum of Man in India, it should be Indo-centric and not a replica of a similar museum in Paris or Mexico.
He felt that we should redefine the scope of the museum so that it would not try to trace historically the growth of man, moving from primitiveness to tribal cultures to urban cultures, ultimately ending up in the European culture, which supposedly, epitomes the best man has achieved. Swami had already prepared a new conceptual paper which expressed the simultaneous validity of cultures, where one was not going to say that this is forward or backward but that they are together and this is what constitutes the world of man. Swami was very keen that contemporary man should also be a part of the museum since he had no moral or intellectual authority to put the artefacts and objects of either the past men or the so called marginalized man, into museum. What contemporary urban men are doing, their artefacts, lifestyles etc, should also be in such a museum and we had already spoken of a collection of contemporary kitsch. These are notions that have never been put into an institutional framework. Instead of the linear historical perspective, he suggested a cyclical one, with evolution or whatever as one of the viewpoints, but not the only one. This was his important contribution to the post independence intellectual world --- to question the hegemony of the West and the Western notions of history, philosophy or aesthetics. The point that he was making was that the massive presence of the West is not a phenomenon that we can ignore or bypass but we must keep on critically questioning it. This does not mean that he was a revivalist, in fact, he was thrown out by them.
I would so be emboldened to claim that largely because of Swaminathan (not entirely, because we also contributed our bit), a truly post modern institution came upinBharat Bhavan where things were flowing together again. Until the nineteenth century, our music, theatre, poetry and visual arts shared visions, iconography, symbols, expressions and imagery despite the fact that each was distinct. Then a rupture took place in which literature and dance and music in the other. Bringing them all under one roof where they would have to rub shoulders one another was important in Bharat Bhavan and again in the Museum of Man. People talk of holistic approach but no one translates it into institutional terms. This is something Swami did or rather helped to do and even define.
Parisar is something we started to make a similar statement institutionally in Delhi and as in Bhopal. Both Swami and I thought that Delhi is dominated, barring the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts by institutions that are manifestations of a colonial vision.
I met him last on Saturday, 23 April 1994, at a meeting of a small committee appointed by the artists and writers who had met in Bharat Bhavan on 7 and 8 April to suggest future restructuring of the Bhavan. We were there for two and a half hours and he started the meeting by saying that the Madhya Pradesh government owed him an apology. ‘I did not reply, nor ask, nor request to be made a life trustee of Bharat Bhavan.It was the government of Madhya Pradesh which did it and which one day abolished the provision. This was an insult to an artist by the state and the state must apologise’.
Swami looked clumsy in his appearance and his surroundings were not orderly. But his mind was lucid and his spirit was pure. I think this clarity, this lucidity is also the quality of his work. He knew what he was doing. There were tensions and anxieties but they were of a different kind, of creativity. It was not because he was ever confused about what he wanted. His sense of design, of geometry and of the philosophical implications of what he was doing, what others are doing, was clear. Even if he had done nothing but painted, he would have been a pioneer. But he was a pioneer in many other fields as well.
Published in The India Magazine: of her people and culture, Volume 14, June 1994