Published in the Journal of Arts & Ideas, Nos 27-28, March 1995, pp. 147-150

I do not know whether I wanted to or want to reach anywhere. I have known fear, anxiety, at times pleasure, but never has my core that is my consciousness, that is I, known the absolute calm that takes hold of me when my senses grapple with colour and form. I am even beyond the reach of God at that moment.

J. Swaminathan

I met Swaminathan in April 1962, while he was showing with Ambadas at AIFACS gallery, New Delhi. He wrote the lines quoted above as a conversation with Ambadas in the folder. K.B.Goel described it as ‘this condition of being strangers that brought them together and in seeking the hand of understanding they pledged to become each other’s neighbour as it where’.

Although Swaminathan was affectionate to the point of being sentimental with his bohemian friends, he was astute in making an alliance with the younger most advanced artists in the country. Group 1890 was formed with artists mainly from Delhi and Bombay. Jeram Patel was secretary and Swaminathan the ideologue for this entirely make association which stood passionately and romantically for values of modernism that signalled change.

The manifesto of group 1890 exhibition held in 1963 ended with the proclamation ‘art is reality itself, a whole new world of experience, the threshold for the passage into the state of freedom’.

Gulammohammed Sheikh and I met Octavio Paz in the winter of 1962. He was amazed to know that we had not only heard of him but read his poems. We introduced him to Swaminathan and their friendship was inscribed in poems with lines about the painter (‘With a rag and a knife/ Like a toreador’) which are now legend.

‘The true subject of this exhibition is the confrontation of the vision of these painters with the inherited image. Contemporary Indian art, if this country is to have an art worthy of its past, cannot be born from this violent clash’, ended Octavio Paz in the catalogue introduction of Group 1890.

Swaminathan’s move to get Jawaharlal Nehru to open the exhibition, with Octavio Paz, the surrealist poet standing by his side, signalled the confident entry of a new radical generation of artists into the art scene. Indian Modernism in its post- independence phase has developed beyond the stage of social, humanist concerns (Championed by Nehru). Now it granted to the act of creation and the object, a reality unto itself. Goel subtly differentiates between the older and the younger generation: ‘Sharing the troubled entrails of subjectivity of the PAG artists, they [the artists of Group 1890] did not hold their egos as hostages’. Swaminathan himself was heckling the older generation with provocative statements about artists being ‘thrown into the trash bin’, urging that ‘Indian artists take the risky stand taken by all artists worth the name everywhere; that of being in opposition to the ruling culture’.

In the early sixties, ‘What is definitely new: reality finally reveals no more than its true presence strictly what it gives of itself.’ These lines, which could have been from the manifesto of Group 1890, refer in fact to the major ‘southern’ artist, the Spanish Antoni Tapies. There is a close affinity between Tapies and some of the artists of Group 1890 including Patel and Swaminathan by which one may conclude that the early sixties heralded an avant-garde modernism in India in tune with contemporary internationalism.

Swaminathan started painting seriously some time in 1959 and in 1960 held three exhibitions. I have so far not come across these works and so can only speak about what he exhibited in 1962 and 1963. These paintings had large empty dark spaces in a blue black colour, with signs of light and traces of marks and reddish brown shapes in the periphery. The centre was a void, an absence, the eye had to strain to register the presence of an image if it existed.

Swaminathan had sensed fundamental shifts in art-making preoccupations: from the picture plane representing a view of the world as a window, to the image not only coming to the surface, but allowing its own materiality to constitute into reality. The easel painting format gave way to the surface to be read as a wall.

At the beginning the child is in the womb of the mother (a recurring motif in Swaminathan’s utterances); after the gestation period, being surrounded by this fluid wall, the child/prehistoric man seeks shelter in the cave and the dark undulating wall becomes the surface over which he leaves traces of himself. The phenomenology of this experience resonates in this space. In a physical and metaphorical sense Swaminathan attempted to paint this as a state of being and reality.

Swaminathan’s rebel entry into the art world necessitated a clearing for himself as well as for modern Indian art, of all the images it had accumulated for itself as part of its national modern construction. We know that Swaminathan was, in this new avatar of artist, rejecting both his own past as a communist activist, as well as history itself. On the other hand, he did not abandon his shrewd tactical sense of entry and departure, intervening constantly in the contemporary art scene.

An opposition was planted within the mainstream and Swaminathan steered its course in varied directions over the next three decades, where the rivulets from the forests and the lucid waters from the higher reaches, flowered together.

Rupture, dismemberment and the silence that follows in its wake, is the dominant image I carry of the Group 1890 exhibition in 1963. Swaminathan’ s paintings as well as most of Group 1890’s work of the period is unknown, therefore one is constructing an image without images. Many of the important artists’ works are destroyed or lost.

Was there some death wish unconsciously built into the show, a market, a flare that would be extinguished as soon as it went up?

I think it is important for all times to attempt to reassess the images on non-images we make. But it seems particularly pertinent in the times we live in, to reinvestigate those moments in our recent history where the modern takes qualitative leaps in transforming itself, often into the unknown chartered with fearlessness.

We know about Swaminathan’s two steps forward, one step back history of art practice. In the last few years he ‘returned’ to the post-Group 1890 phase of his work, marked with ‘ritual’ wall signs. Would the still very active Swaminathan, sixty six years old, have gone back a step further, to the 1963 moment, and evacuated all the images he had accumulated since? Would he have shown his back to the modern Indian art and gone again to the wall/cave phase, which he felt fairly quickly as a young man of thirty five? Let me conjecture that he would have,thattheBrahmin and tribal in him would have found a higher level of unity; a state of being where representation would not have required a mark or image, static or in flight. Since he abandoned those early paintings physically and perhaps intellectually, I would like to believe that these old/new paintings are still owed to us. Don’t the finest artists leave something essentially incomplete in their oeuvre?

Published in the Journal of Arts & Ideas, Nos 27-28, March 1995, pp. 147-150
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