Published in Namaste, the Welcome Group Magazine, XX/4, October to December, 2001, pp. 28-33
Artist J. Swaminathan was closely associated with Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. Here, he gathered a lively collection of art and craft and began to explore the richness of tribal crafts for which the state of Madhya Pradesh is famed. His work at Bharat Bhavan influenced his own paintings, which grew and changed as he explored the new world into which he had plunged. Before he moved here, his paintings had already explored many aspects of the visual world, enriching all those who saw them.
In life, as in art, Jagdish Swaminathan defied convention; He was the lone bird poised fluttering in the void. He was also the charioteer of the Sun driving his steeds across a gilded sky that seemed to uncover new worlds of myth and imagination. He was the spare, bare sign made on paper with the austere detachment of a hermit. He could also be a latter day shaman unrolling a canvas of blood red entrails, engorged with portents from a more primitive world.
He could be the painterly equivalent of Shelly’s skylark, pouring its heart out from the mountain tops of his best-loved works. At the same time he was also a noisy inquisitive woodpecker tapping at the innumerable tree-trunks, ferretting out slugs and tree-lice to keep alive the dogmas that agitated a new generation of artists, who like him were ferociously staking out a territory that they claimed would represent the spirit of a newly awakened nation. Not this, not this, he cried, throwing out nostalgia and imitation. He denied the primacy of the new man, the figurative representation of the self, borrowed from the West and re-invented through the fractured prism of modernism into a raw-boned a monstrous creature clad in brave new colours of freedom. At the same time, it was through colour that he would find himself.
He leapt into an argument with the ferocious agility of one of those famous monks of Shaolin, whirling through the air with flashes of devastating wit. Or as he said in his manifesto for the group of artists who banded together to show their works in an exhibition at the Rabindra Bhavan at New Delhi in 1963:
“Art for us is not born out of a preoccupation with the human condition. We do not sing of man, nor are we his messiahs. The function of art is not to interpret and annotate, comprehend and guide…essentially this self-glorification to us is but the perpetuation of the death wish, of the state of unfreedom of man. “
There was about him both the sage and the rebel. Those who knew him well point to a dual heritage, a typical South Indian Brahmin father who went up North to seek his fortunes as a government servant under the Raj, and a high-spirited mother who came from a wealthy land-owning background. It was she who had to keep the family together as they shuttled between Delhi and Simla, particularly after her husband took an early retirement and retreated into a contemplative life. Swaminathan was born in Simla, the fourth in a family of eight children and as he describes it, his was an idyllic childhood, roaming through the gardens and orchards in Simla, on raiding missions with a gang of friends. It was also where he was given a box of paints. This early awakening of the senses, the intensity of colour, the desire to capture a world in all its childlike simplicity of form and freshness is something that remained in Swaminathan’s mind.
Or as he puts it, “The artist does not communicate an experience or an idea. The act of painting itself is an experience to him. The viewer has not to look for communication; he has to be in communication with the work of art. It then becomes… a thing of wonder, as when a child first opens its eyes to its surroundings.”
After several disastrous attempts to engage in serious study, his parents tried to make him a doctor, but as he often said, he would have far preferred to draw a cockroach than to dissect it. He went through an intense political phase in the ‘50s when he lived in Calcutta honing his writing and debating skills. The desire to paint was never far from his mind, but again whatever attempts he made to go through a regular art course, whether at Delhi College of Art, or later when he had a chance to study at the Academy of Fine Arts at Warsaw, his only desire was to escape. His political affinity for the peasants and workers led him to look for more direct means of expression that had little to do with institutions. At the same time Swaminathan’s innate religious background also led him to seek a form of expression that went beyond the declamatory or the propagandist. He was in search of a need for wonder that did not depend on any creed or ideology.
On a visit to South India, Swaminathan found that many of the artists, who formed a fraternity around the figure of K.C.S. Paniker, were experimenting with what has now come to be known as Tantric Art. This was a highly ritualised form of expression. That depended on pure geometric symbols and colours meant to initiate the aspirant to a higher level of perception. At a time when artists in the West are making their own forays into the subconscious, the idea suggested by such esoteric fields of experience proved to be irresistible to many artists. What is interesting in Swaminathan’s case is that he was able to grasp the principles of Tantric form and colour and incorporate it into his work, without reducing it to surface decoration or imitation.
The paintings of this early period show a richness of texture and the repeated use of certain signs, symbols, letters that are scribbled all over the red-ochre-brown background with streaks of white and black. They have the raw vitality of cave paintings or a freshly skinned pelt that has been stretched out to dry. Swaminathan was already aware of the wealth of tribal and folk art that would one day engage all his professional curatorial energy when he presided over the folk and tribal art collection at the still to be visualised Bharat Bhavan at Bhopal. He was very clear in his mind that the “so-called folk and tribal art” was as contemporary as what was being called contemporary art.
At the same time he was well aware of the dangers of being enticed by this magical world. Or as he says, “the real struggle of the artist lies in unlearning tradition.”
This did not however prevent him from using the geometrical signs and symbols that he uncovered during his forays into folk and tribal art and placing them at the centre of his compositions, with the flair of the true adept. It’s particularly interesting to notice his use of the two triangular forms that appear in many of his paintings. In the flat schematic compositions they are always at the verge of meeting, within the larger frame of a rectangle. There’s also a keen feeling for texture. At a later stage, which he labels, “The colour of Geometry” Swaminathan uses pale muted colours with geometricformsto suggest a whole landscape of ideas.
Is this just a prelude for the luminous intensity of his most prolific period that stretches from the late ‘60s to the ‘80s, when he did his “Mountain, Bird and Tree” series/. As he admits the impetus for this sudden trumpet blast of colour that floods his work with golden yellows, clear Reds, and every range of blue, green and mauve in his discovery of Pahari paintings, of Kangra miniatures in particular. Again Swaminathan’s particular triumph is in being able to intuit the spirit behind the Kangra miniature tradition and use it for his own purposes.
When one looks at the splendid canvas that he did for the Welcome group Maurya Sheraton’s collection at New Delhi, which he called “The voyage of the Sun” one can see not just the extraordinary sense of space and time that e is able to suggest in his depiction of the Sun god riding his Chariot of horses across the limitless expanse of sky and space, with the earth and the ocean just beneath the prancing horses, but echoes from all the different periods of Swaminathan’s work. The segments representing the earth and the waters of the ocean are the two triangles just about to intersect. The textured surface of one is offset by the colour geometry of the other, while the flutter of waving pennants that unfurl at the far end of the canvas is suggestive of the waves of energy that was presaged in his earlier paintings by his intense scribbled lines.
In the last phase of his life, post Bharat Bhavan and Bhopal, Swaminathan returned to a series of works that took him full circle, returning to the highly layered and textured canvases of his early period, with a big difference, the colours are now muted greys, browns, pale lemon yellows, olive greens, black upon white, with the merest suggestion of a streak of red. In the last works, he is happy now to leave just a mark upon the paper, a rough outline of a triangle against a pale brush mark of grey on white, a thumb smear of red against the grain of the composition. You can see in it all the un-learning he had to do to return to that state of primal innocence when he roamed the hills around Simla. You can see the triumph of being a free spirit named Swaminathan.
Published in Namaste, the Welcome Group Magazine, XX/4, October to December, 2001, pp. 28-33