In the history of world art if we trace only the ‘morphology’ of human figures across the millennia, we will discover a wide range of artistic urges and conventions, socio-economic and religio-political compulsions that broadly characterize different cultures in different ages.
Imagine how the humans of the pre-historic cave painters, mostly drawn in five thin lines and a dot for the head, later became slim and lithe - almost effeminate - in the Minoan frescoes at Knossos in Crete, and how their close contemporaries in Egypt painted gods and humans in stern profiles, who much later appeared in classical Greece in realistic musculatures and heretofore unknown feminine beauty and tender sensuality in cold marbles! It is a mystery.
Let us compare the upright brutal strength of the kings and princes in the gigantic carvings of ancient Asyria and Persia, with the standing Buddhas of Mathura and Gandhara. As if the two kinds came from two different planets to inhabit our earth in different periods of recorded history! Such comparisons uncover plastic records of societies changing in rhythm with the flux of time, and how artists responded to art ideas, new techniques and materials flowing in from far off cultures.
It is highly intriguing how in India, during the mid-forties, the Expressionist, Cubist and Fauvist women changed the heavy beauties of Ravi Varma and the frail ones of the Bengal School beyond recognition. Forms appear in the history of plastic arts, live their span of life, become weak over a period because of frozen conventions, sometimes disappear from the scene and reappear in another culture another time, sowing the seeds of new forms, inspiring other artists of different cultural climes.
It is in this context of quickened cultural cross-fertilization in the India of the early ‘forties of the last century that we are only going to view only a section of the major work of the late Krishna Shamrao Kulkarni (1916-1994). Here is a selection of paintings from Kumar Gallery’s vast collection of the artist’s paintings, drawings and sculptures. The selection on view broadly covers the period 1970s-80s.
The preceding paragraphs on the ‘morphology’ of human forms in art are intended to bring our focus on Kulkarni’s ceaseless exploration of the enormous plastic potential of human figures. And he made tireless forays into art traditions of East and West: prehistoric, ancient, medieval and modern, just to sharpen his sensibilities for grasping the bewildering mystique of the life of form in art.
Born on April 17, 1916, Belgaum, Karnataka, Krishna Shamrao Kulkarni, one year junior to M.F Husain, appeared on the art scene of turbulent India of the ‘forties along with the Progressive Group of Calcutta, Progressive Artists’ Group of Bombay and the new generation of artists of the Delhi Silpi Chakra (1948) of which he was the founder-President. With Sundari Shridharini Kulkarni established Triveni Kala Sangam (1950) in Delhi.
All the pioneering Indian modernists like Kulkarni shared, suffered and responded to the turbulence of the times. They enjoyed, absorbed and internalized the pristine thrill of European modernist experiments that had brought about a mutative change in the centuries-old plastic traditions of the West. Yet, most of them went back in their own individual and devious ways again and again to the rich heritage of Indian art: classical, medieval and the continuing parallels of folk and tribal.
Kulkarni’s first and enduring love was for the ‘form’, representational or pure, with or without any literary load. He was obsessed with its strange power of transformation or mutation in differing cultural context. As it is evident in the present selection, he uncovered a wide range of aesthetic experience which we are yet to discover and enjoy.
After finishing his post-graduate art education at J.J. School of Art in Bombay (1935-45), Kulkarni joined the Art Department of the Delhi Polytechnic in 1945. Throughout his life he achieved a rare synthesis of three different roles he played in his life in art: art educator and organizer, inspirer or modernist art in the post-independence India, and a tireless explorer of the limits of plasticity of human figure.
Those days, the print media did not ignore him, instead he rightfully got serious critical attention his other contemporaries enjoyed. Some might have sought in his work either a definitive and immediately recognizable ‘styles’, or some kind of ideological inconsistency. They somehow missed out on Kulkarni’s life-long penchant for the ‘form’ which, for him, had something magical in its power to transform itself under changing pressure of experience and intuitive feel of the ineffable in the inner life of the artist.
Only a few of Kulkarni’s critics may have bypassed the fact that artists who genuinely aspire to create a live dialogue between themselves and their mediums on the other hand, and that between their works and audience on the other, mostly do not care much to achieve a definite style. There may be many cut-off points or overlaps of ‘style’ in the work of an individual artist working over a stretch of time. Of course, this is not to say that consistency in style is a mark of weakness.
When Kulkarni painted fine portraits of Indian celebrities, or when he did his large mosaic mural for the Children’s Book Trust and the one for Nirman Bhavan in New Delhi (1966-67), his ‘style’ could not remain consistent; nor the unabashed frontal nudity of Radha in his Radha in Vrindaban (acrylic on canvas, 1984) has anything in common with the Dancer (on view, acrylic on paper, 1980), either in technique or in figuration. In the former, the artist went back to the hothouse sensuality of the ‘Salabhanjika’ of 11th century Bhuvaneshwar, and her likes on the walls of Khajuraho temples. Or, there may even be a very hazy memory of the Le Source of Ingres (Jean Auguste Dominique, 1780-1867) of 18th century France. In the latter, Kulkarni shook off the ballast of ‘objectivity’, the weight of warm flesh, to create a figure of pure rhythm. He must have been amazed at himself when he created a new form and gave it a life of its own.
His expertise and life-long involvement in the field of music (he was the Dean of the Faculty of Music and Fine Arts, Banaras Hindu University, 1972-78) might have made him creatively aware of pure plasticity without any reference to recognizable objects or literary lore. In the light of what we have said above, Kulkarni’s art thinking never totally sided either with the ideology of social commitment and realistic figuration, or with the algebraic abstraction in terms of pure colour and lines. Perhaps his view of plastic arts was different from both the camps. He believed that one should visit an exhibition not to enlarge his knowledge of history, geography or sociology, but to enjoy the paintings as paintings,figurativeorotherwise.
In his encyclopaedic work, A History of Indian Painting: Modern Period (Abhinav Publications, 1994), Krishna Chaitanya (the late K.K Nair) noted with evident amusement the ding-dong battle going on between ideological camps on the Indian art scene. He quoted form the ‘manifesto’ of the Progressive Group of Calcutta “Art when it ceases to have an immediate social function either loses all vitality or becomes a passionate research into problems of form thrown up by the artist himself”. This is immediately followed by a statement of one of the lions of the same group: “The fundamental point in art is form. The content, expression and impression are not worth a damn.” This is confusion thrice confounded! Krishna Chaitanya must have chuckled over it.
Kulkarni could not have escaped such an ambience of polemical clashes. As to the supposed ideological homogeneity of the Progressive Artists’ Group of Bombay, Krishna Chaitanya quotes from its ‘manifesto’ drafted by Francis Newton Souza, who spelt out the objective of the group: “to bring about a closer understanding and contact between different sections of the artist community and the people.” That must have been deemed by his brother artists as a historic statement. But few worked for this noble objective. The early modernists were then taken drunk with the modernist techniques and pictorial idioms. They worked towards highly individuated expression.
Such ‘ideological battles’ continued through the ‘eighties and nineties, while Kulkarni painted the sinister, nightmarish presence of the Deity (acrylic on canvas, 1984) responding to the economy of pictorial means he appreciated in tribal art. His visits to the USA, USSR, UK, eastern and western Europe, Mexico, the Netherlands and Korea, exposed him to the fascinating life of form in distant cultures. Perhaps he learnt from Gauguin’s Manano Tupapan (Tahiti, 1893, Conger Goodyear Collection, New York) that ‘faithful representation’ cannot express man’s innermost fear of the unknown.
For the critics who sometimes point out that Kulkarni’s art did not have any immediate social relevance, we quote from a letter Krishen Khanna wrote to a journal to make his own stand clear: “If art was an effective means of solving our problems - and how I wish it were so - wars would have ceased as a terrible human activity after Goya, Rouault and Picasso. To our horror it is still there and more terrible than ever before. I cannot see that we can assign a larger role to art today” (Indian and World Arts and Crafts, October 1991, quoted by Krishna Chaitanya, Ibid)
When even as late as 1982 Kulkarni was carrying out very Picassoesque broken planes in his Bride and Conceived (acrylic on paper; on view), he was not repeating the modern master. If we take a closer look at them in the context of his other works, we will see that he was trying to go beyond the familiar cubist forms to reach a new kind of plasticity and make it alive even in the eighties. He painted the images flat. Evidently he was not satisfied with the result.
Take his Anxiety (on view), for instance: It is very difficult to say whether he was really trying to do something cubistic, or he playfully improvised with the brown and green triangles, and while he was connecting the, the asymmetrical eyes crept in from the depth of his experience to give the emergent pattern a psychological dimension. The second alternative is more probable. The patient viewer will not fail to see that in most cases, the artist started playfully sometimes with a thick line which in its free-wheeling drive took a turn to suggest a human form, and ushered in irregular areas of colours within its fold (Compassion, acrylic on paper, 1980).
From Kumar Gallery exhibition catalogue
K.S Kulkarni: life of Form in Art - selections of paintings from 1970s - 80s (October 13th- 27th, 2001)