K.S. Kulkarni (1916 - 1994) evolved and developed a unique visual language during the 1970s and 80s - a true language of 'word-less' expression. His pictorial language executed with an extraordinary finesse, is pattern, design, pictogram, at the same time; it is innovative, inventive, evocative and intriguing. At times it is like writing words, though we know that they are not words, but yet they speak, and produce sound as it were. In their configuration they are sometimes Klee-like.
Kulkarni's language is rich and varied. It is not limited and conventionalized. It is ever-renewing. He is not adopting known signs. The innovativeness of his language makes it enigmatic. It can be deciphered only partially. It is the hidden aspect, the un-deciphered aspect that makes it enigmatic, forcing one to look at it repeatedly. This acquired familiarity makes the signs more interesting even when the enigma remains. His sign-based configuration are persistently fascinating, he re-invented the elemental pictorial language with the intuitiveness of the tribal and the child. Some of his paintings are primordial forms externalized through the intuitive human agency. They give the impression of a dumbfounded person who is rendered speechless taking recourse to wordless, non-verbal language. Kulkarni's sign language has the expressiveness and ardour of such a person who strongly feels the need to express and be heard. He desperately resorts to a sign language which may or may not be comprehensible. His forms are utterances, reverberating echoes of a human soul. A pictorial form can be decorative, expressive or symbolic. In Kulkarni's forms these distinctions are obliterated, because even when essentially expressive they partake of the other two qualities. They are not essentially shape, colour or line, but an integrated entity of all the three. Some configurations may appear as patterns or designs at first sight, but their essential expressiveness predominates.
The decade of the 1950s after India's Independence was full of optimism. There were visions of the better life and notions of internationalism. The art activities were characterized by fervent eclecticism. The unexpected shift of thinking took place during the 1970s when the 'Third World concept' was propounded and the disillusionment with lack of progress or a progress as a slow process, was openly expressed. The objectives of art shifted giving privileged positions to social awareness, especially in powerful genres of Theatre and Literature. The ideologies included the tendency to downgrade the 1950s generation of artists for their unabashed Westernization. The innovativeness and felt creativity as a hallmark of the older generation was thrown to the winds. But the polemics of intentions and goals should not affect the judgment or the standard of a work of art. To propound critical theories with reference to what kind of form of Modern India Art should have, is a favourite hobby horse. The theories recommend elements to be chosen from national tradition and reconciling with modern vocabulary, responding to the crisis arising out of this double role, reflecting the impact of the turmoil caused by the tension-filled contemporary happenings. The artist may make choices from this wide spectrum of possibilities. In this endless speculation the artist is subsumed, finding himself in a labyrinth. My impression is that Kulkarni's work would not conform to any kind of scenario. We have to search for other theories by which we may be able to understand his language.
Kulkarni represents the Post-Independence generation of artists who sincerely believed that a modern artist is one who is essentially creative, which gives an individual identity to the artist. Therefore, devising a unique or characteristically peculiar language by the artist was fore grounded. This does not mean that the artist was unmindful of the social milieu, which is an accusation by a section of artists and critics, against those who they mistakenly think take the 'art for art sake' stand. A.S. Raman has described Kulkarni's journey from a skilled portrait painter in the European manner which he imbibed as a student of the J.J. School of Art, Bombay, where he studied till 1942. As a student of the Mural course he had handled stylistic and technical elements of traditional Indian art. When he moved to Delhi in 1945 he met another like-minded migrant painter, Sailoz Mookjerjea. Although Kulkarni had the opportunity to travel to the USA only in 1949, he had already aligned with the new spirit that emerged during the 1940s and continued in several parts of the country such as Calcutta and Bombay. The response in Delhi was represented by Kulkarni and other founder-members of the Shilpi Chakra established in 1948. He became a parallel figure in Delhi with painters like F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain working in Bombay and Europe. Although Kulkarni also adopted the vocabulary of Cubism and primitive art such as the African Negro sculpture, yet soon he individualized this language. Raman saw Kulkarni as an artist who lives in a private world of his own creation, where he is engaged in a constant search for the ultimate truth as he perceives it - the truth he seeks to externalize through his own work in the language of his choice.
The prestigious painter of his time, J. Swaminathan, writing as early as 1989, observed on the evolution of Kulkarni's pictorial language that he retained and developed the elements of drawing as crucial to the unfolding of his elastic vision, as also his philosophy of life. According to Swaminathan, Kulkarni carried with him the supreme tranquility of a man in harmony with the cosmos, facing life's problems with the calm bearing of a sage. The artist's personality is expressed with remarkable lucidity in his works, and each of his canvases is a small gift of peace and solace to the troubled souls of his fellowmen. Writing in 2005 on Kulkarni's works, the senior critic, Keshav Malik observed that Kulkarni poured the art that was in him through many media, including sculpture. Malik affirmed that in several of his varied styles and explorations, Kulkarni reached his apex. And finally, Kulkarni was genuine, inner-necessity driven being.
Santo Dutta draws attention to the tireless forays that Kulkarni made into the art traditions of the East and West: prehistoric, ancient, medieval and modern, just to sharpen his sensibilities. However, significant is the phrase he coined for Kulkarni's quest 'grasping the bewildering mystique of the life of forms in art' (the concept is taken from Henri Focillon's book of this title, 1934). Another facet of Kulkarni's personality trait we must mention is the involvement right through his career with teaching art to young students at the Art Department of the Delhi Polytechnic (now the Delhi College of Art), at Triveni Kala Sangam, Delhi, at the Banaras Faculty of Visual Art, Varanasi and soforth.
MostofKulkarni's drawings and paintings through the 1970s and 80s are infused with what he himself conceptualized as 'creative energy'. The entire universe is a product of and reservoir of creative energy, that is manifested as tree, stone, ocean, air, fauna, even including the human being. For the human species, however, creative energy is a peculiar gift which manifests through the expression of various art forms. He sees the functioning of creative energy in conflicting opposite pairs and the role of the artist is to resolve the tension and establish the balance among energies. In the manner that a well-groomed spiritual practitioner achieves a balance in his personality, the creative process proceeds and culminates in resolving the conflict of energies in a work of art.
According to Kulkarni, one way of comprehending the conflict of energies is by considering the analogy with the Indian concept of Three Gunas (qualities): Rajas, Sattva and Tamas. However, he did not elaborate on it. The following explanation may be understood in terms of characteristics and behaviour of the elements of pictorial language. The three types of entities are called Guna in Sankhya Philosophy. A unit of quality is only a unit of substance. Quality is a particular manifestation of appearance of a subtle entity. Quality signifies the manner in which a substance reacts. This is true not only of the qualities of external objects but of mental qualities as well. The quality of Sattva is intelligence-stuff, characteristic of self-shining or plasticity. Rajas is energy-stuff, manifested as units of activity. Tamas is mass-stuff, materiality or a factor of obstruction. The subtle Guna substances form aggregates, and are united in different proportions, for example, a larger number of Sattva substances interact with a smaller number of Rajas and Tamas entities, and so on in varying proportion. As a result of this formation, different substances with varying qualities come into being. Though attached to one another when united in different proportions, they mutually act and react upon one another, and thus by their combined resultant aggregate produce new characters, qualities and substances.
However, at the same time, Kulkarni keeps stressing how his art is based on contemporary aesthetics, though he belongs to a cultural tradition. But his work is the product of the shattering experience of the impact that the contemporary life has had on traditional culture.
The crucial point in observing a Kulkarni painting is not whether a girl's face, reclining female nude or embracing couple are represented, but whether the representation makes use of means that belong to picture-painting. What is represented may look like any of these. Perhaps, Kulkarni thought in terms of 'Purity' which is an 'abstract' realm. Purity is a separation of elements pictorially and within the picture. Kulkarni distils pure pictorial relations. Paul Klee is the only artist who has made some pithy observations along with in-depth analysis of a number of aspects of visual language. The elements and configurative aspects of visual language were more or less recordings of his pedagogical notes as a teacher of the Bauhaus School during the 1920s (vide: The Thinking Eye, 1961). Observe a Kulkarni drawing while reading Klee's statement that 'a drawing is formed when a point takes a walk'. In other words, Paul Klee explains all pictorial form begins with the 'point' that sets itself in motion. The point moves off and the line comes into being, this is the first dimension. When the line shifts to form a plane, a two-dimensional element is obtained. In the movement from plane to spaces, the clash of planes gives rise to a body, i.e., three-dimensions. Pictorial form is the summary of the kinetic energies which move the point into a line, the line into a plane, and the plane into a spatial dimension.
Human heads are formed by lines only or line+colour+shape. A bare outline forming a circular shape or pentagon like shape with spots for eyes and mouth is another alternative for the face. Curiously, an outline of a lighter tone of pink along a dark shape establishes eyes, nose, hair-do and fingers of a hand attached to the mouth. Devices derived from Cubism are also used combining frontal and profile facial contours in light and dark colour tones. A clear distinction is made between male and female heads. The female has a hairstyle with treatment for long hair locks or suggestion of fluffy mass over the scalp. The female is also delineated by suggestion of dangling ornaments on each side of the outline of the jaw. The breast-forms may also be delineated along the face. This gives a vital role to the pictorial devices for head+neck+shoulder relationship. The neck may be just a vertical element on which the facial shape rests. Various devices of the eye include normal and elongated leaf shape, half and concentric circles. Interestingly delineating the eye contributes to the expression of the face, assuming solemn, pensive, quizzical, ardently gazing, even bashful feeling.
The female body is formed by circles, half circles and curves suggesting contour, silhouettes, standing, seated, reclining positions in the case of a single figure. Grouping of two bodies and their togetherness is brought out by intertwining lines. Even the emotional union of bodies is delineated, either man+woman, who could be nude or two women (sakhis), who could be draped in saris. Expressions of sensuality, bonhomie, friendship, camaraderie are established. The play of 'figure-ground' relationship is made dynamic, so that what is 'ground' becomes 'body' and thereby is 'near' the onlooker's eye and 'further away' at the same time, 'inside' or 'outside', 'in front' or 'behind' the contour line. The existence of a plane in space lies in the imagination of the onlooker. Overlapping planes create the illusion of planes in depth, one behind the other, even interpenetrating. All this is a struggle for space, articulation in pictorial space. (See the painting on page 45).
In the two painting of houses, we may mention Paul Klee's concept of endotopic and exotopic contrasting energies, the exotopic plane standing out and the endotopic tending to recede. This articulation is due to colour values and boundary lines. In another painting the configuration of parallel lines not only suggests human forms but releases energies to establish endotopic and exotopic phenomena. This kind of contrast has an analogy in musical structure and significantly Kulkarni had a passion for classical Indian music. Kulkarni's repertoire includes all sorts of lines, spots, dots, smooth surfaces, dotted surfaces, shaded surfaces to wavy movement, constricted or articulated movement, network and weaving a line losing itself or a line growing stronger.
First Published in: K.S. Kulkarni, Kumar Gallery, 2008