Art Criticism

First published in Lalit Kala Contemporary,29.

It is difficult to describe the various art trends of contemporary India. Firstly, we are too near the scene to gain proper perspective or objective. Secondly, India is almost a continent as it were and the states are like countries of Western Europe.

In India today, naturally, there are major art centres and they are (a) Bombay- Baroda (b) Calcutta- Santineketan, (c/ Delhi, Chandigarh, apart South India. Most artists share in the general milieu, so to speak, but, in spite of certain similarities, the artistic ethos differs from centre to centre. In each centre, therefore, artists partake of the overall Indian historical and also the particular regional context, but there is ample scope for individual artists to differ in expression. History and geography have all conspired for the growth of several centres and this is right and proper.

Historically, modern Indian art can roughly be divided into two periods- pre-Independence and post-Independence. This again is arbitrary for there is considerable overlapping of styles and trends. I would even go further and subdivide the pre-independence period- the initial phase from 1905-1930 is dominated by Abanindranath Tagore and his Neo-Indian School and the second folkloric phase which Jamini Roy initiated covering broadly the years from 1930-45. At the same period, there were artists like Gaganendranath Tagore and the poet Rabindranath Tagore, whose artistic fancies were coloured at least subconsciously by various European movements from cubism to expressionism. While studying in Paris, Sher-Gil was impressed by post-impressionists, particularly by Gauguin. In her burgeoning phase, however, she had to go on a pilgrimage to Ajanta. On the other hand, Benode Behari Mukherjee travelled to Japan in 1937-38 and he was enchanted by the works of Seshu and Sotatsu. Ramkinker, from a very early period, showed signs of adherence to cubistic and even abstract imagery.

The last phase of the pre-Independence period is dominated by the “Calcutta Group”. Sculptors like Prodosh Dasgupta and painters like Nirode Mazumdar, Gopal Ghose, Paritosh Sen, Abani Sen and Prankrishna Pal were not affected by the Neo Indian School’s obscure reveries on Ajanta and miniature grace or the oft- repeated English Royal Academic type of realistic oil painting then in vogue.

These artists felt that along with the Indian artistic heritage they were heirs of the modern tradition from impressionism to the latest avant-garde movements. It was a period of economic instability when customs, beliefs and values were battered, and 1943 witnessed the Bengal Famine, the greatest man-made famine in history. There was no dearth of Western intellectuals, temporarily in uniform with whom the intelligentsia and creative artists could exchange ideas. Furthermore, Marxist ideas began to create a new cultural osmosis.

In the Calcutta Group's work, one finds, for the first time, artists who had perchance woken up in an imperialistic atmosphere, without the narcotic after-effects of feudal ethos. They were essentially concerned with hollow men in a stuffed urban situation. A few years later the PAG was formed in Bombay and together these two groups were able to shatter the citadels of conservatism.

Prior to Independence, artists, with very few exceptions, had hardly travelled abroad. Their knowledge of the art of man was confined to books. So, to the pre-Independence artists, the Indian context and the local viewers were all important.

After Independence, artists went abroad in large numbers and this exposure made them aware of the International art world. A corollary to this naturally was the dream of being in the mainstream of modern art. Competent, half-confident, eclectic, and grappling with new-found modernity, the artists could feel that the castles of contemporary Western art were difficult to batter. So there was a reversal to Indian theme, tantra, fantasy and even to the localised version of Pop Art. Slowly the art centres began to project certain peculiarities and characteristics. Contemporary Indian art, rather late in the day, showed signs that although a bit bewildered it had come of age.

Calcutta had once been the premier city in the realm of art. Most of the major pre-Independence painters and sculptors belonged to it or to the new-found centres like Santiniketan. From Abanindranath to the Calcutta Group, most major events in art had taken place here. So when pre-Independence art centres got consolidated, Calcutta could hold its own.

The history of the city in the twentieth century has been a very peculiar one. The transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi was of the best guarded secrets of the British Raj which was regally proclaimed during the Delhi Durbar of 191. From the Battle of Plassey to the 15th August, 1947, it was only during the last thirty-five years that Calcutta was not the capital of British India. In the early period of the Raj, Subey Bangla included Assam. Later Assam was separated. After the agitation of united Bengal had succeeded in keeping East and West Bengal together in 1905, the British carved out Bihar and Orissa. What was left of Subey Bagal was divided into two by Radcliffe’s knife in 1947. The systematic truncating of its hinterland had not upset Calcutta as much as the partition. It was as traumatic for the Bengalees as the fall if Paris during World War II was to the French.

The post-Partition art reflects this vividly:

Due to Partition, patrons dwindled. There is hardly any private or public money for art patronage. The successful are moderately successful when compared to their counterparts in other major art centres.

However, Calcutta has a character of its own. The tall buildings, the dark hovels, the millions who have migrated from various parts of West Bengal, Bangladesh and neighbouring States, who work, sleep, congregate , participate in political and cultural activities, the unemployed, the beggar, the Slum dweller, the rich, the poor, the pauper, the prince, the pimp, the prostitute, the politician, the broker, the banker, the businessman, the night club, the press, the writer, the intellectual and the Marwari have all made Calcutta what it is today.

In this situation the artists think the only way to be relevant would be to reflect the reality in purely artistic terms. Reality, of course, means different to individual artists.

On closer scrutiny, the later day artists are in a romantic situation. The nationalistic fervour that gave birth to the myth of our golden past seemed to have dissolved during the Second World War that brought death, pestilence and famine in its wake, followed by the riots that culminated in the Partition and the arrival of millions and millions of refugees. The standards of belief andsensibilityofwhichAbanindranath’sNeo-Indianschoolwas the expression, began to crumble. This made the artists who came after the "Calcutta Group" enquire how the shattering experience was affecting their instincts and psyche. The objective world that had suddenly turned irrational was seen through the inner eye. The artists suddenly turned into myth-makers.

The two most significant artists to grapple early with the problem were Somnath Hore and Bijan Chaudhury who were very close to each other at that period. Hore experimented in graphics and Chaudhury took to painting. They were defiant, rebellious, temperamental and yet self-confident, raging about the discrepancy between the real and the ideal but to-date they are never really pessimists. Rather, they are both incurable romantics.

Hore's recurrent subjects have been wounds that men inflict on men. What he is trying to describe is the torturous experience of the twentieth century. Bijan from his large size murals to small canvases organises figures in swirling movement pictorially structured and yet evocative in the nuances of colours. His imagery, content and symbols have changed, but he is tireless in projecting the human struggle into a pictorial metaphor by using both the purity of hues and the contrast of broken tones. His jumping horses, cavalry charges, falling figures endlessly descending into limbo, bewildered migrators in strange cities, banished warriors returning to possess the kingdom in the season of sunflowers, have the effect of primordial myth.

Shortly, after, when their brilliant young contemporaries Nikhil Biswas (1930-1966) and Prokash Karmakar entered the scene the movement accelerated. Nikhil's mural-like and also small black and white drawings and paintings portray people engaged in violent combat, apocalyptic horsemen riding and destroying people, sinister owls, bulls, horses and swine, the Eurasian myth of the bull fighting the horse signify the antagonism between instinctive violence and reason and love and finally his cycle on the crucifixion indicates that would win even in death and defeat. Karmakar makes subjective statements about the inhuman predicament. He even paints cannibalistic, erotic, extravaganza to typify death and decay. His broken and mutilated human bodies, crouching figures being preyed upon by horses and eagles, the ageing Radha and the melting Taj Mahal give a different dimension to the existential situation. His colours and lines take on an independent existence and achieve animated patterns by the movement of the brush which powerfully hints at a whole gamut of emotions.

At almost the same time Arun Bose, Shyamal Dutta Ray. Gopal Sanyal, Sanat Kar and Kartick Pyne joined the fray. Sunil Das and Rabin Mondal came a little later. After Arun Bose's return from France, Dutta Ray and Kar took to etching and intaglio more seriously. Some among them did not have the ironical doubt in the present or faith in the future and became quicksilver individual experimenters. Except Somnath Hore, most graphic artists lacked intensity and passion to be humanly committed. On the other hand, among these artists, some of the painters tried to portray vividly the dimension of human tragedy. Gopal Sanyal's paintings relate how suffering benumbs and warps personalities to the point of apathy. His emaciated bird-sellers, street urchins, wandering musicians seem dead but not ready to give up. Rabin Mondal's primitives are unable to celebrate even while congregating and Kartick Pyne's human, beings irrational animals. Sunil Das celebrates the lifecycle myth in his later variegated imagery and gives it a tragic dimension. Shyamal Dutta Ray in his later water colours makes his deformed figures prowl or limp through the city with beggar's bowl. Isha Mohamed's world of woman in purdah, street urchins and prostitutes and tumbling down still life portray the tension, reality. The whole range of experience that this generation paints is apparently dramatic, heightened by a tragic sense. Humans in this world seem afraid and miserable, shaken to the foundations, crying to heaven from whence comes no help.

The next generation of artists grew up with a sense of disenchantment within the orbit of the politics of scarcity which was mismanaged by a petit bourgoise hierarchy. They were also concerned and bitter about the gradual deterioration of the situation. Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Chaudhury, Bikash Bhattacharya and Dhiraj Choudhury are all hurt but their emphasis is different. They are visionaries whose responses show the extent to which they are emotionally upset by the ignoble spectacle and are defiant and sceptical. Like their older contemporaries they are also powerful. They take to imaginative flights to describe the sordid affairs of a mundane world. Ganesh Pyne's archetypal imagery of the Buddha-Christ sitting marks in his hands, charioteers, fisher-folk, cowherds, birds whispering into the ears of dead skeleton are all incarnation of innocence but have tortured faces. People miss the violence of his imagery because of the deceptive orderliness of his composition and his subdued and yet glowing use of the tempera. Both Jogen and Dhiraj imbibe the spirit of the city of their origin, although they live in Delhi now. Jogen's coloured pen and ink work of fading flowers in vases, decaying and corpulent women and the obesity of the aged and the powerful are pointers to the decadence of a civilisation. Bikash's blind and beheaded monsters and people wearing their faces like death masks remind one of strange characters entering through the gates of hell. Dhiraj's paintings are just competent but his drawings have the sinister atmosphere of inferno too. No doubt one could detect a major shift in the works of these artists. There is a definite element of nightmare and the appeal is to the subconscious.

Since the mid-sixties, the generation of artists that arrived have been extremely individualistic. They belong to the generation that gave vent to their anger in the Naxalite movement. In this period there was a growing awareness among the urban young men of the ruthless exploitation of the landless peasantry, and the industrial worker. The widespread sense of despair among the educated, unemployed and the student community, coupled with the corruption and degeneration in high places and the erosion of belief in evolutionary transformation made the first half of the seventh decade turbulent and extremely violent. Most of these young zealots are dead, creating problems for the artists belonging to the same generation. Latent overtones this comes through in their painting in spite of ambivalence. Among them there are those whose approach is cerebral and rather formal like Aloke

Bhattacharya, Asoke Biswas, Shankar Guha and Siboprasad Karchoudhury, Dilip Kundu's poignant exposures of distortions in human relationship is intense. Like Kundu, Shuvaprasanna alsoportraysimmanentforcesof destructionthrough hislucid 24imagery. Kanchan Das Gupta ironically comments on tattered condition of the social fabric and Biswapati Maity on environmental distortion.

The present generation like Rebanta Goswami believes that things are going to get worse. In expressing their predicament they use a confusing medley of imagery, mostly from the insect and animal world and all these appear from their underground burrows. The setting is always claustrophobic and urban. Their styles differ from each other and they borrow from contemporary book illustrations but give it an individual pictorial twist.

From the generation that made up the ""Calcutta Group" (Nirode Mazumdar and Paritosh Sen still working) to the generation that Rebanta belongs to, artists are working as contemporaries. The older generation also renew and transform themselves. Their work is transfigured and shows sign of growth. Hore is experimenting with sculpture and Bijan

Chaudhury relaxes with graphics, while their younger contemporary, Shaymal Dutta Ray, has taken to watercolour. As they do not work in isolation and have kept the French window open to the outside world, there is a lot of windy cross currents. Their art is relevant to the total Indian situation and yet international in approach, like the films of Satyajit Ray and contemporary Bengali poetry, novel and theatre. The search for newer expression for the changing reality goes on.

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