We are providing a triple perspective on contemporary Indian art, explains Geetha Mehra, the energetic director of the Synergy Art Foundation. The occasion was the recent opening of Synergy’s art season in Bombay with a grand, three-part exhibition at the Sakshi Gallery.
The exhibition included the appropriately named show Prologue: a tantalising curtain raiser on future shows displaying the works of 14 artists, a composite show called Heads, with contributions from the India’s leading sculptors and a mini retrospective of Somnath Hore’s drawings, graphics and paintings.
Somnath Hore is Mehra’s most sensational catch. Hore had not exhibited in Bombay for several years: his last show at the Gallery Chemould is now a very faint memory. Art Heritage of New Delhi had promoted a Hore exhibition way back in its 1983-84 season. Mehra actually went to Santiniketan to meet the veteran artist and curate the selection to be shown in Bombay.
Totally self-effacing, Hore shot into the limelight last year when the Madhya Pradesh government selected him for the prestigious Kalidas Saman. Earlier, he had also been in the news with the release by Seagull Books of Calcutta of a collection of his sketches and diary entries.
In the mini-retrospective, Hore’s series of prints called Wounds which has been presented on stark white paper was inspired by his early experience of the 1943 Bengal famine. Equally traumatic was the drama of communal riots in Calcutta in 1946 - a subject that strikes a sad note in many contemporary viewers in the aftermath of Ayodhya. “There was panic and terror among the common people.” Hore wrote of those days. “Wounds are what I saw everywhere. A scarred tree, a road gouged by a truck tyre, a man knifed for no visible or rational reason…”
Rather than concentrate on the surrounding objects, Hore focused all his agony on the phenomenon of the wounds.
The process of Hore’s selection for the Kalidas Samman was recalled by K.G.Subramanyan, who was a member of the jury. Subramanyan, or “Mani” as the scholar -artist is called by his many students and admirers, had been Hore’s colleague at Santiniketan and was sharply aware that he had to be scrupulously objective.
However, Hore’s drawings particularly those which portray human skeletons as scarecrows expressed such universal sentiments that the utter propriety of selecting him for the award was well established.
Says Chandra Doshi, one of Hore’s former students and currently co-director of Bombay’s Gallery 7: “Hore is rooted in the teachings of his elders especially Benode Bihari Mukerjee and Ramkinker Baij. He is a unique combination of a humanist and experimentalist. He is an innovator par excellence and he tried to instil in all of us, his students at Santiniketan, the spirit of enquiry and exploration.”
The section called Heads in the Sakshi exhibition is impressive as it has been imaginatively curated. All the contributing sculptors are well known: Latika Katt, G.Ravinder Reddy, Ved Nayar and Himmat Shah.
Latika Katt offers a series of innovation heads in bronze and papier mache, which conjure up memoires of her past efforts in bronze; the heads of Bendre, Nerhu, Mulk Raj Anand, Ramkinker Baji and Jeram Patel.
“My experimental work is of course in a totally different vein, “says Katt, who has worked in Yugoslavia and Canada and several other countries in the western hemisphere. “I like to study natural phenomena and learn from the texture of live and dead things.” Her intriguing animal skull in papier mache with a network of rough lines is worth studying, as also her idea of hanging papier mache heads by a trellis-like ‘rope’ structure.
“It is a difficult challenge to maintain a stance of indigenism while exposing oneself to so much in the western world,” remarks Katt about her exposure to two divergent worlds of sculpture. “But I have found my direction naturally and without experiencing any crisis”, she concludes reassuringly.
G Ravinder Reddy, who was once in charge of the Kanoria Centre for Arts in Ahmedabad presents large terracotta heads wrapped in gold foil. His head of Radha recalls the sensational he created a few years ago with his nude Radha at the Timeless Art exhibition.
Ved Nayar’s bronze evoke a tribal reality with their angular chins. The highly talented Himmat Shah’s terracotta heads resemble warrior’s masks. “I try to strike a mean between the formalistic and archetypal”, Shah maintains.
The most pleasant surprise in the Heads show is Sarbari Roy Chowdhury’s bust of the internationally acclaimed sarodist, Ali Akbar Khan. The likeness is remarkable, matching in quality to Roy Chowdhury’s classic busts of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Kesarbai Kerkar. Roy Chowdhury has steadfastly refused to visit Bombay and has never had a show in this city.
The fact that he has now sent Marquette- like heads (including a highly stylised one of the legendary sculptor Giacometti) suggests that he is now ready to face the logistical problems of sending out sculptures from his abode in Santiniketan. With both Hore and Roy Chowdhury, Mehra has staged a coup of sorts.
There are many surprises in the Prologue section. For instance, there are monotypes dating from the ‘80s by that intractable pioneer of the Progressive Artists’ Group (1947-49), Francis Newton Souza. Souza who has been lounging in a city hotel for several months now, says, “I still like to do landscape.” (There is a charming one in the Sakshi show.) “Basic greatness in art, I believe, still lies in a few set forms: landscape, still-life, nudes - these can never become out of date.”
Souza is enthusiastic about the state of contemporary Indian art: “I have seen great vitality in the work of many young artists. This section here itself (Prologue) brings together some of the best Indian art of our times. If we look upon ourselves as pioneers, we can also be satisfied that we have been followed by generations which have come of terms with the demands of good art.”
K.G Subramanyan, who is also featured in Prologue, paints lucidly with an inimitable touch of wit. His gouaches here are obviously a part of a series, “the nature of which will become clear when the full solo show is mounted”, he promises.
Krishen Khanna’s canvases are now more rebelliously expressionist. His drawing of decrepit old man with a bulldog squatting near him is truly memorable. In a recent letter, he wrote of his role in the Progressive Artists’ Group, evoking vivid memories of meetings and discussions which move the texture of the movement. Even in his paintings, it seems Khanna has gone back to those youthful beginnings.
There is one artist in this show who is entirely unknown. Anandjit Ray trained in Baroda, and his watercolours are charged with a dramatic surrealism.
There is the curiosity of the work of an academically realistic artist fromBangalore:K.T Shiva Prasad. The academism is disturbing, almost oppressive. Other artists in Prologue are Sunil Das, Laxma Goud, Satish Gujral, Jaya Ganguly, Achutan Kudallur, Babu Xavier , Vivan Sundaram, Ganesh Pyne (the third of the elusive artists of Bengal along with Hore and Roy Chowdhury), Ajay Desai and Amitava Das.
Said Das earlier, “I like to promote a sense of childlike fun in my paintings.” Characteristically, his canvas in this exhibition shows a hold-up, with the central figure raising both hands. “A painting should be able to make its statement with a few bold effects”, feels Das. “It should not expose the problems which the artist confronts while he is making his painting.”
The Sakshi show was no less than a triple triumph.