Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in The Times of India, 1979, p. 19

The erstwhile art critic of The Times of India, presently doing research on playing cards in India, talks to Yashodhara Dalmia

Those first few moments with Rudi Von Leyden were puzzling. A man much known for his support to Indian artists during the 40s he was then an art critic of this newspaper. He continued to write for it as late as 1952 and support the cause till he left for Vienna in 1968. But sitting by him near the swimming pool at the Willingdon Club in Bombay, one did not get any idea of his intimate association with India. He looked impenetrable, remote and yes-unfriendly.

What brings you to India? I asked, feeling uncomfortable.

“Cards. Playing cards. I am doing research on them.”

I learnt that he had been visiting places, in the past two years, where traditional playing cards were still being made-places in Orissa, Bengal and Sawantwadi in Maharashtra.

In what way were you involved with art activity in Bombay? I asked wonderingly.

He leaned back, the glistening water reflected in his eyes. Names, faces came to him. He recalled The Times of India when the British were in charge. And the colleagues he worked with.

“I was a geologist when I came to India. But I had to find some work so I joined the art department of The Times. I used to do the daily lay-out for the newspaper and the magazines. It was interesting because we were always encouraged to do new things. Langhammar was with me. If you look up some of the old issues of The Illustrated Weekly you’ll find cartoons done by me.”

How can you get involved with art criticism?

“Well one day I was talking to Pereira --you know? Simon Pereira of The Evening News--and deploring a terrible exhibition of the Bengal school which was being shown at the Taj hotel. ‘He said why don’t you review it for us? So, I agreed. After that he sent me all the invitations he received for exhibitions and I started writing regularly.

“You cannot imagine what the situation was like in those days. There was either the horrible pretentiousness of the Bengal school or there was the JJ School of Art which was carrying on in the best tradition of provincial British art. Then there were these society ladies who painted flowers and such things. And there were a group of Maharashtrian painters who painted an imitation of British academic art.

“When Amrita Sher-Gil burst in on the scene, there was a wave of protest. The Bombay Art Society presented her with an award in 1939--the governor used to be the chairman in those days. As a result most of the committee members resigned and Langhammer and I joined the committee.”

His sleek white hair rested peacefully on his forehead. A shadow of green plants, some of them glinting in the sun, framed his face. We continued to sit--sipping coffee. He had brightened but still seemed reluctant to travel into the past. As if it may not remain intact.

“And then one by one they came--Ara, Raza, Husain, Souza. We held group shows for them and as their work was recognized they broke out on their own. Later, of course, they formed the Progressive Artists’ Group.

“But it was Ara who was the first and in many ways a pioneer”, he said warmly. “He used to wash cars for a living. I asked him, ‘Is there anything that you would like to do’ He said, ‘Yes, paint.’ So I went around to my friends and collected money for him. We agreed that from the money he made from his paintings he would repay the loan. And, sure enough, his work was much admired and many people bought them. But he wouldn’t keep any money with himself and begged me to keep it for him and give him Rs. 50 a month--otherwise he would give it away to friends. He was a very generous man.”

I could feel something of the energy behind the man. It was a kind of a rallying around in support of one’s belief. And this, I realized, came from a giving of oneself to one’s work.

But there was a long silence. He seemed to be brooding.

You must think about those days when you are in Vienna?

“When I come across artists in India, I remember them. The other days there was an opening of Raza’s work. We were all there together, except Souza. It was just like old times and we talked openly, without any barriers.”

But how can you recognize Indian art in its embryonic stage?

“Oh, I knew there was something distinctive about these artists. That, despite the odds, one day they would do something significant. And they have. If they are not recognized on an international scale it’s only because there is much more to it than art. Many of the younger artists whose work I have seen seem very promising too--Bhupen Khakhar, Gieve Patel, Paramjit Singh, Bikash Bhattacharya, Nalini Malani. I have, of course, not seen the work of many other artists.”

We talked about the Artists’ Aid Fund he set up to support artists. A small sum was collected from an exhibition where the whole Leyden family displayed its work--his father’s woodcuts the brother’s paintings and his own cartoons. The fund helped many artists in small ways.

The meeting was coming to an end. There was, however something which remained to be settled. Why was he working on playing cards?

“Well, I didn’t want to cut myself off from Europe. I had seen what happens to those who stayed on here. So when I received this offer to set up a branch of this pharmaceutical firm in Vienna I agreed. On my way back from work I used to browse in the library of art there. There was a surprisingly large number of old journals and magazines on India--not on the latest, but some precious old ones. I started reading up on playing cards and that’s why I am here.”

Suddenly he seemed as light as a butterfly, about to take off for a swim. His white head drifted lazily on the waters.

Published in The Times of India, 1979, p. 19
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