Keshav Malik essays

Since this exhibition is a landmark in the development of contemporary printmaking on the Indian scene it may be a good idea to indulge in a kind of flashback. Having watched the growth of the art movement for a few decades, I will take as my starting point the year 1960 and try to recapitulate, and put down on paper, the reactions I have had to some of our salient printmakers. A number of these are represented in this show, some are not. Some others are a fresh crop, call them dark horses if you will. My recapitulation, therefore, does not sum up or exhaust the work of each and every one on the scene, past or present. However, it may in some small way afford to peep into what transpired in earlier years up to now. The trends in printmaking may be read in-between the lines. Then, for the good reason that through these many years there were very many print exhibitions and print workshops by foreign artists, it may not be a bad idea to give ourselves a comparative base also, in other words, to examine the standing of Indian printmaking relative to developments on the foreign scene. Without doubt a number of our artists are influenced by what they see happening on the international scene. This is understandable. It my of course be that visiting printmakers may also have learnt something from their Indian colleagues. This two way traffic of art and artists is certainly a health giving thing.

Talking of printmakers what we are at once faced with is the technical equipment necessary for this medium. While the artists from the so-called developed world have no lack of high technology our own artists have to largely make do with such simpler or elementary devices, some that have already been in use long ago. A workman ought not to quarrel with his tools but, as distinct as from easel painting with its much easier demands on instrumentation, printmaking as an applied art has certain difficulties which cannot be ignored. Precision is one of the key values in a successful print, the kind of precision, as also the faithfulness of impression which only efficient machinery helps achieve.

There is another, somewhat more of a cultural or historical facet which cannot be ignored (perhaps technology or its lack is a part of that), namely that high technology already expresses the emphasis of innovation, invention, the application of a coolly and carefully arrived at abstract thought to industry. Such innovativeness and inventiveness are demanded by economic development and a high growth rate. Industry cannot go forward without organised research, designed primarily to augment and boost production, to make the servicing and the administration of the given society efficient. All these bind everything to a time-table. The fallout from these economic realities also affects art and designing; it comes in the form of new technical processes, materials as well as a shift in the personal attitudes and working methods of the artists. For good or ill there is a brisker intellectual commerce between artist and the whole society as well as between artist and the art-minded public. At least there is an appearance of this.

Some of these factors still have to appear on the Indian urban scene. The Indian artist works, by and large, by hunches and intuitions. He lives in an ethos which is steeped not in history in the making but in mythic time. Applied art in any rate is on the periphery of Indian industry, despite commercial advertising and copywriting. Thus both technically as well as physically or personally the Indian printmaker, like the painter, works at a more leisurely pace. His movement and activity are slower. These could be advantages for sure, but also drawbacks as we approach printmaking. However, even as Indian easel painting has come a long way from its recent beginnings, shows promise and actual fulfilment although not as great a variety as may be expected.

To look back now, we should turn to the early sixties. While I will discuss some of the artists in passing (memory being what it is) I will also mention the work of some of them at greater length, from time to time. But no value judgements are implied in such disparity.

One of the earliest shows to come to mind was by that trio of artists by Ambadas, Himmat Shah and Swaminathan. Of this group, the work of Ambadas was delectable. At a superficial glance the white surface of the prints seemed to be covered with fine black ink scrawls. But after more careful viewing one was rewarded with a fizz of effervescent sensations. The artist’s works carried titles from the organic sciences: ‘Linear Growth’, ‘Metabolism’, ‘Growth knows no Sequence’. Here were friezes of evolution in miniature. Himmat Shah’s work was more in line with pure forms, such being ‘White Cohereing’. The effect was like that of electronic music. That last named artist’s work was still too tentative.

The first ever all India graphic exhibition was held in Delhi’s Silpi Chakra on 12.5.1965. This show brought talent from across the country. If many exciting foreign printmakers had already been seen in India, the Indians were now catching up. Here were Jagmohan Chopra, Jai Kishan, Gouri Shankar, Akbar Padamsee, Krishna Reddy, Kanwal Krishna, Devyani Krishna, Somnath Hore and Jaya Appasamy. Themes ranged from figurative dreamwork to a preoccupation with microscopic forms, invisible to the naked eye.

The then young Satish Gupta showed considerable talent in the medium. In show after show ever since 1965 he did commendable monoprints. These were warmhued, at times verging on the sulphuric. The artist managed yellows and reds to much greater effect in works titled ‘The Last Stage’ and ‘Yellow Bottle’. The late Magan Bhai Soma and Nakli Ram, both from human stations in life, also did a show of prints in ’65. The former’s was child art, as in his posthumous show at Art Heritage in Delhi recently. ‘Wharf Variations’ was his best print. Here the child in the man received free expression. Some work was distinctly folk, even tribal.

The same year, 1965, Devyani Krishna did a powerful piece titled ‘Under the Roof of God’ with a red cross. The work with its religious tinge showed the road she was to adopt later. The lines were simple, as though by someone untrained, but full of faith. Other works drew on shell patterns. Even when unsuccessful, the serious intent of the artist was palpable, as in her ‘Namaste’. Somnath Hore was already among the foremost etchers in the country. His prints during the same year broke new ground in as much as they combined the intricate techniques of printmaking with figurative painting, so that they had naturalness as well as deliberation. His hues were acid hues. There was a fictional fairy story element to works like ‘Woman, Child, Birds’, ‘The flower’ and ‘Man and Woman’. The embossed tough was particularly fine. Some works were a lacquer-like red, done on material other than paper.

In one of the then shows the works of RKBhatnagar stood out, with a print in blue. The artist had arrived at true individuality. Usha Pascricha and Bimal Bannerjee were other artists of note. The latter’s work had a Japanese touch. This was in ’66 March.

By this time Group 8 had become active in Delhi. Most of the Group’s printmakers were women, their mentor being Jagmohan Chopra. There was much uniformity in the Group, though also good technical knowledge of the medium. It was hard to make one’s choice but Sunita Kanvinde produced works as pretty as butterflies. Lakshmi Dutt exhibited her ‘Child’ in red and Priya Mukherjee’s works had lingic-yogic connotations. Anupam Sud’s leggy compositions were already in evidence. Though working in an apparently narrow ambience these artists were trying to turn their limitations into strength. The polish, and the polished immaculate conception strategy made for attractiveness. Indeed, this is why one goes for the graphic, i.e., for its sobriety and its mountain air freshness. Surely the last in the hallmark of the print which has no self-conscious stance, as often as is the case in the oil media. The impersonal values of the print makes it more detached in tone. Seen compositely, if Jagmohan Chopras were large on grand gestures, Lakshmi Dutt was agitated, zig-zaggy; Kanvinde obsessed with spheres, as if with a feeling for space, neatness and order. But the feel of texture was in all their bones. The delight was in surfaces as if in bark and skin.

The now expatriate artist Bimal Bannerjee’s show that same year was listed as ‘O’. The artist had a likeable facility with white and rust. At his best these intaglios were natural, rather too similar works. Of course, in some of his works with figures, Bannerjee had come down from his precious previous offerings. Then, one more exhibition from Somnath Hore proved him to be one of the top practitioners of the art form. ‘Eclipse’, ‘Enchantment’ and ‘Hope’ were some of the titles. Some were rich in colour, others had a dry, embossed feel. The coloured ones created the dream, whereas the ‘dry’ ones had reverberations of prehistoric cave painting. With some works titled ‘weary’, a weary quality was palpable in much of Hore’s works as in the postures of his human figures. But this was not the result of the drying up of sensibility and but a result of disenchantment with the work-a-day world.

At this time a Soviet Exhibition provided much contrast and comparison. Here was stone-cut, clean work in the litho genre. Both realistic and social as well as romantic themes were included. The work from that country may show many changes in the coming years.

Deep etchings were done by Vishwanadhan at this time. Then there was the Czechoslovak exhibition (in black and white) with a steely strength. Of these artists, Lebi went in for surrealism; naturalism in woodcuts was tried by Zmetak; and the grotesque by Zelibska. Here, in the main, was a Gothic world, which was taken in their stride by some of the Indian artists; of course there was ego that which calmed rather than disturbed, like Bombava’s litho prints.

Jagmohan, in the meanwhile, continued with his work the following year with a new show of abstractions for which the viewer had to have an acquired taste. This was the artist’s best period, saying a formal thing eloquently, more amply. His tints were wine-dark, blood rich, with an imagery of diffused discordant patterns. The lino compositions had an individuality all their own. But the work declined, became repetitive subsequently.

Then, at a print showing, we had Shobha’s large flowing figures done in elongation. Here was much poetic strength. Rameshwar Broota’s prints were more ambitious and these were the dark end of the spectrum. Also Jiwan Adalja’s faces somewhat in the same line though less pointedly 80, showed the truth of man - the maker of beautiful things but a hell in himself.

In the following year Gouri Shankar put up his monoprints and constructions. This was not yet matured enough work though one could admire the technique. Dev Raj’s new lithographs were very striking ones, ‘Red Cactii’ and ‘Red Moon’ being two fine instances. Here was a labour of love, with specialisation and narrowing of focus but also sensuous love. Umesh Verma’s offering was filmic with something of the mysterious, whereas Adalja, in still another show, went for still objects as also subjects like birds creeping out of spatial arrangements.

In this period, the early sixties, delightful work was created by Zarina Hashmi, clean, uncluttered and sophisticated. Zarina employed rich hues. The balance she maintained between mossy greens and subtle warms being always refreshing. Zarina’s white whirling grooves provided a forceful sense of movement.

The All India Printmakers put up a show in the middle of 1969. Outstanding of these were Jeram Patel, Jyoti Bhatt, K.G. Subramanyan, Devyani Krishna, Paneer Selvam, Zarina and Priya Mukherjee. The inspiration ranged from geometric planes to subconscious fragments or figments. Anupam showed works in the former category and Zarina in the latter. Bimal Bannerjee too, was back with a fresh show proving that he had learnt a lot during his New York stay and giving his work a fevered lively line. Paneer Selvam’s prints showed he knew his trade, as in the ‘Seat of birth’, ‘Unknowable’ and ‘Curvilinear’. He was able to create fantastical worlds of much hotness and blackness, symbolic of birth. Here, texture and theme blended splendidly to form a rich ensemble.

By 1970, Paul Lingren has set up his print workshops, and the result of his teaching efforts was seen in the show by 103 Indian artists or novices. They had matured by courtesy of the Smithsonian Insititute. Dalip Bakshi, M.K. Puri, Lena Biswas, Anupam Sud, Gopi Gajwani, Shobha Broota, Dev Raj and Jai Kishan profited greatly, to go by their print workshop composition. But also must be mentioned Jai Zharatia, Paul Koli, Amina Kar and, of course, Zarina. These artists began to experiment more furiously. Laxma Goud’s dark-minded prints were the most striking.

About this time there arrived a show of block prints from Canada. The artist was Aba Bayfesky with his Red Indian legends, totems and masks. On the heels of this came the twenty British printmakers’ team. There were two tendencies in this show, an extremely exhibitionistic idiom and the diametrically opposite, a very impersonal clinicality. No golden mean seemed to be in evidence. Some of this may have been indigestible to the Indian viewer, still ensconced in his taboos. The preponderate impression we had here was of the fabricated non-image, as in advertisement. Applied mathematics had certainly made its home in the new sensibility (or its lack); the lab room and the dark room being adjuncts, the viewer remaining emotionally sterile, thematically empty, but physically and cerebrally alive, and on the look-out for the new with a view to renewing the acceleratedly fatiguing cells ofcreative imagination. Here, the styles had some wit but no depth, only smooth surface. Only two of these printmakers gave us the genuine ‘old time’ aesthetic experience - Edward Paolozzi with his Indian carpet patterns and Briget Riley with her opticals following the tantalising syndrome. With this show, too, the Indian printmakers may well have received some fresh ideas.

For instance Zarina developed in som such vein, pursuing her rationality with single-mindedness though not without generic variations, i.e., vitality with the barest of means. Dipak Bannerjee with his gay, controlled music, or else the taut sensibility of his rhythmic spare intaglios, was another. Zarina with her tidy unornamental disposition showed her mind, reflecting as she did the hard-edged contemporary sensibility. This was the shape of things to come.

From out of the forty-three printmakers in the ‘Graphics 70’ show in Rabindra Bhavan, the copious inclusion of Krishna Reddy put all the rest in the shade. Repetitive or not, his work was loaded with the ore of lyricality: as if catching in split seconds the spilling bottles of fresh milk; the static life content becoming unbounded, alive, brisk and pulsating; the bland whites absorbing the pigments of what they fell on; a becoming not a being; not frozen intellectual objects but the process of energy constantly changing and transforming. In contrast the myriad manners of the others were like stills, not a moving film. And as a still, Gulam Sheikh’s landscape (an imaginary one) was an exercise in a new clarity of purpose.

In October ’70 there arrived a large exhibition of prints from America proving that there had been (within fifteen years) a renaissance of the arts in that country. There was the feel of restlessness here which is a condition of minds on the move. Here was invention as well as (thankfully) imagination. Deen Meeker was the best of this lot with his celestial cat, ‘le Soleil’, the sun made into a spirit. Elsewhere was plain geometry or else mordant worlds, the pretty, the chic or the dandy. Glamourous works, whether or not you moved to them deeply. The attempt to breathe life into the junk of civilisation.

In 1971 Triveni Kala Sangam’s graphics were put for show, Kanwal Krishna and Rano Habit showing much progress. This exhibition included that the younger artists were catching up fast, learning their trade. And that included an already apt Anupam Sud, never going wrong, not merely formally correct, never boring as sometimes in painting. And, with figuration, her work climbed steeply. On the obverse, Paramjeet Singh’s serigraphs had yet to digest her ‘foreignness’, not yet having adopted to native conditions. Dev Raj and Jatin Das, in their 1971 show, were suave and delectable. But the best of course, once again, was Somnath Hore’s ‘Wounds’, like some bleeding plaster of paris. This work of no shades was to grow still further in coming years. Wala Kishore following his individual line did, as ever before, conspicuous and idiosyncratic work.

In the year following came another big American show proving that the western artist, no matter how conventional a material he used, no matter if he burlesqued or mocked, loved scientific rationality first and foremost, as though (as said before) reflecting his cultural condition. All artists here startled us with their clinical whiteness, glistening chrome plate framing adding to this feel. The genius to these artists inhered in this, that they pressed highly impersonal techniques to artistic uses. There were Roy Lichenstein, James Ronsenquist and Andy Warhol, the latter with more conventionality in intent, if not technique. But here, too were no inward states as with painters of other ages, no intimacy, only formal concern. With no emotional argument, what of the viewing Indians after this!

Then came the German printmakers with their daimonics and expressionistics. All these artists -- Diehl, W. Petrick, P. Sorge, K. Staeck - would seem to be infused with moral convictions, struggling with State and technology, with technology’s own means. Very different from the Americans, surely!

Dipak Bannerjee’s symbols were among the strongest of the eleven printmakers’ meet. Vaino Kola of Finland was another notable, in the naturalistic vein. Japan, Yugoslavia and the Scandinavian countries participated in this venture at the Rabindra Bhavan.

Hiroshige’s show in the coming year was unrivalled in outlining common life. Neat without becoming forbidding taking in Japanese life all so subtly. The indigos really took one’s breath away.

Lakshmi Dutt, back from Paris briefly, now stressed nature in her latest work: the morphology of nature, that is, experimenting and yet using this strategy only as a means to an end.

Another British exhibition (Fifty years of printmaking) displayed a hundred works, the earliest from 1928 and the last from 1979 - a silk screen. In between, during this long period, much experiment (particularly in photo-lithography and photo-etching) seemed to have taken place. All this was not much in use in Indian printmaking. There applied art seemed to have graduated to a fine art with many acts of pure seeing. Stainton’s ‘the Passing’, and of course Victor Passmore’s were excellent compositions. Henry Moore’s lithos spoke eloquently. The show was rich with varied temperament and idiosyncrasies.

In the following year, among the younger printmakers, we had Yusuf from Bangalore and Anju Chaudhuri: the former with his roadside drain pipes and Anju busy with natural forms of considerable variety, visibly realistic or dream-like.

Other printmakers, too, contributed to the Indian scene in the 70s and 80s. There was the Hungarian Tibor Zala, with his copper-plate and etchings and poster colours. Meticulously did he draw upon Bela Bartok’s music, and this in book designs. He also drew upon the folk styles of his country. Then there were the graphics from West Berlin. Here were mere posters and, as such the artists, as mere craftsman, could not detain the viewer long. However, artist as dissenter did so, as in ‘Winners’ and ‘Wall’; (by Scoenholz). His ‘Figure in Armchair’ acted as social comment. The Cubans also put up two shows over the period of time. They were strong in photographic realism, pop, suggestive abstraction and naturalism wide range. The more interesting works turned nature into design. The experimental diagrams of someone like Bedia and Duran were nurtured and more on art than on naïve life experience. In India, some such work has been done by Arpita Singh and Nasreen. The Cubans’ ticker-tapish work found its complement in Gurcharan Singh and Vijay Singh. The Cuban Gallardo was as humorous as Steinberg, which mood was harder to find on the Indian scene.

The 80s National Gallery foreign lithographs consisted of the work of well known artists like Picasos Chagall, Duffy, Matisse, etc. The created worlds have enriched the ‘commonsensical’ immensely.Matta was puckish; heavier and darker being the Germans like Wunderlich, and Calder, Gay.

In the last few years Paramjit Singh broke the Gordian knot; the spacing in his ‘Sanctuary’ the arrangement of his fields - was most zen like, the cool colours being just right.

Lalu Prasad Shaw (among the few chosen good printmakers) in his latest show 1984 testified to his skill. All his ‘constructions’, with their abstract planes, had movement and an alert impeccability of tone. With him the whole sum and substance of the print has been achieved, at least often so.

A bewildering variety was met within the All India show of prints recently: Krishan Ahuja’s work being striking and simple in outline, e.g., ‘In the Rocks’; Kunal Singh’s litho ‘Fish’ vivid; Bula Chakaravarty and Viren Tanwar mixed media compositions, Jogen Chowdhury’s serigraph. Binoy Kumar Mitra’s silkscreen and T. Oberoi’s whirling lines were other notable works. Mamtani’s milky hued spade work shaped kinematic techniques were seen to have much movement in his film on the graphic. The work becomes animated and makes us see and live human meanings - an experiment worth following. Kanchan Malhotra’s brooding woman faces were not just a formal exercise. There was no black humour but an ironic intent behind this significant work.

Many have been the media of Naina Dalal - intaglio, dry-point, litho, linocut. But she is best with the human figure drawn on browns and rust black and other shades.

One of the latest of Somnath Hore’s print show was explorative, very interesting in the evolution of forms. The simplicity of the work testified to its fine mastery, a personalized art, not a sensate melodrama.

And now on to the last three printmakers. Manohar Akare has mastered his litho and etching techniques well. The patterns that the artist impresses with his plates are firm, like a thumb print and, collectively, these ‘thumb prints’ make strikingly individual compositions. As studies in textures the works are, therefore, interesting. The artist has the tendency to title his compositions in a rather literary fashion - ‘Joy in Life’, ‘Sex and Meditation’. ‘Conflicts of Mind’, for which reason we wonder whether they really have any reverberations of lived life. Here the mind’s abstractions would seem in being need of being converted into vitality.

Jayant Parikh: eye flattering work. The genre is in keeping with the colour schemes of an older India. Parikh brings it up to date. He is able to etch whole vistas of household interiors complete with ornamentalized addenda. The velvety and enamelled feel of his paintings also finds an echo in his prints, rendering them delicious. The tang of the old world is recreated by accurate transcriptions, but not overly perfected patterns. The artist knows his India by his pulse. But if his paintings do not always manage to arrive at the desired balance (tending to slight garishness) the graphics not only unfailingly draw upon the local scene but also lead to a still superior if simpler, more spartan, sort of fare. Many of the prints have been in off white with some motif or illustrative idea right at the centre of them.

Jyoti Bhatt: Once again a skilled printmaker, who learned plenty from some years’ stay in the west. Perhaps a bit too much of a polished look and a studied manner, or a cultivated aestheticism. Not all works seem daring. The artist uses Indian motifs and juxtaposes them with non-Indian ones. However, all in all, the effect is not of an outlandish hybrid. His metal plates have been most fetching.

This flashback in time (like a flashback in dreams) is scrappy and fitful. The blanks will have to be filled in by the lovers of prints. What, however, such recapitulation may have brought into light is the shifting and yet steady fortunes of printmaking on the Indian scene. More and more artists have been trying a hand at it. Just as cinema and theatre, though close, are different experiences, so also are print and oil on canvas different through closely allied.

Our artists have learnt something from visiting foreign printmakers, quite like our modern painters did from European painters. Having learn their lessons they, the best of them, are on their own and they have evolved their own styles. Action and reaction are good, they simply correcting of the always disturbed balances in artistic requirements. The same is happening to the print. This will become clear as we go over and experience the works of these many printmakers in the present exhibition. R.B Bhaskaran, Jeram Patel, Gogi, Palaniappan have done significant work and they have either absorbed the regional nuances in the body of their work or else they are abreast with the computer age. The general heterogeneity, in the look of the given works shows that the tedious following of the beaten path has been eschewed. One only hopes that the public, and not only artists, will show their appreciation of a laborious, time consuming art, one which will enrich more than the Indian home.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1985
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