The open doors and wide skies of Indian freedom have given a considerable impetus to Indian art. What grew precariously in the atmosphere of a hot house in the British period is now vigorously putting forth new leaves and flowers. In variety and strength the modern art of India reflects her heterogeneous society. Many levels of art jostle and grow together, the best compares well with art elsewhere in the world. The new sensibility is certainly not regimented; indeed there is a will to not conform. It is besides self-aware, and eager to record new fields of experience: it reflects the exuberance and expansion of a young society. The struggle for survival seems at this moment an incentive rather than an obstacle to growth. The main characteristic of contemporary art as compared with the art that went before it, is confidence.
‘Progress’ is comparative; we have therefore to consider the problems which faced artistic production in the first half of the century. The artist of that period was confronted with his own ancient tradition of which he was no longer a part and with the political struggle for Indian Independence. Again the archaeological and historical discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries tended to hinder and rather than help the evolution of art. The Indian artist was presented with a great classical past which overwhelmed him and with which he strove to preserve some continuity. Secondly alien domination and made inevitable the search for a national identity. The art schools established at Calcutta, madras and Bombay by the British taught imported academic styles which claimed to be superior and rational or even modern. And a reaction to this art was unavoidable withdrawn and subjective; heavily burdened with meaning and sentiment. By the 1930s however the romanticism of the period had begun to wane, a sturdy genre style was developed by such artists such as Nandalal Bose and Binode Behari Mukherjee. A few independent creators such as Gaganendranath, Rabindranath and Sher-Gil displayed their originality by creating dissident or experimental works. Except for Sher-Gil their art was insufficiently noticed and the value of their contributions little understood.
The climate for art changed considerably after 1947. This may be attributed not only to political but also to economic and social change. The artist forsook his ivory tower to become again an active member of society contributing to improve production, especially in design and publicity. In recent years large numbers of young people have chosen art as a profession. In pre-Independence days an artist could only look forward to being a drawing master, today he has a choice of many opportunities. The top of freelance artists are able to live on the sales of their work, a situation quite unknown two decades ago. In 1947, New Delhi had only one exhibition hall; and one art society whereas now there are numerous active art organisations and a number of exhibition galleries all of them in full use. Art dealers help to show and distribute the work of major painters. Thus the milieu is one where art is presented, perhaps in a modest way, to the public. What contemporary art needs most is a natural and sensitive audience whose very presence would stimulate new art. The work of today goes ahead and does not have a responsive and understanding environment. While it is true that great works of art have often been produced without any specific demand, it is perhaps more true that no great era of artistic creativity arises without the active participation, appreciation and support by the whole of society.
Today the arts in India enjoy an unprecedented freedom. But by being free of guilds, of tradition, of communal purpose the artist also faces a certain isolation where the work he produces is not in demand. For new work to be recognised and valued one presupposes the existence of taste, imagination and judgement in society. Again the modern artist sets a high value on originality and this originality itself divides him and his public, which has to acquire a feeling for his art.
Contemporary work in India has I think succeeded in establishing the autonomy of art. The artist can determine what art shall be and how it shall be, acknowledging that the work is simply and uniquely itself and needs no external references. This freedom allows him an unlimited choice of whether he shall paint cans or clocks, or people or landscape or space or even paint. Indeed the multiple kinds of art being practiced of themselves negate the futile division of art into categories such as ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’. For figurative art is also abstract, since we admire it not because of its resemblance to reality or representation but for those intrinsic qualities which make it a work of art. The choice of the subject matter is sometimes an aspect of style and may help us to understand a certain period of art, but by itself the subject is only a point of departure and even a limitation which the true artist transcends in his leap to discovery. Indeed the subject matter has often been a limitation and still is one some people tend to lean upon. The anti-subject matter movement of the last fifty years in world art is itself proof of the desire for purity and autonomy in art. Modern art is concerned with essences, it tries to eliminate allusions and ornaments, and inconsequential accretions. In such work the presence or absence of the figure is immaterial and is outside an criteria that help us to value it. Focillon has helped us to give a liberal and modern definition in his statement: “A work of art is an attempt to express something that is unique, it is an affirmation of something that is whole, complete and absolute. But it is likewise an integral part of a system of highly complex relationships. A work of art results from an altogether independent activity; it is the translation of a free and exalted dream. But flowing together with it the energies of many civilisations may be plainly discerned. And a work of art is both matter and mind, both form and content.
Again, the critic will define a work of art by following the needs of his own individual nature and the particular objectives of his re-search. But the creator of a work of art regards his work-whenever he takes the time to do so-from a standpoint very different from that taken by the critic, and should he chance to use the same language in speaking of it, he does so in quite another sense. And the lover of a work of art that is the man of true sensitivity and wisdom-loves it for itself alone, whole heartedly, and in his unshakable belief that he may seize hold of it and possess its very essence, he weaves about it the mesh of his inmost dreams. A work of art is immersed in the whirlpool of time; and it belongs to eternity. A work of art is specific, local, individual, and it is our brightest token of universality. A work of art risesproudlyabove any interpretation we may see fit to give it; and, although it serves to illustrate history, man, and the world itself, it goes further than this; it creates man, creates the world, and sets up within history an immutable order."
The artist, as another critic has observed, is both destroyer and creator. His is a dual and contradictory role. He destroys by creating a new order and a new realm of experience. That is, the new causes the historicity of the aid. The reality of contemporary art is not to be found in its themes figurative or abstract but in the visual validity of the works of art themselves.
A visitor surveying contemporary Indian art at any given time in the last twenty years is likely to have found it very miscellaneous. There is especially a marked difference between the art of the major cities and that in small towns, and again between the towns and the folk art in the villages. In the towns also proliferates a variety of popular art which can be called the art of the anonymous mind. Production is influenced by design or decoration expresses itself in all social classes and is part of national character. Paradoxically the fine art of our times is to a degree divorced from this communal sensitivity though some critics have tried to show a connection with it. Fine Art is an exclusive art to be seen in Museums and galleries and sophisticated homes and fails to be meaningful to the ordinary people.
Art produced since 1947 could be divided approximately into three sequential categories. In an attempt to reduce it to arbitrary order, hopefully a classification of this sort may help us to see tendencies which are otherwise imperceptible because of their simultaneity and continuity. The group of artists prominent in the 1940's, and 50's are now a senior generation, who can be called "painters of the transition", They span the era from the nostalgic era of the Bengal School to modern international art and may be represented by such artists as Sailoz Mookherjee, B.C. Sanyal, K.K. Hebbar, S. Chavda or N.S. Bendra. These artists painted in oils in contrast to the earlier practice of tempera. They carried over into their art the romanticism of the preceding period though the subject-matter was generally drawn from the life of the people. Paintings of village life, fisher folk and labourers are quite typical. Thus we have a romantic genre Art with a tendency to paint in a style influenced by tempera painting. Among the characteristics of this art were flat colour, a particular emphasis on line, and the rhythmic use of line and decoration. There is the desire to be Indian in both technique and spirit. (I refer only to the paintings of this group at this time, later the same artists evolved different styles). The subject matter in this phase is of some importance, it shows an idealisation of the ordinary, there is a certain amount of stylisation and attenuation and a poetization of quite everyday themes.
A younger group of painters changed in a more radical way from figurative art (which was also vaguely nostalgic) to various kinds of abstraction. Their work which arrived in the 1950's and 60's assimilated the language of non-objective art from the West. Each artist formulated a personal style which carried his signature into abstraction. These painters explore the possibilities of texture, their palette tends to be sombre and their mood withdrawn. The subject matter is surpassed rather than rejected, the new subject is the painting, its textures, tensions and colour juxtapositions. There is a reduction of line in favour of broken or smudged colour, a rejection of interior space and an acceptance of the picture plane as a flat area on which the design is woven. Movements and tensions, depths and high points are subtle and careful. This art is more intellectual than the pictorial art that precedes it, and reminds one of studies in music. A number of artists who started out as figurative painters by a process of elimination or elaboration establish themselves as abstract painters--for instance Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna, Biren De, K.G. Subramaniam and others. M.F. Husain should also be mentioned as an important catalyst of this change. For though his paintings are not entirely abstract they are not dependent on subject but are free juxtapositions of colour. Of course the same age group has artists who have adhered to aspects of the figure for instance Laxman Pai, while there are others who have been almost entirely abstract, such as Gaitonde.
The preoccupation with the surface of the painting and its elaboration into textures and collage-is continued by a younger group of artists especially those of Baroda. In Piraji Sagara, who works with metal, wood and nails; Vinod Shah who uses fabrics and Jeram Patel, burnt wood, the interest in texture would seem to be an end in itself. The so-called pop artists here are related to this group.
The younger artists who attained individual styles in the 1960's therefore inherited great freedom. Their art could be simply a matter of personal preference and evolution. These artists like all the artists of the mid century have been exposed to a certain amount of world art, through books, through increased communication and travel abroad'. This con-tact with a vast ocean of art tended to emphasise the realisation that art is not external but is born from within. This generation is now producing interesting selfconscious new works. They avoid what they have seen, their art is "not this" they arrive at highly individualistic solutions. The variety among the young is even greater than that seen in the work of the older generations. Here I may mention the works of a few artists which though taken together do not amount to a collective trend but strike out in centripetal directions. Painters like Swaminathan, Ambadas, Vaghela or Ramachandran can be considered not typical because they are unique,--and harbingers of contemporary directions. The paintings of this period are large and growing larger in size, they are also returning to stronger, and more vibrant colour. (The earlier painters who continue to work also show this tendency). One of the new preoccupations seems to be the discovery of space. Each of the artists just cited deals with it differently. Swaminathan's recent work is an arrangement of spaces. Thin colour laid in glazes gives his hues a luminous effect, like that of glowing paper kites against the sun or tissue paper lanterns. Ambadas paints malignant organic intricacies encompassing tensions and anxieties. R.K. Dhawan also uses a smudged dispersing colour in which aquatic forms seems to be suspended. Gautam Vaghela's painting is descended from earlier folk and miniature antecedents and now consists of flat figures-grotesquely growing or eagle spread like stamped insects. The colours arrangements are reduced to intensities of the same hue and are finished with wiry black linesandgold. Ramachandran's principal motif is the human body, a motif that is at once impersonal and organic. The spaces here are pushed and pulled by limbs and bodies in rich melodramatic formations with strong colour, shaded into holes, contortions and crevices. A certain morbid Dostoevyskyan vision seems to haunt these works. I cite these artists as symbols of the new introspection. For it seems that whether the themes used are external or internal, poetic or coolly ordained, they are basically subjective and introspective to contemplate them is to be exposed to "states of mind" which the artist with a brash surrender has placed before us. We have heard before and will hear again the criticism that modern art is obsessed with itself. To some spectators it does not reflect the world of fact; one may agree that it is not a mirror of the social or political world. But it is indeed a revelation of the mind of our time, for here can be found those anxieties and those flights, that chaos and that despair, those rare strange unknown growths that terrify and fascinate us, and that painstaking sincerity which, eschewing all ornament, records the devastating loneliness of man's soul.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1968