Artists: Notes on Art Making

When the history of our period comes to be written it will be seen that its output was one which changed imperceptibly artist by artist by each art work that joined the total stream causing minute differences of direction and flavour. Perhaps some artists contribute more and others less to this pattern of change. Individual painters also create particular works which are a breakthrough in their styles, pictures or sculptures which lead to a whole field of new compositions. Each painting however in spite of its newness and each artist in spite of originality are still links or parts of a whole, units in a web or net, connecting the past with the present as also the present with the future.

Two factors inevitably influence the work if any creative artist. The first is the legacy he inherits from his forbears and the second is the passions and ideas, the hopes and fears that animate his times. Even those artists who seem to their contemporaries to live and work in comparative isolation are not unaffected by intangible atmosphere of the milieu. Often artists on the periphery are more inventive than those who belong to the mainstream. Often ideas permeate the visual arts from literature or architecture and find new exponents. Seeing and feeling become experience; collective experience is part of those who live at the same time. The environment of a work of art leaves its indelible signature on it as much as that of the artist himself.

Independence came upon India in a rush, one may say that most people were unprepared for it. While in political or government circles life was different because the people who manned the offices were different, this was not so in general. After the Holocaust of Partition, society resumed as far as possible in old ways. Indeed it was difficult to see any far-reaching change or predict the new directions to follow. The legacy of the past was not cast off, ideas current before Independence projected their shadows into the future.

The art of the first 47 years of the 20th century clearly ran in parallel grooves. Firstly there was the western oriented art which was nurtured in the art schools. This art with a prior history of fifty years was quite competent but hardly epoch-making. Artists like Pitawala, Trindad, Durandhar, Lalkaka in Bombay, Hemen Majumdar or Atul Bose in Calcutta, the famous Ravi Varma in the south and sculptors like Mathre, Talim, Karmarkar, or D.P. Roy Chowdhury kept to the conventions of western academicism. As against this, appeared the output of the Bengal school. The pioneers like Abanindranath Tagore, Nandlal Bose, Kshitindranath Majumdar or Asit Kumar Haldar were followed by a host of later practitioners - the trend was thought to be more truly Indian.

These artists at first favoured the wash technique (invented by Abanindranath Tagore) and later also worked in tempera, a traditional method made popular by Nandalal Bose. From the 1920’s to the 1940’s we also have the contribution of some outstanding artists who did not belong to either of the above groups, namely Rabindranath, Gaganendranath, Sher-Gil and Jamini Roy. It is interesting to notice that Rabindranath painted mostly in coloured inks, Gaganendranth’s main contribution is in black and white compositions, Sher-Gil painted in oils (though not in the academic manner) and Jamini Roy adopted a folk style using ordinary opaque colours. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the period as a whole was suffused with a characteristic romanticism, art nouveau linear decorative tendencies, a fin de siècle love for fantasy, melodrama or morbid themes; these together with a nostalgic remembrance of the Indian past are often characteristic of the period. Further British imperialism tended to cause a search for a national identity and this identity which could only be found in history helped to assuage feelings of humiliation and oppression. The paintings of the Bengal school far from dealing with contemporary problems or the emotions of the times are drawn and other worldly. The tendency towards idealising is perhaps the only link with the heritage of ancient traditional art.

We find therefore that the artists who started working in the 1940’s had a very complex heritage and an environment which was seething with political passions. Many of them were trained in the recognised art schools in the academic manner and later tried to evolve personal styles. The influence of the Bengal school on their work is evident, as also other influences such as those of the contemporaneous artists of the west. In this period there was little scope for artists: sales were poor and the struggle to survive quite hard. It was in such an arena that artists of the transition emerged. Their work begins in the early forties, spans the years of independence, and continues into the next two decades during which it achieves its characteristic maturity. From the point of view of the time the artists I would like to discuss, as characteristic of this era can be represented by Hebbar, Bendre, Ara, Chavda, Sanyal, Sailoz Mookherjea, K.S. Kulkarni, Gopal Ghose, Paritosh Sen and above all perhaps Husain. Sculptors like Sankho Chaudhuri or Prodosh Das Gupta would also belong to this generation. Perhaps it would be difficult to see what is common to such a heterogenous group, but though seemingly diverse artists and others are indeed united not only by their styles or personal temperaments but, as I suggested, by their heritage and by their milieu. It remains for us to discuss what they had in common and where they differed, what they reflect of their past and how their innovations changed the currents of art. Even a limited number of names does represent and can stand for the other artists working at this time.

The first characteristic that distinguishes these artists from those who followed them is their choice of subject matter which was local or Indian. This choice did not necessarily reflect nationalistic sentiment, it would seem to be simply a legacy of the conventional past. The choice of the subject matter here is characteristic and therefore an aspect of style: it is romantic, and consists of themes drawn from the life of the people, treated with a certain poetry. Hebbar’s Lord of the Land, Sanyal’s Pedlar selling water pots, Sailoz Mukherjea’s Women on Charpoy, Bendre’s Gossip continue themes which could easily have been chosen by earlier artists. The selection of local or pastoral themes is here linked to the search for a national identity. A necessity was felt for Indian painting to be distinctly Indian theme and treatment. The older religious, epic or historic subjects were mostly abandoned in favour of the secular: for instance, villagers on carts, cowherds, rural festivals, women drawing water from a well and so on. Though these subjects were taken from life they were drawn or painted with a certain degree of stylisation; they were not naturalisticormerely documentary as the work of academic painters was. In fact the stylisation was also considered Indian. We notice an emphasis on line, and on decoration. A few painters’ evolved styles related to miniatures - as for example, Almelkar or Laxman Pai. Others borrowed heavily from folk sources, like Sreenivasulu or Rajaiah, Flat colours, pleasing harmonies and an elegant decorative are usual in the 1950’s. Later there is an increasing interest in texture, From painting scenes which were narrative (generally figures in a space), the picture increasingly tended to become a flat plane on which colour was laid in such a way as to create an interesting surface. Paintings by Bendre or Hebbar or even Sailoz Mookherjea show this interest although these artists do not altogether abandon figurative art. The palette knife became more important instrument than the brush and the marks of painting, part of the composition.

The most influential and characteristic painter of the whole period is undoubtedly M.F. Husain. Husain’s contribution is important not only for its quality and quantity but because it functioned as a catalyst enabling younger painters to start their experiments at a new point. With Husain’s work the subject matter though recognisable is no longer of interest as a point of departure. The real interest lies in his juxtaposition of lines and colours. Husain was both a fine draughtsman and a great colourist. In his earlier work in the 1950’s line continues to play an important role; later he gradually abandons line in favour of colour juxtapositions which of themselves form lines, textured areas and tones. His figures, motifs and occasional devices are expressionistic or symbolic. But we have a new emphasis, that on abstract values - thus he is the direct precursor of the abstract tendencies which followed. Husain’s work calls attention to the two basic factors which are fundamental to art today: firstly a brilliant handling of the substance (paint) which he used with fluency and as a personal language, and secondly his ability to impart vitality and a brooding presence to his compositions. Husain’s own background, his emergence at a time when art was fluid and rebellious, his skill and imaginative eye combined with a deep intuition and sense of poetry to produce the art was typical of the times.

Lastly this era saw a certain expansion in the horizons of Indian art. After independence it was possible for artists to travel to other countries and acquaint themselves with the works of their contemporaries abroad. At home there were many new imported books which introduced the art of the world to a wide audience. It is usual to denigrate the modern phase of Indian art as an imitation of the West but such statements are more misleading than true. India has at least for the past several centuries been open to influence from the west. These influences are not necessarily harmful, on the contrary our whole way of life seems to allow a gradual synthesis of new strains. The eclecticism of the past hundred years is obvious, and has led to vast changes in every field. To my mind influences should not be considered a problem at all but simply acknowledged as a factor common to any kind of creative work especially in periods of growth and change. The impact or intermingling of new ideas has had on the whole a very positive, challenging and beneficial effect.

The artists of the transition period have evolved with the times and still continue to work. A few have migrated abroad, for example, Raza, Souza or Avinash Chandra, but their work still belongs to India and this historical period. Many of this group have been teachers of art and thus their influence has been considerable. Collectively these artists have left us a very large body of work which is in public or private collections. Further they have to a certain extent affected applied art and production and thus influenced taste.

The art of today has moved into new positions and has set itself other visual aims. However it is not basically different from the art of painters of the transition. If these artists began tentatively, they blossomed later, and the harvest of their works is now a proud heritage.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1987
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