Abstraction appears in art with the desire to do away with traditional subject matter and liberate painting from its themes. Until the beginning of the twentieth century subjects tended to dominate art and were read by the spectator, often coming between him and the impact of the work as a visual object. Titles had a romantic message and even when they had no obvious meaning as in still-lifes and landscapes, the viewer tended to appreciate the work by criteria such as faithfulness by nature. Art was less individualistic than it is today, there was a consensus of ideas about what constituted the art. Beauty in nature and beauty in art were related by verisimilitude. Thus when in the last years of the 19th century the artist tried to create a new reality different from life and he was generally misunderstood. But with the work of the Impressionists, Post-impressionists, Fauves and finally Cubists we find certain new values being stressed which had nothing to do with the subject. Cubism may be considered the first major abstract phase: it was brought about through distortion, the splitting of images and the rejection of the old content which was replaced by forms and values which were the new pictorial ends.
Abstraction in India developed comparatively late; it owes its inspiration at least in part to the early European pathfinders such as Klee and Kandinsky rather than to contemporaneous artists like the Abstract Expressionists. The growth of abstraction in India was stimulated and confirmed by parallel movements in the West, but not an imitation of them. The slow emergence of abstraction in India is perhaps one proof of its independence and authenticity. It was the exhaustion of the lyrical and sentimental styles of the first half of the century that led artists to search for something more rational and pure; more connected with nationalist sentiment and literary connections. Abstraction arrived because it was different, because its goals satisfied a change of aims.
Though abstraction as a language came into its own here in the post-independence era we do have forerunners creating abstract compositions in the period 1900-47. These men can be considered daring innovators because in their time artistic vision was still bound by fairly rigid figurative conventions. The earliest artist to create paintings without a specific or clear subject matter was probably Gaganendranath Tagore whose strange black and white compositions were precursors of the art of today. Another important herald of the new tendencies was Rabindranath Tagore, who not only painted large number of works of abstract pattern but also wrote in defence of a non-imitative art. In fact the experiments of directions pointed out by these artists were not appreciated or followed in their day. It is often such artists on the periphery, who do not belong to the mainstream of any tradition, who are comparatively untutored and free from economic pressure, who are able to innovate or suggest new directions.
An artist of an earlier generation who chose to paint abstract compositions in the 1930s and 40s was Ramkinker. Today Ramkinker is remembered mostly for his expressionistic sculpture but he was in fact a versatile genius whose work in painting has been insufficiently noticed. Ramkinker painted a large number of abstract canvases only a few of which will survive. He is also the first sculptor to design abstract canvases only a few of which survive. He is also the first sculptor to design abstract works emphasizing sculptural values. His Deep Stambha in Santiniketan is one of his early outdoor works which is well known. Another contemporary, Binode Behari Mukherjee, though not obviously an abstract painter certainly stresses abstract values; his sketches and especially murals show most clearly that his work is predominantly an arrangement of forms, colours and textures - the subject matter can be considered more or less subsidiary.
Though abstract values in art can be traced in a tenuous way in many of the artists working during the period of transition, some among them pushed forward the abstract tendency. In the early 1950s Husain’s work functioned as a catalyst breaking up images and giving us a new pictorial language. Though not strictly non-figurative the natural images are no longer the focus of interest, the motifs are broken up, stylized and attenuated and are part of the totality of the composition. Slabs of colour are arbitrarily applied creating a rough texture: lines and colour do not necessarily delineate form but create an independent pattern. From this point it was the continuation of the same process, that is, the disintegration of the subject, and its reconstitution as a new non-subject in terms of pictorial elements that create the work of art. In the 1950s we see the works of Bendre, Gaitonde or Ram Kumar showing a tendency towards the break-up and the new elements taking over. In certain artists the process of abstracting takes place gradually and the artist feels his way towards it by slow degrees. In the paintings of Biren De, KG Subramanyan or Ram Kumar these works are reduced, metamorphosed and finally eliminated, the meaning of the painting coming to reside entirely in its visual effects. In this decade a large number of important painters and sculptors grew into abstraction either partially or wholly; for instance, KS Kulkarni, KK Hebbar, Bimal Das Gupta, KCS Panikar, Dinkar Kowshik, Chintamoni Kar, Sankho Chaudhuri and others. Most of them were teachers and therefore influential in disseminating a new set of values which their students or followers recognized.
By about the 1960s abstraction had won general acceptance. It is in this decade that we notice the consolidation of abstract art and its proliferation into different subsidiary groups each emphasizing or exploring a particular tendency, in formulating a personal style the painter or the sculptor though he has a certain heritage is also open to the influences of his times, he further strives to bring to his work a personal flavour. In general the abstract painters as a whole can be said to be careful and even conservative craftsmen. Their work depends for its effects on fine nuances and modulations, on balance and symmetry in composition, on movement, light and texture; on tensions and depths which are more felt and perhaps more difficult to attain than in works using conventional imagery. Each artist sets himself his own rules and operates in a way that is sometimes precise and at others spontaneous or exploratory; his work is an art for those who see rather than read, it aims to be kind of visual music.
Within the abstract fold a major category can be called ‘planar abstraction’. We may consider as examples the work of Ram Kumar and Surya Prakash, both of whom, work in distinct ways. Ram Kumar’s work evolved from earlier figurative painting. His abstract tendencies were an extension of andliberationfrom landscapes. His early abstractions, especially those who see rather than read, it aims to be a kind of visual music.
Within the abstract fold a major category can be called ‘planar abstraction’. We may consider as examples the work of Ram Kumar and Surya Prakash, both of whom work in distinct ways. Ram Kumar’s work evolved from earlier figurative painting. His abstract tendencies were an extension of and liberation from landscapes. His early abstractions, especially those done in Varanasi, are based on a huddle of tumbledown houses on the Ganges or on the crooked streets. These works have an intricate construction and the net of forms is tighter than in his recent work, the colour schemes very sombre. In his recent work the planar qualities are most evident. Large areas slide or rest are linked to one another in an engagement, there is more spatial play and movement, the lines are less important than the planes. The colours though still restrained have a greater range and consist especially of browns, blues, ochres and umber. The textures are rough and little accidental and broken edges preserved as detail. The style has a certain dignity and the richness of unpolished craftsmanship. The compositions of Ram Kumar are related to earth shapes and movements, and are architectonic in their feeling. Surya Prakash is a younger artist but his work is influential in projecting a king of planar abstraction which appears to be derived from metal planes which are contorted and twisted into specific shapes, like the junk sculpture of Chamberlain (no connection is intended). The forms are therefore more related to the machine than to nature. He paints theses formations in a palette of strong clear glazes, in a way which emphasizes the metallic feel. In fact, this type of smoothly graded, highly finished, rather slick treatment has become one of the most favoured methods of paint application in the recent times. It is the opposite of action painting, because the artist does not tell how he has painted his canvas.
In contrast to this planar type one may consider the work of Gaitonde or Nareen Nath which is a variation on colour field abstraction. The whole composition is more or less one colour in which the gentle gradations form a liquid matrix in which small and more solid outcrops of form appear to float. The style itself is reticent saying or suggesting only the least that needs to be stated. The colours too are limited and quiet and often consist of hues of the same colour. The whole painting has a certain expansiveness because the composition is open and can be thought of as part of a larger reality. There is a certain sense of mystery in these paintings, they affect the feelings of the spectator.
A few artists practice what might be termed a kind of gestural abstraction. The artist here paints in an expressionist way, his bold and frenzied application of colour builds up dynamic images or shapes. Paritosh Sen is an example, his enormous canvases are alive and pulsating with the rhythm of his brush. We do not find this style being consistently developed by younger painters although the work of Vijay Mohite or SR Nagarajan is related. Perhaps the only exponent who practises a kind of calligraphic abstraction with free brushwork is RK Bhatnagar. Mansaram who was doing a kind of gestural abstraction is now more or less committed to collage. Another artist whose work is derived from the figure but is more or less abstract is Veena Bhargava. Different in style the work of Bansi Parimoo and Kishori Kaul might also be mentioned. Both are colourists, the former uses a rich palette and textural effects while the style of Kishori is lighter and more lyrical.
The geometricizing styles derive from a certain austerity where the artists reject natural organic forms in favour of the organization of severely restricted pictorial elements; generally flat colours and lines to build a new reality. The planar surface of the canvas is established as the base for a composition which in spite of its apparent impersonality is in fact a personal statement by the artist. Large numbers of artists have been forerunners of the geometricizing style in the West where the young artists espousing the style seem to search for the difficult rather than the novel. Indeed a strain of geometry, hard edge, minimal art with its emphasis on openness and clarity was contemporaneous with the work of the Abstract Expressionists. The point to be made here is that the Indian artists working in a related manner are comparatively lonely individualists who have chosen the style or evolved it from a stylization and reduction of their own previous art. Their work is in no sense a repetition of their foreign counterparts. Rather these works have a purity and complexity which is pleasing since the style or evolved it from a stylization and reduction of their own previous art. Their work is in no sense a repetition of their foreign counterparts. Rather these works have a purity and complexity which is pleasing since the style has not been pushed to its extreme limits. Sukanta Basu’s work is clearly a simple and logical refinement of his early compositions where a large gestural sign in calligraphic strokes and with textural interest occupied his canvases. The shapes are now reduced to cones and wedges, planes and flat areas which may also function as depths. The colour is not altogether matt but is laid on in careful and subtle variations resulting in an art which is essentially measured becomes a study in proportions.
Om Prakash’s works are concerned with tonal effects and inner lights though the composition is geometricizing. The quality of his paintings depends on the use of transparent and non-transparent glazes which seem to be arranged for the light colours to filter through. Many of his works also have a monumentality and richness, their architecture is one of relations, clean edges and colour chords. Umesh Varma’s works can be described as kaleidoscopic. In his Altar series the basic division of the canvas is embellished with little units of strong colour clinging to the grid of the ‘altar’. So we see that even room for personal and self-expression.
As opposed to the geomtricising style we have compositions that are basically organic. The abstract forms here seem to be reminiscent of those in nature even there is no likeness to specific objects. A typical example would be Ambadas who over the years has evolved a personal idiom of broad undulating lines which wander in knots and contortions on the canvas. The web of his design involves and transports the spectator into a world of ceaseless movement. “A painting by Ambadas is a world in itself, a true microcosm, conceived in his own scale, but reflecting the order and disorder of the infinitely vaster universe.” Ambadas was never a representational painter and his compositions have a kind of innovative or improvising quality. Anotherpainter of organicabstraction is Bimal Das Gupta. His shapes are ovoid, tubular or spreading; they are related to one another by tensions and fibres sometimes flowering into small delicate shapes. His colour is elegant, nowhere jarring and equally not hackneyed. Sometimes the forms and colours remind one of underwater scenes. Among the younger artists the most notable in this group is Manu Parekh. His work is perhaps more explicitly organic and sensuous. Its tensions and shapes are closely related to those of anatomy. Manu Parekh’s style is sharp and incisive but the paintings have a brooding quality. Among artists whose style is organic seem to be returning to a decorative imagery may be mentioned SG Vasudev and Khemraj. The former has a more tightly knit style and is now using Indian motifs while in the latter the pattern of vegetal shapes is comparatively open and clear.
Lastly some styles like that of KG Subramanyan span both the types of abstraction we have been discussing - that is, the organic and the geometric. Further many of his compositions are divided into small units or squares, for example those in his Window series where the square itself is repeated though the formal contents vary. The colours are also limited and most often flat and reminiscent of textile patterns. This repetition reminds one of the processes of the machine. Repetition is seen also in the work of many Western artists though Subramanyan has adopted the manner for his own purposes and varies the organic contents to be studies in space and mass, overlapping, projections and movement. The art of Dinkar Kowshik though devoted to lines and colour spaces builds up into very exploratory and spontaneous webs of pattern. One feels here the closeness to music and the musical improvisation of ragas.
These few styles of abstract art do not of course exhaust the range or the possibilities. May artists work in mixed media, the resultant work is mostly abstract and many more use a certain degree of stylization which makes their images ambiguous and tentative. Today we in fact judge even frankly realistic works on criteria which are abstract and not for their resemblance to reality. The emphasis on painterly or sculptural values revealed by abstraction has served to open our eyes to the real and more lasting qualities in works of art and to this extent the role of abstraction has been very beneficial. But on the other hand it has introduced an element of impersonality, providing what might be described as a façade behind which the emotions of the artist may be hidden.
In conclusion the works of the present generation appear to stretch from those which are mechanistic or technology influenced to those which are organic, spontaneous and fantastic. The former would seem to acknowledge or celebrate the dominance of reason, man’s environment and machine; while the latter link art to nature, and to areas which are unintellectual, intuitive and romantic. Perhaps these polarities are the echoes of those ancient and complementary principles - classicism (based on objectivity) and romanticism (based on introspection) - for the spirit of man is never satisfied with one alone.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1975