Artists: Notes on Art Making

Already in the midst of the Bengali revival, there were troubled voices. The poet Rabindranath Tagore, who had been one of the patrons of the revivalist movement, in its early years, wrote some significant words, which foreshadowed his later conviction about the disabilities of imitating the past. The occasion was a reference to the Vichitra Society which met at his Jorasanko House in Calcutta from 1916 onwards. He said `I had hoped that from Vichitra would arise a great stream of art, fertilising the whole country; but there was nobody capable of dedicating himself wholeheartedly to the cause. I was prepared to do all that lay in my limited power, but found no response. I am no painter myself, or I might have shown what was to be done. However, some day, someone will arise and lead the pathway for the swift progress of the artistic talent that lies scattered all over the country. But where is the master builder? Where is that longing, that imagination that power of sacrifice by dint of which man fulfils God's purposes?' This mood of self-criticism had probably been rumbling in his subconscious through Rabindranath's growing awareness of the different methods of his two nephews, Abanindranath Tagore and Gaganendranath Tagore. The poet always remained a consistent admirer of the skill of the former, but he seems to have leaned towards the technical virtuosity of the latter. Almost everyone among the intelligentsia had considered Gaganendranath Tagore as an enlightened amateur and somewhat eccentric. Certainly the overwhelming opinion of the artists was in favour of what they called the ‘Renaissance’. The whole atmosphere was charged with the enthusiasm of a middle class which had found its national pride touched to the core. Against the contempt of the British Colonials for everything Indian, this nationalism was not unexpected. And there is no doubt that in the less subtle areas of politics, only a passionate belief in the country's freedom was then necessary. In this atmosphere, the synthesis of the most genuine traits of Hinduism and Christianity in the Brahmo Samaj was an integral belief. Also in literature, the written words could communicate both through direct meaning, and suggestive imagery and metaphor. In the realm of art, however, where colours and lines ought to speak, the Theosophists insisted on the message being communicated through profound concepts, myths and allegories. Every-thing ancient, even though copied, in a meretricious manner, seemed to the critics full of grace and beauty. And in that age of romantic sentimentalism, added to which was the fiery parochialism of Bengal, the truth was not faced that the plastic values of water colours, specially when a wet duster has been applied to the paint, cease to exist if they are ever there. The shut-in, closed, prison world, which the British imperialists had made of India, precluded the coming in of any visual experiences of the revolutionary paintings which Cezanne had already carried out in Europe in the late i9th century in search of essences, and which was breaking through to recognition in the experiments of the constructivists during the early years of the 20th century. We cannot defend the consequences of vapoury nationalism in the painting of India of that time. We can merely describe the social background of the period. And it must be said in favour of the woolliness of the revivalists that they gained popularity by carrying their brushwork towards vapidity, because the atmosphere was reeking with mushy emotions and rhetoric.

Gaganendranath Tagore, who graduated from the soft, nostalgic water colour paintings, towards social criticism in his cartoons, resilient drawing in his portraits and into integral cubism of his own in his paintings, was the product of the underlayers of unrest, which were breaking through the popular complacency about the current art. He reacted against the sterile mannerism of the school in which he had been nurtured and began to experiment. It is not quite certain whether he had heard of constructivism. Mr. Asok Mitra's pertinacious comment, that Gaganendranath reacted to the challenge of the urban life in Calcutta, with his characteristic nationalism, seems a plausible hypothesis in explaining his deviation from the accepted norms. And the fact that, alone, probably much despised, he began to experiment in the transformation of his environment, in compositions which are so startling in their innovations, makes him as solitary a pioneer in India, as was Cezanne working away in view of Mont St. Victoire in Provence, on the basic structures of mountains, before which he stood every morning, painting without looking at the superficies. It requires courage to carry out the implications of one's hunches, even in a miscellaneous manner, when everyone around you is looking askance at you. The large number of experiments of this Indian cubist shows that he was obsessed. And the recurrence of similar rectangular structures, on the two dimensional plane, variegated shadows for depth, and the additional irritants, betrays the quality of persistence in his line of approach. To be sure, he does not remain any less romantic than his contemporaries. But he is no bluffer. He becomes interested in composition. The technique which Gaganendranath adopted was that of a poet, who contemplates a space area, and tries to divide it according to his fancy; that is to say, he depends mainly on his intuition. He separates the areas with a mixture of black and brown colour, then contrasts them with the buff areas, introduces human form as a kind of modular, and then he reduces the minimum basic colours, not into sharp cubes, but to semi-abstract spaces flowing one into the other. The method of indicating the outlines of symbolic forms was already incipient in Bengali folk art. He seems to have made his own symbolic forms more rhythmic and suggestive. And by cutting into the black-brown paint with streaks of white, or by making angles, he would create a third dimension. The picture thus moves within, suggests the infinites beyond every one of its own planes. Of course, the method changes from picture to picture. And as most of the cubist pictures were done, in black, brown and buff, they seem to be variations on a theme. The emotional effect is of a dream-like, lyrical world, in which the unseen eyes of the painter wander like a bird, defining areas from which the inner eye of the onlooker takes flight out of the windows into new dimensions. The achromatic colours, black and white, make for an easy flow. And where the chromatic colours are used, and the cubes become more precisely demarcated, the abstraction does not succeed so well, but becomes too rigidly defined. The continuity and suggestiveness is lost, as when he uses many colours. All the same, his pictures become the experiments of an amateur, who was far in advance of his time. Although it was Rabindranath Tagore, who first venturedtoexpress his dissatisfaction with things as they were among the painters around him, he was not to come to painting until a generation later.

It was one of the younger men, who had also grown up in the atmosphere of revivalism, who sharply repudiated the whole basis of the tradition which depended upon the feeble colour wash. This was Jamini Roy, who grasped the simple fact that a painter is a creator and not an imitator. It may be that as he had first begun to paint portraits, he found the copying of the face of the human model an irksome and futile activity. Therefore, he could swing from the inane naturalistic personalism of portrait likenesses to the handling of paint. In doing this, he found the earth colours of the villages of Bengal full of those values which were organically related to the simple stock forms he wished to create, shorn of all ancillaries, frills, sentimental tassels and other decorative flourishes. The shifting of the emphasis, from the literary forms of the Bengali revival to paint and the structures defined by colour values goes to the credit of Jamini Roy, though he was later to use many religious items to amplify the new technique which he developed. This means that though he himself had an inspirational source in the Vaishnava faith of his ancestors, the poetry of the words of the religious hymns is replaced in him by the poetry by analogy of paint. Similarly, he developed the inherent vitality of the curvaceous line, which he had found in the Bengal Pats and Kalighat drawings, and the triangular lines of terracottas. The shape of his paintings was, therefore, conditioned to a larger extent than even before by the materials used.

It is true that in employing the earth colours of the village, and in elaborating certain rural forms, he was reviving some old memories. But he transformed the village style by an intellectual simplification, which is urban in character and derives from his sophisticated awareness of the laws of composition. If the essences to which he reduced his structures look like folk forms, they have certainly not been borrowed, as much as assimilated, into the realms of an inner coherence of the picture frame, brooded over and realised by the artist from the compulsion of a new kind of spatial imagination. In this context it is important to remember how Picasso had deliberately cultivated the vitality of African Sculpture and Child Art in the attempt to take painting from feeble flourishes and fashionable portraits to the original fantasy of naive man. This very act of seeking strength from an abstracted image made by a primitive is a highly intellectual exercise for the trained painter. Because, to leave aside the formulas of the three dimensional art and to attempt a single or multiple image on the same two dimensional plane, as well as to create in it the mobility which may make the picture throb and move, is perhaps a more strenuous endeavour than to faithfully copy nature. The mobility of the flat surfaces in the pictures of Jamini Roy is achieved by the use of the triangular white fish eyes, the rectangular planes against the sharp edged ones, contrasted to the rounded outlines of the figure as in the famous early Santa] dancers. Again the interaction of square jaws, with owl eyes, and ovoid tails in the animal structures, achieves sharp contrast and gives these apparently static decorative figures a momentum of their own. The reduction of the Christ face by Jamini Roy to the simplest elements, the rounded lines, the near-Jain further eye, subdued into a melancholy downward inward stare, enlivens an otherwise flat face by dexterous counterpoint of the line of the brow against the lines of the drooping moustache, as well as in the overall simplification which stirs the image into significance. The range of Jamini Roy's experiments in the basic colours somewhat restricts his range. The semi-abstractions of his forms will also be reduced to formulas. The attempts to break out into landscape in the later part of his life somewhat widens the horizon, but, somehow, because the impact of the first primitivist intuitions had fixed his styles, he began to repeat himself in the manner of the anonymous painters of India who did not mind making copies of their own works. The primitivism of Jamini Roy, however, had been inspired by a genuine alliance with the rhythmic compulsions of the folk. The kind of inner stirring which the villagers seem to emanate, as they melt into song and dance, and even in their helplessly mute and still stances penetrates the under-standing of this painter. And he is able almost to dramatize their commingling, occurrings and recurrings with the extravagance of village expressionism in works which go the farthest journeys into the world of art experience. The example of Jamini Roy as a pioneer primitivist was then to be decisive for the contemporary movement.

Amrita Sher-Gil travelled all the way from the naturalism of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris to a subjective-objectivity in India. As the basis of her early training was academic she had trained herself to a high degree of craftsmanship in oils. Of course, her student work is no better and no worse than the other works of its kind in the art school of Europe. But she struggled in each of her works done in India, from problem to problem, and began to construct her canvases according to the varied degrees of tensions implicit in the modern approach towards the essentials. All those interested in the art of painting in the con-temporary period appreciate the advantages of academic training, because it gives the student practice in the carrying out of his inspiration from an aesthetic image, inspiration, or idea into his materials, through the painter's hand, as it were. And naturalism, which comes from the study of the model, does help to produce a work which is constructive and has a certain executive quality. But it is when the sense of design controls the shapes of objects that composition begins. Thus to compose objects means: arrangement, integration and unification, with the aid of certain conventions, and by selection, elimination, simplification, attainment of recurrents and contrasts, of a certain balance of colour, texture, tone and line. In this process, the original image, inspiration (and idea) is almost sacrificed, or rather, is sublimated. The photographic form disappears from its likeness to the camera interpretation, but becomes the design of the trans-former behind the retina, coloured by integral colours in the form of energies emerging from the lumber ganglion, from instinctive articulation, and sense of direction, order and organisation. If the artist is obsessed by the need for composition, which will go to the end of itself, then the transformation of natural form, through selection, contrast and balance, is pushed into rhythmic vitality by a varying series of means, which are part of theintricateimaginative, creative process, which is always active in high pressure work. The obsession with colour values and their relations produces a unity through tonality. The outlines of objects are moulded to make a pattern, the space of the canvas, or the picture surface, are related to each other, for the inner balance, coherence, harmony, and often the harmony of disharmony. Now it is when the artist organises the interpenetration, so as to move forms against each other and against the background that the spatial imagination comes into play. The departure from naturalism is thus a journey towards abstraction in all art-be it realist, impressionist or constructivist.

The area covered by the spatial imagination is very wide, because it deals with finite and infinite. The artist envelopes the expanding universe, in which the planets and the stars are in volatile relations with each other, going round in their own galaxies. The dynamic initiator seeks to create a world of his own, which may recall some aspects of the movement, implicit in things, and thus imbue the painting with life. The discernment of the undefined or unformulated unity of the finite materials with the infinite possibilities of suggestion, may be realised in the composition. But the fusion of the instinctive, intellectual and the intuitive condition, in fact the flight of the imagination, is necessary for the achievement of a near-perfect situation. I have tried to probe into the creative process, because I believe that the transition of Amrita Sher-Gil, from the naturalism based on the model, to the various stages of simplification, the fusion of her passionate emotions and biological urges into the realised possibilities of paint, constitutes the achievement of what I have called an almost subjective-objective condition. This makes her pictures into symbols of felt presences, even if they are types. Therefore, her development offers a wonderful example in our country for the younger painters. That is why quite a few Indian painters after her began where she had begun, or departed from somewhere in the technique of her middle period, and, having reached the stage of construction where she was when she died, they went further or stayed where they were in the Slier-Gil tradition. The general principle which she understood in her experiments when she reached India was that the nearer the presentation of a theme approaches natural form, the less is it art form. Because if it were possible to represent objects as they are, they would just remain what they were, imitations of superficies of things. The achievement of likeness or imitation may constitute good craftsmanship, but it certainly does not include the degree of transformation which may communicate what we have called the felt presences in Amrita Sher-Gil's works. Another consideration, which is important to bear in mind in the progress of Amrita Sher-Gil is that she became more and more a master in handling of paint, even though she was always occupied by the social and human causes of the thirties,-the moods of protest and despair; tenderness for human life, and tragedy, in the context of the Indian countryside. Nov these moods are not just expressed as literary images, but reveal themselves as constructs. The discernment in her own instinctive awareness, controls the forms and gives rise, through paint, to something like the passions which possessed her. The figures are so related in her drawing, the colours are so contrasted, and the composition so organised as to incline the picture-bent of one's soul towards the yearning for the same vision. The despair of the Bride, for instance, is in the contrast of a face which accepts destiny, and is placid and dull, to the colourful clothes. Again the isolation of the group of women entitled Resting is so complete within its framework as to make for utter desolation, in spite of the gay colours employed for each figure and the background. And in the studies of the sleek, sculpturesque hillmen, the greys and the blues tone down the browns and the canvas is shorn of all decoration to create a pictorial situation out of the subconscious fear that haunts their faces.

In the South Indian Villagers going to Market, the expressive power of paint is fused into the expressive power of the naked bodies, by eschewing the incidentals, sublimating the paint into the emotions, until the figures emerge into startling apparitions, without voices, who stand and look up from the labyrinths.

Amrita Sher-Gil probably imbibed the emotional tangs of various colours from her Indian inheritance via Basohli. In the first instance, she seems to be in love with the idea putting these colours on canvases for their richness. After her visit to Ajanta in spite of her denials, she seems, underneath, to have been convinced of the evanescence of life and the haunting shadow of death so that the 'pale cast of thought' imbues all her forms. Once fixed into a style the basic colours were seldom modified. The scattered, the disinherited, and the disintegrated, arose in pyramidal forms, rectangular, cylindrical, with egg-shaped faces, and became the inciting cause of Amrita s fiery imagination lifting destiny itself from the dark world of the entrails into archetypes, facing each other and asking 'Who are you!, 'What is in you !' and answering 'Who knows!'.

There is a certain intricate continuity from the felt presences to near abstraction, to images which are suspended away from everything, an underground movement of the nerves that go inwards into their own organic structure. The unfathomed intention is receding beyond comprehension, as in the Red Clay Elephant, but there was no time to unite the fragments of her later paintings into constructions which might speak from their own silent-ness. The art of Amrita Sher-Gil is suspended somewhere between the romanticism which accepts things and the classical formula where all space becomes the kernel of organised forms. At any rate, she becomes the most important painters' painter of the contemporary period, a phenomenon of' the highest significance, because no one III our country who takes paint seriously, can go back to where she started, but can only depart from where she ended her quest, when she was prematurely cut off from us.

The accident by which the poet Rabindranath Tagore fulfilled the echo augury contained in his own words ('Some day, some one will arise and lead the pathway for the swift progress of the artistic talent that lies scattered all over the country') is perhaps not an accident at all. All through t lie years of his intense creative life, he had adventured into many fields of activity, beyond the writing of rhythmic verse and prose. For instance, he had composed thousands of songs, written plays and acted in them, experimented with a model farm, founded a craft school-he had, in fact, been the 'master builder' whom he wanted for India. To addpaintingor modelling in clay to his range of activities was not strange at all. I le had taken lessons in drawing at one time, interested myself in the drypoint sketches of W. W. Pearson and Mukul Dey, and he had doodled all along. And when the doodles and scribbles on his proof sheets began to form themselves, into a kind of automatic writing, he seems, secretly, to have persevered with the release of his unconscious. Of course, he must have been fascinated with the fact that the play function of his talent was beginning to evoke certain images which he had not suspected in him-self: sharp nosed, angry birds, grotesque figures, and sinuous snaky, curved lines. In his poetry the predominant strain had been lyrical, harmonious and ecstatic, but the ugly had seldom appeared. Now in the perennial extensions of his oodles, there were forms full of ugly ferocity as well as lyricism. Where had they come from? And what did they mean? And who was he, from inside whom these horrors, terrors and beauties were arising? Ostensibly, the poet had a vague awareness of Coomaraswamy's dictum that 'every man is an artist, though an artist is a special kind of man'. And so he allowed himself the luxury, at the late age of sixty five, to let himself go to the end of the truths in the submerged world of his surrealist nightmares and dreams. From the tentativeness of his utterances about his paintings, he seems to indicate that he knew what he was doing, that these works had some meaning for himself if not for anyone else, by showing to him, revealing to him, those other things in his temperament. And yet he had the premonition that these sketches and drawings were not very skilful; that they were even child-like. And it was not until there became available the confirmation of well-known critics in the West, to whom he had reluctantly shown some of the paintings, that he believed that his works had more than temporary significance. The phantasmagoria which Rabindranath Tagore beckoned up, has its sources in an amazing diversity of forms which are part of the disorganised stream of consciousness of our time. Ordinarily, the souvenirs thrown up from below the surface remain the flotsam and jetsam of irrelevant experiences. But, in the case of Tagore's paintings, they begin to have an underlying unity which, though enforced by the medium of the automatic writing, and often obviously broken, with the links suppressed, still assumes the inherent shapes, conditioned by self-conscious intelligence. The long years of destructiveness on the top have left a reservoir of silent poison in the blood. And, during the spell of creativeness which possessed the decrepit frame, heart-forms come bubbling up in space and start gazing at the disillusioned eyes of the creator. In this sense, they are not pure forms. In fact the pulsation of subconscious efforts at awareness was impelled by social cause. Certainly, the memories of ghosts, ghowls and jinns played an important part in the seen-ness.

These impurities keep the inherited forms mainly figurative and away from abstractionism. And, as the paintings are not conditioned entirely by the medium, they come within the orbit of the surrealist hypothesis, looking inwards into the sounding depths and staring outwards into the rearrangement of suggestive expression.

Rabindranath Tagore as a painter, then, is more like a God, perfecting the nerve ends of his tragic being, which echo from their own muteness at the instigation of the creative life force, and throw up extraordinary ovoids, domes, arches, crystals and vaulting ambitious curves, out of the mountains of silence on which he sits above the skies. And, then as the great God moulds strange forms in the clouds, below, the analogue also describes the outline of gravitating, superabundant and transient structures, which hover between himself and the spaces of the broken worlds beneath.

‘0 heart, the poet might have cried out, why did you shut the door on these apparitions from the fathomless world, which were the terrors, humiliations and the hatreds gnawing on my flesh! Oh why, Oh why, Mother, did you wrap yourself in the shroud, without revealing the dumb longing of your penitential face! Oh whence came the neglect of these moulds of fear in the agonised conscience, which was urgently rising like a lament in each figure without sense! Of course, there could be no answer in painting to the bounties that elevated the pain. Only then was restored to the creator the catharsis of creation itself.

The poet tried hard to become a professional painter, but the spontaneity of the transition from scribbled form, of the second childhood, had already spent itself in the unfolding of his fantastic sensibility. And he could not develop the approach to the essences, which is generally won by an artist by a lifetime of command over the medium of paint. All that one can say here is that the work of this child painter shows the inherent refulgence of the biology of man in art.

The stages of growth, which are common to apes and human beings, have been summed up by Mr. Desmond Morris recently:

The Principle of Self-rewarding Activation.

The Principle of Calligraphic Differentiation.

The Principle of Compositional Control.

The Principle of Thematic Variation.

The Principle of Optimum Heterogeneity.

The Principle of Universal Imagery.

In the light of this, subsequent generations of painters in India, impelled by self-extending motivations, can turn to Rabindranath Tagore and say: 'You implanted in us the honesty by which we can have the courage to go to the sources of our inspiration, and fetch out the truth, never mind how terrible, horrible or beautiful, from the compulsion of the whole of our consciences. And you taught us to cross the frontiers of nationality to the dreams of man in our times. And you set going the powerful course of Time, the refreshing river, whose currents we will seek to control and divert into our own patiently cultivated fields, so that new harvest may grow.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1964
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