To a western mind, mention of Indian art will immediately evoke images of sensuous line, ornamental flat colour and a use of erotic imagery; these are all part of a tradition formed over 3,000 years, acting as facile reminders of a heritage within which the contemporary Indian painter is still expected to operate. The critic, with his need of tangible evidence with a “sense of history”, will tend to encourage the equation whereby Indian art equals sensuous line, erotic imagery, ornamental flat colour with a smattering of texture for good measure. Ashu Roy, Avinash Chandra, Balraj Khanna, Rama Rao, Sadanand Bakre, Viren Sahai, F.N.Souza is Indian therefore his art must contain evidence of sensuous line, erotic imagery…An artist known to be Indian is required to function within the pre-established order thus satisfying the limited understanding of that same western mind.
For a period of thirty years Indian artists have made promethean attempts to free themselves from the confines of this restricted and restricting cliché. The forbidding problem is for the individual to rid himself and the critic of these historical limitations and be recognised as contemporary artists who are practising their art with modern idioms. Rama Rao stated this condition succinctly when he said, “I don’t want people to see me as a curiosity but as an international painter” which could have been quoted from any one of the seven painters whose work I shall be considering in this essay.
To understand why these men have come to the West it is relevant to remember the great upsurge and subsequent establishment of American painting during the 1940s. This occurred almost fortuitously when the United States offered refuge to such important European artists as the sculptor Naum Gabo, architects Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe and the highly influential Piet Mondrian, founder of Neo-Plasticism and leading member of the De Stijl movement. The presence of these men in New York City provided an atmosphere of involvement with art which infected the Americans with attitudes and a sense of commitment which they had previously lacked through a sense of inferiority in their isolation from the main centres of advanced art in Europe. Americans were to gain the confidence and self-assurance so essential to the positive and meaningful artistic statement. In the unlikelihood that New Delhi will be offered a similar opportunity for attracting an equally impressive and influential group of western artists, the young Indian seeks residence in Europe and America in order to discover developments and attitudes prevalent in twentieth century art.
The reason behind the choice of London is a reminder that it was once the capital of an Empire when England acted the role of Mother Country; it is still the Indian’s most convenient port of entry into the West and a country which presents the least immediate practical disadvantages and difficulties. Souza first came to this country in 1949 and it is interesting to read the pertinent passage in Edwin Mullins monograph:
“He chose England because at the time it seemed to him the most civilised country in the world. Everything in India was an imitation of England, and it represented not only culture, but power and glory.” a comment on which twenty-year old opinion being that Souza has recently taken up residence in America. Avinash Chandra was quite positive in 1956: “I wanted to be a painter, therefore I came to England.” Rama Rao, Viren Sahai and Ashu Roy continued their studies in London, Rao spending three years at the Slade School of Fine Art on the award of Commonwealth Scholarship - he will be commencing a two year teaching Fellowship at the University of
Carolina in September 1968. Sadanand K. Bakre would have initially entered France but there was difficulty in obtaining a visa when he came to the West in 1951. Nevertheless, an initial cause of attraction to this country is London’s position as a leading art capital in the West, a city which houses a wide variety of talent offering dynamic and lively work. Together with the galleries, museums, theatres and concert halls the artist can feel himself to be within an invigorating artistic environment in which he can feel at liberty to experiment. At the same time an embarrassment attaches itself to the Indian painter as outlined in the opening cliché; predisposed prejudices are sought and extended, they act as a veil between the work of art and spectator. This cultural prejudice distracts the eye from its concentration on those essential qualities of line, form and colour which exist as a painting’s reality. Occasionally a distressing “breakdown” occurs when the painter sacrifices his integrity as an artist to indulge in those cultural characteristics on which many critics concentrate. I would not deny that differences can and should be present between nationalities but they are differences which will occur in spite of the painting - to be sensed through a man’s art as a subconscious element, felt but not seen.
Each of these seven painters is an individual talent seeking to express itself in basic terms of artistic form: it is with reference to these that I shall be considering their work. There are no artificial barriers denoting limits to the eastern world; all seven are seeking to solve pictorial problems within individual terms. The result is successful only when free of any historical and/or critical preconceptions and the painter operates with honesty. As Adela Quested reasons in that other Passage: “if one isn’t absolutely honest, what is the use of existing?” Within this understanding one respects Rama Rao’s recognition of his roots and the happy compromise which he establishes between his eastern heritage and abstract traditions of modern western painting. In preparation for this he has undergone a training in the art of his own country and that of the West.
After taking a degree in economics Rama Rao entered the Madras School of Fine Arts and Crafts where he studied for six years, 1956-62. In 1962 he won a Commonwealth Scholarship to attend the Slade School in London where he was to remain for three years, the last year (1964-65) as a post-graduate student. At the Slade he was quick to acquire a disciplined observation based on a draughtsman’s controlled line encouraged at the Slade since the early twentieth-century, this is illustrated by the sensitive Study from Life of 1965. His three years at this London Art School fuse with an Indian heritage to form an amalgam of the two cultures into an exciting new art form. Rao’s doomed to an ignominious failure by its very consciousness but this would be to ignore the delicacy and subtlety with which he balances the two modes. He treads a tight-rope between cultural styles when one false step would land him incontrovertibly in one or the other; a measure of his art can be judged by the degree to which each offsets the other. The two areperfectly balanced. It is out of similar problems that some of the greatest pictorial discoveries have been made, witness Picasso’s use of African sculpture in Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon which can be considered the most important statement in modern art.
Rama Rao’s earliest contact with the art of this century was through magazine illustrations of work by Picasso and Braque whose cubist experiments into the fragmentation and multifaced treatment of human form had a marked influence on his paintings of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Girl with a Bird of 1961 betrays the cubist’s flattening of a head seen in a near three-quarter position but with the eyes in full-face. Line is used to define the girl and bird in flat, simple shapes which bear a relationship to the art of miniature painting, a form which has been so influential for Rao. It is however, in the failure of this painting that we notice a clear instance of those dangers which lie in wait for the cultural bridge-builder when a western icon is painted in terms of eastern mass and line.
1964 marks a seminal year in Rao’s development. It is the year in which his imagery changes from a recognisably human abstraction to a non-figurative style which does not offer a form based directly on reality. Abstract art had long held an attraction for him as a modern art-form: “I have always wanted to be an abstract painter. Abstract art is the language of the twentieth century…I have tried to adapt it to the East.” But it was not until 1964 that the “fusions of East and West” begin to make an individual impact, and this is achieved in non-figurative terms - the final abstraction. To understand something of this moment in Rao’s development it is necessary to investigate the facts behind his method of paint application.
At the Slade School Rao had learned the lithographic printing process, a method of print-making which had been “discovered” in France during the mid-nineteenth century. It is a technique for which Rao felt an immediate sympathy and was quick to earn a considerable reputation in this medium winning the Slade’s awards for Lithographer of the Year (1965). Lithography is a particularly western concept of print-making relying for its main effect on a colour produced by successive printings of transparent ink. The colour mixture obtained is thus clear in its intensity, each layer being completely flat. Owing to the reliance on a transparent colour the whiteness of printing-paper surface plays a dominant role in offering an underlying luminosity to the final surface. This manner of achieving colour by the optical mixture of three or four all-over colours was to be transferred to traditional oil painting by Rama Rao. Each layer of paint was allowed to affect the final colour through a paint diluted by turpentine - a variation on “glazing”. Rubens, for example, would allow his preliminary monochromatic statement on a canvas to occasionally have an effect on the completed composition. Turner used the glazing techniques to masterful ends. Rao was not only to use the traditional manner of mixing adapted primarily from lithography but he combined this with an eastern-inspired application in order to obtain a particular kind of surface: “The silkiness of Abanindranath’s watercolours I want to achieve in my oils.” This texture is formed by soaking pieces of cloth or sponge in an oil pigment diluted, as I have mentioned already, in turpentine spirit and “stroking” on to the painting surface. In order to retain the luminosity found in lithographic prints Rao pays great attention to the initial preparation of the support. This consists of a hard-board rectangle coated with white emulsion paint which offers the solidity necessary for the “stroking” and the smooth white base for subsequent transparent layers of colour. In the accompanying illustration it is possible to detect the board’s texture appearing through the colour layers; the whiteness of this board negates the use of white oil paint to “tone up”, a colour, thus retaining the clear intensity of hue. A Rao painting is always fresh and clean in appearance which is a positive contribution of this delicate and subtle oil technique, one which affects a distinctive and deeply personal amalgamation of eastern and western techniques; it is an original and exciting possibility in modern art.
The technique described above in Rao’s pictorial style is the vehicle for an imagery which is rooted in landscape. It is a landscape where twisting, meandering forms flow like some great river through hills and swamp-land. This landscape has been described as having “an Indian derivation - remembering the hills, the rivers running between them and the roads in the valleys of his native province” - Andhra Pradesh and this “sense of South India” is reinforced by the un-European colour range of complementary crimsons and viridians, yellows and pastel hues. It is in this essence rather than descriptive appearance of his country that Rao achieves a real mood or feeling of India in the heat of clear high-keyed colour combinations. The emotion of a Rao landscape exists through the indefinable lyricism which is all pervading and emerges in the “delicacy and subtlety with which he balances the two modes described when I was writing of his technique. This lyricism is evoked through the “colours of the East and shapes and forms of the West”, less tangible presences but more compelling in this very intangibility. The fusions of the West into Indian landscape are conducted on the emotive/lyrical plane through an essential structure which supports the form; the stability echoed in the feeling of horizontal and vertical relationships is a vestigial evidence of disciplines encouraged at the Slade and illustrated more specifically in Study of Life.
Occasionally the emphasis on a thin transparent paint of onion-like layers tends to an oppressive “washed-out” rather than “washed-in” appearance. At the point when “the silkiness of Abanindranath’s watercolours is achieved, this occasional over-emphasis offers a “slimy” as opposed to a “silky” texture, if this be not balanced by a sufficient area of opaque paint the eye is disturbed in the thin wash extending uninterruptedly across the unyielding board. In the gouaches Rao is prevented from the aberration described above by the medium whose qualities are in the full-bodied application of opaque paint. If the excitement of the oil technique is absent from these gouaches the reward is a confirmation of Rao’s distinct ability as a colourist.
In his drawings, lithographs and oil paintings Rama Rao is revealed as an exciting young artist, who, at his best - which is frequent, brings together the two cultures into an artistic statement which, in the final analysis, transcends intention. Rao’s sense of colour, form and line lift his art from those considerations of manner and technique into a contextwhere it is seen as an important contribution to painting in the mid-twentieth century.
One’s immediate response to Viren Sahai’s Green Forms and Yellows is to the textured paint surface glittering in the light like a faceted jewel. In its technique, Sahai’s painting differs absolutely from Rama Rao’s insofar as it involves a gradual coating of the canvas-surface in small horizontal or vertical brush strokes. By their opacity these marks completely destroy the original supporting surface - in contrast to Rao’s retention of his white base through transparent washes of colour. Sahai uses his palette to mix the paint; Rao’s colour is arbitrary in that it is finally mixed optically on the painting. Neither does Sahai’s colour have the contradictions seen in Rao but is closer to a European scheme of rich browns, greens, blues and yellows which are not denied a mixture of white. If Sahai’s painting does not hold the sense of immediacy and light freshness found in the younger man’s work it has the virtue of a calculated stability understood in his statement that “There is always a form to which things relate in a painting “ - a truism practised with tranquil certainty in his oil paintings. Donald Bowen has written that”…..we need not doubt that Sahai is a thoughtful and accomplished artist” which gives a clear indication of the kind of painting to expect.
Viren sahai came to this country in 1954 after studying architecture at the Delhi Polytechnic from 1949-54, and he was to study painting at the Central School of arts and Crafts, 1956-59. This gave him that knowledge of oil painting technique so valuable for his subsequent painting. It is a as an architect that Sahai has been successfully employed in England with periods abroad in Burma and Northern Nigeria where he acted as resident architect to Fry, Drew and Atkinson. That Sahai is able to live outside his art as a professional architect is ideal for a man who has definite views regarding the extent of his involvement with painting: “I don’t want to be in the heat of art movement worries and cliques.” This expression is typical of a balanced and intelligent man who recognises problems and tensions which can distract the mind. He is free to paint without the disquieting knowledge that his pleasure must also be his problem.
The titles are indicative of Sahai’s interest in the essential problems of form and colour: Grey Square on Black, Red Circle on Blue, Red on Chrome directly suggest basic concerns already discovered in his involvement with paint as a tactile surface reality. Early paintings of 1956-57 make direct references to landscape when the pictorial form is regulated by those discovered in nature itself. During the early ‘60s the paintings become less descriptive and, as the iconography blurs, the painterly concern increases - a greater emphasis is placed on the marks themselves rather than what they are capable of depicting. The canvas becomes important only for its capacity to hold a certain amount of paint and not for the effect it may have on the painting’s final appearance. Sahai’s rule is: “The coarser the weave of canvas the greater the stroke of paint held.” This is not to deny that there is a content to his work other than those of paint, colour, form and texture. The feeling for landscape is as strong as that discovered in Rama Rao but it is a positive feeling with less of Rao’s pervasive lyricism. Sahai feels a real sympathy for the trees, fields and skies, for the landscape peculiar to each country. It is a major source of regret that in leaving India that he should have estranged himself from a “landscape that had a very profound effect for me.”
The extent of this sympathy is seen in the drawing Landscape and Arundel (1967), a beautiful example of his graphic work made after hours and sometimes days of the initial observation; it is this time-lapse which allows the image to become clarified in his mind before it achieves pictorial statement. Once having absorbed the scene he can feel free to interpret it in terms of line particular to the medium being used - in this example the flo-master pen. There is no disguising the soft, broad strokes capable of the heavy line and the sensitive pressure behind the subtle, thin mark. Each line is made honestly in terms of the pen without losing the appearance of trees and field. Landscape in Arundel is a drawing in which the meaning and message are perfectly intertwined into an inseparable unity.
The watercolours display a similar recognition of a medium’s basic properties. Where he concentrates on the opacity of oil paint the watercolour is notable for its fluidity and transparency. A form is encouraged to soak into and over the paper by previously immersing it in water for a number of hours and guiding the form’s movements by manipulating the support. Apart from the placement and the possible movement of the paper Sahai allows the paint to dictate its own line and final form. If the result should not be satisfactory the artist will impose himself by re-soaking the paper and re-adjusting a form or accent and adding a final line or movement of Indian ink to balance the composition. However, the majority of the image is determined by the medium itself, for example, the frost-like patterns which float away from an ink stroke. One could predict the final form of a Sahai oil painting but the watercolours have an autonomy which is unpredictable in their organic growth.
Throughout his oil paintings, watercolours and drawings we are aware of a sensitive and controlled excitement. Viren Sahai is developing through a steady involvement with media where every picture is an experience in form, line, colour and texture. The result is responsive and wholly satisfying in a manner common to all modern art of substance.
In the painting by Balraj Khanna landscape provides quite a different starting point for pictorial form than that found in the art of Rama Rao and Viren Sahai; his reaction to trees and skies is micro - rather than macroscopic, the seed as opposed to the forest. Meeting of Clouds and Foliage is about buds and pods, germinal forms and seed-like formations which spread all over the canvas in a colour range of ochres and greens, greys and browns. Line inhabits the foliage in a continuous pulsating movement which activates every inch of the painting. Khanna’s is an intensely sensitive reaction to nature, which responds to the breezes playing through the topmost branches and sending leaves floating to Earth. Even in the accompanying black and white illustration one senses ethereal cloud-wisps forming around the tree bark and shifting the buds. The structure of a Khanna painting has always been essential ly linear; until 1965 it was a line centring around human form, an abstracted image which nevertheless remained close to its origin. In 1965 Khanna spent the summer months near the Bois St. Bernard, France,where he made a series of drawings and paintings based on the tree forms - the structure, leaf forms and textures. This was the beginning of an important period in his painting an outcome of which is seen in Meeting of Clouds and Foliage (1966) where the line is no longer limited to human associations but travels freely in all-over movement. Into the Bois St.Bernard paintings of 1965 Khanna began to introduce short lengths of string at first following the boughs away from the main truck as seen in Of Forest of 1965. As the painted or drawn line of the earlier paintings became extended over the whole canvas area so the lengths of string will lengthen into one continuous line which circles and winds from corner to corner, side to side (Discourse of the Wanderer, 1967).
By 1967 any direct relationships to natural forms are abandoned in favour of non-figuration. Line now adopts a meaning close to that of Paul Klee who had taken it on a “journey to the land of better understanding” where discoveries were made in relation to the essential characteristics of line and media. This analogy with the art of Paul Klee can be widened to include the protoplasmic forms which occur at the interstices of the string where it crosses and re-crosses itself. The black and white chequerboard pattern is often used by Klee.
In paint application Khanna achieves a stage in between Rao’s subservience to the supporting board and Sahai’a absolute denial of his canvas surface. With Balraj Khanna the canvas and paint are a unity, neither achieves dominance over the other, the thinly applied colour controls the support and this canvas support controls the colour. It is a beautiful inter-relationship of the field over which the string collage line can move in perfect joy. If I draw a comparison with the colour and application found in the work of Arshile Gorky it is not to suggest that Khanna is no more than a gifted eclectic: the line, the forms and the delicate application could be related superficially to the 3,000-years-old cliché just as one can find parallels in the art of Klee, Gorky and Joan Miro to that of the 29-year old painter from Jhang, Wets Punjab. The truth of the matter is that Khanna’s art contains evidence of an international painter who must soon receive the acclaim already recognised in London art circles.
If a feeling for natural form can be experienced in the art of Rama Rao, Viren Sahai and Balraj Khanna it is nowhere felt in the work by Ashu Roy whose artistic credo is the most alien among this “group” of Indian painters in England. Roy has unequivocally stated:
Works of art are visual experiences and their form, volume, structure, size, spatial relationship, colour and surface texture are responsible for any significance the subtle, emotional contact may produce.
There is no doubt here as to which is the cart and which the aesthetic horse.
Ashu Roy came to England in 1950 with an Honours degree in physics and studied painting and sculpture at St. Martin’s School of Art. This combination of working two and three dimensions is a common choice among art students commencing their training, after one or two years one or the other will have been chosen. This “dimensional dichotomy” has never occurred for Roy for whom painting and sculpture are one and the same problem: “…I want to be read in an international arena but not one where the painter and sculptor spars”. But then art itself is only a single facet of Roy’s broad range of interests which includes sociology - studied for two years, criminology, psychology and philosophy - further two, anthropology and erotology. Grand thoughts but to speak with Ashu Roy is to receive confirmation of a lively, receptive intellect pursuing a variety of subjects to a high level of scholarship. In many ways Roy is the twentieth-century uomo universal, the Renaissance man for whom existence is investigation. In this context fine art settles into its allocated place in the scheme of things, by no means the “sacred cow” it has become for many men. This does not detract from Roy’s obvious commitment to aesthetic problems but it does serve to site them within a broad context of creative existence.
It will be understood that the cosmopolitan atmosphere of London is indispensible to Ashu Roy: he needs the diversity and sophistication of a large western city to cater to his catholic city of interests, his intellectual hunger. Above all, he must have the “feeling of freedom” to exercise his mind whilst, at the same time, functioning in anonymity: “I can observe people through the keyhole where personal contact is not essential”. Understanding this fact, it is not too difficult to relate the man and his art. It is an art which, as we have seen, concentrates on formal relationships but nevertheless is capable of offering a powerful undercurrent of emotions. There is an “evocative presence” clearly intended by the artist:
Most of my works are based on the “picture-concept”, structurally within the hard-edge idiom. Different forms and colours have been used as juxtaposed in spatial sympathy or spatial conflict and tension. Their significance is intended to be evocative of various ideas or expressions.
Roy’s early sculpture of the late 1950s was much less clearly defined. Forms belonged to the “organic” type popular in England during those years and instanced in work by Chadwick and Armitage. By 1962 this organic freedom in his sculpture had become more formal and “controlled”, consequently the naturalistic emphasis gave way to a geometric form undoubtedly influenced by his two years at St. Martins School of Art (1958-59) when he had investigated reinforced concrete and metal sculpture. Woman of 1962 illustrates the geometric clean white form which offers a distinct polished surface in the plaster-stone medium. Its clinically hard, white finish at the same time suggests human forms and associations - one imagines a particular type of feminine grace with a young girl’s gaucheness. Form and texture are similar to those found in the work by Frenchman Hans Arp.
In two-dimensional work of this period there had been an interest in the canvas or hard-board surface, texture creating its own spatial area, and finally an object juxtaposed with the painting to venture into a third dimension. This had developed by the early ‘60s into actually shaping the board so that it becomes an object itself, one always senses this groping towards broader applications of the traditional means. The defined forms noticed in Woman become even more specific in the painting Licoo-Licoo of 1966 - the pictorial representation by the man who likes to “function in anonymity” where the medium used - cellulose paint on hardboard - denies absolutely any hint of human contact. This contact is seldom present in the more recent work when Roy often has recourse to the spray-gun as a means of applying paint to the canvas or boardthus breaking all practical links - paint-medium, manner of application - which had always been maintained by painters. By 1966-67 the shaped board or two-dimensional shaped-canvas had become an actual object, a construction of painted forms which were inserted into a rectangular frame-work, in many cases leaving a space between the shapes taking the eye through to the wall behind. The shallow space within the frame is ambiguously extended by setting this construction at a distance from the wall which succeeds in making reference to space as a positive area of the composition or simply taking its place as a distant plane behind the object. By the precision of the contained board one can “read” the space as form from the frontal view, and it is surely this angle which Roy encourages when one members the statement that “Most of my works are based on the ‘picture-concept’”. By this frontality combined with sculptural means - the wooden construction - the ambiguity is extended still further: Is it painting or is it sculpture? The answer lies in Roy’s own previously stated wish. “to be read in an arena but not one where the painter and sculptor spars…”
Other work of 1967 uses a similar frame or “doorway”; however, the hardboard shapes of red, blue or white are suspended from the cross-bar or “lintel” and hang freely in space. The emphasis in these “sculpted - paintings” is on the shapes as hanging objects contained in a narrow corridor of space receding to the rear wall. The shapes which Roy uses are within the inevitable geometric abstract order but, in their placing one to the other, there are evocations beyond the purely aesthetic problem of balanced weight in the line, form and colour. G.S. Whittet has described the suggested evidence of “biological and architectural associations” which are not intended in the initial conception but neither would Roy choose to deny them; his attitude towards “meaning” is clearly contained in the following quotation regarding the titles of his work:
I have given them names, or titles, simply because they exist among an infinite number of other things. The existence of these non - sentient beings precedes their “meaning”.
No possibilities are denied the “perceptive” critic but for Ashu Roy they are elements of his art which must take their due place in a certain order - an order which places precedence on the formal concept of pictorial organisation. Khanna, Rao and Sahai will build up their paintings through relational means where the picture grows on the canvas; the preparatory drawing is irrelevant to the work in paint. Roy, on the contrary, uses the drawing to define the forms which will be used later; his is a conceptual art, one which relies on an idea or formal problem in colour, shape and space. It is an art without the immediacy of the other six painters but one which has its own particular evocative atmosphere considered through the eye and mind.
To consider now the art of Francis Newton Souza is to understand something of the variety of styles and attitudes to be found among this selection of painters. If Ashu Roy can calmly prepare for a painting through provisional drawings and Rama Rao build up an image through a series of thin paint-layers Souza, on the contrary, must act immediately on the canvas painting in what George Butcher has described as a “white heat of intensity”. His is a spontaneous action of the brush prompting many critics to make comparisons between Souza and American abstract expressionist painters by virtue of the manner of paint application common to both. One can understand why Souza has been labelled a “‘figurative’ action painter” but it would be impossible to defend the phrase. The difference is one of semantics - what Souza writes - to optics - what a Souza painting looks like; he has written that “For me painting is essentially an inspirational activity which I conduct in sharp bursts. “Sharp bursts” reminds one of Harold Rosenberg’s essay written in 1952, “the American Action Painters”, which describes the “kind of act taking place in four-sided arena, a dramatic interest". In fact, allowing for the different "iconographical" emphases, a Souza painting lacks those essential features of action painting-space, scale, control which contributed to the latter's dynamism and tension.
Since his arrival in 1949 to the year of his departure (1967) Souza lived through almost twenty years of extremes in England. After the initial "settling in" period he had several years of great success which began with exhibitions in 1956 and, '57 at the now defunct Gallery One. It was in 1957 that he won a prize at the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition, a prize of some importance for its prestige-value in England. Unfortunately, being a compulsive liver as well as painter, this was followed by a time of dissipation when he failed to sustain the promise which many critics still believe him to possess; "By the end of 1960 I got the shakes so bad I couldn't hold a brush." The last two exhibitions he held in London before leaving for America were "comparative failures" and the downward spiral was completed. I feel certain that a man with the obvious energy possessed by Souza and the ability to paint the splendid series of "Black Art" in 1965-66 will produce a few paintings of distinction which will begin the reverse climb up that same spiral, but first he will require a purgative period when his art controlled into a greater clarity and sense of disciplined form. There are many years of accumulated "influences" contributing to his painting style and this purgation would rid him, one hopes, of too obvious similarities with EL Greco, Soutine and Picasso. Above all he would be free of the tendency to wallow in those characteristics of India which lay him open to regrettable charges of "capitalisation" and "exploitation".
That Souza is a man of talent is detectable in the paintings; that he is a man of perception and sensitivity is obvious in the writings; the autobiographical essays Words and Lines and Nirvana of a Maggot -- have all the delicacy one misses in the pictorial art. Not that delicacy is the criterion of painting but it is a delicacy which combines with sensitivity, power of suggestion and that inexpressible element which "grabs". The most telling manner in which to illustrate this argument is through the writings themselves where, in the following extract from Words and Lines, one is fascinated, terrified and emotionally involved with the writing. It is the verbal counterpart to a Souza painting and yet one can imagine the translation into paint which would corrupt the beauty and sacrifice the sensitivity:
"It is the serpent in the grass that is really fascinating, glistening, jewelled, writhing in the green grass. Poisoned fangs and cold-blooded. Slimy as squeezed paint. Green hood, red forked tongue,slimy; careful not to put your foot on it; treacherous like Satan, yet beautiful like Him."
"It's no good having big horns among little bulls" were the words of Sadanand K. Bakre in reply to my query regarding the reasons for leaving India. It is a statement typical of the two most impressive features behind Bakre's life and art: (1) strength -- the sacrifices necessitated by the removal ("I sold everything to come here"), the bold brushwork and the draughtsmanship; (2) honesty/integrity-an unrelenting compulsion to remain true to his personal vision, the determination to remain free of gallery syndromes. One respects the tenacity and optimism with which Bakre has survived his seventeen years in London despite an omnipresent feeling of alienation: "Britain is still a foreign country to me." In his own country Bakre is known primarily as a sculptor but it is his painting which has become the dominant form in England and as such I would like to include him in this essay.
From his youth Bakre had shown exceptional natural ability as a draughtsman witnessed in the drawings, pastel work and clay-modelling arranged for exhibition by the Gokhale Education Society. Bombay, when he was sixteen years old. The ability to control his line has been a persistent feature, of Bakre's work in an output of drawing, prints, paintings and sculpture, and the fact that this line is always stated in pure terms of the medium is a feature common to Bakre and Chandra in particular. They both disdain absolutely the notion of the preliminary drawing which must surely be a causative factor in the directness of their art, an art which speaks immediately through the paint: "A drawing draw" is nothing to do with a painting, I am too anxious to get into the canvas" (Bakre); "You paint and you draw” ( Chandra).
The success of Bakre's respect for the paint medium can be observed in the paintings of the late '50s and early '60s. Rich browns and greens are as powerful as a Matthew Smith nude but with a greater linear clarity. There are in particular, a group of paintings from life where the paint is laid into the canvas with loving warmth, and yet this affection does not blind the painter's eye to the construction in a figure which gives the satisfaction felt only when paint is in the hands of a disciplined draughtsman. At the same time the painting becomes less dominated by the line until figures are read initially as strokes of paint until the forms separate into the correct anatomical parts and unite the painting into a head or other structure.
After a number of years in which the imagery was centred primarily on the human form, in recent years - since about 1965 -- Bakre has introduced architectural motifs into his painting. Where the earlier figure-inspired work was soft and the drawing made in terms of the loaded brush, these later works are necessarily harder, the drawn line that much the more apparent and clear cut-the difference, in fact, between flesh and stone. After the years of expressive painterly (malerisch) brushwork the line now contains a more directly controlled consciousness of architectural forms. He proceeds across the surface in a relational series of box-like and triangular shapes which are slowly formed into houses, churches and streets. It is now that Bakre reveals himself as a more urban painter in work which does not hold the pastoral lyrical elements present in the art of Rama Rao, Viren Sahai and Balraj Khanna. Nevertheless, there remains that mastery of his craft which reveals line and paint combining to an expressive control of calculated power.
The theme of this essay has been two-fold; the first is a reasonably apparent assumption of a particular painter's art assessed in relation to aesthetic absolutes of line, colour and form --tangible features easily measured once the mean is established by laws which govern those same aesthetics. These laws have been historically determined by the Wolfflins, the Worringers, the Reads of this world and are receiving a modification and extension by each succeeding generation down to the Greenbergs and Frieds of our own age. There is, however, a basic law which governs them all: the aesthetic absolute. Any judgment which exceeds this is personal taste. But it is within these individual rules that my second theme rests. For it is this which lies at the root of artistic awareness. They are the revelations through which Roger Fry transferred personal feelings so tellingly that he was able to reveal Cezanne to a whole generation of English people. In like manner did Ruskin "discover" Tintoretto for the late nineteenth century. I have neither the knowledge nor perception of these men to be able to use it in examining contemporary Indian painters but I would like to present the undercurrent or leitmotif of this essay as having resided in the assumption of a subconscious strength which infuses the best of these painters with a subterranean lyricism, one which is the reality of India, the uncontrollable essence. Thus I arrive at the seventh and last painter to be included, the painter who presents me with the most difficult, the most paradoxical and the most successful paintings; the painter in whose work is the supreme example and justification of the leitmotif: Avinash Chandra.
The truth of the paradox in terms of this essay is that, alongside Souza, Avinash Chandra clearly and obviously reveals those cultural beginnings so consistently suspected by me when observed in the contemporary painter. Souza and Chandra are the two painters who could most aptly be used to illustrate the "equational theory" whereby predetermined characteristics manifest themselves openly and unashamedly. For Souza this would seem to be an embarrassment in which he delights pictorially if not in his excellent writing. The paradox which occurs in respect of Avinash Chandra is through the fact that his success is achieved by an emphasis on the theory. He not only has his Indian cake but proceeds to eat it; in any other painter this would be the most outrageous "con trick". Characteristics of line, erotic imagery and textural interest are present to such an obvious unsecretive degree that one is engulfed by the sensuousness and erotica into an unquestioning belief in the painter's absolute honesty. Not for one moment does one suspect Chandra of capitalising on his birth right, using his heritage. It becomes increasingly clear that he sees himself not as a successor to temple sculpture, wall frescoes and miniature painting but as a part of them. The concept behind his art is so simple, so naive, that it is impressive in its very openness; "You paint a picture, you happen to be Indian." When the Indian is as personal in his use of imagery as Chandra no doubts or questionings exist: "I look towards myself and life to find inspirations." Not for thispainter the "fusions of East and West or the self-conscious pronouncement that "it's all very well to talk in metaphors about having roots in one's country. But roots need water from clouds forming over distant seas; and from rivers having sources in different lands." However true and acutely observed these statements and ideas may be for the respective painters they are no concern of Avinash Chandra. His business is to paint and he is Indian. In order to find the atmosphere agreeable for his freedom of expression and experimentation Chandra felt it essential to leave New Delhi: "It was a tea-drinking contest." Being young aged 25 - and speaking English he happily came to London: "I wanted to be a painter and therefore I came to England." Almost without his realising the fact London fused into his very being and soon began to play its due part in his expression:
Indian villages, cities, and finally London provided me with the visual excitement that educated my senses.
At the same time the distance from his home served to reinforce and even exaggerate his Indian ties:
My painting became a diversity of my discovery of my Indian nature and temperament, and without knowing it I drew more and more on Indian images.
W.G. Archer has stated this situation precisely when he wrote that "……. this artist (Chandra) has found it necessary to live outside his country in order to be more truly himself" even though the suggestion is rather more positive in its implication than was the case.
To stress exactly how important the freedom and atmosphere of England was to become for Chandra one need only recall the burgeoning of his art which took place about two years after arriving in this country, two years in which his eastern and western experiences could gel and be resolved as one harmonious whole:
Although my residence in London was by no means the beginning of my career in art, it did, mark a period of new freedom and expression and experimentation. It began one day about ten years ago when I shut myself in my studio and began to draw whatever came to mind... new shapes emerged, and I felt that my work had started to become part of me.
In fact, the work of these first few years in London has all the hard linearity and none of the liquid freedom of line which has become a feature of his art. The paintings of 1958-60 suffer from a deliberation which is uncomfortably Indian rather than attaining the natural qualities of his later years. Architectural and landscape forms are brittle and spiky, comparable with Souza's uncompromising Indianness seen in Crucifixion of 1959. In the Souza painting, forms are defined by a "forced" line in similar vein to the equally "forced" sensuousness of curving linear form in his female nudes.
Chandra's Landscape with Trees of 1958 uses an emphatic black movement through the tree's branches which contrast with the more restrained line of the background architecture. This beginning of a circular form in the branches is to become central for Chandra's imagery it will become the complete circle which represents the sun, the moon, a head, it is almost as recurrent an image as Rama Rao's ubiquitous serpentine river form but the former is used in a far wider context of meaning. It is an ambiguous form in appearance but the implication is distinct as a symbol for a painting's pranic energy, life-force or battery which drives the painting, until 1962 the starting-point for a picture had always existed in his imagination however close and frequently the images turned into human figures it was not until 1962 that Chandra began to work directly from the human model. There is no transitional iconographical stage, his painting as we have seen had usually contained an element of human figures, but it is noticeable that the actual contact with a life figure was to provide his work with a formal strength which it had previously lacked. Somehow the actual figure was also to give to the paintings and drawings a greater freedom which allows an exciting movement to cover the entire sheet or canvas. Line covers the picture area in a multitude of human associations.
His early work is more specific regarding the area of canvas or sheet of paper which is to be covered, there are isolated totemic blocks which retain their pictorial space in more or less isolation from each other; also, divisions were to occur which plainly suggest sky and horizon-line. In recent work it is the whole rectangle which is alive and seething with a mass of moving forces.
A characteristic common to all seven painters is the degree of sensitivity with which each is his medium, each painter employs the resources to the maximum. Chandra aptly states the fact when writing:
Whether it be a drawing, a painting, or a glass picture, my primary concern is to respect the qualities and characteristics of each medium.
Mother Goddess, a watercolour of 1963 beautifully confirms the above realisation where the mystery possible to watercolour washes is potently present in the area surrounding the central form. This ink line which describes the central figure is precise yet fluid in its definition. Nowhere is this shown to better advantage than in drawings which use coloured inks-a medium which Chandra has made peculiarly his own. It allows him that freedom to draw rapidly aver the paper while giving the specific line which clearly states the visceral forms through a complex shifting mass moving across the paper like some Eastern Last Judgment.
The reality with which Chandra makes the most of a medium's essential character is seen admirably in his work in glass, a new experience for Chandra and one which immediately touched the nerve point of sympathetic response. Fire (1965) is not only executed in a new medium for Chandra but it also presents problems of spatial management over the 300 square inches- the mural is 10 x 30 inches dimension. Instead of succumbing to a direct transposition of "known" line and form Chandra eagerly approached the glass to discover the marks which glass will organically form. These were then controlled into an entirely new range, one which is far removed from the smaller, more intimate drawings and paintings. Once having learned the new language he is quick to acquire a conversant and familiar patols.
Because I am shy of any art which too naturally displays the roots of its soul unashamedly to uncover the nerve fibres, it must be confessed that I have avoided any painting which shows an excessive manifestation of India; the "forced" appearance is one which any form of excess will consciously lay bare. That Chandra can still fascinate my aesthetic attention in spite of all the characteristics deplored at the outset of this essay is evidence of the responsive and profound lyricism which infuses the whole of his art. The nature of the medium in Fire imposes its owncontrol over Chandra's imagery and it is here that he shows an essence of India which is subtly present in a work of thorough-going modernity. The leitmotif' exists in Fire even more evocatively than other paintings and drawings; however, the supreme achievement of Avinash Chandra is in the honest ability to retain an integrity through his oriental world of line, form and imagery: his strength is to survive in the eye of a cliché at the same time as suspending one's belief that a cliché ever existed.
Lalit Kala Contemporary, Volume 9, September 1968.