To anyone who has the privilege of watching the course of contemporary Indian art over the last decade and a half, the general perspective today may at first appear to be the result of a complete transformation. But if one were to sit back in tranquillity and go over its vicissitudes, its significant modes and mannerisms, one might find the scene appear not so sudden or final after all. On the contrary, one might discover a very steady transition which has been on the whole logical, inevitable and natural when we consider all the major influences our art has been subjected to. The effort is worth the while in that in that it may establish that the changing forms of the contemporary art scene have not, in the final analysis, come about sporadically as a result of ill-digested, spurious, extraneous influences as some insular critic may try to prove. I am inclined to hold this view, so far as the total area of contemporary art is concerned, notwithstanding minor aberrations on an individual level. I have said the ‘changing form’, because I am absolutely certain that we have not reached the end of the quest, if there is one at all. It would be totally unwise to offer any definitive observation about our contemporary art.
In the case of most of us our artistic awareness began with the paintings of the more significant artists of the Bengal renaissance. Their nostalgic sense of history, legend and chronicle and the soft pleasing colours greatly fascinated most of us. Added to it was the national fervour of the day which inspired them, too, indirectly.
But even earlier than this was the great phenomenon -- Ravi Varma, who with gods and goddesses had found a place in almost every home, low and high. His appeal was the more formidable and unfortunately more dangerous in that his hold has not even loosened because of the trite, mundane external attributes of his oeuvres which did not call for either our imagination or our sensibility. The ‘Obviousness’ of his paintings was their only merit. And the people were only too glad to recognise the heroes and heroines of our lore and legends.
There was little awareness of the glorious tradition of our sculpture and painting except in the case of a few scholars whose interest again was mostly archaeological.
This was the over-all position around the year of our Independence. The principal art schools of the country, in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Lucknow were headed by people wedded to one ideology or another and made an uncoordinated effort to ingrain in the minds of the young artists what each believed as the only form of art worth perpetuating. Little room was there for the proper assimilation by the students of Indian heritage in the light of contemporary needs. Popular imagination was securely held by an extreme form of British academic art, thus related neither to our past nor to contemporary European art seething with a tremendous sense of enquiry and adventure, unparalleled in the history of art.
Into this firmament of complacency moved in the resplendent figure of Amrita Sher-Gil with the weight of the most spectacular contribution made by any of our painters yet. Her Indo-European parentage and upbringing together with her uncommon fascination for the Indian scene and gifted mind moulded by early post-Impressionism, she made a magnificent contribution during her all-too-brief active years. And about the same time the stature of Jamini Roy was also rising. His genius brought a breath of fresh air into the atmosphere of arid academism and it is was the more significant because of the indigenous source of his inspiration. It was not surprising, therefore, that Jamini Roy and Amrita Sher-Gil captured and imagination of quite a few talented artists and made a great impact on the work of a few of them.
The paintings and drawings of Rabindranath Tagore were comparatively still not known. But then he belongs, in the true sense, to a later period, and was rather misunderstood or insufficiently understood yet. We did not hear then of the conflict between the figurative and the non-figurative, between the form and content, subjectivism and objectivism. Artists like K.K Hebbar, S.D Chavda and N.S Bendre in Bombay; K.C.S Paniker in Madras, the sculptor, Prodosh Das Gupta in Calcutta, all of whom had already made a mark, remained mainly figurative and were not entirely freed of conventional ideas. The elders like V.P Karmakar worked in a strictly academic manner. Instances such as the sculpture of D.P Roy Chowdhury which had been exposed to external influences (Rodin in his case) were rare. The field was largely and vacant and therefore highly vulnerable to influences. Hebbar showed a visible influence of Sher-Gil whom he greatly admired. But one could feel the unrest in his work, a search for something which he had not yet recognised. His close friend Chavda worked to a great extent within the framework of his academic training admitting change only as much as was demanded by life around. He is a fine draftsman with an innate sensibility for line and his drawing acquired greater significance in the days which followed.
One saw about this time an echo of revivalism, very different from that of Bengal, in Western India too, partly inspired by J.M. Ahivasi perhaps, a revered teacher of the Sir J.J School of Art. This inspiration found some fulfilment in the work of S.B. Palsiker, Laxman Pai, V.S. Gaitonde, Mohan Samant and D.G. Kulkarni. Pictorially they drew a good deal of inspiration from Gujarati and Rajasthani miniatures and incorporated their bold colour schemes and perspective in a highly personal manner. They took the same colours, ultra-marine blue, red, yellow ochre and white unhesitatingly. They painted in gouache. Indeed, much of the significant work in those days was painted either in gouache or water colour.
In Bombay itself, the cultural centre of Western India, the situation was ripe to usher in a new era. Charles Gerrard, a man with great foresight and who was the Director of the Sir J.J School of Art during the ‘forties, had already made a courageous effort to agitate the minds of the students and infuse in them an urge for searching new forms without in any way suggesting a disregard for tradition. He had gathered around him a few enterprising young artists, the foremost of whom were Majid, Bhople and P.T. Reddy. The apathy and harshness of public criticism unsettled all of them. It is only P.T. Reddy who has staged a comeback after over a decade. Nevertheless this pioneering effort was sustained and carried forward by F.N Souza, now well-known and settled in London, S.G. Bakre (sculptor) and K.H.Ara a remarkably fecund, self-taught painter. These were the rebels in a sense and they were soon joined by S.H. Raza, H.A. Gade, and M.F. Husain. They formed themselves into a group called the Progressive Artists Group (1947). Encouraged by the critic R.V. Leyden, the Connoisseur E. Schlesinger andthewell-known painter Walter Langhammar, they were the first in Bombay to proclaim openly the need for a change and unabashedly to welcome the significant trends of European modern art. They had the sympathies of senior artists such as Palsiker, a remarkably gifted artist, N.S. Bendre, one of the most versatile artists and Hebbar a very volatile and sensitive artist in spite of his spruce appearance. I realise after all these years that the first exhibition of the group (1948) took Bombay by storm. They were all very talented, adventurous and eager to seek inspiration from every quarter irrespective of the origin. They more than any other body created the necessary condition for the things to come, besides making their own valuable contribution. Some of them are amongst the most important artists today, even internationally well-known.
New elements entered into their work; colour and form on their own right and for their own sake. The reliance on the observable world became less insistent. They were fully aware of the great work of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso and the other precursors of modern art. No less did they draw inspiration from our own tradition (F.N Souza for example). A source not easily recognisable because of its complete transformation in their hands. Though less obvious this source must not go unnoticed for it enlivened their sensibility greatly. Two of the closest associates of the group were Krishen Khanna and Akbar Padamsee who had just started upon their artistic career then; both are artists of great merit now. Another very talented artist, Ram Kumar who came from Delhi received his greatest impetus from the group. Hebbar was drawn closer to the group following his European tour about the same time. The sculptor Sankho Chaudhuri, who worked in Bombay soon established himself as a gifted sculptor in the modern genre.
There was a parallel movement in Calcutta too, started a little earlier and took in its fold the members of the Calcutta Group: Prodosh Das Gupta, Paritosh Sen, Rathin Maitra, Nirode Mazumdar, Sunil Madhav Sen, Gopal Ghose and others. Although we must needs reckon the very important work of Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ram Kinker Baij and Chintamoni Kar, (the last two both painters and sculptors) it must be realised that the Calcutta Group was the spokesperson of the avant-garde artists.
K.C.S Paniker was a talented and prolific water colourist in a rather academic manner in the earlier days. He later evolved a unique style characterised by a very significant and calculated distortion and his work now is a successful blend of several influences but remains highly individualistic none-the-less. He has been the moving spirit behind the South Indian Society of Painters and the Progressive Painters Association, Madras. But even more than this he has, since he became the Principal of the Government School of Arts & Crafts, gathered in Madras a brilliant band of young sculptor, Raghav Kaneria. This is a tribute to the catholic, broad-based direction of N.S Bendre, Sankho Chaudhuri and K.G Subramanian who have proved to be as good teachers as they are artists. It is not strange really that such a development has been possible as a result of one or two persons with a vision. B.C Sanyal, sculptor and painter, has done the same both as a founder member of the Delhi Silpi Chakra and later as the head of the Department of Art, Delhi Polytechnic. To him and to his colleagues Dinkar Kowshik, and Dhanraj Bhagat -- one of our most imaginative and accomplished sculptors- is due the credit of establishing in the North a new mood for the appreciation of modern art. I hasten to add that I am deeply aware of the very great pioneering work of Baroda Ukil, the maker of All-India Fine Arts and Crafts Society, New Delhi whom I esteem as the one man who has made the most outstanding contribution to the cause of art within my knowledge. But all his work notwithstanding there was need for turning a new chapter.
Contemporaneous with this we see in Delhi the emergence of a few remarkably gifted artists such as Sailoz Mukherji, K.S Kulkarni, Ram Kumar, the sculptor Amar Nath Sehgal and Kanwal Krishna who has now distinguished himself as an outstanding graphic artist together with the brilliantly younger artist, Somnath Hore.
It is my intention to establish in this survey of contemporary Indian art during the post-independent era, as I have stated in the beginning, that our art has to a very remarkable degree followed a cogent pattern of development from the mainly figurative forms - via quasi-figurative and tentative stages - towards the non-figurative, almost. This is true not only ideologically but it is just as much from the point of view of technique and media. This observation can be verified against the evolution of our foremost sculptors and painters, notwithstanding the rather abrupt turns that may be discovered in the development of artists such as V.S Gaitonde, Jeram Patel, Biren Dey and a few others. It is needless to consider the work of artists on the fringe or those who show signs of promising individuality, for they are a part of mainstream, however talented and idiosyncratic their work may now seem to be. And the sensibility of the people, at any rate of the more informed section of the people, has also undergone the necessary change to accept the position, nay even to welcome it as an inevitable phenomenon of the age we live in. What next? Will there be a switch over to the figurative as it is wishfully imagined by a few who have not taken kindly to the absence of cognizable influence of tradition in our art today and who have even more outspokenly held against the impact of world forces on it. It is more likely that the development of our art in the next few years will not be as spectacular as during these last fifteen or twenty years, and that our painters and sculptors may look around more purposefully for direct inspiration, or perhaps vacillate between the present and the near past and arrive at a fusion in tune with the present, not wholly unbecoming of the magnificence of our heritage. One thing is certain. There will be no going back whole hog. What is now characteristic of our art has followed a natural evolutionary course conditioned by contemporary thinking and forces arising out of the present, as inevitable and unrelenting in their consequence as is typical of a nascent nation.
Published in Pushpanjali, Vol. 2, No. 1, Dec 1965