Artists: Notes on Art Making

Whatever the achievement of Indian contemporary art, particularly in the post-independence period, there is body of work of which we might reasonably feel satisfied. It is generally admitted that this achievement squarely rests on norms, whose aesthetic must of necessity be considered in terms of the complex concepts of modern art in the West, either as a direct extension of it or inspired by its multifarious eclectic ramifications. Attempts have been made, which are quite plausible, to regard this achievement as a result of a historical, sociological circumstance of a developing modern nation in a state of cultural vacuum, poorly aware of its past (and even its revivalist ideal having become a spent force) which avidly patterned its resurgence on the solid base of modern European art, of which even contemporary American art is but a part, either as an extension, again, or as a pungent reaction to the hegemony of Europe. The inevitability of such a development is easy to appreciate. In fact, it has been overstated.

The commonplace view is that modern Indian art is at best a second-rate imitation of modern Western art. That, too, is an overstatement. What is worse, there have been attempts to appraise the work of even our best artists wholly in terms of the European masters; and to treat contemporary Indian art as a little far-away island of the European Empire. Even the informed student of contemporary Indian art is not free from this colonial complex. And this despite the very substantial contribution by a few of our artists, who have remarkably personalised their initial impact and training, each in his own way investing his work with an intimate, individual character. Which only goes to prove that this impact has not been altogether detrimental and the experience not without profit, notwithstanding the overall anonymous Internationalism. In the context in which they have functioned, the redoubtable competency of a good number of our able and gifted contemporaries, specially of the last decade and a half, cannot be gainsaid. There is small justification thus of the sweeping criticism that we are nation of imitators. The fact, however, but not the summary condemnation begs consideration for, to large extent, the Indian artist has been moulded by Western ideals in ever so many subtle and direct ways, removed as he has been from his own moorings and from his self. It seems that the criticism has at least had one salutary effect: it has hastened the inevitable discontent and quickened the process of the discovery of this ‘self’. This again, is not without parallel in the present Indian context, in its intense overall effort to re-establish the country, to see it emerge on its own and discover its potential.

Several factors are behind this compulsion of self-discovery which are of a complex nature, almost intractable in respect of an intensely sensitive individual as an artist. How much of this urge owes to mere reaction, to comparison, trial and rejection or to genuine, irrepressible promptings from within, is hard to say.

A few facts are, however, clear. The journey towards and along the West, however invaluable it may have been otherwise, no longer holds promise and has lost its meaning. It is time for a pause and perhaps, a “retreat” and without regret. The artist to-day is better equipped and is in a better perspective to look for his bearings. Matter was ahead of the spirit and now the position is now on the reverse. The technique, the process, the material, has loosened its supreme demand and severity of its grip. It is not a case of its having become, exactly, secondary. It is, simply that the unfortunate and artificial dichotomy, of form and content, of ends and means, is cracking. No more an art for art’s sake. The material, the method, the exuberance, the severe rational and analytical approach are no longer the end in themselves. It is not a question of ‘art’ but living a thought, of a life through art. It would not again be a revival a la the Bengal school or the grafting of folk art on the urban earth, not the ‘mod’ rushing of the fetish and the icon into our sophisticated interiors. Man today needs a substitute faith, in place of a ‘faith’ whose distorted and outworn form is without significance. There has to be reprieve to the non-descript, whimsical and facile abstraction, fantasy and egocentric outburst and a need to find an alternative to all this creative orgy in a positive affirmation of life. The need for such a search is desperate in the case of the contemporary Indian artist who seems to have come of age at long last. He needs not have to give up anything, anything worthwhile from wherever he may have received it, East or West. It is a sheer question of assuming the responsibility of his vital creative role and becoming part of his tested and timeless environment as anybody else.

There is ample evidence to suggest that such a process of awareness and the resultant introspection has set in. It may be that in the case of the generality of contemporary Indian artists, it is caused by no more than pure and simple discontent with what they have been doing. They seem to have arrived at the point of diagnosis of the predicament, trying variously for an answer to the ailment. The search for the ‘herb in the backyard’ has, to a large extent, eluded many. In the meanwhile, a considerable part of our artistic activity seems to be of a desperate and desultory nature which is understandable. There is a hope, nevertheless, that in the case of a few artists, there is a foretaste of this excursion into the spiritual and visionary realm. These efforts for an image and an experience of a subliminal order are, again, often peripheral but we might reasonably expect that some of the will cut through the boundary. Till then, their contribution must remain tentative, occasional and even vague. Among those whose achievement may well be regarded as substantial are a few young artists, such as Nand Katyal with his sublime landscapes, Ghulam Sheikh who captures in his recent works the spirit of a fantastic primeval world, Ambadas with his thrilling discovery of a primordial territory in a state of flux; Prafulla Mohanti with this poetic, mysterious effusion of colour; Prabhakar Barve with his recent tantra-inspired seed and stellar concepts; and Balakrishna Patel in his resplendent world of light and colour, and with the sun in the centre. Bimal Das Gupta, once a brilliant naturalistic painter and later on a very successful abstract painter, has also been possessed with a range of symbolical, mysterious imagery. Laxman Pai, too, devoted an entire series of paintings to the Purusha Prakriti theme.

In the south, a very consistent attempt is being made by artists in Madras, admittedly inspired by K. C. S. Paniker, to infuse into their works a certain Indian flavour culled out from familiar legend, myth and symbol. This is exemplified particularly in thework of S. G. Vasudev, C. J. Anthony Doss, A. P. Santhanaraj, Frederick Chellappa, Reddappa Naidu and in the work of the doyen of them all, K. C. S. Paniker himself. At its most genuine their contribution is distinguished by its unique decorative symbolism or related fantasy. Gautam Vaghela, who went to Madras from Bombay, evolved a style based on his facility of line and figure, folk and traditional inspiration, and with a strong erotic element of late.

The fructification of this new spirit has been especially noticeable in Delhi with significant contribution by G. R. Santosh, Biren De, Om Prakash, Dhanraj Bhagat, J. Swaminathan and K. V. Haridasan. These artists together with S. B. Palsikar, P. T. Reddy and Nirode Mazumdar - all of whom have seriously applied themselves to the unravelling of the mystery of tantric thought - and K. C. S. Paniker may be said to have ushered in a new direction. A label had to be found for all this artistic activity which obviously differed conceptually from with everything that preceded it. Thanks to Ajit Mookherjee’s book on Tantra Art, a good work in itself, a label has been found. But it is a gross misnomer to regard the work of these contemporary artists, individually or collectively, as tantra art, certainly not in its accepted traditional form.

It seems that all this concern for the spiritual or the sublime is thus of a metaphysical order derived from a broad-based orthodox, religious faith, of which ‘tantra’ is also but a system. “The tantras represent a philosophy comprehensive enough to embrace the whole of knowledge, a system of meditation which will produce the power of concentrating the mind upon anything whatsoever and an art of living which will enable one to utilise every activity of body, speech and mind, as an aid to the path of liberation” - (Gampopa). The tantra ideal is the same as that of the orthodox Hindu and Buddhist faiths, that is, a supreme concern with and directed towards, enlightenment and self-realization. It is said that the Samsara (universe) is the result of the continual interaction of Purusha and Prakriti. The Samsara is compared to a seed of gram, with its two halves so close that they seem to be one, and the whole surrounded by a single sheath. The two halves of the gram are Siva and Shakti, the sheath being Maya. The world is an extended and compounded manifestation of the Panch-Bhutas (the five forms of sensible matter). The self, soul or spirit is but a spark, part of the Divine Absolute.

“From space came air, from air, fire, from fire, water. From water came solid Earth. From Earth came living plants. From plants, food and seed, and from food and seed came a living Being, Man.” - Taittariya Upanishad.

It is also said, “that all beings arise from space and into space they return.” - (Chhandogya)

Tantric teaching is also concerned with a similar overall concept of the universe, and with establishing the identity of the Absolute (Paramartha) or the phenomenal (Vyavahara). Ultimately it is the same reality which is to be comprehended by a process of conceptual and intuitive polarization, the dual poles being activity and passivity. The universe “Works” through their interaction. Creation is the result of the union of Siva and Sakti and from this essential concept arises a whole range of dual tantric aspects such as Linga-Yoni, Vajra-Padma, etc.

The goal of Tantric sadhana is indeed the same as that of Hindu and Buddhist religion, that is liberation. The tantric method is only more radical, opposed as it is to the orthodox Hindu and Buddhist principle of asceticism and complete denial as a pre-requisite to self-realization or liberation. In fact, the tantra doctrine is anti-ascetical. Classical Yoga followed the Upanishadic precept by stipulating the subdual of the sensuous personality. Tantric tradition took a contradictory view. The tantras do not believe in the subdual of the senses, but on the contrary, enhanced their power in order to harness them in the service of achieving union with the Supreme.

All this is an effort to place the so-called contemporary tantric artistic activity in its proper perspective. In a recent letter to the editor, K. C. S. Paniker wrote: “I am neither a tantric practitioner nor a symbolist. My symbols are no symbols - they mean nothing. They help me design and picture and perhaps, by association of ideas, help me project an image which is very like you and me; in the inside complex yet precise, elaborate yet concise, or sometimes even decorative, devotional and mystic. But I try not to think of these for they are not at all pertinent to painting on the conscious plane.” His ‘words and symbols’ , will have to be, therefore regarded as an echo of the cryptic content of the astrological chart or a page from a mystery-ridden mathematical note book.

The landscapes of J. Swaminathan are in a quiet, contemplative mood, with all the elements of rock, bird and plant acquiring a serenity whose preoccupation owes much to the Upanishadic thoughts. So also the concept of Biren De whose creations are visions of the effulgent light, flame and fire of the Upanishads. Dhanraj Bhagat owes much to the idea of genesis, and to the twin life principles of Siva-Sakti, Om Prakash’s is an immaculate concept of colour and space, and an orchestral quality which attains the level of music. Haridasan is, again, inspired by the Purusha-Prakriti theme, and the doctrine of Bija (the seed), and Yantra (tantric diagrammatic symbol). His use of the decorative element is on a purposefully conscious level. Santosh stands quite apart, in a sense, and he is the only artist in whose work there is a certain reference to tantric ideology. His work is a most graphic and impeccable realization of the tantric ideal of non-asceticism. He depicts the union of Siva and Sakti in an erotic manner, regarding sex as the supreme symbol of the senses.

Each of these artists is trying in his own way to experience the mystery and magnificence of the world from a metaphysical point of view, and to express visions, again, each in his own way. While their creative expressions are of a high order, the experience is necessarily involved, and, as said before, peripheral or are the result of brief visions of ‘Light’.

“There is a light that shines

Beyond all things on earth,

Beyond us all, beyond the heavens,

Beyond the highest,

The very highest heavens

There is the light that shines in our heart”

- Chhandogya Upanishad

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1971
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