Artists: Notes on Art Making

At the Annual National Exhibition organized by the Lalit Kala Akademy in New Delhi one gets the opportunity to see under one roof the best art works produced in the country. I happened to be present at the opening of this show last year. It was a major cultural event and the President of the Republic inaugurated it. I looked forward to it for another reason. I knew that the average age of participating artists was well before forty years. With one or two exceptions, they belonged to a generation after us.

I for one welcomed this chance of seeing the works of many painters, sculptors and printmakers with whom I was not familiar. Although the huge exhibition was fairly representative, I noticed the absence of quite a few painters and sculptors whom I admired elsewhere. I came out better informed and a little hopeful about the future.

I must, however, confess that I was not a little bewildered by the variety of trends, styles and approaches covering almost the gamut of modern art. Was this a reflection of the immense diversity of Indian art today or was it a result of the new-found freedom of the artists bordering on anarchy? My second impression was that the Triennale of International Art, also organised by Lalit Kala had made a strong impact on many of our young artists; there is nothing wrong with this except that when trends and styles are followed superficially and are unrelated to local situations, works of art appear to be too derivative to merit serious attention. On the other hand, I was equally and pleasantly surprised to see the technical excellence achieved by some of the younger painters. I would like to make it clear that the term younger painters is used to distinguish them from the generation that went before.

The professional approach is a welcome change from the kind of amateurism that one noticed a few years ago. This was probably the most positive aspect of the Triennial’s impact. (It is a pity that the Triennale mainly benefits the artists of the north.) Another surprise is that, apart from the well-known centres of art - Bombay, Baroda, Madras and Calcutta - other places like Chandigarh, Banaras and of course, Hyderabad have young artists of considerable merit, who have now joined the mainstream of art in the country. Besides, Santiniketan, after a long stupor, is fast becoming an active art centre again, especially in sculpture and graphic arts, but it was not well represented in the exhibition.

Yet another revelation was that printmaking had taken firm roots. A curious aspect of this form of art is that unlike in Europe and America, the better known painters and sculptors have not yet taken to it, with the result that it is degenerating into mere technical virtuously and an art of the specialists, rather than an extension of a painter’s or a sculptor’s work. Why can’t we see more dry point etching, engraving and lithographs?

At the exhibition three or four trends seemed to pre-dominate. As far as I could make out one had its origin in the works of Bhupen Khakkar’s “naïve cum pop” paintings, the second in Swaminathan’s “inscapes”, the third in Santosh’s imageries of Tantric symbols and the fourth was the pot-pourri of recent trends as seen in the works of some Western and Japanese artists represented in the Triannales. There was also the “Cholamandalam” trend that originated in K.C.S. Paniker’s later works and is now degenerating into drab sameness. The overall impression was that of a large body of decorative works which are patronized by foreigners, Nouveau riche Indian and large commercial houses in Bombay and New Delhi. Much of this iconic or frontal motif-centred art or that which goes in the name of “exploration of space” or the combination of calligraphic writing and linear images are, in my opinion, sleek and impersonal. Happily, there are others who do not fall into these categories and have set out on paths of their own. A few artists of this class, with whose works I am familiar, were not, however, represented in the exhibition. I present here a random selection of some of the artists of the younger generation whose works I consider significant.

Rameshewar Broota is a keen observer of the Indian situation. His large canvases are filled with imageries that verge on the allegorical on the one hand and the fantastic on the other. These consist of a menagerie, mainly apes, placed in urban settings which, in turn, help us to identify the personages the animals represent. Obviously they have something to do with the foibles of the people in power. The choice of a menagerie is evidently made with an intention to satirize. The juxtaposition of these figures against the setting, though seemingly absurd, make their point stronger. Added to this, a wry wit makes his statements sharp, disturbing and explosive. All this is made possible by a feeling of moral indignation against the existing situation, which most of us sheepishly accept. There is always the danger that such an expression is apt to become literary and may end up in mere illustrations. But Broota is well aware of the values that go to make a valid work of art and spares, no effort in convincing himself that, in the final analysis, it must be able to stand on its own merits irrespective of its contents.

Socially Conscious

The exhibition of Vivan Sundaram’s 18 medium-sized canvases in Calcutta last year was one of the best shows we have had recently. I had seen his ink drawings earlier. They revealed a socially conscious mind. I mean this in the best sense of the term as such an expression has, over the years, acquired odious connotations. His selection of Pablo Neruda’s “Heights of Machhu Pichhu” for illustrations- or were they interpretations? - would bear this out.

His attacks on decadent, bourgeois values are both subtle and sharp. This and a healthy respect for draughtsmanship enable us to enjoy his paintings at a reflective as well as purely aesthetic level. His imageries consisting of “still lifes” bath tub chairs and sofa sets, intricately designed lace table-covers, carpeted floors and large window panes - all the common bourgeois status symbols - are indicative of our greed and acquisitiveness, typical of a consumer oriented society. The window panes have large holes as if an unseen hand hurled chunks of stones at them in anger. Although most artists in our country live in cities, their works do not generally reflect the urban experience- an aspect which is distinctly visible in his series of paintings entitled, “The discreet charm of the Bourgeoisie”.

Kanchan Das Gupta, a Calcutta painter, showed half a dozen fairly large canvases in a group show last year. I was quite impressed by the individuality and mature execution of these paintings. An ability to draw well and solve complex compositional problems and a fine sense of colouring suggest that he devotes considerable time in sharpening his tools. Most other artists of his age group do notshow such patience and diligence, because the propensity to exhibit publicly at the cost of what is being displayed is unfortunately too strong. Perhaps, it is inevitable in a society where we are all driven to join the rat race.

In Kanchan’s works the urban experience comes out very strongly, especially the dehumanising effect of living in a city like Calcutta. Our loneliness, alienation and frustrations, that are the results of an animal existence, are depicted in a way that borders on fantasy but, nevertheless, do not fail to make a direct impact upon our consciousness. All this is reinforced by a strong sense of design - a feeling for geometry and sober coloration that eminently befit his themes. One looks forward to his next exhibition.

An interesting recent development is the appearance of a number of young women painters, sculptors and graphic artists, whose works have caught our attention. The names of Nalini Malani, Veena Bhargava, Arpita Singh, Nasreen Mohamedi and others come immediately to mind. After initial hesitation, all of them seem to have evolved their personal vision. I feel that the worlds of Veena and Nalini approximate each other in that both are deeply concerned with the human situation. Their styles, although dissimilar, are charged with a rare masculine vigour. Veena Bhargava’s recent exhibition of 12 large canvases called “The Pavement Series” held in Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi, was well received by the cognoscenti. Through “silent images” in urban environment, she tried to explore the “level beyond the initial visual impact of poverty and disparity -the underlying estrangement of man in a city…”

Arpita Singh’s black and white drawings are a kind of personal handwriting invested with considerable lyrical grace and charm. They are quite a departure from the earlier figurative paintings, a trifle reminiscent of Bhupen Khakkar’s works.

Reality, at any given point of time, has many facets. An artist’s involvement with it can be just as varied. This can result in works of great validity, provided they transcend the limitations of our immediate experience and are capable of moving us deeply. While talking to a painter like Eruch Hakim, I became aware that I was in the presence of a scientific and a highly refined and poetic mind. With sheer Indian ink, brush and pen he creates an apparently dark, but mysterious and dreamlike world that brims with organic energy. This world is interspersed with tiny fragments of light, like rain drops against the sun, which vaguely delineate the forms that are evocative of a lush Nature - a Nature that could have belonged to a more fertile planet. The use of black and white in his very special way creates patterns that are profoundly musical, in the sense that after each passage, they seem to beat time. I could almost hear the sounds when I saw them.

A crop of young sculptors also deserve mention. Unlike painting, sculpture is extremely difficult to sell. Those who practice it must, therefore, be admired for working on a fairly large scale with materials that are expensive - aluminium, lead, brass, copper sheets, bronze, marble and other stones. Even wood is expensive today.

The huge open air sculpture show- I believe that the first of its kind in India - sponsored by the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority and held in the sprawling garden of West Bengal Assembly House last winter, was a resounding success. As many as 15 large exhibits were selected.

Published in The Statesman Monday, August 15 1977
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