Artists: Notes on Art Making

The backdrop against which man traces the parabolic arc of his life, comes to terms with circumstance, using it to fulfil his destiny as a conqueror or facing it with fortitude even in defeat and death, has changed over the ages. But the present age does not seem to have any parallel, for the stature of man seems to have shrunk to such pitful proportions that there is not enough of him to provide even a gestalt of figure related to ground. Once upon a time background was the vast encircling sky with the sun and stars wheeling in their orbits, meaningful elements in a cosmic order unfolding over space and time.

The glimpse of that order has now been shut off from the intellectual horizons of man, for he has read nature as a fortuitous concourse of dead particles, written off the organism as a marionette of stimulus and response, reduced the conscious mind to the dupe or the slave of the irrational unconscious, laid down self-interest as the only possible motivation in the productive or political action of the social man. That is why the impoverished arts have conspired with a disoriented science to become a mournful liturgy of the "diminishment of man", to use the broodingly resonant phrase of Archibald Macleish.

This global predicament has had to be sketched briefly, for otherwise we in India might judge ourselves too harshly when we attempt serious introspection. In the matter of revealing ultimate concerns, or even valid immediate concerns, our current record is not bright; but then it is no worse than the record elsewhere. this perception could even give us courage to hope. for the still small voices are not to be discounted even if they are today drowned in the general cacophony. the voices are here too, as they are there in every country, though you have to listen very hard to hear them.

Certain paradoxes emerge when we go over the art scene in India since the time immediately preceding Independence. The way it developed may not have been psychologically healthy or artistically valid; but the art of pre-Independence decades did show social concern. It was the intense mood of the Counter-Reformation in Europe that made El Greco turn unconsciously to the style of the early Christian painting of the Roman catacombs, the art of a period when the Christians were persecuted. Likewise, a politically enslaved nation recalled the art of its glorious epochs - Ajanta, the Moghul atelier, the Rajput schools - in a surge of revivalist sentiment that did some service in mobilizing the national ethos, though in retrospect its artistic achievement shows many serious flaws. the radical movements that emerged from the 'forties onwards may have paid lip service to the need for art to have social concerns in their manifestos, but the revolutions they achieved were primarily formal. Probing further, we find that even these formal revolutions were anticipated in the pre-Independence period by the artists who stood out from the general current of the time. Further, some valid social and deeper concerns can be glimpsed in their work which anticipates the trends which are emerging today. This analysis has now substantiated.

Amusing noises are often heard, from specific groups or even individuals, claiming that they were the sole initiators of the modernist movement in Indian art. But we who are not partisans can recognise the contribution of several groups; the Calcutta Group of 1942 by Prodosh Das Gupta and his colleagues; the Bombay Group formed about four years later by Souza and his friends; the group in Madras formed about the same time by K.C.S Paniker and his associates; the Delhi Silpi Chakra which came into being immediately after Independence. Now it will be very difficult to claim that the social or ontological predicament of man was the primary concern of these groups. Their achievements in formal revolution were solid. The revivalist anaemia in line and colour, the unnaturally prolonged fin de siècle mood and art nouveau mannerisms were wholly shed in painting. In sculpture, emancipation was managed from Italian marbles and British academic bronzes.

But let us look at the achievements of pioneers of a still earlier phases; forthright statement in flat design with vigorous yet stylised line and unmodulated colour in Jamini Roy and, and in a different way, in Amrita Sher-Gil, the abandoning of soporific colour startling black and white by Gagnendranath Tagore and his experiments with Cubism, Impressionism. Then there are the far more impressive anticipations by Rabindranath Tagore. Automatism in drawing and writing was preached by Andre Breton in his Manifesto of Surrealism in - make the date - 1930. Calligraphic erasures start blossoming into rhythmic arabesques and expressionist forms in the manuscript of Tagore’s “Purabi” - poems written during 1922 - 24; about 1928 he starts independent paintings in this manner; and in his important note of 1930 he calls for calls for a development of pictorial and plastic art on the basis of “music’s declaration of independence” from the contingencies of the externally driven; this is the basic credo and justification of abstract art and expressionist art of all types.

Now let us look at the concerns of these pioneers that went deeper than the pictorial. Social awareness is obvious in Gaganendranath; his paintings reflect the social sense and his caricatures and cartoons social foibles. It is less obvious in Jamini Roy. But while revivalism was in a sense escapist, remembering only the aristocratic art of the past, Roy was democratic - without being populist - in affirming the vitality of the folk tradition and working rich variations on it. Rabindranath goes beyond the social to ontological concerns in his brooding mask-like figures, in the humans that are distorted to reveal hidden beasts. In Sher-Gil too deeper perception will show that the peasant men and women are not just decorative figurations - as in Prabha, Badri or a host of others; the heavy rhythm of hard work and little relaxation, the heat of the implacable summer and the chill of winter have moulded their brooding visages. If this is not clear at first, contrast her paintings with those of a later date by Sailoz Mookerjea which are episodically not dissimilar -- women gossiping, relaxing on a cot, at the well, hanging up washing. In Sailoz the primary concern is pictorial; in its creation he brilliantly blends what he learned from the French Impressionists as well as the Rajput miniaturists. But, in the visages of Amrita, the hard earth broods as fatality or destiny; to see revealing visages of this type again, you have to wait for the sixties, for Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, Souza.

Even integrated societies change over time; but then you will be able to discern some steadily developing linear trends whose maturing can be traced without difficulty. In less cohesive, more anarchically individualistic epochs, trends are sporadic, andscattered in emergence, and do not develop steadily with me, at least during the short span of one or two decades; and atavistic tendencies can coexist with the progressive. Therefore it is futile to attempt to see a steadily linear movement in sociological or ontological awareness in contemporary Indian art. But facets of this awareness can be analysed.

If conflict with the alien overlord came to an end in 1947, the fratricidal tensions, forced into an amnesty during the struggle against the alien, came to the surface when he was expelled. This was not noticed in the euphoria of the first decades of Independence. But implacable reality did overcome our defensive and escapist myopia. That is why, as late as in the middle seventies, a sombre theme, the End of the Yadavas, preoccupied A. Ramachandran, and Reddappa Naidu took up the monumental illustration of the Mahabharata whose episodes are turbulent and conflict-laden, unlike the pastoralea of Valmika. Disturbing images of claustrophobia, instability and fall, appear amidst an outcrop which is mostly formalist or technical in its primary concerns. The image of a cage, grown enormously large, dominates the paintings done by Jaswant Singh in the early seventies and develops impact through its surrealist quality. Images of the fall of man can sometimes become very complex in their intimations. The monumental falling figures of Tyeb Mehta’s paintings of the early sixties were brooding, medieval, immensely weighty. They revealed serious ontological concerns over the present predicament of man even in the anguish of their failure to reach the ontological solutions. Their fall had the impact of Greek tragedy, for the forms were held together by integrally even in the dizzy descent; though they were destroyed by some tragic flaw, they were whole men and potentially great men. But, in his paintings of the middle seventies, they are dismembered and patched up men, for the anatomy is neatly sliced and put together again, but out of register or rotated at some distorting angle. Unless he is playing with outmoded cubism, the meaning seems to be that modern man lost his germinal greatness long ago and his fall now does not even deserve the pity which the hero of Greek tragedy, and even Duryodhana of Bhasa’s Urubhanga, deserved because they could have acquired nobility of stature. Art here has become diagnostic with painful sensitivity, but has not found the resources to become therapeutic. But, in the case of Jatin Das, amidst the paintings dominated by falling or drowning figures, there occasionally appear pictures in which a figure tensely points to something beyond the frame. Reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Sibyl in the Sistine Chapel who prophesised the advent of the Saviour, the New Man of Paul and Tillich? Jatin here may be expressing the faith that redemption is still possible, but the solution lies somewhere beyond the closed mental horizons of man today.

The sense of shipwreck is vivid, intense. The sensibility now proceeds to diagnose the reasons of the catastrophe. The splintering of human society into polarised classes, tension, all now begin to loom into focal vision. Vivan Sundaram’s Wall, a painting of the early seventies, is in the pop idiom; but the juxtaposition of the golf course and the slum, hermetically insulated from each other by the high wall, is unambiguous in its implication. Several artists have moved up to the slums for a closer look at these dark corners of the social scene from which the affluent avert their eyes. Bikash Bhattacharjee, till recently satisfied with startling us with his photographic realism, has turned since 1976 to the effect-loaded documentation of the living conditions of the suppressed and the underprivileged. In the paintings of the middle seventies by Veena Bhargava, which seems at first to be a pictorial reportage on pavement dwellers builds up as powerful indictment. The frame truncates visages in most canvases; this is the faceless crowd. In the treatment of the limbs, the flesh seems to be planed off to reveal the emaciated skeletal core, their ends as jagged as the edges of the broken flagstones of the pavement. The colours are mostly muted, though angry streaks erupt here and there. Sometimes a large canvas is a close-up of only the hands and the elongated bony fingers compose a macabre ballet by themselves.

Art can make or pass verdict even more explicitly within the limits of its own modality, though when the feeling is unauthentic and the talent inadequate; the painting can become a poster. Here two instances of sustained and pictorially fascinating responses are those of Rameshwar Broota and Sumahendra. The social parasites, the unauthentic man, appear in the work of the former. He has represented these grimacing beasts in many episodic contexts. Perhaps the visualization is at times only barely rescued from being a cartoon by the monumentalism. Sumahendra’s approach is even more original. The artist of Rajasthan has mastered the drawing of the Kishengarh School, but uses it for bitter parody. That school celebrated the ineffable love of Radha and Krishna. The Kishengarh Radha comes to life again in his canvases. But here she is being handed over to a fat and uncouth nouveau riche profligate by a priest turned pimp; or she is a slum girl who has made her home in a drain pipe with a pariah dog for neighbour as tenant of the adjacent drain.

If Bhupen Khakhar has painted barber shops in pop style, he has used the same style with telling effect to depict factory strikes; and Gulam Mohammed Sheikh has used the surrealist image, made helpfully transparent and intelligible, to dramatize human oppression and cruelty. Tyranny is a phenomenon that does not bother about the label of the constitution. It can emerge even in liberal democracies, if people are poor or gullible. Paintings as A. Ramachandran’s Audience are sharp verdicts on the demagogues who climb to leadership and power by promising the masses a meal. Absolute power managed by the subversion of the Constitution in India in 1975-76 was hailed by some artists at the time as redemption of the nation. But the more general response has been total rejection. Understandably, these paintings were exhibited only after March 1977 though they may have been in process of gestation and even painted, during the Emergency. Rabin Mondal has a series of stark paintings, their iconography archaic and mythological, their theme the greed for power which leads some people to manipulate their brethren, their rise and fall, and their isolation in both phases. In the recent drawings and lithographs of Vivan Sundaram too, the megalomania which drives some people to seek absolute power over their kindred, the fortified isolation in which they are compelled to guard themselves, the storming of the fort by pictorial symbols which frequent both the masses and the suppressed communitarian andorganic impulses of man, provide the mythology. There is some pictorial allusion to Napoleon, consul of the republic turned emperor of France and dictator of Europe, in these works. And like Goya focussing his verdict by selecting a particular episode (the shooting of the Spanish resisters by Napolean’s soldiers), Doraiswamy has some telling paintings of suppression of people by the soldiery of their state.

Hauled right up to the brink of the crater of the nuclear bomb, mankind is desperately in search of the blueprint of an alternate culture, its ethos as well as its technology. Gandhi had outlined it as far back as half a century ago. He said that endless multiplication of wants, and increased production to satisfy these wants would soon exhaust the resources of the planet; that a factory civilization will not lead to social justice but will inevitably lead to the holocaust of war. Dismissed then by obscurantist, these ideas are now being rediscovered by economic thought even in its most orthodox strongholds. We can note here that through intuition rather than analysis, art is also now acquiring these insights which are profoundly relevant to the predicament of man and his possible redemption.

Gandhi warned against tools that would become the masters rather than the servants of man. The first systematic and monumental study which showed that technology has developed a hurtling momentum of its own, uncontrollable by man and ultimately controlling him, appeared much later, in the sixties, with Jacques Ellul’s analysis of a technological society. And men as Illich and Schumaker are now pleading for an intermediate technology or a technology with a human face. Krishen Khanna’s Truck series of paintings of 1974 have the authenticity of truly imagist - genuinely aesthetic - symbolism which justifies our relating their institution to the analysis of the sociologists. The symbolism comes through with transparent communication in the tired, resigned, hopeless attitudes of the people huddled at the rear of the truck, facing away from, and therefore not seeing, the direction in which the truck is speeding. Incidentally, it is of interest to note that as an illustration of the automatism of runaway technology threatening the freedom of man, the automobile industry has been studied in great detail by Mumford, Galbraith and a host of others. Emerson wrote long ago: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” Alike in the analysis of the economists and the perfection of artists like Khanna, the automobile has become a perfect symbol of a runaway technology which we no longer ride, but which rides us to our doom.

Adam Smith laid down that man can be triggered to action only by self-interest and went on to say that this was all right because an “invisible hand” would arrange plenty for all from the selfish rapacity of each. Till Weisskopf, economist turned humanist, subjected economies to an existentialist analysis very recently, no one seems to have realised that Smith was making presumptuous deductions about the nature of man and the design of history. But the Book of Smith became the Bible for a culture which R.H Tawney called the “acquisitive society” and Bertrand de Juvenal termed the “civilization of ever more”, founded on technological exploitation. Cyclical depressions were at first brushed aside by theory as local and temporary phenomena. But covered that they were inevitable in economies founded in Smith’s principles. Instead of seeking more truly human principles, Keynes advocated the rejuvenation technique of continuous and large scale public spending Smith’s basic reading of man emphatically placed him in an adversary role in relation to his brethren. This pattern spread to the relations between nations and Keynesian public spending became easiest and most compulsive in the war industry. An inhuman reading of human nature by economic theory, and the compulsions of economic practice flowing from it, have brought mankind under the shadow of the mushroom cloud of the nuclear bomb. The analysis may not be there, but the anguished perception of the end result is much in evidence in A. Ramachandran’s Nuclear Raginis of 1975, in the plangent colour, the monumental composition, the hurtling momentum of people fleeing the disaster.

The current awareness that man must live in harmony with nature was not born of vision but triggered by anxiety. Studies like “A Blueprint for Survival” and those of the Club of Rome showed that the rapaciously acquisitive greed blessed Adam Smith had ended up in the imminent danger that the life -supporting systems of the planet would be exhausted within a matter of decades. But men like Joseph Wood Krutch and Rene Dubos have pointed out that mere conservation is not going to help us, for it would only mean a more careful and crafty exploitation; if we do not recognize the beauty of nature as a value in its own right, we will continue to treat it with the lack of reverence which will not only ruin that beauty but also lead to the failure of nature to support our survival. This recognition may still help us to recover the old perceptions of the Gita or the cosmic order of Vedic poetry and the Tao or the Way of the World of Chinese thought. Meanwhile the recognitions that small is beautiful, and enough is good, are dawning in economic thought itself and a new pastoralism in lifestyle is emerging even in countries like the United States which have been in the forefront of the Faustian onslaught on nature. Art is also awakening to these perceptions. The landscapes of Paramjit Singh seem objective, realistic; there is no human presence in them. But the realism is baptized in the subjectivity. For the green and the gold of the palette do not just register the colour of lush woods and fields and the glow of the afternoon light on them; they also sing with the antiphonal response of the soul to the intimations of beauty out there in the world. There is a similar renaissance of wonder at the miracle that is nature in the landscapes of Jaya Appasamy and Amitava Das, the latter reminding us of the ‘Songs of Innocence’ of Blake.

Since the perception of harmony with nature, which transcends all utilitarian concerns even while looking after them is most important for the redemption of man, and Since J. Swaminathan’s recent paintings seem to be the most significant expression, would like to dwell on it a little and lead it through to the perceptions in Norman MacCaig’s poetry which clarify the whole attitudinal change required. First you have to see nature without any pathetic fallacy, as an objective reality on its own just as man is a reality on his own in the cosmic design.

Even a leaf, its own shape in the air

Achieves its mystery not by being symbol

Or ominous of anything but what it is

Such is the decent clarity you bear

For the world to be in.

After the independent reality of nature, the truth that is not justa utility, is realised, effective response to it begins, and ends up by glimpsing the divinity in things.

…..the sense tell

Such truths about these strange particulars

That flower or tide, becomes immortal as

No god or goddess ever was.

And now comes an image of birds which is particularly opposite, because birds are the most important element in Swaminathan’s lyrical landscapes of hills and quiet waters.

The bird flies in the mind, and

more than bird;

Time dies somewhere between and its flight.

The bird flies in the mind, and more than mind….

Published in Lallit Kala Contemporary, 1978

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