Art Institutions

First published in The Times of India, March 23, 1969.

Some years ago, I reviewed art exhibitions for The Times of India in Bombay. I made it a point to see all exhibitions, though I wrote critiques of only five or six of them every month. This principle enabled me to leave out the sub-standard. I used an average of 350 words in a review, so it cannot be claimed that I said much about any one artist. On the other hand, my statement added up to a view of the state of art in the city. It was not an all-India picture but an important part of it, with glimpses of the rest.

Let me add that I was moderately well paid, by Indian standards, that there was no interference in my work, that on the whole the artists took my criticism in a spirit which did them credit, and that I enjoyed a sense of communication with a sizable audience.

I exerted myself to be a critic, but not a patron, not an art organizer or encourager of artists and art appreciators. In those roles, when I played them at all, I underplayed, stopped early, withdrew. Within the world of art I am still, deliberately, an outsider, an observer, a commentator. I keep at a certain distance from all others in that world because that is how I see the function of the critic.

Though very much a part-time job, my position provided me with an invaluable education in art. I define it now in personal terms to give an edge to my description of modern Indian art as I see it, and to draw a line beyond which it may not be accurate. Not all the reading in the world nor any number of visits to exhibitions can compare with the stern necessity of making regular public judgements on new artistic productions, often by a beginner.

The Critic’s Question

If such judgements are made concrete and specific, they tend in time to suggest a pattern. Broad general issues, aesthetic and cultural, are bound to arise in it. Eventually, the critic faces the question which he must answer for the sake of his own understanding: what is the quality of this artistic expression, considered in its representative nature.

Not only the outstanding artists but the ordinary ones are of interest, from this point of view. Their sales figures are of some importance as signs of public response. In the case of bad artists, the kind of displayed may be of significance. The different trends of style and choice of themes may have implications for Indian life, and are not mere matters of individual talent and taste.

In this context, I take the liberty of quoting from one of my reviews. It was of two exhibitions in which the artists were obviously following certain respectable conventions, using Indian motifs and themes in a bland, unenergetic way. After analysing their work, my conclusion was:

“These two exhibitions are culturally interesting because they express the prevailing regressive tendencies in Indian art. They represent that debased sensibility from which Indian art is struggling to escape through its attempts to cope with international contemporary influences. In those attempts it often fails, but its failures are more valuable than the successes of traditional exercise in picture making.

Through a new art, Indian artists renew themselves and aid in the renewal of the depressed culture to which all of us Indians belong. When we realize this, we ought also to discover our responsibility to it.”

The work refereed to had subordinated pictorial qualities to stock emotions, feebly imitated temple sculpture erotics with no comparable vitality, stylised folk forms, and decorated, with colour, highly sentimental and anecdotal images. These defects are characteristic and my comment on them was intended to treat them as significant, negatively. I exposed my prejudices there, so to speak, and made a commitment in relation to bad art. I shall give another example later, in relation to good art.

A national sensibility, at various levels, is being formed before our eyes. The struggle in the artistic community, its successes and failures are symptomatic of the nation’s struggle to discover its soul and to transform it. What the artist sees today, the public will see tomorrow. The Indian environment is given a new meaning for every educated person and perhaps for others too as the artists depict it naturalistically, romanticises or satirise it, impose a mood on it or bring out its purely formal elements.

Through these processes, sight ceases to be superficial not only for the artist but his audience. A vision is born. Even when the environment is not in the picture, literally, our feelings are still given depth and strength in response to the artist’s treatment of art’s universal themes, unparticularised in any Indian way: the human body or head, a still life, an animal study or a symbolic landscape of the imagination.

Modern Indian painting, like everything else in India has two distinct poles of influence. There is the powerful, persistent and rapidly changing influence of the Western where the revolutions in art were and are being made. Consciously or not, the Indian artist today “places” himself in relation that influence. It is never irrelevant, even when it is ignored, accepted or transcended.

The second pole is of course the Indian tradition, which may be recognised as anything from a vaguely Indian ethos to deliberate attempts to create specifically Indian effects. These may range again, from exercises in a set manner to highly original projections of an individuality that knows how to use what is Indian in it and in the setting.

Here is the example from good art I said I would provide: Bhupen Khakhar, who is a chartered accountant and also a professional painter. In recent years he has written remarkably modern short stories in Gujarati. He holds a Master’s degree in Art Criticism and is keenly responsive to the international art climate of the sixties. His themes are the Hindu temple, the Hindu house, the Hindu cafe and the pan shop. If someone tells me I should say Indian instead of Hindu, my reply is that Khakhar is much too specific to permit the transportation and that he also paints, with the same strong feeling for the specific, the Muslim house, cafe and mosque.

The colour patterns in the Hindu themes are deeply Hindu in sensibility- red, black, yellow and saffron in bold and fantastic forms. Khakhar pastes on them cut outs from Indian bazaar-prints depicting the familiar gods and goddesses with many arms, legendary animals and birds, mythic monsters and local saints in the timeless postures. To these are added contemporary equivalents, such as a Lipton tea label, a Kennedy-Nehru newspaper photograph, cigarette packets and match box labels.

The base material is often enamel, which is very suitable to the feeling of ordinary and guileless vulgarity impressionistically captured. Small and large mirrors are added and painted on. The collage could hardly be done better and with greater wit and vitality,thoughthevery idea of collage is repugnant to many otherwise discriminating art lovers.

Khakhar’s largest and best paintings are in fact independent of this technique, either because it is not used at all or because the objects exploited cannot be recognized from a distance of a few yards.

The Pan shop paintings create a kind of inverse, sophistication in the viewer and then successfully appeal to it. One is surprised at liking them, considering the means used. By inverse sophistication I mean the taste which is cultivated to take in Ajanta or El Greco and still remains flexible enough to be delighted by the authentic innocence of an Irani restaurant painting on a mirror.

Or, to give an analogy, which responds fully to Henry James without becoming blind to the prose quality of a good newspaper report. Hemingway used the reporter’s style to make literature. Popular images can be used to make art. It all depends on who does it and how. The merit of the process is in the urge to restore a link with mass reality, which is at least one kind of reality, though not the only one with which art is concerned.

I have described Khakhar at some length because he creates his own world of visual appearances linked at every point to the world with which we are familiar. Apart from techniques, of which all that needs to be said is that they were first used in the West, this art is as completely non-Western as can be imagined. It is new. Newness may not be an absolute value as tradition is not an absolute value. It all depends, I agree on what is made of it. But to be in the swim of the contemporary art movements at the same time to asset a racial heritage that is dormant is a way of being new which, in my opinion, has an absolute value. It opens a vein of creative responsibility.

Abstract Movement

A painter like Gaitonde stands for a different solution to the typical problems of the Indian artist. He joins one of the many movements which are alive today, the abstract movement and he does supremely well in adhering to its theory and practice.

Many Indian painters produce abstractions from time to time and some are mainly or entirely abstractionists. To mention a few whose work I saw during my spell as art critic, there is Siddiqua Bilgrami of Hyderabad, Kammi Soni of Delhi, Homi Patel and Manuel Fernandes of Bombay all of whom paint only abstracts. Gaitonde is justified in his commitment his going over and becoming identified with a style, by his complete affinity to it. He does not change, he does nothing new, but his work escapes the hazards of imitation simply by being of the highest standards of excellence.

We may speak in the same terms of some painters abroad, such as S. H. Raza and Akbar Padamsee. Their work is in the modern tradition of Picasso and Rouault and Braque and Chagall, though Padamsee says about these four artists that he “could not feel one with them”, that he thought of himself as an “intruder” in their company. (Quoted by Shamlal in his introduction to a portfolio of paintings by Padamsee, published by Vakil & Sons, Bombay).

Indian Classics

And Raza in Paris, “came in contact for the first time”, says Mr. R. Von Leyden, “with a world in which art was taken entirely seriously and formed part of the life which surrounded it.” Both these artists are notable for their assimilation of modern art and their ability to make a distinct contribution to it. They are Indian classics of the modern age. The volatile Souza is in a class by himself. Taking his cue from Picasso, he has experimented restlessly and energetically if not always wisely. He has sought inspiration from a hundred sources and sometimes from second-hand sources. Over the years he has built up a most formidable corpus of paintings and drawings, much of it impressive in technique.

When he last visited India, he exhibited a number of gouaches which he claimed to be “the first modern Indian paintings ever done in the true sense of the term”. He used the technique of the Moghul and Rajasthani miniaturists to create modern looking images. This was undoubtedly a creative variation but its artistic merit was diminished by Souza’s reckless virtuosity. The paintings are programmatic, that is they set out to work out a formula and are, therefore, cold despite the brilliance and bravado of the execution.

I have mentioned these painters as examples of certain directions and tendencies in Indian painting, as seen in one of our four main centres. I was not concerned with making more than a very few points about their work, those points which have a broader cultural significance. The significance is today limited to those of the upper middle class elite which frequents the art galleries. The influence does not percolate, directly or indirectly, into the lives of the others, as one might expect it to, through the press and the periodicals, the theatre and the cinema, even through interior decoration. That process has only just begun.

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