Artists: Notes on Art Making

Modern Indian art since the late forties is notable for quantity, variety and confidence. A representative selection from it may be exhibited in the cultural capitals of the world and trusted to arouse interest in even the most knowledgeable and critical of its viewers. There is enough that is definitively Indian as well as of a high order to satisfy the most conscientious of judges. It is true that many of our artists in this period have made too easy an accommodation to the international modern idiom. Some have devoted themselves with more zeal than shrewdness to one or other historical movement in Western art. Others have fared worse in falling for the latest fashion and then shifting when the time comes to the next one. They will be weeded out in due course. Still what is heartening is that we have fifty artists or more whose integrity and identity are impressive. We are in a position to asses them in the same terms and on the same level as their contemporaries in other countries without condescension or compromise.

Having made that positive statement, I feel the need to add that our best artists of this time have all shown great uncertainty of direction. Their work has been very uneven. Many of their “experiments” are pointless and un-aesthetic. They repeat themselves for a decade or even two. Brash and over-productive, they rely more on the signature of their style or technique than on the vision of each individual work. Among these artists, those who can theorise do so with reckless arrogance- or innocence- making high claims and assuming congruence between intention and achievement. Images are given the status of symbols. Empty spaces, it is suggested, have a metaphysical significance. Fragmented limbs or distorted forms are said to be profound comments on the human condition in the twentieth century. Captions or titles are often highly rhetorical. Introductory notes by the artist or one of his friends speak in an eloquent and prophetic tone of the artist’s significance in Indian culture and for humanity. The sum of all these phenomenon vitiates the atmosphere in which our art is created, displayed and discussed. The verbal and visual join in a devil’s dance of confusion.

What survive, after the noise had subsided and the dust has settled, are artistic products where the miracle of crystallisation, so to speak, can be witnessed? It is not the artist but the art that matters. Souza’s flamboyant personality has flourished too long on the same self-centred hodgepodge of ideas with which he started his career, but some dozen pictures by him belong to us, not to him. Raza’s early work and a few pictures from all those wasted years in Paris add up to a contribution. Let Ara play the lovable clown as much as he pleases, he will be remembered for a handful of flower-studies and nudes. Akbar Padamsee is as solid as a rock. Gaitonde’s abstract cannot be demolished by charges of un-Indian irrelevance. Husain’s success and artistic failure make no difference to the poetic truth of his synthesis in the late fifties and early sixties. Samant is lost in New York, Gujral in New Delhi, but each, at his best, surfacing from a changeable thoughtlessness, has created works that cannot be betrayed. The same may be said of a few others who belong to that volatile generation - Krishen Khanna, for example, or J. Swaminathan and Biren De. They may be attacked but not dismissed.

Desert of Subjectivism

The artists I have mentioned and several others - Ambadas, Sadwelkar, Bisht, Ram Kumar, Santosh Hore, Tyeb Mehta - could have played a stronger role in shaping that identity for modern Indian art which is widely recognised as its greatest need. They have deviated into the desert of subjectivism, or pursued half-baked ideas of modernity, sometime combined with one or other species of Indian mysticism. Each may claim, of course, that he is not bound to participate in some real or alleged collective quest within a culture. He may say, as Tyeb Mehta perhaps does, that he is faithful to the urgencies of his inner life rather than to some cultural imperatives, while not denying the justice of the plea, and allowing for infinite pluralism in the art scene, I still feel that many of our artists would have gained, not lost, by greater concern for the plight of the community, defined internationally as “backward” and undeniably in a state of material, intellectual, artistic and spiritual poverty. It is sad to see hosts of our artists indifferent to this theme and its possibilities. They choose to paint moon-landscapes or pure abstractions or symbols of personal hopelessness or self-indulgent erotic forms in “Tantric” techniques.

The last named of these provides an opportunity for comments on a tendency, during the last ten years or more, to use aspects of the Tantric tradition for artistic purposes. All that ought to be said about Tantra in this context is that it is most certainly a total system within which sex and meditation and art are integrated into complex set of beliefs about life and the cosmos. Our artists have not explored this, but taken over its visual aids and sought to give them a new dimension. The result is that the decorative emphasised at the expense of the mystical (Biren De), the overtly sexual at the expense of the sexually symbolic (Santosh). These are, in a sense, legitimate adaptations, but I can’t help remembering that they rea rather than enhance the Tantric whole. Any first-hand encounter with ancient mod- relief lend themselves not only to adaptation but also to irony, to parody, to new twists and turns as the fire of the modern consciousness melts them down to unexpected forms. Of this process, there is little sign in the modern art scene, which means that the Indian imagination today has not yet articulated its true nature. Tantra is waiting to be assimilated by it.

The artist who gave the first ten years of Independence its lasting works are, with one or two exceptions, alive and productive. One of those born a decade or so earlier is K.C.S Pannikar, founder of the Cholamandal Artist Village, Madras, who died recently. Of him it can be truly said that he found a way which has influenced a score of artists. The talents at the village and elsewhere, working in Pannikar’s spirit, are strongly represented in Indian art since in early 40s. A search for identity, which has articles on the main movements and tendencies of the last thirty years or more. A striking feature of this book is that the colour and black and white plates are accompanied by a hundred quotations from artists, art critics and philosophers, virtually all of them Western. The only Indian quotation are from the Bhagavad Gita and the Panchatantra.

Of the artists who followed the first generation after Independence, the Baroda group included much originality and power. Bhupen Khakhar I have described elsewhere as an eccentric genius. Gulam Sheikh’s landscapes have geniussurrealist power. Jeram Patel is a superior craftsman in the best sense of the word and projects his ideas with precision as well as force. Vivan Sundaram, the youngest of the lot, has attempted politically revolutionary paintings with skill and distinction. The importance of Baroda, as of Delhi and Calcutta, is that it encourages professionalism in art and achieves the highest standards technically. Its main problem is how to break through from that middle-level of achievement, by which it qualifies for national and international recognition, to those heights where the great artists of the century and of all time dwell securely. It is apparent that we are now in a position to produce a few major artists, but that we have produced them already I doubt.

Waste of Talent and Energy

In an Indian Who’s Who, many artists would have to be named who cannot be describe here, even briefly. I have in mind Piraji Sagara and his brother Ishwar Sagara of Ahmedabad, Laxma Gowd of Hyderabad, Badrinarayan of Bombay, S.G.Vasudev and Redappa Naidu of Madras, Bikash Bhattacharjee and Ganesh Pyne of Calcutta. The sculptors call for separate treatment. And then there are the women artists: Veena Bhargava, Nasreen Mohammadi, Usha Bhalla, Suruchi Chand, Meera Devidayal, Ila Pal, Nalini Malani and Fatima Ahmed, each with much promise and some achievement.

Of the sculptors, no one has achieved such a persona style as to tower over the others. Their work is safest and therefore least impressive when it follows the modernist revolution and totally unconvincing when it takes over the idiom of an individual Western sculptor such as Henry Moore. The late Davierwalla’s abstractions and near abstractions, despite their precision and meticulous formal organisation, lack both Indianness and originality. Pilloo Pochhkhanawalla has tried everything but rarely stayed long enough with one technique and style so that it may evolve into a distinctive statement. In her case, as in Davierwalla’s one is appalled by the waste of talent and energy, the cause of which is cultural rather than artistic, in the narrow sense. They simply do not relate to the issues of their time and place but concentrate on the solution of formal problems, which eventually become formalities. Pochkhanawalla’s attempts to “beautify” the urban environment are largely irrelevant and uncommunicative.

Too Many Things in Too Many Ways

Various degrees of creativity have been urged by our critics for the sculptures of Sankho Chaudhuri, Ramkinker, D.P.RoyChowdhury, Dhanraj Bhagat and a few others. I think many of their pieces are perfectly successful on their own terms. Yet, somehow, it doesn’t add up to that complex, dense pattern of ideas, interests, concerns, obsessions, tendencies and particularised feelings which characterise the integrated artistic personality. Perhaps they do too many things in too many different ways, which would be acceptable if these artists left their own personal stamp on each “experiment” or series. Janakiram and Nandagopal have found their starting point’s closer home and they have also retained greater unity in their total output. Kaneria, Pateria, Pandya, Vithal and others express highly developed sensibilities and a fine craftsmanship while continuing to disappoint in their thinking about the crucial question of life, art and society.

Published in The Illustrated Weekly of India, August 21, 1977
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