For Indian artists, the festival has provided a welcome platform of exposure. Those associated with the selection of works in the three sets of art exhibitions, each at a different venue, are persons with great concern for the general health of art in modern India. Their efforts deserve appreciation; they have sought to clarify aided by a personal critique of values, the leading lines of development extending across three generations and running over a span of half-a-century.
The exhibition called Contemporary Indian Art at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, London was assembled by Akbar Padamsee, Richard Bartholomew and Geeta Kapur and divided into two acts, or groupings: The Gesture, and Motif; and, Stories, Situations; comprising the work of 27 painters, 6 graphic artists and 11 sculptors, a fairly large assortment.
Geeta Kapur’s introduction affords interesting insights on the polyvalence of Indian artists and their capacity to absorb influences. The structure of modern Indian art is tender still, and episodic. Indian artists are conscious of their predicament that has arisen from the roots of artistic, social, and therefore personal disorder too: also as well of the liberating influences globally broadcast by modern Western art beginning from Cezanne. Geeta Kapur makes herself clear on issues confronting the present day Indian artists as “a member of a quasi-modern society besieged by opposing ideologists. “Viewers of contemporary Indian art”, she states, “who are not still stuck with the categories of ethnicity and authenticity (a revamp of tradition and modernity) or worse, with the assumption regarding all ‘third world’ cultures that they are simply imitative, will be able to recognise this: having been thrown into the deep end of history there is now an inner momentum to contemporary Indian art and an unabashed ardour in the practice of it.”
India: Myth and Reality (Museum of Modern Art, Oxford) carries a joint introduction by David Elliot, Victor Musgrave and E. Alkazi. They refer to their choice of 20 artists, explaining that “distance, size and availability at times have been decisive factors. It was not possible for these reasons to include some artists whose work would have fitted our framework and their omission implies no criticism.” The exhibition has been assembled under seven groupings: The Hinterland of Myth (Husain, Souza, Gujral); Nature as Pictorial metaphor (Raza, Padamsee, Ram Kumar); The Dislocated Persona (Samant, Tyeb Mehta, Subramanyam); Social Satire and Political Protest (Krishen Khanna, Ramachandran, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Jogen Chowdhury, R. Broota, R.S.Kaleka); The Urban Scene (Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan); Middle Class Alienation (Nalini Malani); and New Myths, New Realities (Mrinalini Mukherjee, Anish Kapoor). The volume also contains Souza’s passionate autobiographical piece, Nirvana of a Maggot (written over twenty five years ago), poems by Gieve Patel and Husain, and essays by Subramanyan, Deepak Ananth, Krishna Chaitanya, and Geeta Kapur. An inward search, an intensive self-probe, says Subramanyan, will aid the present day Indian artist in his need for identity. A search which “does not consist in the excavation of old mytholologies and motifs” but one which concerns itself with fundamental questions: “What does modern art mean to the Indian artist? With whom does he communicate? What are his basic postulates, basic terms, basic attitudes, the environmental relevance of his work?”
In any modern society inclined to mass-behaviour, serious and contemplative artists will always make for a small cast. Therefore, it is not surprising that in the three exhibitions under reference, certain names do reappear, possibly the result of concurrence at a level of critical appraisal. To take a positive stand is to focus, not on the exclusions, but on the inclusions and also remember that the exhibitions were three different sets in different venues, sometimes highlighting different aspects of a particular artist’s work: for instance, Husain’s colour, photographs in one, his paintings in another, or Subramanyan’s terracotta reliefs in one , his paintings in another. Seen in a larger perspective, the unified result of the exhibitions affirms the flowing, non-static nature of thinking in modern Indian art.
The Tate Gallery’s contribution to the Festival, Six Indian Painters, comprised the work of three pre-independence artists (Rabindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Amrita Sher-Gil) and three post-independence artists (Husain, Subramanyan, Khakhar). Geeta Kapur’s introduction and Alan Bowness’s preface particularly refer to this compact exhibition as reflecting the specific sensibility of Howard Hodgkin, the English painter, who was responsible for the choice of this half dozen. Hodgkin, in his little foreword, speaks of his being still a stranger in India after many visits. Reading the lines that follow, we come to realise that this is the experience of Mr Hodgkin, the man; for, as Howard, the artist, he is quick to add with unmistakable warmth: “Going there as an artist, Indian painting and painter friends seem part of life.”
In spite of the Indian artists’ use of the grammar and syntax of Modernism, he says: “I do not think of the work of these artists as anything other than totally INDIAN; not in any nationalist or chauvinist sense but of necessity; and in their separate ways all of them reflect that indescribable feeling enormous yet intimate; as vast as an empire and as private as a room, which has informed Indian painting from its beginning.”
Published in The Sunday Times, November 21 1982