Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in the Lalit Kala Contemporary No. 28, September 1979, pp. 21-28

The remembrance of things past can end up in two ways. The chewing of the cud of memories may lead one to nostalgic euphoria and sentimental ruminations. Or, it can held unleash a flood of memories through a particular sluice-gate, in which case, a whole set of correlated memories can be channelized. The exercise could result either as a work of fiction or as recreation of a fragment of history.

Here and now, I have not set out to write a history but to jot down some notes for a social historian of the future. I have not depended entirely on memories, for some times they can tend to play tricks. I have ransacked my only treasure-chest, a large steel trunk of cuttings, scrap-books, catalogues, photos, etc., accumulated over the years.

These notes are confined to the period of five years, from 1946 to 1950. It was a period of significance in the history of contemporary Indian art, even as such as it was in the history of the country, politically. It was a period of transition from one way to life to another, from colonial ethos to the ethos of a free and independent people. Looking retrospectively, it was a period of significant developments.

It was during this period that the Progressive Artists’ Group came into existence. The Artists’ Aid Centre was started. Dr. Mulk Raj Anand launched ‘Marg’, the “magazine of the Arts.” Kekoo Ghandy started Chemould (chemical moulding for frames with foreign collaboration). And there were other straws in the wind.

In 1946, I was a young man of 23, a journalist with ambitions of becoming a litterateur, fairly well-acquainted with the Muses, including the Tenth Muse (cinema). From Madras, my home-town, I went on a three-month visit to Bombay, the urbs prima of India and the most cosmopolitan metropolis.

The city still had the vestiges of the Second World War. Barbed-wire fences along the coastline and road barriers could be seen. The windows of public and private buildings were still plastered with black or brown paper, reminding one of the black-out days. The British Tommies and the Jack Tars were very much in evidence. The Raj was finally reconciled with the idea of the transfer of power. Jawaharlal Nehru was already at the helm of power and preparing the nation to actuate its “Tryst with destiny”.

I had come to Bombay on a holiday and a private fact-findings mission. I wanted to contract writers and the artists, as I was editing an annual publication in Madras called, ‘Rare and Recent Writings’, along with the late Dr. P.V. Pathy and the late Marcella Hardy. The first issue was out and the second was under preparations. (It turned out to be the last.)

One of the minor tasks I had to fulfil in Bombay was to find out as much as possible about art activities. I had a friend, a painter, from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). She was a student at the Madras School of Art and a favourite of Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury. It was to be one-up with her and to talk knowledgeably with her that I had got soaked in art history and lives of painters.

It was my good luck that I met, in Bombay, Trevor Drieberg, a Ceylonese “missionary” of Trotskyian leanings. He had migrated to India along with a few of his party-men. He was working at the ‘National Standard’/ ‘Sunday Standard’. He became my friend, philosopher and guide. For a while, I stayed with him. It was Drieberg who made the art scene of Bombay familiar to me. Thanks to him, I came to know that the Sir. J.J. School of Art was the birthplace of Rudyard Kipling, that creative writer who carried the White Man’s Burden on his shoulder. I could not get to meet the Director of this famous institution, Charles Gerrard nor his sculptor wife.

One day, however, I was introduced to the enfant terrible of that School, Francis Newton. (It was two years later he added Souza to his name lest he “may be confused with the Newton of the apple”.)

Francis and I took each other, from the first time we met at his residence - corner flat in the building opposite the Crawford Market. (Much later we found out that we were fellow-Aries, he having been born on April 5, 1924, and I on April 7, 1923). He was a scrawny young man, with pock-marks on his face, out of which he had evolved a stylistic idiom in his portraits. There was fire both in his eyes and “in the belly”. He spoke softly, almost shyly, but the words that fell out of him were loaded. One look at his paintings, mostly of his “proletarian period”, convinced me that he was a genius. (And, he has continued to be so all through these years, as far as I am concerned.) More about him further on.

The Bombay Art Society Salon at Rampart Row, where the Artists’ Aid Centre is now situated, was another discovery. Brisk preparations were on for its annual exhibition. The ornamental frames were being given a gilt coating, without the paintings becoming in any gilt-edged. The paintings were sometimes drowned in the frames. A photographer was photographing them, the day I went there first - for the making of blocks for the catalogue.

The Bombay Art Society was dominated by the Sahibs and Memsahibs, both white and brown, by the Knights and baronets, the Temples and Blundells, the Readymoneys and Wadias. For the opening of the exhibition, I could not get an invitation, being an outsider. I think it was Sir. John Colville who opened it. I watched the entrance of the Cowasji Jehangir Hall from a distance and walked away with Drieberg. Later, I came to know that in the pre-war years drinks used to be served on the inauguration day.

Subsequently, I did see the exhibition. There were paintings galore a la Royal Academy - portraits, still life studies, sketches of exotic Indian “types” (sadhus, tribals, malis, dhobis and what not), derivations from Raja Ravi Varma’s oleographs, watered down water colours, pastel studies of gulmohar tress and so on. That exhibition was enough to confirm my prejudice and to re-confirm my bias for the modern movement and the contemporary idiom. There were so many entries - good, bad and indifferent - that it took me full two hours to finish the exhibition. I became foot-sore and tired so much that I had to go to the nearby Wayside Inn for a beer. (Total prohibition was yet to come).

Through Francis Newton, I came to know Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, who was living in the same Sital Kunj, where he is living even now. The living space was so restricted that it was like a monastic cell. But the paintings that he has stacked in a sort of mezzanine were so many that when he showed them, one by one, it was a colourful world of his own, of pots and pans, flowers and vases, dancers and sowars. (Much later, came the sensuous and swarthy nudes forming a huge harem for this bachelor painter.) Vithalbhai Jhaveri, an art collector and a painter in his own way, lived in the adjacent Sital Mahal.

The first time I wentto Ara’s studio-cum-residence, which was on a Sunday, I was lucky to meet Rudy von Leyden, business executive, art patron and art critic of ‘The Times of India’. (Little did I know I was to succeed him many years later).

On a subsequent visit, I met E. Schlesinger, who was running a pharmaceutical firm and who was a keen collector of contemporary Indian art. (He was also the first in India to use the paintings imaginatively by using their reproductions in his firm’s New Year cards and advertisements.)

Leyden’s brother, A.R. Leyden, who was connected with a foreign business concern, was also an art patron. (The Leyden Brothers started the Artists’ Aid fund in 1948 by making the initial donations. The rest came from the sale of paintings donated by artists.)

For me, Ara’s evolution as a painter was like the flowering plant that manages to shoot out from under the boulder to tantalize us with its coloured flowers. For, in spite of the socio-economic burdens of his people and his initial venture as a car-cleaner, he emerged as a self-taught painter, who has dazzled the eyes of innumerable people with his colourful, imaginative, expressionist paintings. The inherent talent in him was nursed by Leyden, Schlesinger, prof. alter Langhammer, Art Director, ‘The Times of India’ was Wayne Hartwell, the Cultural Affairs officer of the USIS. Later, we, art critics, carried him aloft on a wave of publicity.

My three-month stay ended, as all good things must end. According to any entry in my diary of that period, “The major event that happened was the magnificent exhibition of George Keyt’s paintings at the Convocation Hall.” Subsequently, I have seen several exhibitions of Keyt’s paintings here and in Ceylon; I have seen his murals at the Kelaniya Vihara near Colombo; I have spent many hours discussing art with Keyt. But all this did not make half the impact that the superb exhibition in Bombay had on me.

My three-month stay ended, as all good things must end. According to an entry in my diary of that period, “The major event happened was the magnificent exhibition of George Keyt’s paintings here and in Ceylon; I have seen his murals at the Kelaniya Vihara near Colombo; I have been to his sylvan retreat not far from Kandy, in the company of Martin Russell, who was the biggest collector of Keyt’s paintings and who later on wrote a book on him; and I have spent many hours discussing art with keyt. But all this did not make a half the impact that the superb exhibition in Bombay had on me.

This exhibition was made possible due to the indefatigable efforts of Dr. Mulk Raj Anand, who had formed MARG, the acronym for Modern Architectural Research Group, along with Anil de Silva and Minnette de Silva, two talented sisters from Ceylon. Anil was an art historian and a critic and Minette was an architect by then. (Later, I enjoyed their hospitality in Ceylon.) Out of their efforts emerged Marg, the quarterly devoted to the arts-and also the George Keyt exhibition.

Till today, no Indian painter has made such a serious effort to delve deep into the Puranic tales, myths and legends of India as George did; nor has an painter translated this intimate understanding of the “sub-conscious of the Hindus” in terms of memorable paintings as this Ceylon-born, Ceylon-nurtured Burgher painter did. Keyt’s thematic exploration and stylistic experiments are singularly his own and there lies his greatness.

In 1947, the year of independence, I was in Bombay for only three weeks, during which all that I did was to see Ara’s 14-foot long scroll-type paintings of the Independence Day celebrations at the Oval Maidan. It was superb and so different from all his early works-and also different from his subsequent work. The paintings symbolised the break with the past. The old order was yielding place to the new.

It was in 1948 that I finally migrated to Bombay, having closed down ‘Rare and Recent Writings’, with the books in the red. (I did manage to reproduce two of Keyt’s paintings in the second and final issue of this anthology type of annual.) My Ceylonese painter friend returned to her island home. I did lose one artist friend but within the next three years I acquired the rewarding friendship of many artists in Bombay.

I secured the job of a sub-editor in ‘National Standard’ / ‘Sunday Standard’, just about the time when its founder proprietor, Norman J. Hamilton, was handling it over to Ramnath Goenka. I was in charge of the Magazine supplement of the ‘Sunday Standard’, which was till then in the charge of the Inez V. Dullas, who was chiefly responsible for my getting the job, on the then “promising” basic salary of late Rs. 250 only.

When the late Frank Moraes walked over from ‘The Times of India’ to ‘Indian Express’, he made me the “multi-purpose critic”. One day I would write about art, the next day about Western music, the third day about drama and towards the week-end some book reviews. There was not much pressure on space. But I was not paid anything extra for writing the reviews as is being done now in most papers. And, it was a pleasure for me to share a room and the office table with Drieberg, who continued to be my guide. Being the staff critic, I received all the invitations for art exhibitions through the chief Sub-Editor, H.Y. Sharda Prasad or the News Editor, Claude Scott.

Thumbing through my scrapbook, with a silverfish or two scurrying across the pages of mildewed cuttings, I begin to recall those days of the late forties, when contemporary art took a turn for the better. It was a significant period, when due to late forties, when contemporary art took a turn for the better. It was a significant period, when due to a concatenation of circumstances, there was a qualitative change in Modern Indian Art.

P.T. Reddy (who was recently made a fellow of the Lalit Kala Akademi and whose retrospective was held at the Rabindra Bhavan) was the leader of this group. It derived its inspiration from Kamal Ataturk’s radicalization programme in Turkey. Other members of the group were Clement Baptista, Majeed, Bhople, M.K. Kulkarni and Moghul. The young Turks wanted to embark on pastures new after shaking off the influence of painters of earlier generations like M.V. Dhurandhar, Abalal Rehman, J.M. Ahiwasi, N.L. Joshi and Ravishankar Raval, on the other. The Young Turks tried to emancipate themselves from the formalism of the Royal Academy and the revivalism of the Ajanta frescoes and Mughal miniatures. They branched out into undigested Impressionism and vague experiments in colour. Anyway, this movement faded out quickly, as its protagonists left paintings and took to other vocations. Baptista joined the army and later became a documentary film-maker. P.T. Reddy went into furniture-making. And others disappeared from the art scene.

The Progressive Artists’ Group fared much better because there existed a good lot of camaraderie among its members. Self-taught painterslike Ara and Hussain were alongside the rebel and enfant terrible, Francis Newton, S.H. Raza, H.A. Gade and S.K. Bakre. Art-institutions-trained artists and Nowshir Chapgar, an advertising executive-cum-painter, shared the ideals of the Group and were close friends of the members. [1]

All these painters had some common views on art. I still remember Souza explaining to me in his dingy studio near Crawford Market how Amrita Sher-Gil was a hybrid derived from Gauguin; and George Keyt was a hybrid “biologically”-he was a Burgher by birth from Ceylon and Burghers had Dutch and Sinhalese blood in them-and as a painter was much under the influence of Picasso. Francis was, in those days, a soft-spoken but emphatic spokesman of the Group. A dropout-cum-reject from the Sir J.J. School of Art, who for a while flirted with the Communist Party of India, he

was clear-cut in his mind and effusive in his expression. His brush and his pen were equally powerful instruments. And he has written that the PAG artists dismissed “Santiniketan as too sentimental and Jamini Roy as too unsophisticated.” Most of these painters came under the influence of the Neo-Impressionists and the Expressionists, though only through books and reproductions, which were made available to them by Rudy von Leyden, E. Schlesinger and Prof. Lang hammer. All of them were good colourists.

For the sake of record, I shall reproduce here what I had written about the PAG over 30 years ago; not for the sake of self-glorification but because Souza in his autobiographical article published in the patriot (February 8, 1976) has written: “Jag Mohan was the journalist at the time to give a historical write-up of PAG’s activities, which was published in the Sunday Standard of July 17, 1949.”

This is what I wrote:

“the exhibition at the Bombay Art society Salon of the work of the Progressive Artists’ Group is to be noted as a landmark in the history of Bombay’s art activities. Coming as it did as a major event after last year’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations of the Bombay Art Society and this year’s Art Society of Indian exhibition, a few points about the Group are to be noticed here before passing on to the actual appraisal of the exhibits.

“The Progressive Artists’ Group was started two years ago when Ara’s painting independence Day Procession was rejected by the Art Society and Francis Newton was considered as too “Proletarian” in his paintings. In protest, these two with the sculptor, Bakre, and the sensitive watercolourist, Raza, formed the Group and began holding exhibitions in the King’s Circle so that the non-arty-arty people could see. A little later, Ara went to Surat and Randir introduced modern art to the people to whom only Ravi Varma’s calendar pictures meant art.

“A little more encouragement was given to this Group when Dr. Hermman Goetz of the Baroda State Museum invited them to hold an exhibition of their work in Baroda and also purchased a few paintings for the Museum. Ahmedabad was the next city which benefited by seeing their works, though the artists did not benefit. None of their paintings was sold, in spite of the reputed concentration of wealth there.

“Now the Progressive Artists’ Group, to which lately Husain and Gade have been co-opted, has become a trenchant art movement. It is not a school in the sense in which other “schools of paintings” are known. Each member has his own technique and the only “ism” that the members have in common is their individualism. And, what is most characteristic about the Group is the similarity it bears to the medieval guild as such, for it is more a trade union of artists with a common approach to art, than anything else.

“The present exhibition turned out to be a modest shock to the other artists and art-lovers. Each one of the artist has developed in new directions. The gentle Ara, for instance, who used to confine his subjects to flowers and landscapes, has now come out with pictures that reveal his social consciousness, what with pictures of prostitutes and gamblers and beggars and lunatics. Bakre, who used to be a hard realist in his sculptures, has now gone into the regions of near Abstractionism. And Impressionist Raza has gone into charming geometrical and Cubist compositions.

“Francis Newton Souza had contributed a powerful self-portrait, in which he has distorted his own anatomy, and a few other primitivist paintings derived from ancient sculpture. Husain’s paintings of the children and women done in an impressionist style with a rich colour sense are bound to please anyone. And Gade’s Van Goghish landscapes with their luminous yellows and brilliant green distinguished him as a landscapist with a difference, for he is good at both perspective and composition.

“Bakre’s sculptures are welcome in this land where sculptures was once its best form of art-expression. There are a few sculptors today. His Woman Undressing and Centaur once seen can never be forgotten. And his plaster piece, Mother’s Pride should not be in a drawing room. It should be a double life-size tribute to motherhood adorning some maternity hospital or the other.

“The Progressive Artists Group artists have done a commendable job and it is left to the Public of Bombay to recognise and appreciate their work.”

This particular exhibition of the PAG became a most controversial one when Sinom Pereira, a well-known columnist of those days attacked it in the same paper in which I was working. He was a senior journalist and was one-time editor of the ‘Evening News of India’, but had walked over to the ‘Sunday standard’ along with Frank Moraes. He wrote in his weekly teetering.” He added that “the works displayed are in my opinion an affront to good taste and an insult to intelligence.” He singled out S.K. Bakre’s Mother’s Pride as a “bad case of gynaecomastia”. And he pitied Ara and Raza for being in “bad company”.

Then hell broke loose. In the next week’s issue Sunday Standard carried several letters by way of retorts and rejoinders by Souza, Drieberg, S.V. Vasudev (my long-time friend and room-mate who was working in ‘Marg’ then and who later joined the ‘illustrated Weekly of India’) and myself under a pen-name (“Gaius Gracchus”). Since I happened to be in charge of the “Letters to the Editor” column also, I managed to reproduce a photograph of Bakre’s sculpture, Mother’s Pride alongside a photograph of Epstein’s famous Genesis. Both were on the theme of maternity, the only difference being that Epstein’s heavy breasted woman had no child but Bakre’s primitivist woman had a child in her arms.

Simon Pereira was not one to take things lying low. He took up his cudgel the next week attacked the “daubers” and their admirers. He quoted the voice of the Royal academy, Sir Alfred Munnigs. The week after, there was another spate of letters by some of us, masquerading under borrowed names. Finally,I inserted the line at the end: “The controversy is now closed”. Simon was wild with me and I had to buy off his anger with a couple of drinks.

Similarly, there was a controversy in Free Press Bulletin, where A.R. Kannangi, the art critic friendly to the PAG wrote a sympathetic review and somebody attacked him. To that letter of about 300 words or so, Kannangi gave a reply of twice the length defending Modern Art and its true practitioners in India - the members of the PAG. But there was a rumour that Kannangi himself was the author of the original letter. When asked, “Arkay” (that was the pen-name of Kannangi) twirled his Dalisque moustache and smiled but he never denied.

Those were halcyon days of Modern Indian Art, truly. In my annual round-up of art activities published in the last week of December, I had noted that the rental for the Bombay Art Society Salon was only seven rupees and right annas a day for its members and ten rupees for non-members as its commission from sales. In those days, one could buy Ara’s water colour for 50 chips. Even in 1950, when Raza had an exhibition, if I remember right, at Charles Petras’s Institute of Foreign Languages (at Outram Road), on the opening day there was no sale at all. [2] That day I had taken my Ceylonese girl friend (the painter who has initiated me into art criticism and who had come on a visit to Bombay) along with me. Very gallantly, I bought an oil by Raza for only Rs. 70 and presented it to my girl friend. The next morning I had to borrow a couple of rupees from Vasudev to reach my office and raise an advance.

Commercialism in art was just making a beginning. Kekoo Ghandy of Chemould (Chemical Moulding in frames) based in Princess Street, began to take interest in painters and paintings, which was to result in starting the Chemould Gallery in Jehangir Art Gallery and much later the Kunika Gallery at the Cottage Industries Emporium in Delhi.

The patrons of art, apart from the European like the Leyden Brothers, Schlesinger, Langhammer, Wayne Hartwell and Holek Larsen (of Larsen and Toubro), were Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney, Lady Jehangir Pipsy Wadia, the two Bhabha Brothers, the Wagles and a few others, who could be countered on fingers of both hands.

Apart from the art critics already mentioned, R. Chatterji (who was working in Lever Brothers then and who later was Secretary of the Lalit Kala Akademi), was perceptive critic, enthusiastic about the newcomers. S.A. Krishnan, the Editor of this journal, was also very much involved with the PAG. He grew up with the Modern Art Movement like most of us.

Among the journals, apart from newspapers, that took keen interest in contemporary art, mention must be made of ‘Marg’, ‘the Illustrated Weekly of India’, which was in transition from Michael Brown to C.R. Mandy, ‘flashlight’ of Arshad Farooqui and ‘Trend’ of the late Frene Tayyarkhan. ‘Thought’ of Delhi also carried reviews of important exhibitions of Bombay (And I used to write for ‘Marg’, ‘Flashlight’ and ‘Thought’.)

These memoirs will not be complete without mention of the two individuals, who in their own way contributed much to the Movement. One is Ebrahim (Elk) Alkazi of the Theatre Group, who later became the Director of the National School of Drama. He used to have a fabulous collection of art books and art reproductions, with the aid of which he used to give lecturers on aspects of Modern Art. Nissim Ezekiel, the Bombay art critic and poet, got his grounding from Alkazi’s lectures. It is no wonder that Alkazi is now running the Art Heritage Gallery. The other is Harbans Chaddha, who with his camera chronicled the Movement and who gladly gave away prints gratis to painters, a large-hearted man that he has been.

An institution that was intimately connected with the Modern Art Movement in Bombay was the India Coffee House on Mahatma Gandhi Road, opposite the Rajabai Tower, where a bank is now located. This Coffee House was the rendezvous for artists and art critcs, for film folk, journalists and leftist politicians, apart from racketeers and shady characters. Over endless cups of “set” coffee (coffee served with milk and sugar separately), we used to discuss art in a leisurely manner. And, as and when we had a bit of money to spare, as at the beginning of the month or when some painter sold a painting, we would move over to the nearby Wayside Inn for a beer. And also quite often to Chetana, the restaurant that was started by Raja Rao, the Indo-Anglican novelist. Chetana was also a venue for occasional art exhibitions till such time when a permanent commercial art gallery was started.

This was the art scene in Bombay three decades ago. In 1950, I resigned from the ‘Sunday Standard’ packed up my bags and migrated to Colombo to marry my Ceylonese girl friend only to discover that she had already married a fellow painter.

Notes

[1] And there were others, who were close to the Group in varying degrees of intimacy with a few or all of the members. One cannot forget S.B. Palsikar, N.S. Bendre, who was a keen watcher from a distance, and V.S. Gaitonde, Laxman Pai, M.B. Samant, Akbar Padamsee, and Tyeb Mehta.

[2] The reference is to the last exhibition Raza had before his departure to Paris. The sale from this was considerable and I was the one noted the buyers names and collected the money; it had to be in cash, for Raza was due to leave almost immediately after the exhibition.
Published in the Lalit Kala Contemporary No. 28, September 1979, pp. 21-28
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