Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in Roopa Lekha, Vol 1&2, 1979, pp 49-53

In the literal sense, art is an expression of what is seen, observed, felt and conceived. From the point of view of art history Expressionism, however, is a very specific term. It bears at least some relevance in the Indian context, despite the fact that earlier Indian artists, unlike their European and American colleagues, hardly believed in classifying their experiments with nomenclature. It was only, to my mind, a search of their identity in artistic manifestation whether they derived inspiration from the East or the West. However, a few attempts were made but only regional names were preferred for their identification. I would, therefore, like to emphasise only on those individuals and groups which had, by and large, some expressionist elements in their artistic expositions.

Obviously modern Indian art cannot be viewed as an isolated phenomenon; it is closely interlinked in spirit as well as content with the major international art styles of modern art. By and large, our established Indian artists also do not like to be labelled as “Indian” artists in the international art world. They are eager and ready to rub shoulders with their international colleagues, desiring to be assessed as modern artists in their own rights, a point of view continued by the fact that in the third international Triennale, India, there was no separate prize for the Indian section. Indian artists competed in the open international level. In the past, art terms such as Expressionism and surrealism have also been used to explain and trace the sources of the works of artists like Rabindranath Tagore. The education programme of the National Gallery of Modern Art also takes this fact into account while explaining the evolutional and historical development of modern Indian art, especially while reviewing the exhibits displayed in the first floor of its Galleries.

However, in more or less the Western sense, the name of Mr.Bhagwant Singh of the Lucknow Technical School can, to my mind, be taken as one of the precursors of expressionist tendencies as early as 1902. He won first prize with gold medal for his figures entitled “Famine”, “Beggars” and “Cripple”, in the Delhi Exhibition; 1092-1903. As it appears from the reproduction, Mr.Bhagwant Singh’s compositions could be classified under the Expressionist banner. It demonstrates latent Expressionist tendency depicted through exaggerated naturalism. Percy Brown remarked that the “versatility of the artists subjects renders a study of his work never tiring.”

The Indian art scene, however, started to take a sharp turn when Rabindranath Tagore directly involved himself in painting. It was at his instance, probably, that an exhibition of Bauhas artists was arranged in Calcutta which included the works of Paul Klee and Kadinksky along with Lyonel Feininger, Johannes Itten, Gerhard Marcks, George Muche, Lother Schreyer, Sophie Korner and Margit Tery-Adler (for review of this collection, see Rupam Nos.13 &14 Jan-June,1924,p.18). According to Archer, “Klee was represented by a picture “Passing through an open door” and Kadinsky by a picture “Creation”. This exhibition was referred to by Stella Kramrisch in her article “The New Art in Europe” published in Vishva Bharati Quaterly. It is assumed that this exhibition had a very lasting impact on the younger generation. The artists who were so far working under the banner of the so-called “Modern School of Painting” (As termed by Dr. Coomaraswamy in 1911in one of his articles in praise of the Bengal School) now realised many new directions for their endeavour. O.C. Gangoly like Coomaraswamy was a great sympathiser of this school (Bengal School) but later on, he was of the view that the result the school produced was far from expectations. Moreover, it was wrongly conceived and misrepresented. He was, therefore, of the opinion that this school was not a revivalism but a beginning of reconstruction of “National Image”. But at the same time he was not very much prepared to accept what was happening in Europe under the stream of various art movements in 1922.

Rabindranath being an ideal figure of the East became a centre of attraction on the art scene when he started delivering lectures on art, writing letters to his friends, organising public meetings, inviting the press for previews and giving interviews. In 1926, he wrote in his article “The meaning of art” in the Vishva Bharati Quaterly: “I strongly urge our artists vehemently to deny their obligation carefully to produce something that can be labelled as Indian art according to some old mannerism…” “Havellism” was rocked. When he further said: “Let us take heart and make some daring experiments, venture out into the open road in the face of all risks. There were sharp differences in the artists’ community. Even the question of art and nationality arose at the time.

G. Venkatachalam published an edition under the title ‘Modern Indian Painters” in 1927 which was later revised as “Contemporary Indian Painters.” It includes a critical study of 15 contemporary painters including Rabindranath Tagore. But one is not sure if his name was already included in the earlier edition or it was added in the revised edition which has unfortunately no date. But it is confirmed from Tagore’s own writings as compiled by Prithvish Neogy (see unpublished monograph on R.N Tagore by Prithvish Neogy in the collection of N.G.M.A.) that he had already been painting during his off time quite profusely. I do not want to go into the details how he went to Argentina and how Lady Victoria Ocampo was impressed by the poet’s works and managed to exhibit his erasures which grew into fantastic forms in the Gallery Pigalle. Paris and other countries and what Henri Boudo wrote about him since it is all well known to all of us. After he returned from European countries, however, his first exhibition of paintings was held in the premises of Government School of Art, Calcutta, in 1932 and it was classified as “Automatic Expressionism”.

But one school of thought was of the opinion that it was only Rabindranath’s “underdeveloped handling of material and unawareness of artistic technicalities” that made him a modern expressionist painter. That is why, according to Vankatachalam, when Tagore’s exhibition of paintings was held in the city of Bombay in 1933, “his pictures literally puzzled and mystified the Indian public” and “one noticed worried looks in the eyes of the visitors and heard all sorts of amusing comments.” However, since 1930 onwards, the Modern Review,Rupam, Vishva Bharati Quaterly and Roopa- Lekha were bringing out comprehensive illustrated articles on R.N Tagore’s paintings at regular intervals.

Recently detailed research has been carried out on R.N Tagore by number of scholars-W.G Archer, Dr. Stella Kramrisch, Dr. Mulk Raj Anand, Dr. Ratan Parimoo and Dr. VanitaBansal.Every scholar has tried to present a theory of his own. For instance, according to Archer, it is the art of unconscious; according to Anand, it is child-like; Ratan Parimoo explored in them the tendency of expressionism and Vanita Bansal regarded him as the first Indian modern nature painter of international standard. But as far as expressionism in the art of R.N Tagore is concerned it is inconsistent; and it can hardly be compared and paralleled with that of the Western masters, as pointed out by Prodosh Das Gupta. For, according to Das Gupta, the western masters had a trained hand, and as such, they tried to go from the conscious to the unconscious level whereas R.N Tagore moved in the reverse direction by virtue of his non-formal training in painting. I am, however, of the opinion that one should not be based as to how as paining is made but should only be concerned with the result produced. Most of R.N Tagore’s works are deliberate compositions and one can recognise in his works a conscious effort to create something new and fantastic which is parallel to the Western movement.

These exhibitions as already mentioned above were changing the art scene. Even Ravindranath Tagore, the stalwart of “Havellism,” reviewed his own “convictions” and tried to be spontaneous in the light of the poet’s credo. The bulk of A.N Tagore’s collection in the N.G.M.A. shows such tendency, but it can hardly be compared with that of R.N Tagore’s creative expositions. Even Binode Behari Mookherjee, Ramkinker and Nanda Lal Bose, the pioneers of Santiniketan, started experimenting at the call of the poet Tagore. All of them went on the road of Expressionism sometime or the other, as is evident from their collections in the N.G.M.A.

According to the survey by Jag Mohan, when in 1937 Amrita Sher Gill was awarded the Bombay Art Society’s Gold Medal on her painting entitled “group of young girls” in the annual show, there were a lot of protests in Bombay and Poona. However, it resulted in the formation of the group of “Young Turks” in Bombay in 1941, consisting of about five members: Clement Baptista, P.T Reddy, Majeed, Bhopale and M.Y Kulkarni. But they were hardly given any patronage from the then established art organisations. P.T.Reddy, however, claims that he formed the first group entitled “Contemporary Indian Painters” in 1941, but resigned from the group in 1942.

In Bengal, although the Academy of Fine Arts was founded in 1933, no major patronage was extended to progressive artists. Inspite of this drawback, a group under the title “Calcutta Group” was formed in 1943. According to their manifesto, “Man is supreme, there is no one above him” and “art should be international and interdependent”. It was Lady Casey who organised the first informal exhibition of paintings and sculptures at 5-A, S.R. Das Road, Calcutta. Then, in 1944 the first public exhibition was arranged under the auspices of the Services Act Club. Besides, Lady Casey, the famous English novelist, E.M Forster and the famous sculptor, Frederic Mc Williams were greatly impressed by this talented group and when Forster returned to London he made a broadcast from the B.B.C with special mention of the activities of this group. Almost all the members of this group had expressionist tendencies derived from the West-Partly from German Expressionism and partly from French Fauvism. Therefore one of the critics strongly wrote: “ And though it is categorically denied that these artists are not affected by the dusty wind from distant Europe, their national traditions appear to be submerged, full five fathoms deep, under the dirt carried by that dubious dirty wind.” But according to reprint of the manifesto, the same critic wrote five years later: “To the average person not caring for highbrow philosophical theories of art, the typical products of the Calcutta Group are ugly and frightful and very far from the attractive presentation of ‘beauty’ as ordinarily understood. Yet, these artists may claim that their original creations of designs in hot and emphatic colour schemes are excitingly beautiful, as they seek to interpret a new order of beauty…that kind of beauty which is first the expression of the artist’s aesthetic excitement.” But other critics appreciated works of the groups quite warmly and welcomed them as “trail- blazers… the pioneers of a new epic in Indian art. In this connection, it may be mentioned that they could not sell any work of art during this phase. However, they went on to experimenting in expressionist manner, and in their exhibition in 1948 they sold a number of works. Prof. and Mrs. Davidson from U.S.A., Dr. Fistcher, a German scholar Jean Renoir and Claude Renoir from France were among the foreigners who visited the studios of the members of the group. There were Prodosh Das Gupta, Prankrishna Pal, Sunil Madhav Sen, Nirode Majumdar, Paritosh Sen,Kamala Das Gupta, Gobardhan Ash and Hemant Misra; later many others joined the group. In 1944 and in 1945, they had organised their exhibitions in Bombay which were applauded by R.V. Leyden.

According to Jag Mohan, “the next group of artists that made an impact consisted of Francis Newton Souza, K.H. Ara, S.H. Raza, M.F Hussain, H.A Gade, D.G Kulkarni and S.B Palsikar. They called themselves “Progressives”. They were strong colourists, neo- impressionists and expressionists.” According to Hussain’s verbal communication, it was 1946 when the “Bombay Progressive Group” was founded: but according to Prodosh Das Gupta, R.V Leyden invited him in December 1947 to attend an artists’ conference in Bombay so that a group similar to the “Calcutta Group” could be founded in Bombay so as to give a new dimension to the art scene in Western India. As a result, in the beginning of 1948, the Bombay Progressive Group was founded. Two years later, in 1950, both the groups arranged a joint show at Calcutta: and “this show was interpreted by a section of the Press as a challenge to the conservative art and its connoisseurs and the Group was hailed as the precursor of a new movement”, according to Das Gupta.

In Delhi a group of refugee artists who migrated from Pakistan formed the Delhi Shilpi Chakra in March 25, 1949. Bhabesh Sanyal, P.N Mago, Kanwal Krishna, Devyani Krishna, Damyanti Chawla and Dhan Raj Bhagat were the founder members. Some others like K.S.Kulkarni, Dinkar Kowshik and Har Krishen Lal also joined the group. A series of individual and joint shows were arranged under the auspices of the Chakra.

In Delhi, however, there are three institutions: All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society ( founded on April 28,1928), The Lalit Kala Academi (founded in 1954) and the National Gallery of Modern Art (also founded in 1954)which are disseminating the cause of modern art. The annual exhibitions of L.K.A and AIFACS could be considered major shows in which varieties and styles can be noticed; and up to 1960 the bulk of Indian work could be classified under either“SocialRealism” or “Expressionism”.

It may be interesting to recall that an exhibition of 88 beautiful items of graphics, gouaches and water colours from West Germany was held in the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, in October, 1959. It included Klee, Kadinsky, Kirchner, Erich Heckle, Karl Hartung, Fritz Winter and others. Needless to say, the Indian Press welcomed and extended great appreciation for such an exposition. It is however difficult to assume that this exhibition influenced contemporary Indian painters to any extent. For most of the artists had already got an opportunity to go abroad either on study tour or under the cultural exchange programme; so they were all aware of the established trends of Modern European and American art. Even in the first annual show the Lalit Kala Academi, New Delhi, in 1965, Hussain’s painting entitled Zamin had been acclaimed as the best work in the exhibition and it is more or less in the expressionist-cum-symbolical style. Later, Hussain started painting horses and remained active on this theme till 1961. In these works, one can see the influence of Franz Mare to a certain extent. Likewise, Satish Gujral also came out as a powerful expressionist under Mexican influence, notably that of Orozco.

In the private sector, simultaneously a few private galleries were efficiently organising solo and joint exhibitions to give incentive to the free lancers and the budding artists as well as to those who had already established themselves earlier. One cannot ignore the contribution of these private galleries in the making of today’s well established painters. At the same time we should also not forget that this development in the disintegration of groups. The Kumar Gallery, Triveni Gallery, Dhoomimal Gallery, Konark Gallery, Kunika Chemould Gallery and later Gallery Chanakya became the main centres of art activities in the capital. AIFACS sponsored selected shows, but helped a much larger number of artists by providing galleries, and later studies, at nominal rates.

Expressionist Indian painters like Hussain had a sizeable number of shows in Kumar Gallery and later in Dhoomimal Gallery and Gallery Chanakya, besides those held at Jehangir Art Gallery and Pundole Art Gallery in Bombay and a few in Calcutta. Ram Kumar was dramatically representing suffering and sorrow-stricken figures on German Expressionist lines. In October, 1960, eight young men from Madras exhibited at the Delhi Shilpi Chakra. Dr.Charles Fabri wrote: “All belong to the ‘I-paint-what-I- will’ school. You can lump them under the term expressionists, in as much as they all express their inner apperception of pictorial images, with only little (or no) reference to the world observed.” The periodical exhibitions of Avinash Chandra (before he went to England) had strong Expressionist elements. Likewise, Badri Narayan, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, F.N Souza and in the younger generation Shuva Prasanna remained expressionists during the 1960’s. If you see Krishnan Khanna’s works of 1950 (e.g. Girls with Fruits, reproduced in Times of India, Monday, Dec.4, 1972) they are, more or less, expressionistic in character. During the 1960’s he became an abstract painter but in the 1970’s he again went on to experiment in expressionist style. His “Truck” series (two of them are in the National Gallery of Modern Art) are the best examples.

As far as sculpture is concerned I would not hesitate to include the earlier phases of both Amarnath Sehgal and Prodosh Das Gupta as expressionistic. Human suffering, tragedy and pathos are there in the works of both, “Cries Unheard” by Amarnath Sehgal (collection:NGMA) and “In Bondage” by Prodosh Das Gupta (collection: NGMA) are outstanding examples. Raminker was primarily an expressionist but later he went through many phases.

Published in Roopa Lekha, Vol 1&2, 1979, pp. 49-53
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