When I left India, more than a decade ago, it was becoming clear that the status of the image in contemporary painting was under consideration. Husain’s totemic figures, that established a modernist lineage for an entire generation, were split transversally on a divided canvas; others like Gaitonde were retreating into a form of meditative abstractionism; while still others claimed to have found the authentic image in a neo-tantric aesthetic. Some of this history and much more was expertly explored in Part I of the festival of India Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art, The Gesture and the Motif. For me it made clear that what united such a diverse artistic tradition was the participation of most of the artists in an aesthetics of the revealed motif, as Geeta Kapur has called it in her keenly argued introduction to the catalogue. This is a concept I would like to develop, not so much as a visible characteristic of the image, but as a problematic of vision that informs the conditions of visibility, more than it determines a specific style or content.
The identity of the image as revealed motif - its ability to fix a meaning or value - depend on a specular distance or ‘aesthetic disinterest’, as the critical jargon has it. It is only then, it is claimed, that the integrity of the work can be revealed ‘in and for itself’. The social and cultural conditions of its production are transcended in that timeless region of ‘aesthetic disinterest’ which assumes a relatively unmediated or visionary relationship between the objet d’art and the connoisseur. The image as/on display - enshrined in traditional concepts of the ‘exhibition’ or ‘collection’ - participates in a form of viewing that is fetishistic. The value of the work is fixed as a likeness to something that is both familiar and desired, but the assumptions that underlie that fixation are never fully questioned - Who is looking, from where, and why?
Such questions are particularly relevant to this event. In ignoring them, English critics have generally assumed the priority of their own cultural locations as the natural place from which to decree that the slow lacks an authentic Indianness; that Western influences have been imitatively absorbed; that the originality of Indian must be delivered to the West in a form that is unfamiliar enough for the cognoscenti to discover it, and yet familiar enough for it to be inscribed within those paradigms of order, tradition and value with which the west makes sense of itself.
It is precisely these assumptions that are unsettled by the group of new figurative painters presented in Part 2 of the exhibition, Stories, Situations, who question the complex formal and cultural position of the viewer. They share a desire to work at the limits of figuration and fantasy which is way of exploring that space where the historical and the recordable takes cognisance of the ‘subjective’, the unconscious, repressed, mythical, oneiric. These subjective and psychic values intrude upon the representationalist scene with a free and fierce energy as a process of displacement and discovery, refusing to be accommodated to the received, stable image. What they reject is an easy identification with a contained, stereotypical image of India. What they achieve is a form of open figuration that reveals, and revels in, the process of the construction of artistic and social realities. They articulate the varied sites - domestic, cultural, political - and various relations - familial, ideological, historical - from which the protean reality of India imperceptibly takes shape. Their canvases become the problematic terrain for time - and - scene shifts (Sheikh), warring perspectival and ideological planes (Sundaram), and the subtle desolation of the gaze (Patwardhan, Malani). They never cease to interrogate the place from which the painting comes and the space to which it speaks.
Patwardhan’s Street Play recolves deftly around a change in point-of-view. The realist depiction of a bystander on the streets of Bombay, captivated by radical street theatre, is disturbed by the intervention of a frame-within-a-frame (play within a play?). This presents another spectator whose view extends beyond the acted scene to include and question the unquestioning identification of the first viewer. This alienating picture must at once be read from left to right and right to left and the viewer is caught between the two gazes. His or her identification with the progressivism of critical realism is displaced by the ‘reverse shot’ of a more questioning spectator. Patwardhan’s political pictures are more subtle than many a documentary radical…His street-play is also a play between the immediate, dogmatic visibility offered by some forms of political thinking and the more probing ambivalences that accompany it. He intimates an ironic play of almost invisible gazes onto the flat, harshly lit visibility of his canvas.
Sheikh exploits the incipient voyeurism of the viewing eye to magical affect, at once inviting and frustrating the look by refusing to fix the object of vision. He generates the pleasure of the maze where every enclosure is at once a point of arrival and departure. The eye travels across the structured divisions of the canvas - itself a theatre of abstract structural effects - to the fleshy narratives of lives lived within the maze. The influence of Akbari painting has introduced the principle of simultaneity to Sheikh’s pictures - cells of domestic iniquity conceal courtyards of mythic magic; the spirit of a courtly tradition is revived in the colours of bazaar prints. The eye can hardly rest; it is driven by the kaleidoscopic desire that the painting celebrates.
Sheikh’s interest in the detail and discovery of provincial life is shared by Khakhar. At first sight, his canvasses seem like more open simple places. In Guru Jayanti, for instance, the foreground provides a key to the picture: the small-town traders are celebrated on a par with the local god, both are props (not pillars!) of the local community. And yet the open palm of the standing figure at once invites a look and questions it. For the enigma of Khakhar’s work lies in the slow and loving construction of the town itself. It is here that the picture gains its depth that the secrecy of provincial life is guarded by those very figures who offer to guide. The simple visibility of Khakhar’s pictures is always deceptive - he may provide a key, but unlike Sheikh he refuses the eye a keyhole. As with some early Tuscan or Umbrian paintings there is a depiction of the achievement of civility and community. Unlike these pictures, however, where every detail is ennobled by the enshrined saint or sovereign, Khakhar’s loving craftsmanship is lavished on the local and the quotidian and without striving for any universality he achieves a wide sympathy andadistinctpersonality.
Incontrast, it is the named and the known that interest Sundaram and Malani. What they explore in their different ways, is the uncanny, revealing moment in the otherwise familiar, familial context; the moment of fear, isolation, social alienation, psychic disturbance. They are remarkable for their portrayal of the fraying of the social fabric. In Sundaram’s pictures it is that repeated moment when atoms of colour explode to ignite the surface; in Malani’s work it is the distanced gazes of closely-related bodies that reveal the trauma of childhood, remembering, repetition.
Sundaram’s People Come and Go is a fine ironic picture of the artist’s studio; a playful comment perhaps on the inevitable narcissism of the close clique of painters. Howard Hodgkin sits, accompanied by his canvas; Bhupen Khakhar squats shadowed by his own man, now without a red scarf. But Hodgins is lit, like a memory, in half-remembered light and Khakhar looks like a bright helium balloon about to rise. People come and go but what remains is the consummate workmanship; the fine dialogue of styles, surfaces, quotations and cross-references; the long view through the garden to the distant fires outside, making a menacing other space. Equally menacing, in quite another way, is Malani’s Grieved Child. Her family groups are caught like Bacon’s figures in stilled movement; her large people block the canvas like resistances in a memory or dream that must be got round, indelible but not entirely intelligible. Such a gaze as afflicts the grieved girl cannot easily be attended to it drives the rest of the huddled figures deeper into discomfirt and complicity. The depth and contour of her colours is her only concession to the eye which otherwise falls on flat faces.
What this exhibition represents is the unsettling and engaging gaze on a culture which, through its colonial history, has gained the power to integrate the traditions of the West into its meditations upon its own social and imaginative reality. It represents a confidence whereby India is no longer on display; to grasp its difference and identity a Western audience must begin to question its own norms and perspectives. Jogen Chaudhry’s tuber-like ‘Untermensch’, Dhruva Mistry’s Man and Dog who share the same hairless skin, Mrinalini Mukherjee’s hemp fibre Rudra - all these are the images of men and gods made in the face of a changing and challenging India.
Published in Art Monthly, November, 1982.