Most of those who call themselves artists are in reality picture dealers, only they make the pictures themselves. While echoing these words of a Victorian satirist, Satish Gujral - who 20 years ago, in the wake of India’s partition, produced powerful canvases, depicting misery and suffering with great feeling - went much farther. He not only declared his complete lack of faith in painting but asserted that not having any roots in the country’s cultural soil, painting had no meaning and could have little meaning in India.
At the start of a long chat in his sumptuously arty sitting room he did not wait for any questions. He straight away plunged into an elaborate and no less eloquent explanation of how he had come to realise the futility of painting as a medium.
Art, he said flourished when it is a part of life and grows out of it. The so-called modern painting in India can have no such pretensions. It is imported from the West and the new techniques and styles are still a reflection of what is being done elsewhere. If some pictures are derivative others are undisguisedly imitative. The themes, whether associated with rural India, the slummy cities or tribal life do not change the character of the paintings. They are foreign to the soil and remain so. No wonder their buyers are also mainly foreigners or those Indians who have culturally identified with the West and naturally want to flaunt their familiarity with all things Western.
To help art artists have first to play an active role in the development of the people’s sense of beauty and taste. People enjoy poetry they can understand. Verses in a foreign language are of no use to them. Modern art will begin to be appreciated when people begin to know its language.
And what is art’s language? “The medium is to an artist what language is to the writer.” Satish pointed out and continued with his largely uninterrupted monologue.
In Africa for instance, wood is the medium and the finest specimens of art there are in wood. In Rajasthan, wax-mixed water colours are the medium and we know that what has been produced there is indigenous and has received wide appreciation. But oil paintings have not been a part of our culture.
“However good my technique, I cannot produce anything worthwhile in oils. My best efforts will result in what I may call a Western style suit of clothes made out of malmal.”
Starting with social realism, soon after the partition he went to Mexico to find himself a congenial artistic atmosphere. The Mexicans’ art was akin to his conception of it. It was essentially art, despite its social content. Denied the faculty of hearing and not knowing Spanish - the language of Mexico - he had a difficult time there, at least to begin with. On his return he continued to paint oil canvases, but what inspired his work from 1957 to 1963 was loneliness rather than suffering. In technique he gave up the use of massive forms and began to move towards flat monochromes and the greater use of empty space.
In his short semi-abstract period, which lasted from about 1962 to 1964, he experimented with plastic elements and tried ceramics, metals, wood and paper. He finally picked on paper for collages and ceramics for murals. “But the most important outcome of the experiments was that I became aware of the great power of the medium itself.”
Recently Satish has been trying a new technique to express himself. He cuts thick blocks of wood into various shapes, covers them with a thick layer of black paint and then paints on the surface what he believes are the symbols of present-day life. Hippie and poster slogans are among them. There is nothing sensational about the blocks of wood covering parts of the wall in his own house. Nor is there anything captivating about them. Like some of his heavy ceramics - an ash-tray for example - they are edgy and unpolished. Their quality is their unusualness.
“I have been forced not technically but emotionally to come to believe in plastic reality, even if it is my own, self-made plastic reality.
This “plastic reality” was something beyond me. Not being able to communicate with him immediately (he couldn’t lip-read me; I did not write what I wanted to say; and his talented wife Kiran, whom he easily lip-reads and who conveys things to him by making letter signs on her hands when he fails in lip-reading. I cannot say whether Satish Gujral’s plastic reality - his credo of today - has some significance of its own.
“The mural is the most democratic way for art and for India the only way.” Satish went on.
“Poetry and fiction and other forms of art have influenced people. Has modern painting influenced anyone?”
In a lull in the monologue I interposed the question if art was for the people, what did those luridly painted blocks of wood represent?
His murals, made tile by tile in his workshop, adorning public building were certainly for the people. His wife Kiran’s batiks had influenced buyer’s taste in the sari market. Their joint work in ceramics - ash-trays, tea cups and such like - and their woodwork had inspired several persons, mainly women, to set themselves up as interior decorators. But what was the utility or functionalism - even as an aid to improving public taste - of the black, painted wooden blocks which, specially where the superimposed red or vermilion predominated, reminded one of the Shaivite god Bhairava’s black and red symbols in temples dedicated to him.
“I am experimenting. They are my laboratory.” Satish was as disarming as he had been downright a few moments earlier.
Even though he was working hard on more and more of these “images” - his own word - to have a large enough number for an exhibition, he found no difficulty in dismissing them with a few words and coming back to his credo.
“Design must have vision. Emotion alone can’t do it. We must be inventive.”
Mohammed Fida Husain - none of whose paintings ever remains unsold even though he fetches among the highest prices among modern Indian artists - has worked out a similar credo in his own individual way.
“Painting on any surface and with whatever material is still painting,” according to him. “We may have taken to the use of oils as a result of our close contacts with the Western art world, but how can painting as such be alien to our culture when we have so much of folk painting and among others, incomparable examples of art in Ajanta and elsewhere going back so many centuries?”
In ancient days when all art was partly esoteric and artists had to discipline themselves according to the dictates of the shilpa-shastras, individualism had limited play. But in this industrial age, the age of technology, the emphasis is on personal experiences and impulses of the individual artist. That is why easel painting has been accepted as a universal mode of expression.
“What is important are the vision and the concept. The medium used is of secondary importance.”
How is Husaintaking art to the people? Not long ago he invited anybody who cared to see him paint in public. For hours together on two consecutive days he worked on his canvases under the gaze of a hundred or even two hundred people watching him paint.
“In the modern age art is no ivory tower phenomenon. If a musician can sing in public, why shouldn’t an artist produce his work while others watch him?”
For nearly two years now he has been spending many days in a month in Hyderabad painting scenes from the Ramayana. Why Hyderabad? Because one of his earliest friends, who happens to be an art patron, Mr. Badrinath Pitti, has provided him with a spacious room there and has also made available the scholarly services of a pandit who recites passages from the Valmiki Ramayana as well as the Tulsi Ramayana to enable the artist to get into the spirit of the great epic. The scholar expounds and the painter, getting his cue, gets down to the job of what has already been described as the “Husaini Ramayana.”
The entire project, which may take another year or two, will not be over until 200 or 300 episodes of the Ramayana have been depicted by Husain. The plan is to take these paintings in the form of an exhibition to the villages of India.
This is how Husain, among the most the most successful modern Indian painters, intends to take art back to the people - expressed in a new idiom but telling the stories which they know almost as well as their own life histories.
Husain has another popularisation scheme. He has persuaded the Delhi TV centre to arrange for a regular programme in which films taken by artists of the life around them are televised. His own first experiment in film-making called “Through the Eyes of a Painter” having been so well-received at a Berlin Film Festival and in India too, he has produced two more. One is called “Of Gods and Men” and the other simply “Painter’s sketchbook.” He does not wish to be the only one to present his cine-camera sketchbook to TV. He has suggested the names of about a dozen other painters who should take part in the programme - one every month.
One of the reasons why Husain does not repudiate either modern art or the Western techniques is that in places like Bombay both are penetrating from the social upper crust down to the average middle class. When Raza came to Bombay after many, many years of absence in Paris, his exhibition was thronged. Today Akbar Padamsee and Gaitonde cannot paint fast enough to meet the demand for their canvases. The situation in Calcutta was similar to that in Bombay before the political changes of a couple of years ago. At present Bombay is perhaps the only centre where Indian paintings sell easily and well. Though as keen as Satish Gujral is to reach a wider public, Husain is not pessimistic about the future of Indian painting.
To turn now to the esoteric. From Satish Gujral and Husain to Biren De, a younger artist, who once painted impeccable moderns style portraits of the highest in the land. For many years now, he has been painting the same picture - his own conception of life, and its meaning. The picture as it has emerged today is what may loosely be described as a dazzling representation of the sun. It is a complete abstraction. From the bright red in the centre, the circles around it change colour and finally disappear into a heavy twilight.
According to himself, Biren started painting two figures, a man and a woman, and after many canvases, and, of course, many agonizing years of work during which there were no sales and not even normal social contracts, he found the two figures coming together. More agony, more years and the basic representation of his intuition, inspiration or continuous tapasya - there is no alternative word - has expressed itself in a huge canvas which has been part of the Gandhi Darshan exhibition near Rajghat in Delhi.
To begin with Biren was both confused and upset when those viewing his series of canvases asked him to explain the Tantric element in his work. He knew nothing of the ancient occult Tantric movement, nor was he aware that - unknown to himself - he had been playing about with Shiva and Shakti when painting figures of the two sexes. But now he has reconciled himself to the idea of being identified as a Tantric painter in line with the old followers of the commonly accepted “Vama marga” - the left way.
Biren claims to paint ideas, not mere abstractions. He is fully convinced - with hardly a touch of boastfulness in what he says - that he has a message to convey.
“Along with my intuition and impulse I have a self-imposed discipline. Life is a unity and through my new work I am helping myself as well as other people towards a more co-ordinated life.”
There are according to Biren, three categories of painters: those who document their times, those who escape into fantasy, and those who give a pointer to a more co-ordinated life. He is among the last and wishes to convey his own first-hand experience to others.
Talking of his huge Gandhi Darshan canvas, which has taken shape after scores of others on the same theme and with the same dazzling colours, he says: “I oscillate between the peace of the graveyard and the peace at the centre of the sun.”
He received the most gratifying tribute when the men and women who had built the Gandhi Darshan exhibition area brick by brick were taken around to see the exhibits. Which of the paintings did they like best? they were asked. Their finger - was it intuitive or impulsive? - went to Biren’s quintessence of his whole life’s philosophy.
“Why?” asked a curious exhibition sponsor.
“Why? We can see the sun there can’t we? That’s our life-giver.”
A sweeper in a Kashmir hut who saw him paint a lotus with fascination for days together was also his favourite admirer. “After watching me quietly for several days he suddenly exclaimed: “’Pamposh’ (the Kashmiri word for ‘lotus’). He confided to me that several other painters painting shikaras and suchlike in adjoining huts did not interest him.”
An unintentional modern Tantric or a single-minded painter of abstractions, “Biren does not wish to be lumped with the Westerners. “I am directly opposed to the hard edge abstractions of the West,” he declares.
Published in The Times of India, December, 1969